Shades Of Grey'- Rethinking The Houla Massacre
From Media Lens
In our recent alert, The Houla Massacre, we noted how virtually all UK corporate media instantly found, not just the Syrian government, but its leader Bashar Assad, wholly responsible for the brutal massacre of 108 people, including 49 children.
While initial accounts blamed Syrian government forces for mass death by shelling the UN quickly reported that shelling was responsible for fewer than 20 of the deaths.
'Pro-government militia' were then blamed for the close-quarter butchery involving, we were told, the slashing of throats and point-blank gunshots to the head. Diplomatic correspondent James Robbins commented on the BBC's News at Ten:
‘The UN now says most victims, including many children, were murdered inside their homes by President Assad’s militias.’ (BBC News At Ten, May 29, 2012)
These claims of clear responsibility for hideous crimes strongly empowered calls for overt Western military intervention (covert Western intervention appears to be well underway).
Last week, however, in what might almost be interpreted as a mea culpa, the BBC’s World News editor, Jon Williams, began a June 7 blog emphasising ‘the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction’.
This was a surprising emphasis – the BBC had previously communicated no sense of ‘complexity’ in blaming the Syrian government. Williams continued:
‘In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear… In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings – or why.’
Williams added: ‘stories are never black and white – often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant". But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops", brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true. A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist – never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high – all may not always be as it seems.’
These comments were reinforced on the same day in a further 'shades of grey' paragraph published by the BBC’s reporter Paul Danahar on the BBC website:
'There is a sense in Damascus shared by many diplomats, international officials and those opposed to President Assad that his regime may no longer have complete and direct day-to-day command and control of some of the militia groups being blamed for massacring civilians. The world has looked at the Syrian conflict in very black and white terms over the past 15 months. It now needs to acknowledge the shades of grey that are emerging.'
‘Members of the international community in Damascus say that, contrary to initial reports, most of the people in Houla were killed by gunfire spraying the rooms, not by execution-style killings with a gun placed to the back of the head. Also, people's throats were not cut, although one person did have an eye gouged out.’
These were crucial new claims challenging key aspects of the consensus on Houla – the media had been as one in reporting as established fact the horrific cutting of children’s throats, for example. It now appears that this was a fabrication. Even more importantly, the same media had suggested there was no doubt that the Syrian government was to blame for the atrocity and that this justified military intervention.
If Williams’ and Danahar’s reports from Syria merited headline coverage, they did not get it. While Williams' views were confined to his blog, the BBC initially included Danahar’s comments in a small analysis box to the right of a main article focusing on a different massacre in al-Qubair. The excellent News Sniffer website, which tracks changes made to online media articles, has recorded 16 versions of the article. Danahar’s comments first appeared in the second version and were then moved to the very end of the long main article. Version 10, however, directly swapped the 'shades of grey' paragraph above (beginning, 'There is a sense in Damascus…') with these comments:
'The carnage at Houla, and now Qubair, has injected a dangerous new element into an explosive situation.
'The shabiha militia is almost entirely drawn from the Alawite community, the minority to which President Assad and his ruling clan belong. Most of the victims are from the majority Sunni community in which the uprising is to a large extent based.'
In other words, rare mainstream scepticism was directly replaced by the standard line suggesting Syrian government responsibility.
Regardless of the editing, this was unjustifiably low-key publishing of a major scoop starkly contradicting earlier reports on an extremely high-profile issue. Danahar’s gruesome testimony on the al-Qubair massacre was later mentioned in several press articles in the Guardian and Independent. But we have been unable to find any reference outside the BBC to his claims that pro-government militia might be beyond Assad’s control and that the world ‘needs to acknowledge the shades of grey that are emerging’.