Tyranny’s fellow travel writers (Part 3)

9 December 2012

Earlier this year I noted a piece by Michael Moynihan in Foreign Policy. He looked at how the authors of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guide books were producing apologias for tyranny. I argued that the kind words for Assad’s Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya and the Khomeinist Iran, were a result of the capitalist leftism – or politically correct capitalism – of the last decade. The whitewashing of dictatorial crimes could appear left-wing because the regimes opposed the West, or more specifically Bush’s America. But in their efforts to apply a thick covering of masking paint, the fellow travel writers had to brush aside any thought for a regime’s murdered or tortured victims of the regimes, and of the curtailed freedoms and stunted lives of the remainder of the population.

They had a strong commercial interest in looking the other way. Tourists did not want to read accounts of suffering when they relaxed.

‘They want guilt-free holidays. If the guidebook were honest with them, they would feel uncomfortable and wonder whether they should be helping dissidents rather than treating themselves. As much as the oil executive striking a deal with a dictator, rich travellers need reasons to help them sleep at night.’


A travel journalist called Mathew Teller replied in the Spectator that it was reasonable for Lonely Planet guide Syria and Lebanon to swoon over Bashar Assad in the early days of his dictatorship.

‘Perhaps Cohen doesn’t know much about the Middle East, but there really were, on all sides, high hopes for Syria in the few years after Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power: indeed, the Western media dubbed the period the “Damascus Spring”. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Lonely Planet’s identification of “a feeling of optimism in the capital” around that time. It’s easy to imply, as Cohen does, that writing about gallery openings and new hotels is a pernicious insult when placed beside the murderous violence we are now witnessing, but then hindsight has always been a seductive tool. At the time, in 2006, Syria-watchers were well aware that the opening of the Four Seasons in Damascus signalled the possibility of improving economic liberalisation.’

Rarely in my years as a polemicist has an opponent been so easy to knock down. All I had to do was click on Lonely Planet’s website and see what it was saying when Teller published in August 2012. August 2012, that is, more than a decade after what faint and brief hopes the “Damascus Spring” had raised had gone, and after nine years of a sectarian thugoracy and 18 months of mass murder. Even then, Lonely Planet was still praising Bashar Assad – ‘you’ve got to hand it to Assad junior – he’s trying’. Even then, it still believed that anti-Americanism could excuse any crime – Syria was ‘making a gallant effort to stand firm in the face of the superpower’s displeasure.’

I looked again at the Lonely Planet’s website this afternoon, and glory be, its hacks had changed their line. Eleven years late, Lonely Planet was at last telling the truth. It had cut the praise for Assad’s s gallantry and admitted that the leader it had once admired was now turning the army’s guns on his own people.

Although I have spent many years mocking it, I like politically correct capitalism. Companies, which are socially responsible, are better than the alternative, after all. But propaganda is a different matter. Whenever young journalists ask my advice, I tell them never to give readers what they want, if the facts pull in a different direction. The first reason to challenge readers is so obvious it barely needs stating. Writers who produce copy made to measure, patronise readers by treating them as children who can only handle fairy stories that confirm their prejudices. More obscurely, writers who pander destroy their souls. You cannot write well unless you are honest – with yourself as much as anyone else. By confirming the received wisdom of supposedly “liberal” western tourists, the travel guide writers were confirming only that they should never have taken up writing in the first place. They could make a living, certainly; in PR or on many newspapers. But they would never produce anything worthwhile.

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  • Davidh

    Erm, I think Lonely Planet guides are best for details about what busses to catch, what hotels to stay in, where to get a decent meal, what weather to expect etc etc. Any potted history or cultural commentary they provide is bound to be quite subjective and to be taken with a pinch of salt. They hire travel writers, obviously, not political analysts.

    Nick – you should add some bus timetables and recommended hotels to you blogs about the middle east to make them more useful.

  • David Lindsay

    There can never be enough dead Christians for you, can there?

  • andagain

    Companies, which are socially responsible, are better than the alternative, after all.

    As Churchill used to say, it is a fine thing to have good intentions, but it is also very important to be right.

    People trying to look good to each other, are not trying to be right.

  • steve

    “in their efforts to apply a thick covering of masking paint, the fellow
    travel writers had to brush aside any thought for a regime’s murdered or
    tortured victims of the regimes” I wonder what the Lonely Planet and rough guides to Israel say on that front?

  • steve

    “it was reasonable for Lonely Planet guide Syria and Lebanon to swoon over Bashar Assad in the early days of his dictatorship” – funny that. I mean I’m sure I remember a certain journalist enthusiastically praising someone called Ahmed Chalabi back in the mid-200s. That same journalist has, for some reason, failed to mention him for ages and ages. And I’m equally sure another journalist was a massive fan of someone called Hassan Butt – someone ‘we’ll be hearing a lot more from’ were that journalist’s words – and yet for some reason that journalist hasn’t mentioned Butt for ages. Some journalists, it seems, are happy to expose people while remaining silent on their own errors of judgment.

  • Harry

    and I wonder why countries like Bahrain or UAE are still praised as progressive in Britain? Isn’t it hypocritical to be worried about Syria and at the same time praise beautiful beaches of Bahrain and wonderful restaurants in Dubai while oppression of people in these two countries is in no way less important than that of Syria? How is that Sir Ian Blair, resigns from his job in London and then advises Bahrainis on how to deal with protesters and we sell arms to UAE and Saudi and all is fine? There is one reason, these oppressive regimes “accommodate” our interests but others don’t! So we pick up a fight with those we seem in conflict with our interests so please stop hanging on human rights nonsense and other fancy words that you use when you find it appropriate to your interests.

  • GaryEssex

    Lonely Planet is, of course, owned by the BBC (not quote sure why our state broadcaster should own such a company), so what do you expect except lefty anti-capitalism writing. I’m sure the right-on staff can switch seemlessly between the organisations.

    • David Lindsay

      No one has campaigned more vigorously for Assad to go than the BBC. You are lining up with it.

  • Vulture

    Hmmm… wonder what the Lonely Planeteers and Rough Guiders will write about Syria when the Al Quaeda boyos, with a little help from Hillery and Billery Hague oust the appalling Assad and the massacres of the Alawites, Christians and secularists starts?

    Come to that, what are they writing about Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, where the cleansing winds of the Arab Spring have already blown right now?
    Are they praising the fire just as they once praised the frying pan?

  • Ian

    Pat Yale used to write some good stuff in the Turkey Guidebook!

  • Pat Yale

    It was easy for LP to be absolutely honest in the early days but as the years passed so the lawyers, marketers etc began to interfere more and more. After the BBC bought LP the idea of “balance” put in an appearance too. By then I had long been an ex-LP writer but there were several well-publicised instances of writers being directed to take a more “balanced” look at countries such as Cambodia.

    Of course you’re right that LP was late in accepting that Assad the Younger was not as much of an improvement on his father as had been hoped, but tell me which western government wasn’t in the same boat? Here in Turkey the government was also trying to be friends with him until quite recently in hope that they could influence him.

    As you say, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    • Curnonsky

      Quite right – how recently we were treated to Hilary Clinton effusing over “reformer” Bashar Assad.

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