Looking back at the sourcing behind BBC reports on Qatar – part one

Qatar is – to put it mildly – not one of the most frequently covered countries on the BBC News website’s Middle East page and its domestic issues in particular usually remain far away from the BBC’s spotlight. On the comparatively rare occasions upon which BBC News does publish an article about Qatar, it is sometimes worth taking a closer look at the source of the information provided to BBC audiences – as the examples in this series of posts will show.Qatar 1

On March 6th 2015 the BBC News website’s Middle East section published an article by Dr David Roberts of King’s College London titled “Is Qatar bringing the Nusra Front in from the cold?“. Readers were informed in the article’s opening sentence that the Jabhat al Nusra militia operating in Syria was “rethinking its allegiance to al-Qaeda, in a move allegedly partly engineered by Qatar”. Later on the article states:

“Being a directly affiliated al-Qaeda group, the Nusra Front is nearer the IS end of the spectrum.

Yet, while the Qatari relationship with the Nusra Front appears to be far from straightforward with some of the state’s initiatives failing, indicating some distance between the two, according to recent reports, Qatar appears to want to reform this relationship.”

As the link to a Reuters article provided in that latter paragraph shows, the BBC was not the only media outlet at the time promoting the claim that Qatar was about to steer Jabhat al Nusra into the fold of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups – a claim which appears to have had origins among assorted Qatari sources . Roberts later wrote:

“If the state [Qatar] can get the group to eschew its al-Qaeda affiliation and adhere to a broadly moderate Islamist platform, Qatar can officially commence, with Western blessing, the supply of one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria.”

Making no mention of Qatar’s material and ideological support for the Islamists of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Roberts’ contextualization of Qatar’s alleged links with Jabhat al Nusra included the following:

“…the fact remains that Qatar is a key Western ally. It hosts a critical US military base, it grafted US and UK higher-education institutions and ideas onto its education system, and has long promoted the Middle East’s most visible and powerful woman, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the Emir’s mother.

These are transparently not the policies of a state with sympathies for the likes of IS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone: the US and UK governments will certainly be involved in or at least apprised of Qatar’s plans.”

And:

“Qatar is not the first state to reason that it is time to talk to groups that are unpalatable and extreme, but who are, nevertheless, influential.”

The literal bottom line of this article was to persuade readers that:

“…in a context where the best that can be hoped for is the “least worst” solution, Qatar’s plan is as viable as any other.”

Three days after the appearance of this article Jabhat al Nusra reaffirmed its allegiance to al Qaeda and denied the Qatari promoted claims of a potential split.

So how come BBC audiences were fed obvious Qatari spin by a British academic described as “a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London”? Perhaps if readers had also been alerted to the fact that Dr Roberts’ department currently holds a contract with Qatar apparently worth £26 million, their ability to put the information promoted in this article into proportion and context would have been enhanced. 

BBC News portrays Iranian involvement in Yemen as ‘overplayed’

We have commented here before on the BBC’s lack of journalistic curiosity regarding the extent of Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen. On May 7th the BBC News website’s Middle East page published an article in its ‘features’ section by Dr David Roberts of King’s College, London under the title “Viewpoint: How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war?“. As its opening paragraphs show, the aim of that article is clearly to lead BBC audiences towards the view that claims of Iranian involvement in Yemen are overstated.Roberts article Yemen

“Sunni power Saudi Arabia has – deliberately or otherwise – projected the fighting in Yemen as a proxy war with regional Shia rival Iran, though this is a dangerous mischaracterisation of the conflict.

The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.”

The same theme is continued throughout the article.

“Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.”

“Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.”

“Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.”

Whilst the conflict in Yemen is undoubtedly rooted in domestic issues, this article does little to provide readers with objective and factual assessment of reports of Iranian involvement. Moreover, it completely ignores statements by Iranian officials including the one made by an Iranian parliamentarian after Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital city.

“An Iranian politician close to that country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could not contain himself. Ali Reza Zakani, an MP, boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab capital in Iranian hands – after Beirut (through Hizbollah), Damascus (through President Assad) and Baghdad (through Iraq’s democratically elected Shia-led government).”

A report which appeared in the Financial Times on May 8th highlights an additional – although by no means unknown – aspect of the story.

“They are hundreds of miles apart and their local struggles have little in common, yet Lebanon’s Shia force Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are opening up about a relationship forged by sectarian politics transforming the Middle East. […]

A Hizbollah commander, who withheld his name because members are not permitted to speak to media, said Houthis and Hizbollah trained together for the past 10 years. “They trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.

Hizbollah has long been suspected of channelling Iranian support to the Houthis. For years, Houthi officials have been spotted at Beirut hotels and are believed to be hosted on Iran’s dime. The Houthi television channel al-Maseera is based in Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs. “There’s been an active Houthi office in Beirut, and the city has been a popular meeting place between Yemeni political groups and other regional actors for some time,” said Yemen analyst Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.”

It remains difficult to see how the BBC can claim to fulfil its remit of providing its funding public and wider audiences with a fact-based “understanding of international issues” relating to aspects of the conflict in Yemen in particular, or the already under-reported issue of Iranian policy in the Middle East in general, if it continues to avoid any serious in-depth reporting on the topic.