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Undermining Democracy – Corporate Media Bias on Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Syria


Are we able to prove the existence of a corporate media campaign to undermine British democracy? Media analysis is not hard science, but in this alert we provide compelling evidence that such a campaign does indeed exist.

Compare coverage of comments made on Syria by a spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in October 2016 and by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson in January 2017.


Boris Johnson's 'Triple Flip' On Assad

There is little need for us to remind readers just how often Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been described as 'a monster' and 'a dictator' in the UK press. Assad has of course routinely been reviled as a tyrant and genocidal killer, compared with Hitler and held responsible, with Putin, for the mass killing and devastation in Syria. The role of the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others has often been ignored altogether.

Assad has been UK journalism's number one hate figure for years, on a par with earlier enemies like Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi (arguably, Assad is essentially the same archetypal 'Enemy' in the minds of many corporate journalists).

In December 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson accepted Assad was a monster, but that he had made a further remarkable comment:

'Let's deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.'

Johnson wrote that 'we cannot afford to be picky about our allies'. And so:

'Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site [Palmyra from occupation by Isis]? You bet I am.'

Seven months later, after he had been made UK foreign secretary, Johnson exactly reversed this position:

'I will be making clear my view that the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad remains in power. The international community, including Russia, must be united on this.'

Six months further forward in time, in January 2017, Johnson's position flipped once again. The Independent reported:

'President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stand for election to remain in power in Syria, Boris Johnson has said in a significant shift of the Government's position.'

Johnson was not coy about admitting the reason for this further flip:

'I see downsides and I see risks in us going in, doing a complete flip flop, supporting the Russians, Assad. But I must also be realistic about the way the landscape has changed and it may be that we will have to think afresh about how to handle this.'

The changed 'landscape', of course, is a new Trump presidency that is famously opposed to Obama's war for regime change in Syria. The Mail reported how Johnson had recalled a trip to Baghdad after the Iraq war when a local Christian had told him:

'It is better sometimes to have a tyrant than not to have a ruler at all.'

Johnson's observation on this comment:

'There was wisdom... in what he said and that I'm afraid is the dilemma...'

When we at Media Lens have even highlighted the US-UK role in arming, funding and fighting the Syrian war, and have discussed the extent of US-UK media propaganda – while holding not even the tiniest candle for Assad – we have been crudely denounced as 'pro-Assad useful idiots', as 'just another leftist groupuscle shilling for tyrants' that 'defends repression by President Assad'.

Other commentators have suffered similar abuse for merely pointing out, as Patrick Cockburn recently noted in the London Review of Books, that 'fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda [on Syria] to a degree probably not seen since the First World War'.

Nothing could be easier, then, than to imagine the corporate media lining up to roast Boris Johnson for what simply had to be, from their perspective, the ultimate example of someone who 'defends repression by President Assad': actually suggesting that the media's great hate figure might contest elections and even remain in power.

We can imagine any number of spokespeople for Syrian 'rebel' groups, human rights organisations and others, enthusiastically supplying damning quotes for news and comment pieces. We can imagine the headlines:

'Anger at Johnson's "shameful apologetics" for Syria regime'

'Boris slammed for "monstrous" U-Turn On Assad'

'Johnson's sympathy for Assad the devil shames us all'

And so on...

A second critical theme cries out for inclusion. Donald Trump has been relentlessly lambasted as racist, sexist, fascist, and in fact as a more exotically coiffured version of Hitler. Given that Johnson openly admits the UK government has reversed policy on hate figure Assad to appease hate figure Trump, the headlines are again easy to imagine:

'UK Government slammed for "selling out ethics and the Syrian people" to appease Trump regime'

'"Britons never, never will be slaves"? Boris Johnson's bended knee before Trump shames us all'

And so on...

Instead, these were the actual headlines reporting Johnson's policy shift:

The Telegraph (January 27):

'Armed Forces could have peace role in Syria, suggests Boris'

The Guardian (January 26):

'Boris Johnson signals shift in UK policy on Syria's Assad'

A comment piece in the Guardian was titled:

'Theresa May looks for new friends among the world's strongmen; Saturday's meeting with Erdogan in Turkey shows how Britain is re-ordering its international priorities after the Brexit vote'

No talk of apologetics, shame, or supping with the devil; just Britain 're-ordering its international priorities'.

The i-Independent (January 27):

'Johnson signals shift in policy over Assad's future'

The Times (January 27):

'Johnson: Britain may accept Assad staying in power'

The headline above an opinion piece in the same paper (February 1) merely counselled caution:

'May will have to take a stand over Russia. In this new age of realpolitik, Britain must beware bending to Trump's shifting foreign policy'

The article was careful not to criticise Johnson: 'It would be wrong to pin' his Syrian 'triple flip' on 'Borisian dilettantism. We have entered an era of intensified realpolitik... That means rethinking everything...'

The Sun (January 27), having raged apoplectically at Assad for years, would have been expected to rage now at Johnson. The headline:


The only comment:

'In a break with UK policy [Johnson] also said a political solution might see tyrant Bashar al-Assad allowed to stand in UN-supervised elections.'

The Daily Mail (January 26):

'Assad could run in a future Syrian presidential election, Boris Johnson says in shift of UK foreign policy'

Clearly, then, there was nothing the least bit excitable or outraged in any of these headlines – the news was presented as undramatic and uncontroversial.

But the point we want to emphasis is that, in fact, none of these news reports contained a single word of criticism of Johnson. They included not one comment from any critical source attacking Johnson for siding with the press's great bête noire of the last several years, Assad, in bowing to their great bête orange, Trump.

Read more: Undermining Democracy – Corporate Media Bias on Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Syria

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