Syria: Compare And Contrast

If I had to teach a journalism class this week, I think I’d elect to discuss two very different perspectives on the chemical attack on Damascus suburbs on August 21 — one written by the London Independent’s Robert Fisk and the other for a rival paper, the Telegraph, by Richard Spencer. Links are here:

Missiles Were Not Sold to Syria — Independent

Assad Ordered Me To Gas People — Telegraph

Fisk does what Fisk too often does, alas: speculate an anti-Western line based on unnamed sources. He has unnamed UN sources and an unnamed Syrian solider. He cites Russian evidence – export papers — that Bashar al-Assad couldn’t have carried out the attack because the Russian missiles used to deliver the toxic agent, Sarin, had never been sold to Syria but to Libya, among others, according to the Russians, he says. No documentary evidence is supplied or any details.

And then to conclude – he quotes an unnamed Syrian journalist who speculates the West might been involved because they wanted an excuse to attack Assad. An excuse? Many people would say there have been excuses galore supplied  by Assad himself in the past two-and-half years – “excuses” that can’t be doubted.

One question Fisk never answers because he never poses the obvious question is: why if the Russian evidence is so conclusive has Moscow not made it public?

Then we have Richard Spencer’s article. It is based not on conjecture but on an on-the-record exclusive interview with Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in Assad’s own army. He was the chief scientific officer in the Syrian army’s fifth division and ran chemical weapons operations in the country’s southern Deraa province.

The general, who defected earlier this year, told Spencer “he was ordered (by his superiors) three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.”

“Gen Sakat said the regime wanted to ‘annihilate’ the opposition using any means, and said he received his first orders to use chemical weapons in October last year. On three occasions, he said he was told to use a mixture of phosgene and two other chlorine-based agents against civilian targets in Sheikh Masqeen, Herak, and Busra, all rebel-held districts.”

He insists “all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.” Sakat believes chemical weapons have been used 34 times, rather than the 14 occasions cited by Western international intelligence agencies.

So, we have the UN inspectors’ report on the August 21 attack that most experts argue points the finger at Assad and we have a former Assad military officer saying he had been ordered last year to use chemical weapons. Who do you believe, and if you were teaching the journalism class, wouldn’t you hope the students noticed that one was based on verifiable facts and a named credible source saying toxic agents have been used in the past by Assad and the other on pure…?




UK Newspapers Take a Pounding

The UK’s national newspaper circulations fell badly in September. The Guardian and Independent fell 9.7 per cent and 15.6 per cent year on year respectively. But the biggest loser among the quality dailies was my old paper The Times, down 10.4 per cent. Despite its international brand name, the Independent has a circulation way below 200,000. Is it time it followed the example of the Christian Science Monitor – namely, be exclusively an online product and focus solely on international news? When is it going to close its sister Sunday newspaper, a paper that adds little to its brand and doesn’t help with the finances?

The circulations for the once excellent indigenous Scottish qualities make for grim reading. Another one of my old papers, Scotland on Sunday, twice the UK newspaper of the year, has seen its circulation halved in less than a decade. Both the Scotsman and the Herald are selling fewer copies than some major regional English dailies. Andrew Neil did not help the commercial cause of the Scotsman Group when the Barclays Brothers were the owners: telling the Scots they are a miserable lot and should be more like the English tends not to boost newspaper sales over the border. But, of course, it is not all Neil’s fault: the Internet reaper is doing its bits in Scotland, too. Clearly the only way forward for the Herald and Scotsman Groups is somehow to bridge the west-east cultural divide in Scotland and to merge.