December 11, 2017 / 7:49 AM / in 10 months

Commentary: From Guernica’s ruins, a lesson in fake news

A little over 80 years ago, on April 26, 1937, German and Italian warplanes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, razing much of it. Italian planes targeted a bridge, while the German Condor legion hit the town with conventional and incendiary bombs, and machine-gunned men, women and children as they ran from the burning town.

A municipal worker in Guernica washes a ceramic reproduction of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's painting of the 1937 attack that destroyed most of the Basque town. January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent West

The Nazis and fascists were fighting for the forces of General Francisco Franco, in revolt against the elected republican government of Spain, flouting a non-intervention agreement with impunity and helping to bring Spain’s future dictator to victory.

When on trial in Nuremberg after the war, Hermann Goering, chief of the German Air Force, testified that “the Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.”

It’s not clear, even now, what Goering (and Benito Mussolini’s) young men were getting experience in; it certainly wasn’t precision bombing. The strategic targets were the bridge and an arms factory. Neither were damaged – nor was the Tree of Guernica, an oak, the original of which was planted in the 14th century, under which the lords of the Basque country swore to uphold freedom for the people. But the 1937 attack killed at least 200 inhabitants (the exact figure is still disputed) and wounded hundreds more. The town, a center of Basque cultural life, was largely destroyed.

There’s a majority view that the attack was a practice exercise for blitzkrieg, the “lightning war” of terror from the air much used by the Luftwaffe to demoralize civilian populations in World War Two. Wolfgang Schmidt, an expert on the air force at the Military History Research Institute in Potsdam, says that “for the German air force, Guernica was a trial run on how one can spread horror and distress through attacks on cities and towns.”

Guernica stands out from other victims of fascism because Pablo Picasso, born in Spain but living much of his life in France, commemorated it in painting. He set to work immediately after the attack, completing the huge, almost 26-foot wide canvas by June, using only black, white and gray, as if to give it the image of objectivity. His choice of palette was inspired not just to record the horror of the event, but by a piece of reporting, done from the town on the night of the attack, when the flames were still leaping in the streets.

George Steer (left), son of journalist George Steer, and historians Angel Vinas, Paul Preston and Xabier Irujo talk on a hill overlooking the Basque town of Guernica on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the aerial bombing of the town, April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent West

George Steer, a young South African-born journalist, had come to the Basque country to report on the Spanish civil war for The Times of London – this after reporting in 1935 on the brutal Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in which poison gas was extensively used and clearly-marked ambulances bombed from the air. Among the first to arrive in Guernica after the raid, his dispatch from the devastated town relied on the testimony of the survivors.

“The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces,” wrote Steer. “Over a radius of five miles round, a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.”

The report, at the same time elegant and urgent, with horror conveyed not by hyperbole but through detail, was reproduced round the world – including in Parisian newspapers, where Picasso read it. He then produced, in the monochrome of a newspaper article, a painting which from then until now has lasted as a statement of the brute amorality of fascism.

A few days after Steer, when the fires had become embers, Franco’s nationalists entered the town. With them came the spin-doctors of the day. They ensured that telltale German and Italian shell fragments and bullet cases were removed, and empty oil drums placed about the town. When journalists friendly to Franco were brought in, they were told that the Basques had destroyed their own town by setting it alight – hence the empty oil drums. As Paul Preston writes in his book, “We Saw Spain Die,” most of the reporters followed the lead, and the lie was sent around the world – but in this case, after the truth had already been reported.

The nationalists’ efforts to blame the victims, flimsy (and disgusting) as it was, was believed because those who swallowed it wished to believe it. It exonerated those who perpetrated the attack and confirmed the view of Franco’s supporters that his and their enemies were evil. It’s worth exhuming the brave reporting of those like Steer, for it shows that fake news often originates from those who accuse their enemies of producing it.

This is something Donald Trump now does routinely. The president’s obsession has become so habitual that we are in danger of becoming accustomed to it, and thus ignoring its danger. Those who support him go to extraordinary lengths to show that his enemies, not he or they, are liars. Two weeks ago, a woman, employed by Project Veritas – a conservative group that names itself after the Latin word for “truth” and uses undercover methods to expose what it says is liberal bias in the media – tried to pass herself off to the Washington Post as a victim of Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican running for Senate in a special election on Dec. 12. Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls – a charge he denies. The aim was to have the Post report her story, then smear the Post by revealing it as fake.

There’s no suggestion that Trump knew anything of this (or that he’s in General Franco’s league). But Trump doesn’t have to be. He has created a framework in which the quotidian nature of press life is inverted. By calling accurate reporting fake, he elevates fake reporting to the level of truth – however it’s arrived at. Fake news is that which he wants to be believed – and which his supporters wish to believe.

The George Steer school of reporting – seeing with one’s own eyes, asking with one’s own voice, assembling the story with one’s own judgment, governed by a desire for accuracy – is, fortunately, both alive and careful, as the Post’s rejection of the fake harassment story shows. It is that reporting which should be sought out – there’s plenty of it – and relied on. But the commander-in-chief of fakery remains in place, still occupying the bully pulpit, still with millions of followers who wish to believe him.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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