Children’s trauma is a laughing matter—if you are Vanessa Beeley

by Amr Salahi

The notorious Assad regime propagandist Vanessa Beeley has been recently on a speaking tour of the UK. She has been showing up at small venues  in Bristol, Birmingham, and London to give a presentation entitled “Aleppo: Fall or Liberation”. These talks have been hosted by the Communist Party of Great Britain Marxist-Leninist (CPGB-ML), which openly supports and glorifies Josef Stalin. In Bristol, her talk was held at the Palestine Museum and attended by about 70 people.

The general gist of Beeley’s talk is similar to her published work on websites such as 21st Century Wire and Mint Press News. The rebels are non-Syrian terrorists from Al-Qaeda who commit atrocities against the population in the areas they hold; what is happening in Syria is part of a regime change conspiracy that has been in place since the 1980s involving the media, human rights organizations, and Western governments; Bashar Al-Assad’s army is the main humanitarian agent, providing Syrians in East Aleppo and other rebel-held areas it captured with relief and medical care.

Members of Syria Solidarity UK who attended Beeley’s presentation (two and a half hours ong) have provided a more detailed account of the meeting here. This article will only look at a few minutes of her talk, which encapsulate the maliciousness of her propaganda and how it is designed to make the targeting and murder of Syrian civilians acceptable to people who consider themselves “progressive” and “anti-imperialist”.

Beeley’s favourite targets are the rescue workers and medical staff who save the men, women, and children injured in the regime’s and Russia’s airstrikes which target homes, schools, and hospitals. Syria is probably the only conflict in the world where first responders have been singled out not only for actual military attack but also for a relentless propaganda onslaught.

She began her verbal attack on the medical staff of Aleppo by saying that there were only six hospitals in this part of the city. One of them had, according to Beeley, been converted into a sharia court, prison, and a headquarters for the Nusra Front. Another was taken over by the Nusra Front and used as a sniping post. Another was “operational but Nusra Front”. According to the UN, there were 150-200 Nusra Fighters in all of Eastern Aleppo; but they somehow managed to run half the hospitals Beeley said were operational in East Aleppo. Activists who were present in East Aleppo say that there were 13 hospitals and clinics in operation and this number probably does not include the makeshift field clinics operating there before the fall. Beeley also said that in the private “non-Nusra” hospitals there were less than 50 beds, apparently serving 300,000 people, she also mentioned how 5 of these hospitals had way too many cauda equina syndrome claims, and the victims were currently suing them.

Vanessa Beeley’s list of “all” the hospitals in East Aleppo

These fantastically low numbers of hospitals and hospital beds, coupled with their “Nusraization”, served with the earlier part of her presentation to prime the audience for what was coming next—and what came next was literally unbelievable. Beeley focused her attention on Channel 4, saying that it was “one of the most criminal propagators of fake news on Syria for some time, probably since the beginning of the conflict”. Why was this?

On 19 November 2016, Channel 4 had broadcast footage originally shot by Al-Jazeera showing the aftermath of the bombing of a children’s hospital. However, some scenes originally shown by Al-Jazeera were edited out of the Channel 4 report. They included a scene in which traumatized nurses quickly take premature babies out of incubators following the bombing, because the power supply had failed. It is of course standard practice for any channel to edit footage due to time constraints, the appropriateness of certain scenes for different audiences and other factors. Beeley however seized on Channel 4’s removal of this scene and began bombarding Paraic O’Brien, a Channel 4 News reporter, with messages on Twitter asking about the hospital. After dealing with her initial queries, O’Brien ignored her.

According to Beeley the footage was edited out of the Channel 4 report because the nurses were saying that one of the babies was alive when he was in fact dead. In actual fact, this footage was broadcast in English and is still available on their website.

As the footage shows, the nurses remove the baby as quickly as possible from the incubator because an airstrike has just hit the power supply. They have little time to check on the health of the baby but they apparently make a split-second decision that he is OK, and remove him from the incubator. There is no actual indication from the footage that he is dead. The way they are acting clearly shows that they are traumatized and panicking. They then they comfort each other and start crying.

In her Bristol lecture however, Beeley introduced this segment of the video out of the context of the bombing of the hospital, the failure of the power supply, and the panicked state of the medical staff. The sound of the nurses crying as they comfort each other is deliberately edited out. Instead, Beeley focuses on the way the nurses handle the baby, zooming in on this to say that no one would handle a live baby like this. When the video is played in its original context, the way the baby is handled, given his prematurity, size, and the circumstances does not appear strange. O’Brien understandably ignores Beeley’s queries about the handling of the baby. However, the way the footage of the baby is prefaced in her talk and decontextualized apparently enables Beeley to convince the majority of her audience that the baby is dead and the nurses are staging the event. So in Bristol, we were treated to the sight of 70 people laughing at a premature baby caught up in a deadly airstrike and the traumatized medical staff rescuing him, as this footage from Beeley’s talk shows.

In the audience however one Syria Solidarity UK member asks Beeley and her audience “What if the hospital actually was bombed and you’re all sat here watching these videos and laughing?” As the video shows, he is heckled, shut up very quickly, and then physically attacked. The camera does not show this but he is placed in a chokehold by Beeley’s security and forced out of the lecture hall. Other Syria Solidarity UK members who protested received similar treatment. Beeley’s talk was billed as a discussion by the organizers but the only discussion acceptable was the kind prevalent in Assad’s Syria – agree with what we say or face the consequences.

George Orwell’s book 1984 has perhaps been overused as a source of comparison to the real world, but the scene in Bristol in the Palestine Museum on that day followed the script of that book about the totalitarian manipulation and brutalization of humanity almost to the letter. When Winston Smith committed the crime of keeping a personal diary, in his first entry he describes a scene where a cinema audience is shown footage of refugees being bombed for entertainment:

There was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air… there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didn’t ought [to] of showed it not in front of kids … until the police turned her out. I don’t suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say…

Ever since she began pushing her conspiracy theories about Syria, Vanessa Beeley has found a willing audience on the fringes of the political spectrum – conspiracy theorists, the “anti-imperialist” far-left, and the far-right. She has been promoted endlessly by Russian and pro-Russian “alternative” media as an “independent investigative journalist” and has a very strong presence on the Internet. It would be easy however, to dismiss her as a crackpot conspiracy theorist like, for example, Alex Jones (Indeed, her preferred forum was founded by a former editor of Alex Jones’s Infowars). But what she represents is something much worse – an attempt to make atrocities acceptable and genocide normal while simultaneously denying their existence in a true Orwellian doublethink exercise.

– Amr Salahi is a journalist who has previously lived in the Middle East and worked for the BBC. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley joins regime MP Feras Shihabi to celebrate the fall and displacement of eastern Aleppo, which the UN has described as a “war crime”)

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