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Misreporting and the propaganda war in Syria

"You can’t take anyone at face value."

"We all have sympathies with the rebels – we all want the regime to fall,” says Rainer Hermann, Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Maybe that’s why his report from Syria has just been dismissed.

On 7 June, Hermann published accusations that the May massacres in Houla – where, the UN said, 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children – were not the work of pro-regime militias as widely reported.

“These kind of simplistic explanations that are coming in every day through the media outlets of [the opposition group] the Free Syrian Army, I find less and less credible – nobody is on the ground to see it,” he told me. Rather, he suggested in his report, the killings had been carried out by forces allied to the Free Syrian Army. The claim was rejected in a media statement apparently issued by Houla residents, but the dispute forces us to question our acceptance of a black-and-white narrative. We see an uprising in Syria in which pro-democracy protesters are crushed and killed by President Bashar al-Assad’s autocracy – but what happens with stories that complicate the view?

Hindered by a ban on journalists entering the country (though some have since been granted visas), foreign media have relied on activists and “citizen journalists” on the inside. This, combined with sympathy for the protesters and horror at the death tolls, has skewed coverage of the conflict.

“We’ve taken sides,” says Alex Thomson, chief correspondent for Channel 4 News, who visited Houla this month. While in Syria, he believes, he and his film crew were deliberately directed into a firing zone by the Free Syrian Army. “Dead journos are bad for [the regime in] Damascus,” he later blogged. “I’d be the first to say the regime is an odious police state,” Thomson told me, “but that does not excuse wilful myopia when discussing the tactics that rebels are using.”

Don’t criticise

With the opposition becoming more militarised, deaths among the Syrian military and supporters of the regime are increasing. Several reporters also suggest that the rising lawlessness is being used as cover for revenge and religiously motivated killings. Some speak of a media monopoly by armed opposition groups that want western intervention, pushing aside non-armed groups that prefer the west to stay out.

Thomson says that reporting on Syria “needs to grow up a bit. Everyone in a war is telling lies – that is a useful point to start from.” Internal dynamics aside, Syria is host to a proxy war between the west and its Gulf allies against Assad-supporting Iran – with Russia also staking its claim. In this context, it is fair to assume that there is, as one diplomat told the BBC, a “propaganda war” where “you can’t take anyone at face value”.

The use of activist information that is often difficult to verify has created its own momentum. “We look like lumbering beasts because, while we try to check this stuff, others are tweeting it to tens and thousands,” says one Middle East correspondent.

According to a Syrian opposition journalist, even if events are being distorted, that is not necessarily done in bad faith. “Nobody gives out a script – it’s just instinct,” he says of the overriding need to expose the brutality of Assad’s regime. Even though he thinks that false claims are routinely made and he has questions about Free Syrian Army tactics, this UK-based journalist won’t air them publicly. “You can’t criticise the opposition at the same time that Bashar al-Assad is killing people – it’s too much.”

The problem stems partly from conflating activism with reporting, suggests Armand Hurault, of the London-based Syrian Voices, a project that offers media training to Syrian journalists. “People have no experience of independent journalism,” he says. “They may not even realise what’s problematic in this blurring.”

But disagreements within the opposition over how events are reported could grow worse. “One of the challenges of a democratic transition is how willing the next government will be to be criticised by an independent press,” Hurault says. If opposition groups can’t deal with critical media now, what would they do in power?

The Syrian journalist, however, argues that media manipulation is counterproductive. “We have to be honest with each other, to stop lying and being hypocrites,” he says. “One of the reasons the revolution is dragging on is that everyone is creating make-believe narratives.”

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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Will George Osborne soften the tax credit cuts for low-earners?

Labour MP Frank Field offers the Chancellor a partial escape route. 

The Conservatives are the real "workers' party". That is the message that will be delivered repeatedly at the party's conference in Manchester. To this audacious rebranding, there is no more awkward rejoinder than the coming cuts to tax credits. The new "living wage", which will reach £9 by 2020, will not compensate for the losses that low and middle-income families will endure. As the IFS has calculated, three million households will be £1,000 a year worse off. When MPs recently voted in favour of the cuts, there was a small but significant Tory rebellion (former leadership candidate David Davis and Stephen McPartland voted against). It is the loss of income that low-paid workers (the "strivers" in Conservative parlance) will suffer that they object to. 

Now, Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, and one of the Labour MPs most respected by the Tories, has offered George Osborne a partial escape route. In a letter to the Chancellor, the former social security minister argues that he should protect the poorest by raising the withdrawal rate for those earning above the new minimum wage. At present, the planned increase in the taper rate from 41 per cent to 48 per cent and the reduction in the earnings threshold from £6,420 to £3,850 will result in 3.2 million families losing an average of £1,350 a year. 

Field writes: "As you will know I welcome wholeheartedly the introduction of the National Living Wage. But its potentially revolutionary impact will be extinguished next year by these cuts to tax credits. Might I therefore ask please whether you would consider introducing a mitigation policy, at nil cost to the Treasury, to protect the lowest paid while the National Living Wage is phased in?

"There is one cost neutral policy in particular which could protect National Living Wage-earners: a secondary earnings threshold paid for by a steeper withdrawal rate for those earning above this new minimum rate.

"This option would retain the existing £6,420 income threshold but introduce a second gross income of £13,100, the equivalent of working 35 hours a week on the National Living Wage. For gross earnings between £6,420 and £13,100, the taper rate would be kept at 41 per cent. The lowest paid working families, therefore, would experience no reduction in tax credit income compared with the current system. To keep the policy cost neutral, gross earnings above £13,100 would need to be tapered at 65 per cent.

"Might this be something you are willing to consider for the Autumn Statement?"

It might indeed be something Osborne is willing to consider. The Sun reports that Boris Johnson, the Chancellor's chief rival for the Conservative leadership, has been studying the proposal and has warned him of "political disaster" if the lowest-paid are not protected. The Mayor of London, frustrated by Osborne's deft appropriation of the "living wage" he championed, is looking for new means of differentation. Past form suggests that Osborne may well give himself some protective cover when he delivers his joint Spending Review and Autumn Statement on 25 November. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.