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Conference in Moscow on the media and civil society

Date de publication: 02.11.2016

The conference was organised by IDC's sister organisation, the Foundation for Historical Outlook (Moscow) and by the International Association of Peace Foundations chaired by Anatoliy Karpov. Natalia Narochnitskaya opened the proceedings; John Laughland chaired one of the panels and was a speaker.  His text is pasted below.


"The end of the Utopia of mass communication."


John Laughland


Moscow, 2 November 2016





In recent weeks, the Western media have been telling a tale of two cities, Mosul and Aleppo.  Both cities are currently held by Islamists and both cities are currently under attack from the armies of their respective governments in Baghdad and Damascus, supported by significant air and other forms of military power by outside powers - the Syrians by Russia and the Iraqis by the United States of America. 


The similarities end here.  As soon as the Syrian army began its assault on Aleppo in June, backed by Russian air power, the campaign was immediately given saturation coverage in the Western media.  However, the story was reported uniquely in terms of the human suffering of the population of the occupied part of the city.  Day after day there were stories about people who had been hit by bombs, by the number of civilian casualties, about the allegedly brutal nature of the Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment, about the hospitals allegedly bombed.


The coverage of the Iraqi attack on occupied Mosul, which started earlier this month was - and is - exactly the opposite.  The story was told overwhelmingly from the perspective of the attacking forces: where they were gathering in preparation for the attack, what resistance they encountered as they entered the surrounding villages, how long the battle would last.  The media were full of stories of the atrocities committed by the Islamists holding the city and its population captive, in stark contrast to the absence of such stories from occupied East Aleppo. There were also references to foreign fighters in Mosul, even though again the same thing is true of the rebels in Syria.  Just to take a very recent example, The Observer (which is the Sunday edition of The Guardian) reported on Sunday how the Islamic State is putting bombs inside children's toys in Mosul.[1]  But it has never reported on mortar attacks by terrorists in Eastern Aleppo on civilians in the West, or on any other atrocities committed by the renamed Al-Nusra front, the Syrian Al Qaeda, in Eastern Aleppo.  Only Russian media like RT do that, as it did again on Saturday.[2]


Alternative points of view about Aleppo are simply not available in the Western mainstream media. Take the case of a freelance British commentator, Vanessa Beeley, a British Arabist who has travelled to Aleppo and who has given many interviews about the conflict and about the role played by the so-called civilian defence group operating in East Aleppo, the White Helmets.  These White Helmets have been recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize by hundreds of organisations and individuals, as well as by important media outlets such as - to take just British examples - the left-wing Guardian[3] and the right-wing Daily Telegraph.[4]  But no reference can be found to her or to her criticism of the White Helmets can be found in any Western mainstream publication, even though she has shown that they are being funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by Western governments.


The pattern established over Aleppo and Mosul has been repeated countless times in recent decades on foreign policy issues - in Bosnia in the 1990s, over Kosovo in 1999, in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, and on many other smaller issues.  The usual differences of opinion, such as those between left and right, or such as those between supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians, disappear from the mainstream media in these cases. They are replaced by a highly moralistic portrayal of conflicts, endless repeated.  Reporting is replaced by moral denunciation.[5]


As a result, there emerge what John Kerry called "parallel universes" when he clashed with Sergey Lavrov in the Security Council in September.[6]  Each side in each parallel universe sees and knows only its version of reality.  Media pluralism disappears and is replaced by the intoxicating rush of outrage.  Condemnation is a very strong sensation which many people enjoy because it gives them a feeling of power and superiority.


A key role in arousing and maintaining this sense of moral outrage is played by images.  Take the case of the White Helmets: the principal vector of their propaganda consists in the production of images.  Time and again they are photographed carrying babies out of rubble.  One suspects that these incidents may be staged; if they are not, it is remarkable that there is always a photographer on hand to shoot them.  It is also remarkable that, for a group which received hundreds of millions of dollars, they seem to have no stretchers.  Indeed, they seem to have no paramedical equipment at all.  But they do have a slick promotional video, available on Netflix, which was made for them by a US-based public relations agency. These pictures of men carrying babies communicate a message: innocent civilians are being hit by bombs.  As we know, air power has turned the conflict around in favour of the Syrian government since Russia started deploying it a year ago, and the West wants it to stop.


There are two points to make about images.  First, they are not words yet they have immense power.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  These images from Aleppo have deeply influenced Western public opinion, certainly in Britain, entrenching its opposition to Syria and Russia.  They caused one Conservative MP and former minister to compare the bombing of Aleppo to the bombing of Guernica.[7]  It is no coincidence that Guernica is itself remembered overwhelmingly through an image, one of the most powerful images in the history of art, Picasso's painting.  If you tap "Guernica" into Google images, nearly all the images which come up are of the painting, not of the actual city.


Second, in spite of the Internet, such images typically do not travel between the parallel universes they create.  During the Ukraine conflict in 2014, for instance, Russian media were saturated with images of the various neo-Nazi groups and militia who fought or demonstrated on the side of Kiev. But these images were never, or almost never, shown in the Western media.


This power of images, and the fact that they do not travel between the parallel universes of propaganda, invalidates an important political theory which has been very influential for more than one hundred and fifty years.  This theory is that an increase in communication will lead to understanding between peoples and eventually to the unification of mankind.  This theory of the end of statehood and the end of history grew up in the second half of the 19th century and gave rise to an intense belief in the possibility of one international law - world law - for the whole planet.[8] The same thing happened in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War: the ideology of globalisation encouraged people to believe that the Internet would create one world and that the whole planet would converge around one political model.  We should never forget that these ideas predated the invention of the internet by at least eighty years.  Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the belief grew up that supranational law and mass communication would promote peace. For example, in 1906, the Australian delegate to the Universal Postal Union called it a "Federation of Peace and good will among nations." [9]  And when in 1909, a statue was commissioned for the Universal Postal Union, which later became the UPU's logo the director, a former Swiss president, gave a lyrical and millennial speech about peace and the advance of civilisation.[10] 


Now, it is obvious that the late 20th century has witnessed an even greater growth in communication than that of which the 19th and early 20th century theoreticians of globalisation could ever dream.  Yet is also obvious that this growth in the means of communication has not increased understanding between states and still less brought about world unity.  It has done the opposite.


The conclusion we must draw is surely that human nature cannot be corrected by technology.  Liberalism and communication do not make men less sinful.  The world is not on the path towards unity as a result of the internet.  The nation-state has not been dissolved by email.  On the contrary, far from spreading civilisation and understanding, the transmission of images and other forms of propaganda can arouse feelings of moral condemnation in the viewer which blind him - I am deliberately using the vocabulary of vision - to his own faults and only increase his hatred and lack of understanding of his opponent.  Jesus Christ understood this anthropology of vision when he too used the language of seeing to give one of his most famous lessons:


"Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." (Matthew 7: 3-5)


            This, surely, is the lesson of Mosul and Aleppo.  Thank you.








[8] See my speech to the Rhodes Forum in 2013.

[9] Armand MATTELART, Histoire de l'Utopie planétaire, De la Cité prophétique à la société globale (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1999), p. 168

[10] Speech by Eugène Ruffy, 4 October 1909, quoted in C J BEELENKAMP, Les Lois postales universelles, (Mouton: The Hague, 1910), p. 620 and in MATTELART p. 168.


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