In every war, there are people willing to promote even the side committing the atrocities
As we watch the horrible events in Syria, it’s worth bearing in mind that we are also witnessing an information war – a battle to influence perceptions and thus actions – and that, as in every war, there are people willing to promote even the side committing the atrocities.
Sometimes they work for the government in a propaganda role. Iraqi Information minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf, was ridiculed as ‘Comical Ali’ in the Western press after a series of briefings in which he described the war as ‘trivial’ and stated coalition planes were ‘trying to crack the buildings by flying low over them’. (He wasn’t good at his job, of course.) Colonel Gaddafi had the equally unconvincing, but less ridiculous, Moussa Ibrahim.
Clearly official lines often fall apart under the weight of their own propaganda but the difficulty in discerning fact from fiction in a warzone is no less difficult. The Balkan Wars saw both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina take on high profile New York PR firm Ruder-Finn to put across their message while Serbian interests were represented by Ian Greer Associates in London and Wise Communications in Washington. The effect these agents of information had on the wars, and the Clinton administration’s response to it, are still hotly debated.
One PR professional interviewed for the forthcoming Spear’s Reputation Management Index said ‘you don't have to necessarily agree’ with what your client is doing to represent them well. He drew the line at representing Syria, however: ‘We would not work for President Assad. If there is an accusation of genocide, I think that's a step too far.’
Some lawyers even make careers out of representing the worst political criminals they can find, saying everyone is innocent until proven guilty but also knowing that a lack of competition guarantees lucrative returns and publicity. Take Jacques Vergès, who represented Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie, several African dictators, Iraq's Tariq Aziz and former head of the Khmer Rouge Khieu Samphan.
People can wise up, of course: last night, Parliament seemed to shy from voting for action in Syria, conscious of how they had been spun into Iraq. One wonders how this decision will be spun in Damascus.