I was a fly on the wall in Assad’s office

If I were in Bashar al-Assad's office as Obama's speech at the White House was televised around the world, I think I would hear the following.

If I were a fly on the wall in President Bashar al-Assad’s office as Barack Obama’s speech at the White House is televised around the world, I guess I would be listening to the following:
 
Assad: What’s going on? We’ve been looking at the podium for the past 30 minutes, and nothing’s happened.
 
Aide: Maybe he has been speaking and we just didn’t notice? (Laughter)
 
Assad: Here they come. Let’s see what he has to say.
 
Aide: More grey hair. The man looks exhausted.
 
Another aide: Who’s the man next to him? He’s pulling funny faces.
 
Wael Nader al-Halqi, prime minister of Syria: You moron. That’s Joe Biden, his vicepresident, also a Mossad agent.
 
Assad: Shut up, all of you. Let me hear.
Silence. Obama speaks.
 
Assad: What? Did you hear what he just said? He is not waiting for the report of the UN inspectors!
 
Omran Ahed Zoabi, the Syrian minister of information: This is unfair! After all the work we put into ensuring the success of their visit! (Laughter) More silence. Obama carries on talking.
 
General Ali Abdullah Ayub, the Syrian army chief of staff: That’s it! He just said it! They are going to attack. I’m going to alert my troops.
 
Aide: Your troops, or the rebel troops?
A fistfight starts.
Furniture is overturned.
 
Assad: Stop at once! (His cellphone rings) Yes, Asma. No, not now. Obama is talking about us right now. No, Asma, later. What? My credit card? Another auction? Not the Christian Louboutin shoes again! For God’s sake, you have more shoes than Imelda Marcos. But I have to go now.
 
Obama is still talking.
 
General Ayub: I know what we can do to stop them. Let’s put human shields around the targets.
 
Halqi: Good idea. Saddam was good at that.
 
Assad: Maybe I’ll put some of you around the targets. (Silence) Relax, gentlemen, it was a joke. (Relieved laughter)
 
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister: What hypocrisy! (Jeers while repeating Obama’s phrases) To hold us accountable! When your father, may his soul rest in peace, bombarded those Shia bastards in Hama in 1982 and buried them alive, nobody said a word.
 
General Ayub (whispering): But the father killed only 30,000, while the son . . .
 
Assad: I heard that! Besides, Ayub, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have used the chemicals.
 
General Ayub: But Mr President, you yourself ordered me to!
 
Assad: I remember exactly what I said. I told you to be “nice to them”.
 
General Ayub: And I heard “gas them”. Maybe the line wasn’t so good.
 
Zoabi: By the way, I found out that we can kill as many of our own people as we want. The world doesn’t care, as long as we don’t gas them.
 
Assad: Indeed. Anyway, Ayub, what are your plans in case they strike?
 
General Ayub: I was thinking about attacking Israel immediately.
 
Assad: Hmmm. Not such a good idea. Yom Kippur is what, two weeks from now? Last time my father attacked them on Yom Kippur, they were almost on the outskirts of Damascus within a few days. We need to think about something else, otherwise we are lost.
 
Zoabi: Wait, listen to this! He is taking it to the Congress! Great commotion. Loud cheers. Cries of “Hallelujah” and of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”).
 
Halqi: We are saved! Obama talks about the need for debate and popular support.
 
Assad: This is exactly why I love democracy.
 
Moallem: It’s obvious. He doesn’t want to do it. He saw his buddy Cameron defeated in the British parliament and hopes that Congress will do the same to him.
 
Assad: I knew I could trust the Brits. They are not as squeamish as the Americans. They know when to leave us Middle Easterners alone so we can do our own thing. But have Argentina take from them a godforsaken island with some sheep in the Atlantic, and they will send their whole fleet across the ocean.
 
Telephone rings.
 
Aide: It’s President Putin, sir. He wants to congratulate you.
 
Assad: Mr President, thank you so much. Yes, of course I watched it. You were absolutely right. I know. The world has changed. No, not one superpower any more. How true. Thank you, and God bless you. But Mr President, before you go, just one more thing. The villa you reserved for me and my family? Is it still available?
 
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992 to 1996 
US President Barack Obama on a recent trip to Europe to discuss the Syrian conflict. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder