A mindset pervades the British chattering classes whether nominally on the right, centre or trendy left. One may debate strategy, priorities or even the niceties of ethics, but one may not question the BBC and by extension the other main news outlets and opinion leading institutions. To do so invites immediate ridicule. When I debate online with wishful thinking trendy lefties, they often discount any evidence that does not come from a narrow set of official sources. Essentially nothing is true unless an official fact checker has authenticated it. Not surprisingly, the British government has entrusted the venerable BBC to help impressionable school children spot fake news.
But what if the mainstream media, allied with a vast network of NGOs and psychological warfare specialists, were themselves major purveyors of fake news. At the very least the BBC has an institutional bias in favour of narratives that support the policy objectives of the most powerful corporate lobbies in the UK. This very suggestion is to many tantamount to heresy. Millions of us literally grew up with the BBC and learned to love its abundance of children's programmes, sitcoms, nature documentaries and dramas. Until recently in many households the telly dominated not just the living room, but accompanied family meals and evening relaxation. However, the BBC has long appealed much more to the aspirational and pseudo-intellectual middle classes, while commercial alternatives with their focus on sport and blockbuster movies have appealed more to the working classes. TV news producers know most spectators have a very short attention span. Reports are condensed to show sensational imagery interspersed with short interviews and followed by commentary by professional talking heads and selected eye witnesses. Few have the time or resources to verify whether footage of alleged chemical attacks is real or not. Few will investigate the funding of supposedly neutral humanitarian organisations on the ground. Over the last 7 years most TV viewers will have gleaned mainly that both Assad and ISIS are evil. An allegation gains credibility largely through endless repetition by multiple actors to give the illusion of a consensus. No doubt, most casual BBC viewers believe Bashar Al Assad has repeatedly deployed chemical weapons against civilians. The Syrian government has consistently denied ever using chemical weapons against civilians, and why would it with well-funded Western media operatives waiting to pounce on any hard evidence of such crimes. However, to millions of casual TV viewers such details don't matter. The short version is more war in the Middle East, more bad guys killing innocent civilians and an international community of progressive politicians seeking to punish war criminals on behalf of enlightened human rights activists. The only trouble is we've heard it all before over the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Ever since the fall of the former Soviet Union Western intervention has seldom succeeded in bringing about the kind of tolerant, liberal and democratic societies that our leaders promised. They may cite Croatia or Slovenia as success stories, but only after a decade-long civil war and much ethnic cleansing. Slovenia and Croatia succeeded only because they have a well-educated citizenry and an economy integrated with their neighbours, while Kosovo remains a hotbed for drug and people traffickers as well as Islamic extremists.
Naturally any media outlet with a distinctive bias can simply select real news stories that suit its agenda and ignore or downplay those that don't. However, sometimes our ruling elites need to manufacture consent for unpopular policies such as wars or mass surveillance by priming the collective psyche with the spectre of new threats or heinous enemies. Moreover, as the establishment still tolerates alternative media to provide the illusion of a freedom-loving democracy, it has to counter all challenges to its narrative.
Let us be clear no government can wage war without collateral damage or unintended civilian casualties, even if it can claim ethical superiority over its enemies or the war itself can be justified in terms of legitimate self-defence or to prevent atrocities on a much larger scale. The Middle East has long been riven by deep ethnic and religious conflicts, exacerbated by a problematic transition from centuries of Ottoman rule through temporary colonial occupation in the aftermath of the First World War, the artificial redrawing of the geopolitical map, overdependence on oil exports and a hundred years of heavy-handed meddling by the major Western imperial powers. No Middle East rulers have ever succeeded in emulating the kind of relaxed and tolerant liberal society that emerged in Western Europe after the Second World War. Back in the 1960s it may have seemed that Middle East would follow in the West's footsteps as the younger generation embraced more liberal values and cultural exchanges among the professional classes brought the civilisations closer. Alas the daydream of a better tomorrow did not last long. By the late 1970s the Lebanese civil war was in full flow and the autocratic Shah of Iran failed to contain resurgent Islamic fundamentalism with much appeal among the country's growing underclasses. While Western European countries succeeded at least partly in extending prosperity and opportunity to the downtrodden working classes through a blend of regulated free market economics and social welfare, a growing proportion of the Middle East's teeming masses were left behind while many in the educated elite fled to the West. In this context Syria remained a rare exception keeping alive the secular pan-Arab dreams of Egypt's former leader, Gamel Abdel Nasser, but in doing so the Baath administration had to suppress the lure of Islamic fundamentalist fuelled by foreign intervention. Most of the state-sanctioned atrocities attributed to what the BBC invariably calls the Assad Regime occurred in the late 1970s and early 80s at a time when the USA and UK trained the Mujahideen to counter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Tolerant liberal democracies cannot thrive in the midst of civil wars with a complete breakdown in mutual respect and social trust. Neither can they flourish in a country with rapidly changing demographics without a sense of shared identity. The bleak reality many principled antiwar activists often to fail to recognise is the illiberal nature of Islam itself or rather its inability to follow Christianity by embracing the liberal enlightenment and individual freedom, preferring instead complete submission to holy scriptures. Many Muslim majority countries seemed destined to follow the West as late as the 1980s, but many have reverted to a more doctrinaire interpretation of Islamic teachings, leading to a widening gulf in mean fertility rates between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Strict Islam champions collectivism and fails to reward diligence, creativity and personal responsibility. Unsurprisingly for decades the best and brightest from Islamic world have migrated to the West to escape the very religious extremism that is now growing in Muslim enclaves across Western Europe and parts of North America. Yet Western interventionism has not so much failed to stymie the growth of regressive Islam as it has positively fuelled it or as in the case of Afghanistan, Libya and Syria bankrolled it via Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrein.
The intellectual elites have long feared populism or mob rule, except when they can appeal to common emotions to persuade the public to back a rebranded elite. They believe commoners are too simple-minded to understand the complexities of macro-economics and long-term planning. In most elections we vote mainly on emotions. Thus the Great British public has traditionally favoured death penalty and strict immigration controls, but generally opposed military interventions that do not serve to defend national sovereignty. The only war since 1945 which enjoyed overwhelming public support in the UK was the 1982 reconquest of the Falkland Islands. Most Britons supported the first Gulf War in 1991 following Iraq's short-lived occupation of Kuwait, but mainly because the media presented it as a simple case of standing up to brutal dictators. Tony Blair attempted to rebrand military adventurism as humanitarian peacekeeping. However, as successive missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya failed to yield the liberal panacea we had been promised, except a façade micromanaged by supranational bodies and NGOs, the Western public grew sceptical. A recent poll suggested as few as 25% of UK voters supported the recent airstrikes against Syria and I very much doubt many have the time or inclination to access alternative media or watch the much-maligned Russian news channel, RT.
It's a funny old world where leftwing antiwar activists, including those traditionally critical not only US Imperialism but of Israeli power, fall victim to the kind of censorship they believed reserved for rightwing zealots. Britain's hate speech laws have been used both against elderly Christians opposed to the perceived LGBTQ+ agenda and against Muslims critical of Zionism. Likewise anyone who counters the dominant Western narrative on Syria (that Assad and Russia are to blame for most atrocities and human rights abuses) is pretty much classed as Russian bots or Assad apologists, often likened to obnoxious Holocaust deniers. It hardly matters that the Islamic militias that the US and UK funded to overthrow Assad hate both Jews and Christians or that many on the new right, such as Katie Hopkins or Tommy Robinson, admire Israel. If you're a devout Muslim you could fall foul of hate speech laws for voicing your disapproval of homosexuality. Likewise if you're gay you could be arrested under the same legislation for criticising a religion that abhors your lifestyle. Indeed the only way not to get into trouble is to internalise a Guardianesque worldview of endless progress towards a better more tolerant tomorrow, in which not only do gays and Muslims love each other, but both are united in their condemnation of antisemitism and fully support the benevolent global institutions that seek to replace nation states with a fluid mosaic of vibrant ethnically mixed citadels. While the new expression of globalised multiculturalism has many colours and flavours, it only tolerates a very narrow worldview that trivialises genuine cultural differences in the name of postmodernist social engineering. Countries exist to help us reconcile these differences peacefully. If you want to listen to Beethoven's 5th Symphony at 3 o'clock in the morning, that's fine as long as you respect my need to sleep or enjoy alternative music. Hence we have houses with soundproofed walls and may use headphones to isolate sounds that others may not wish to hear. Your house, your rules. My house, my rules. The same is true of any civic spaces we have to share with our neighbours and fellow citizens. If you want to engage in activities that may infringe on the welfare, security or liberty of others, you should seek a special secluded venue with its own set of rules and customs. Just consider an activity as anodyne as smoking. From the late 19th century right through to the mid 1980s, Western societies displayed an amazing tolerance for this vice. Indeed it often seemed impolite of self-righteous non-smokers to deny smokers an opportunity to indulge in their carcinogenic habit. Then as anti-smoking campaigns began to resonate with the wider public , more and more public spaces became smoke-free. While in the 1960s, when adult smoking rates peaked in Britain and elsewhere, the non-smoking minority had to endure great discomfort in many workplaces and on public transport, today smokers are treated as pariahs forced to bear bad weather outdoors and even forbidden from lighting up in parks or in the vicinity of public buildings such as schools and hospitals. As long we can openly debate the pros and cons of anti-smoking measures in the best interests of all members of society, I don't see a problem. The debate helps us resolve conflicts between collective responsibility and personal freedom, e.g. you may enjoy the freedom to smoke, but are you prepared to pay for your additional healthcare needs and afford others their freedom to breathe fresh air? The point is free speech inevitably includes the right to offend people who partake in practices you may not like. We couldn't ban smoking in 1960s because it would upset around two-thirds of adults. If I rant and rail against selfish motorists, many could take offence. In a perfect world we would all get plenty of exercise and travel by the most energy-efficient and environmentally means, but in practice people have to get to work on time, deliver goods and want to lead their lives to the full.
The true irony of the current situation is that social conservatives, often supportive of their country's armed forces, and leftwing antiwar activists, often dismissive of the plight of war veterans are both victims of political correctness. Some may lament that political correctness forces us overlook underlying biological differences between men and women, while others are more concerned with war propaganda. Life is certainly easier if you recycle the current orthodoxy that nation states are outmoded, Russia is a meddlesome bully, the European Union is a force for good and Muslims wish to live in peace and harmony with the Western LGBTQ+ community. But to believe the polar opposites of this *Guardian-esque *fairytale worldview would be equally misguided. In a complex and technologically interdependent world we have to find peaceful means to reconcile our differences. I'd rather do that through fierce and open debate with divergent sources of information than suppress intellectual freedom. If history is any guide, the alternative to free speech is not a utopia of perfectly synchronised like-minded progressives, but a complete breakdown in social trust leading inevitably to violence and more authoritarian means of people management.