Guernica’s legacy should be proper journalism, not dodgy historical parallels
By Jim Jump
Politicians and journalists continue to draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War and events in the Middle East. These comparisons are usually lazy, probably driven by an ulterior political agenda and often involve moral posturing (which proves what a powerful reference point the Spanish Civil War remains). They are also invariably wrong: it’s not possible to remove events from the complexity of their historical contexts.
The bombing of Guernica is especially commonly invoked. An example appeared recently in the US online publication, The Intercept, an influential forum for news and left-leaning opinion. In an article on 2 May Robert Mackey, an experienced journalist who has written for The Guardian and New York Times, argues that Syria’s denial of culpability in the alleged poison chemical attack in Douma on 7 April has echoes of Franco’s efforts to pin blame for the bombing of Guernica on forces loyal to the Spanish Republic.
Mackey’s article details the way that the Franco authorities fabricated evidence to make out that retreating Republican forces had destroyed the ancient Basque capital. Credit for the fact that most people weren’t fooled lies largely with one man. George Steer, of The Times, was among the first reporters to arrive at the scene of devastation following the fire-bombing of 26 April 1937. By collecting bomb fragments and talking to survivors he was able to tell the world of the atrocity and attribute blame to Hitler’s Condor Legion and Mussolini’s Aviazione Legionaria.
Where are today’s George Steers? Proper front-line reporting from Syria is virtually non-existent. Most reports in the Western media are, at best, filed from Beirut or Istanbul. Worse still, their sources for news, images and information, certainly from the rebel side, are shadowy groups and individuals generally dependent on Western funding and in favour of ‘regime change’.
It would be hard to imagine journalists in the Spanish Civil War relying on reports and photos spoon-fed to them by pro-Franco ‘media activists’. Just read Paul Preston’s superb account of front-line journalism in Spain, ‘We Saw Spain Die’, to appreciate the sheer professionalism and commitment shown by reporters in Spain.
There are no doubt good reasons why their sort of journalism is not so easy in Syria today. Reporters are easy kidnap targets for extremist groups, which is very convenient for the jihadist rebels and their friends. This way they can control the images and stories reaching correspondents sitting in offices and hotel rooms many miles away.
No-one is sure what happened in Douma. Yet the Western media, including Robert Mackey, went along with the accusations levelled by the rebel side. Tellingly, Mackey, while justly praising George Steer in 1937, airily dismisses any reporters who reached Douma ‘under Russian military escort’ and doesn’t even name or quote the testimony of one award-winning Western journalist who did report from the scene of the alleged attack. This was The Independent’s Robert Fisk, a veteran correspondent of many Middle Eastern wars.
Fisk arrived in Douma after the jihadists had surrendered and been bused out by the Russians. ‘I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook,’ he wrote in a despatch published on 17 April. He talked to local people, including medics, all of whom said that no chemical attack had occurred. Though the video footage shown around the world of children and others in distress was genuine, they were suffering from hypoxia brought on by a lack of oxygen and inhaled dust after a Syrian bombing attack, not gas poisoning.
It was a carefully written and powerful piece of eye-witness reporting, but which was virtually ignored by the rest of the media. The suspicion must be that this is because it didn’t fit the official narrative that had justified the bombing of Syrian government targets by US, British and French warplanes on 14 April.
Douma is a single example, but one that underlines the damning conclusion of another award-winning Middle Eastern correspondent for The Independent, Patrick Cockburn – who happens to be the son of a British International Brigader and journalist, Claud Cockburn. Like Fisk, the younger Cockburn is notable for actually reporting from inside Syria, and indeed Iraq. He has also commented in general terms on what he sees as the abject failings of recent war reportage. ‘All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities,’ he writes. ‘But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War.’
Earlier this year Cockburn went to Raqqa after the jihadists had been driven out by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish ground forces. What he described punctured the myth that the aerial strikes on the Syrian city (including 275 by British planes) had been precisely targeted. ‘There are districts of Mosul, Damascus and Aleppo that are as bad,’ he wrote, ‘but here the whole city has gone.’
The work of reporters like Cockburn and Fisk should be the legacy of George Steer, along with Henry Buckley, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and all the other journalists who ‘saw Spain die’. Their legacy wasn’t ‘hotel journalism’, as Fisk has dismissed much of the output of his fellow correspondents in the Middle East. They were on the ground, witnessing events, verifying facts, talking to people and questioning authority. It’s a shame we can’t seem to be able to count on those professional standards today.
This article appears in the current issue of ¡No Pasarán!, the IBMT magazine. Receive the magazine free three times a year as a member (http://www.international-brigades.org.uk/membership), or buy a copy of the latest issue here: http://www.international-brigades.org.uk/catalog
Posted on 31 October 2018.