All you can hear are the lies
Mail on Sunday column
I AM the opposite of a war junkie. I loathe the sound of fireworks because they remind me of a bloody night in Lithuania in January 1991, where I lay down in dirty snow to save my skin from Soviet bullets. I was also frozen with fright in lawless, gang-ruled Mogadishu in December 1992, waiting for US marines to arrive.
In Bucharest at Christmas 1989, I crawled under the bed as tracer fire whizzed past my hotel-room window, and – because my long-delayed call home came through just then – I dictated my account of events to my wife. No heroics for me, thanks.
I was in all these dreadful places by accident. I never meant to be there. I take great care not to get caught in such things again. But I learned a bit from it, mostly that the old cliche ‘the first casualty of war is truth’ is absolutely right, and should be displayed in letters of fire over every TV and newspaper report of conflict, for ever.
Almost nothing can be checked.
You become totally reliant on the people you are with, and you identify with them. If you can find a working phone, you will feel justified in shouting whatever you have got into the mouthpiece – as simple and unqualified as possible. And your office will feel justified in putting it on the front page (if you are lucky). And that is when you are actually there, which is a sort of excuse for bending the rules.
In the past few days we have been bombarded with colourful reports of events in eastern Aleppo, written or transmitted by people in Beirut (180 miles away and in another country), or even London (2,105 miles away and in another world). There have, we are told, been massacres of women and children, people have been burned alive.
The sources for these reports are so-called ‘activists’. Who are they? As far as I know, there was not one single staff reporter for any Western news organisation in eastern Aleppo last week. Not one.
THIS is for the very good reason that they would have been kidnapped and probably murdered. The zone was ruled without mercy by heavily armed Osama Bin Laden sympathisers, who were bombarding the west of the city with powerful artillery (they frequently killed innocent civilians and struck hospitals, since you ask). That is why you never see pictures of armed males in eastern Aleppo, just beautifully composed photographs of handsome young unarmed men lifting wounded children from the rubble, with the light just right. The women are all but invisible, segregated and shrouded in black, just as in the IS areas, as we saw when they let them out.
For reasons that I find it increasingly hard to understand or excuse, much of the British media refer to these Al Qaeda types coyly as ‘rebels’ (David Cameron used to call them ‘moderates’). But if they were in any other place in the world, including Birmingham or Belmarsh, they would call them extremists, jihadis, terrorists and fanatics. One of them, Abu Sakkar, famously cut out and sank his teeth into the heart of a fallen enemy, while his comrades cheered. This is a checked and verified fact, by the way.
Sakkar later confirmed it to the BBC, when Western journalists still had contact with these people, and there is film of it if you care to watch. There is also film of a Syrian ‘rebel’ group, Nour al-din al Zenki, beheading a 12-year-old boy called Abdullah Issa. They smirk a lot. It is on the behalf of these ‘moderates’ that MPs staged a wholly one-sided debate last week, and on their behalf that so many people have been emoting equally one-sidedly over alleged massacres and supposed war crimes by Syrian and Russian troops – for which I have yet to see a single piece of independent, checkable evidence.
When I used to travel a lot in the communist world, I especially hated the fact that almost every official announcement was a conscious lie, taunting the poor subjugated people with their powerlessness to challenge it.
I would spend ages twiddling dials and shifting aerials to pick up the BBC World Service on my short-wave set – ‘the truth, read by gentlemen’ – because it refreshed the soul just to hear it. These days the state-sponsored lies have spread to my own country, and to the BBC, and I tell the truth as loudly as I can, simply because I cannot hear anyone else speaking it.
If these lies go unchallenged, they will be the basis of some grave wrong yet to come.