The real story today is in Syria

By Nick Cohen, August 30, 2011

Even at a time of global economic crisis, and with huge events seemingly taking place every day this month, the revolution against the Syrian Baathists ought to be at the top of any editor's news list. Let me count the ways in which the Assad crime family is worthy of our attention.

● Although everyone throws around accusations of racism, the Syrian state is an authentic Apartheid regime. Members of the Alawite sect, who make up 11 per cent of the population, monopolise power. They shut out the Sunni majority on sectarian grounds and subjugate the Kurdish minority on racial grounds.

● In terms of realpolitik, the West had nothing but a moral interest in seeing the Egyptian or even the Libyan dictatorship fall. It has every interest in seeing the fall of Syrian dictatorship, which is a sworn enemy. Syria is collaborating with Iran, promoting terrorism and looking to acquire nuclear weapons. Its fall would make the West a little bit safer.

● If you can see beyond national interests to consider the suffering of the population, then you will not find it hard to imagine Syrians' fears of a wider massacre. As well as the regular army and police forces, Assad has Alawite militias and Hezzbollah death squads he can unleash on a largely defensive population.

Syria is story that cries out for coverage. But it is not receiving the 'play' it deserves. Not because western journalists are antisemites, although a few can give a passable imitation. Rather, for the boring reason that the regime will not let journalists work in the country. And this basic restriction makes all the difference.

Channel controllers should break with cliché to reveal all

In the 20th century, closed totalitarian states could hide great crimes against humanity from outsiders. Despite the extraordinary work of Frank Dikotter, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, for example, we do not know and perhaps can never know the full extent of the horrors Mao and the Chinese communists perpetrated more than 40 years on.

But Syria is nothing like Mao's China. It is not a closed totalitarian state. Almost by definition, totalitarian states cannot have revolutions because their rulers allow no independent opposition forces to mobilise. Although the odds are horribly loaded against it, a Syrian opposition has mobilised and the rest of the world can talk to it and examine its claims.

When the Baathists refused to allow a mission from the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into the country because it would have exposed the regime's propaganda, it found ways round the ban.

It spoke to refugees and defectors from the army and examined the huge amount of material Syrians are posting on the net from inside and outside the country. The UN produced a scrupulously cross-checked authoritative account of mass executions and the rape and torture of suspects.

As its researchers showed, investigative journalism can be done.

Even your correspondent has taken advantage of the new technologies and spoken to revolutionary organisers, not just in exile but in Syria itself, and been impressed by their determination to avoid turning the uprising into a communalist war against the Alawite minority.

The rolling news networks demand hack work from their reporters, and nowhere more so than when journalists cover foreign news.

Editors demand that the reporter gives the illusion of omniscience by speaking live from the scene of the story. They gloss over the fact that the reporter may well not be omniscient because he or she rarely has the time to move away from the spot directly in front of the camera at the international hotel to find out what is going on.

The viewer must see their man or woman at the heart of the action, relaying news in real time, even if time differences mean that it is the middle of the night in the trouble zone and no news of import has happened for hours.

The Syrians are not the story they should be because anchors can interview correspondents in Jerusalem and Cairo but cannot 'go live' to a journalist Damascus, Hama, Homas or Daraa. They have to make do with reporters in Beirut and that is not the same.

One of the most important revolutionary struggles of our time would receive the attention it deserved if only channel controllers could break with cliché and allow their reporters to tell what they know - which in the case of Syria would be far more than their viewers might have guessed.

Last updated: 10:50am, August 30 2011