Sunday, August 06, 2006


In support of Syria

One of the things that you become conscious of when you live and work somewhere is how that place gets reported, and Syria is certainly coming in for its fair share of ignorant and unbalanced hostility just now. One interview a few days ago on BBC World left me almost shaking with rage. I had to cut short a call home to go into the office and send the following to the BBC:

I am working in Damascus, so a letter is impractical, but I would like to complain as strongly as possible about the disgraceful Hardtalk interview today by Sarah Montague with the Lebanese Ambassador to the UN, Nouhad Mahmoud. This interview destroyed completely any claim the BBC might make to professionalism, objectivity, balance or even common sense. Throughout the interview Ms Montague made statements about Syria's direct involvement in the current situation, not as suggestions but as firm assertions. "Syria is arming Hezbollah", "Syrian influence", "Syria wishing to re-establish itself in Lebanon", "Syria is using you (Lebanon)". No evidence was produced to back up any of these statements, which were put across as established fact. Virtually no other country was mentioned in terms of having an agenda regarding the current conflict, only Syria, which as far as Ms Montague is concerned is plainly guilty without trial. It became clear during the interview that her principal aim was to paint Syria alone as having caused and now gaining from the situation in Lebanon. Frankly this is just despicable journalism, ranking with the worst tabloid examples, and a sad low for the BBC to have reached. If you have facts to parade then put them on your news programmes. If you just have suppositions then qualify your statements accordingly. I think this interview seriously breached BBC standards and would like it investigated as such. Certainly for me it ended any sense that the BBC is treating the current situation or the region dispassionately. Right now, what the world needs from the BBC is balance and facts, not wild and ill-informed assertions.

In reply I got back this:

Hello and thank you for your most recent email to us.

We were sorry to read that you disliked Sarah Montague's interviewing in this edition of HARDTALK. Of course, in order to steer an interview and reach answers to pertinent questions, an interviewer must sometimes interject, be firm or hard and play "devil's advocate". Sarah's role is to put questions and viewpoints to guests that will elicit answers and illuminate their stand on issues - these will not necessarily be those sympathetic to the guest's position but that does not mean they are the interviewer's personal opinion either nor necessarily statements of fact.

As you know, we will of course pass on your remarks to our editorial and management teams for their consideration.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us,

With regards
Paul Coleman BBC World

To which I replied as follows:

Hello again Paul,
I think anyone objectively looking at the interview would say that Sarah Montague went well beyond the line of devil’s advocacy into a selective and swingeing attack on Syria. I don’t know what her personal or political views are but just as a professional she should be ashamed of herself. Why was no other country cited in her accusations, such as Iran, for example? Why was it apparently assumed by Ms Montague that Israel, say, or the US might not have a less-than-admirable agenda for Lebanon or the region? Was there a hint of such a thing in her interview? If so it didn’t register. Question after question to the Lebanese ambassador was about Syria’s motives only, why? Even the ambassador looked confused at her one-track line of questioning. The whole thing seemed more like someone with an axe to grind (Montague) arguing with someone else on camera.

She ended with the statement “Syria is using you.” No interrogation, actually not even really asking for a response. To most viewers that does not come across as a hard question, but as an interviewer putting across what they know to be a fact. That’s not legitimate provocation, it’s downright irresponsible. Whether any of it was sympathetic to Mr Nouhad Mahmoud’s position or not is frankly irrelevant.

She spent much of the interview insinuating or stating directly that Syria was behind events, was benefiting from them, wanted to re-enter Lebanon. It was not couched as conjecture - “some people suspect that...” or “do you think that...”. Not a shred of evidence was brought forward for any of this. It’s not good enough from a trusted news organisation, and she and you and your editorial and management teams should well know it. It’s on a par with Max Clifford, without any possible claim that it’s just a bit of fun.

I’m not blind to Syria’s part in this, before you classify me as equally one-sided. There is no doubt that funds go from Syria to Hezbollah; there is little doubt that arms go across the Syrian border into Lebanon (geographically the easiest route). Syria’s support for Hezbollah against Israel will continue until talks restart on the return of the Golan, and US and UK foreign policy would be much more productive if it sought to resolve such long-standing regional problems rather than its current simplistic bashing into submission. I don’t condone terrorist activity. Personally I detest violent “solutions” to anything, by anybody.

But unlike Ms Montague I also know what is going on inside Syria, because I’ve worked here for eighteen months. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with people at the top of government and ordinary people in the street and countryside. I know what is being done here to build a more democratic future and a market economy. I know what a moderate, tolerant, relaxed society it is, even if it is desperately poor in many places. I know how hard the president finds it to drag the hard-liners in his government with him towards the reform he wants. I know that any picture you may have of a dictatorship is not what is happening here. I know what a positive future Syria could have if outsiders can resist instructing it what to do. Sadly, I don’t expect Ms Montague to come and see for herself, or the UK’s foreign policy (which I suspect drives your editorial policy) to change. So the positive facts about Syria, for example that it now shelters and cares for nearly 2 million refugees from the conflicts in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Lebanon, won’t get covered by you. Only the lazy “bad Syria” line will be trotted out once more, and another Iraq will become more likely.

The interview was disgraceful. Nothing you have said in your reply makes it less inexcusable.


BBC World is a commercial operation, and its editorial policy is highly suspect in my view. It is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act in the UK, unlike its parent organisation. This interview was SO partial that I wonder just what influence can be brought to bear on it.


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