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Reclaiming the Media Narrative After Russian Intervention in Syria — by Russell O’Phobe

For urgent and immediate distribution to the foreign affairs departments of all mainstream media organisations. From Russell O’Phobe

Originally appeared at TheBlogMire

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

You will recall that I wrote to you back in September with my Primer on the art of writing Russian scare stories. I had felt it necessary to write back then in order to make sure that you were all on-message, and to give you the confidence and the tools you need to maintain the narrative that many of us have been working hard to get across over the last couple of years or so.

And no mistake, much has been accomplished. I know that many of you have been labouring hard to ensure your readers are fed a steady diet of reports on “Russian aggression” and “Russian invasions”. 

And so long as the Russians didn’t actually invade anywhere — be it Ukraine or the Baltics or anywhere else for that matter —, we were free to tell the world as often as we liked that they had either invaded Ukraine or would shortly be starting on Lithuania or Poland. It was fun while it lasted.My department kept a tally going to see which major paper could come up with the most Ukrainian invasions in one year, and I know I really shouldn’t boast, but we came out on top with a total of 57.

But of course things have changed dramatically over the past three weeks, perhaps in ways that none of us could have envisaged. Frankly, things aren’t quite so whimsical now. I think I’m right in saying that for much of those three weeks, we have been in danger of losing the narrative completely, and — forgive me if I’m wrong — it seems to me that there is genuine confusion out there as to how exactly we should spin things.

Entirely understandable. I mean, it is one thing scaring readers by writing about “Russian aggression” when the Russian military isn’t actually doing anything, but what on earth are you supposed to do when they actually start successfully bombing the living daylights out of a terrorist organisation that we are supposed to have been bombing the living daylights out of for the past year, but to no effect?

This is why I say that if circulating something a month ago was necessary, it is doubly — no triply — vital now. Forgive my nervousness, but the stakes are high, and quite honestly for the last three weeks the Kremlin Gremlin has been making an Assad out of us all.

Before coming on to some positive things we could be doing, let me just sound a note of caution. I trust that what I’m about to say is obvious, but I think it best to be on the safe side and say it anyway. Please, please, please let’s have no more stories about invasions of Ukraine. The narrative worked fine for the last year and a half whilst there was no invasion, but now that the world has seen what things actually look like when the Russian military get into action, I’m afraid nobody is going to buy the 58th invasion of Ukraine story right now. Don’t even go there.

So how do we proceed, given that the blighters are going after ISIS like there’s no tomorrow and our side are in danger of looking really rather foolish? Well, whilst I have some suggestions for the longer term, which I will come on to in a moment, I do want to urge you all in the short term to keep level heads and to continue doing the basics well.

Many of you have been doing this, and I’m thankful to you for doing so. For example, the use of totally unverified claims, which are then quietly forgotten, has been used to good effect in the last few weeks. I’m talking about things like the claim of civilian casualties, which was reported on within moments of the first Russian air strikes.

I know some of you are still a little queasy about making such claims, but really there is no need to be. The truth or falsehood of this sort of thing quickly gets lost in the fog of war, so there is no need to worry about accountability. On the other hand, the impression such stories sow in the minds of your readers will have a tendency to linger long after they have been shown by the other side to be false, so please don’t be afraid to be innovative and creative with these stories.

Casting doubts on motives is also good practice, and I’ve been glad to see many of you repeating the claim that the Russians are not really targeting ISIS at all. That being said, I’m not sure how long we can get away with peddling that if they do continue to target ISIS.

We’ve also had some textbook examples of the use of quotation marks, which is especially cheering for me personally since I very much encouraged it in my Primer. For instance, a recent BBC article ran with the following headline: Syria crisis: Russian Caspian missiles ‘fell in Iran’. Wonderful use of speech marks that. They really are your Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, leaving you free to write pretty much anything you want, but if perchance someone should call your report into question you can just hold your hands up and say, “Don’t shoot the Messenger, guv. I was just quoting, that’s all.”

That article was also noteworthy for its eloquent use of spurious sources, with the opening line running as follows:

Four Russian cruise missiles fired at Syria from the Caspian Sea landed in Iran,unnamed US officials say [my italics]. It was unclear whether the missiles caused any damage, they said.

Isn’t that masterful? Unnamed US officials! Love it! Doesn’t say where they happen to be officials or what they are officials of. Could be the Pentagon. Then again, they could be officials in the district council of a small town in Wisconsin for all we know. And they can’t tell you where the missiles fell or what they fell on, these unnamed sources. But what does that matter? Whoever wrote this piece is savvy enough to know that there are still a lot of people out there for whom a phrase like “US officials say” carries a lot of clout, and who will come away actually believing that four Russian missiles did actually hit Iran. And that’s a great narrative, isn’t it, since it performs the double whammy of making readers believe not only that Russian technology is Soviet-era junk circa 1955, but also that they inadvertently managed to whack Iran.

Just one more thing before moving on to the longer term, please, please, please can I urge any of you covering the Syrian crisis not to start trying to provide too much explanation. I say this because in doing so we put ourselves in great danger of alerting the more discerning reader to what is really going on. I came across this in another BBC article and I’m afraid it provides a perfect example of how not to cover events:

A senior commander of the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate which has forces in the area, has issued a call to all the rebel groups to unify and launch a co-ordinated counter-attack on all fronts. He said if the rebels lost the initiative to the regime and the Russians, they would suffer a series of collapses and their future would be bleak.

For pity’s sake. Does this writer have any clue what narrative the BBC is meant to be peddling? Look, ever since the Russians started bombing, our message has been that they are bombing the “moderate rebels”, right? Now you and I know that there are no “moderate rebels” and that the “moderate rebels” the CIA has been training have all just happened to end up either in ISIS or al-Nusra. Right? But do we really need to start using the term “al-Qaeda affiliate” to describe the “rebels”? I doubt whether your average reader out there knows the difference between al-Assad, al-Nusra and Al Gore for that matter. But they have heard of al-Qaeda because they’ve had it rammed down their throats for 20 years that al-Qaeda is our deadly enemy. Now what do you suppose will happen if we start to let on that one of the rebel groups is an “al-Qaeda” affiliate? I’ll tell you: even the dimmest of readers is going to start scratching their heads and wondering why on earth we are supposed to have such a problem with Russia bombing guys who we’ve been warned about for two decades! This sort of careless use of words just has to stop, or else the whole narrative will just implode on us and we’ll all be out of jobs.

So what of the longer term strategy? Actually, there was something in the first BBC piece I mentioned above that caught my eye, which I think we ought to be making good use of. They quoted our man in Kiev, Poroshenko, as saying, “Russia wants to create a belt of instability from Syria to Ukraine”. You know I find this quite challenging as a journalist that this came from a politician. Really, we shouldn’t be leaving it to the politicians to feed us great narratives — we are meant to be feeding them. However, really Mr Poroshenko has done us all a great service with this idea and especially the use of the wonderful phrase “belt of instability”.

In the long term, this has got to be the way to go. We need to be playing the “instability” card and the “destabilisation” card constantly. We cannot have our readers thinking that Russia is going in there to stabilise the mess made by the West. I know some of you might object to this and tell me that this is a difficult one to pull off since it was NATO and not Russia that has been messing around in the Middle East. True, but memories are short and if we can hammer home the “belt of instability” meme, along with maybe the “arc of destabilisation”, I think we can really get ourselves out of the hole we’re in and get the world blaming the Russians for all the problems caused by us.

Part of me — and yes I know this is a high risk strategy — wonders whether we could begin to circulate rumours from “unnamed officials” that the Russians were secretly responsible for the false intelligence information that “forced” the Americans and their allies to go to war in Iraq. There’s a good old-fashioned espionage story in there if someone has the bottle to write it, and if we’re clever we could end up pinning the blame on them for the lot: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria (maybe even the Native American Indians?). Perhaps I can leave that with you to give it some thought?

I want to leave you with one other idea for a long term narrative, which is the theme of Empire. We need to use this more. I came across this from the Kremlin Gremlin in an interview the other day:

“Russia has no intention of creating an empire or reconstructing of the Soviet Union, yet we must defend our independence and sovereignty. We’ve done it before, we are going to do it in future.”

I was immediately struck by how his denial could — with a little tweak — easily be made to look like the exact opposite of what he actually said. All it takes is the use of the inverted comma, which I’ve done in the headline for my latest piece:

Putin: “Russia has ‘no intention’ of reconstructing the Soviet Union”

You see what the addition of those two little marks does? Not only does the reader now believe that his intention is to reconstruct the Soviet Union, but it gives me carte blanche to speculate in the article — which I do via a number of “unnamed US officials” — on how he plans to first create a “belt of instability” from Ukraine to Syria, before going on to recreate the Soviet Union, this time from Dublin to Vladivostok.

So let’s keep up the good work. Don’t forget the basics. Don’t let the narrative slip. And let’s start seeing some of those longer term themes appearing in your pieces shortly.

Best wishes,

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