Creative collective, Anagram, have devised an experimental ‘experience’ for visitors to IWM London to explore how and why we believe what we do, in the context of the Syria conflict. Through instructional audio, participatory exercises and displays, the visitor can take a journey, lasting 1 hour, around the museum whilst being challenged to question what they believe. The piece includes lighthearted exercises but culminates in entering a ‘news chamber’ of cacophonous news sources covering the 2016 siege of Aleppo and, finally, a model of a M2 hospital in Aleppo that was bombed several times by pro-government forces in 2016. ‘I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH’ is a ‘scratch’ visitor experience running until 17 September 2017 at IWM London.
‘Fake news,’‘alternative facts’ or ‘fog of war’ are hurdles to understanding conflict but there are journalistic principles available to the media to establish truthful facts and narratives. The real crisis in the mainstream media is not so much fake news, in the sense of wild mistruths, as a lack of will to scrutinise claims and report important and available facts that challenge power.
In the ‘news chamber’ at IWM London, various news footage loops of the 2016 siege of Aleppo are simultaneously shown on three walls of a small cabin. The broadcasts include online segments from shows on CNN, BBC, Russia Today (RT) and Al Jazeera. The effect is a shrill cacophony.
It is common practice to attack other nations’ media as being emotive and agenda-driven. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-backed media organisation had its offices bombed by US forces in both Afghanistan, in 2001, and in Iraq, 2003, with an Iraqi journalist dying. Whilst the US claimed that the broadcaster’s offices were not targeted, a leaked memo revealed that, in April 2004, George Bush raised with Tony Blair the possibility of bombing Al Jazeera’s head office in Doha, Qatar.
Whether the proposal was serious or not, Al Jazeera had angered the US by its coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths during the US-led invasion, particularly, the attack on Fallujah when 1,000 civilians are thought to have died. For reporting on the effects of strikes on civilians, the network was accused of working with terrorists by former US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld: “over and over again we’ve seen that Middle Eastern television channel Aljazeera that seems to have a wonderful way of being Johnny-on-the-spot a little too often for my taste.”
Al Jazeera’s crime was to examine the Iraq War critically, in contrast to the media sources that are often considered sober and serious. Whilst British government officials complained that the BBC was not pro-war enough, research has established that the BBC was one of the least critical channels and least vigorous in examining other perspectives during the Iraq War. In a study of the coverage in five countries, the Frankfurter Allgemeine found that the BBC devoted only 2 percent of its airtime to opponents of the war. This was the least out of all broadcasters, with ABC next at 7 percent.
The BBC was also less likely to quote independent sources, such as the Red Cross, during its coverage of the Iraq War compared to Channel 4, Sky or ITV, according to a study by Cardiff University. The BBC was found to have delivered the least reports on civilian casualties too. The study found that only Channel 4 could be relied upon to examine critically the claims of government sources, compared to the BBC, Sky and ITV that were much more accepting of official claims from the US and British.
A research study from the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds found that the Blair government’s claims on weapons of mass destruction was accepted in 54 percent of UK television coverage and 61 percent of press reporting. During the conflict, at least 80 percent of media reports quoted coalition officials.
Dr Piers Robinson, who led the study, told the Guardian, “Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive,” he said. “But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.”
Whilst broadcasters such as RT and Al Jazeera are condemned for having agendas – and, even bombed for it or have their journalists put in Guantanamo, our mainstream media mostly escape criticism for their great failures in journalistic standards that contributed to the drum-beat for war in Iraq on false pretences and the devastation that has followed.
Anagram’s ‘scratch’ visitor experience challenges us to question sources and highlights the complexity of the Syria conflict and navigating the coverage. Critically examining government assertions and to actively seek the analysis of dissidents and independent groups, such as NGOs, is the least that can be expected of a media organisation to help make sense of situations. Yet, our mainstream media often continue to fail in this regard.
It is useful to contrast the coverage of Syria with the silence on Yemen. The US and UK-backed Saudi onslaught on Yemen, in the war against the Houthis – who have also committed atrocities, has created a humanitarian crisis and mass cholera outbreak. Over 2,000 have succumbed to cholera in the country since its spread in April this year, with 500,000 cases as a result of lack of access to water and waste collection. Over 10,000 have been killed since Saudi Arabia began bombing the country to try and reverse the takeover of the country by Houthi rebels.
“Yemen’s health workers are operating in impossible conditions. Thousands of people are sick, but there are not enough hospitals, not enough medicines, not enough clean water. These doctors and nurses are the backbone of the health response – without them we can do nothing in Yemen. They must be paid their wages so that they can continue to save lives,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
Here the issue is not so much fake news stories but widespread failure by the mainstream media to report available facts and focus on this story. The Yemen conflict and suffering is an inconvenient one for the UK because our government continues to enable the Saudi bombing. In July, a High Court ruling found that the UK was not acting illegally by supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons in the midst of the war on Yemen. This is despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has bombed schools, markets, hospitals, funerals and homes during its two-year assault, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In October 2016, the Saudis bombed a packed funeral hall in Sanaa, killing some 100 people and injuring 500, including children. A witness told HRW, “When I got there, there were more than 50 burned bodies, many where you can still tell the features, but half of their body was gone, half of their head was gone, but the others, it was very, very hard to tell who they were.”
The High Court, however, found, in July 2017 that there was not a “serious risk” that UK arms and equipment sold to Saudi Arabia will be used to commit “a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
The UK’s record in Syria is not impressive. Bashar al-Assad was invited to Buckingham Palace in 2002, when he was a ‘friendly’ dictator, and sold chemicals capable of being used for warfare. In the early stages of the uprising in Syria, which began in 2011, the UK, following the US, turned against Assad by siding with rebel forces. They assisted in the smuggling of weapons and ‘non-lethal’ equipment to rebel forces. This is despite knowing that prominent amongst the rebels were extremist groups closely associated with Al Qaeda – and despite the warnings of the UN that providing arms to one side would only increase the bloodshed.
The UK’s objective of toppling the Assad regime has now changed with the rise of ISIS in Syria. The UK’s primary involvement is now conducting airstrikes and training Kurdish Peshmerga and other groups fighting ISIS.
The UK’s role in backing and arming Assad before the 2011 uprising – and supporting the US’ renditioning of suspects to Syria for torture by Assad’s regime, are inconvenient facts – as is the support that the UK provided to extremist rebels fighting Assad. The UK’s role in the ongoing death and destruction in Yemen as a result of Saudi bombing and in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi to unleash civil war, lawlessness, flow of weapons and abuse of migrants in Libya are also inconvenient facts worth avoiding.
More than 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since January 2017 trying to flee conflict zones or economic strife – the majority travelling from the Libya. The European nations have reduced search-and-rescue missions arguing that to actively save lives is to incentivise trafficking. NGOs that have tried to fill the breach and save people from drowning are under attack from these same European states.
Dr Piers Robinson presents two strands of the supposed “fake news” crisis: “One strand of this debate has focused on the use of propaganda and deception by authoritarian and autocratic states outside the West. In particular, there has been substantial attention to the propaganda activities of Russia. Another strand of this debate, receiving far less attention amongst the mainstream, has emphasized the role of deception, manipulation and propaganda within liberal democratic states.”
Whilst decrying fake news, the mainstream media is, on the whole, failing to report on readily available facts and narratives that expose inconvenient truths about powerful factions in our own society. As George Orwell explained, certain stories are “kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.”
1) Creative collective, Anagram, give their take on their new project at IWM London, running until 17 September, I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH (version 1) on their website.
2) Read an interview with Anagram by Aesthetica Magazine
3) Watch an interview with Anagram on the IWM website.
4) Reactions on Twitter:
I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH runs until 17 September 2017 at IWM London.