1 September 2013

Media bias? Syria, chemical weapons and napalm

There is some confusion in media reporting on Syria, and I wonder whether it is deliberate. BBC News at Ten talked about chemical weapons a couple of nights ago, and then screened an on-the-ground report (no longer available on BBC iPlayer) showing the burn victims of an air attack on a school:

Trouble is, the wounds look like the effects of napalm, a mixture of petrol and gel that sticks to you as it burns. As it was invented in 1943 it was obviously not proscribed by the Geneva Protocol of 1925, nor is it banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997.

Wikipedia says its "use against civilian populations was banned by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in 1980" but, sorry as I am that anyone at all should suffer, I have to wonder what these "schoolchildren" were doing that might have prompted an air strike. If a teenager is firing bullets and RPGs, is he a civilian?

And although the horrible injuries seem perfectly genuine, there was a slightly stagey feel to the BBC clip, as I have noted before. As with those Middle Eastern demonstrators who hold up placards written in English, one gets the impression that people there are learning how to play to the Western cameras; they're far from stupid, and propaganda is an important element in modern warfare.

By the way, the same Wiki article notes that although Protocol III to the CCW restricts the use of all incendiary weapons, the US itself has not signed that part. The US made enthusiastic and terrible use of napalm in Vietnam, sometimes adding white phosphorus to the mixture so that it continued to burn to the bone even if the victim dived into water.

So, is it merely age-related daftness that made me conflate the banned use of "chemical weapons" with a possibly legal possible napalm attack on possibly innocent civilians, or was the BBC "nudging" us into support for military action against the Syrian government? The news media have form in angling coverage - remember the 1992 pic of Bosnian Muslims apparently caged behind barbed wire? There were real atrocities in that conflict, but surely the news media, who are our ears and eyes on the wider world, have for that reason a special duty to be carefully truthful, unbiased and critical, and to give us context as well as image; I don't feel we've had that.

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