ALL THE PRESIDENT'S NEWS

If you were a conspiracy theorist - only intermittently guilty as charged - you might reflect that striking at a foreign power can be good for domestic ratings.  The Falklands war transformed Mrs Thatcher's let's remember.  International actitivity is also a useful diversion from home-based crises and controversies. The blessed Bill Clinton knew that too.  It is also a strategy fraught with unpredictable danger. 

Not that we should necessarily assume that anything President Trump gets up to - with the possible exception of a left to right putt with a difficult to read borrow - is ever blessed with anything resembling strategic thought. It's notable that after he dispatched missiles to a Syrian airfield accused of being the base from whence planes left with bombs laden with toxic materials, the man who suggested "no child of God" should be subjected to such a death went uncharacteristically quiet.  It was left to his new secretary of state and his hapless media spokesman to attempt to explain why their leader had stood his Syrian policy and America First isolationist rhetoric on its head within the space of 72 hours or so.

Since then social media has been in overdrive.  A former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, became an instant hero to some armchair commentators for touring the studios repeating the Russian and Syrian governments' assertions that the nerve gas had been distributed by bombs landing on a cache of chemical weapons stored by rebel forces. Ford was lauded as being an important truth teller in an age of fake news and unreliable mainstream media.  Many of these commentators went on to suggest that those reporting on the tragedy for the BBC among other outlets were gullible cyphers ever ready to parrot the lines of government spinners. Ford certainly speaks no more than the truth when he asserts that Assad's removal will not usher in a period of peace and harmony.  The rest of his comments would appear to concur word for word with those of President Putin, a leader who is currently presiding over the assassination of  journalists who have committed the crime of questioning the Kremlin world view.

I have a number of problems with all of this.  For one thing regardless of the truth of the matter - and I have no more insight than anyone else sitting at home glued to TV and radio reportage and accessing various websites - I do not buy the notion that some of the finest journalists around who have spent (and risked) half their lives reporting from the frontline of wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere are Western government stooges.  One of the only reporters at the actual scene of the attack - who works for the Guardian - tried and failed to find anything resembling the remains of a chemical weapons factory or store. In addition several scientific sources independently but collectively asserted that nerve gas hit by airial bombing just would not disperse in that fashion and would, inter alia, cause a massive fireball.

But my other area of unease is the way in which the same people now serially sceptical of anything emanating from the BBC will unquestioninlgy accept news reports from state funded Russian sources.  It is just as absurd to assume anything Russia Today says is true, as it is to dismiss anything the BBC reports as false.  These same sceptics go on to remind us of all the false claims leading us into the disastrous war in Iraq, and all the civilians killed by US led airstrikes as if somehow the rest of us had failed to notice. The fact that the Iraq war and its aftermath are still being deconstructed and the subject of serial calls for its perpetrators to be classified as war criminals does not suggest to me that the media only reports on one brand of atrocities or that people dubious about  Russian claims rush lemming like to support US standpoints.  The proper position for any journalist - professional or citizen - to adopt is to be properly sceptical of anything other than irrefutable evidence.  And to try and divorce the latter from instant opinion.

Which brings us to the matter of fake news.  It's hardly a newsflash that the 45th President of the United States is more likely to make policy on the hoof and on the back of a report from a dodgy right wing media source than he is to wade through the detailed daily intelligence reports which are supposed to inform the judgement of a man with his finger on the nuclear button. Mr Trump asserts he hasn't got time to read all that repetitive stuff, though he has managed 15 golf weekends since his inauguration. But it's also the case that many people who access Facebook posts without being able to check their provenance can leap with olympic ease to conclusions which match their own instinctive prejudices.

We can all be guilty of this.  Like many other soggy, left of centre liberals I'm prone to re-tweet or share material which suggests that America's first citizen is a few sandwiches short of the full picnic. But among the other material doing the rounds regularly are videos purporting to suggest that the White Helmets - the group set up to act as war zone amateur paramedics - are nothing of the sort.  Look! Here they are attending chemical attack victims without protective clothing. See here! Isn't that a picture of the same little girl being rescued over and over again? Like I say, I have no more knowledge than any other person observing from this disance - but isn't it just a little naive to be prepared to assume that the White Helmets are no more than purveyors of fake vimeos but not to allow the possibility that others are posting false footage about them?  Like I say facts are chiels that winna ding, but without them fake news management is  having a field day.  

Now the man lauded as the leader who had set his face against foreign adventures and expensive wars has boosted the US defence budget at the expense of social and health ones, and sent the navy to thumb its nose at the other pretender to the title of most unpredictable and highly dangrous man child, Kim Jong-un.  Scary?  More than a little! But maybe the man who makes guest appearances in the White House between golf practice in Florida  thinks it will be good for ratings.