Examining BBC WS ‘Newshour’ framing of the WhatsApp story

Earlier this week we saw how the BBC News website promoted Paul Danahar’s narrative driven speculations concerning the WhatsApp security flaw story.

On the same day that Danahar’s article appeared – May 14th – the afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ devoted over twelve and a half of its 53 minutes to the same story.

Presenter Razia Iqbal introduced that lead item (from 00:12 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Iqbal: “We begin today with WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service owned by Facebook used by 1.5 billion people. Well it turns out that encryption is not fail-safe after all. Hackers have been able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices using a major vulnerability in the platform. WhatsApp said the attack targeted a select number of users and was orchestrated by an advanced cyber actor. They say they fixed the vulnerability on Friday and urged their users to update their apps as an added precaution. This is quite a complicated story with potentially far-reaching consequences. We’re going to try and unpick it for you. The surveillance software called Pegasus, developed by an Israeli company called NSO Group, has been identified as the software which has breached the encryption of WhatsApp. Let’s start with the technology then and speak to our technology correspondent Chris Fox who joins me in the studio.”

Chris Fox began by explaining the technical details of the story, including the fact that the spyware targeted WhatsApp messages at either end – not their encryption as claimed by Iqbal. In response to a request from Iqbal to “tell us about Pegasus, this software that’s been developed by this company NSO”, Fox clarified that – in contrast to the claim made by Iqbal in her introduction:

03:18 Fox: “We don’t know for sure that it was Pegasus involved in this attack. What we do know is that there was a flaw in WhatsApp that could let something like that in and that flaw has been closed but exactly what the software was is not clear because WhatsApp hasn’t said.”

That did not stop Iqbal from continuing to promote linkage between this story and Israel.

04:42 Iqbal: “Now human rights groups are anxious about this kind of surveillance software, obviously. Amnesty International has filed a petition in an Israeli district court asking to revoke the defence export licence of that cyber surveillance company NSO Group. The petitioners who filed to revoke that export licence claim the firm’s Pegasus software has been used in the past and may still be in use for the surveillance of human rights activists of Amnesty International and also other groups. But what evidence do groups like Amnesty have? I asked Danna Ingleton, deputy director of technology for Amnesty International, what evidence they had that will make a strong case for revoking this license.”

The responses given by Ingleton to Iqbal’s questions were the same as statements she made in an affidavit presented as part of the law suit filed with the Tel Aviv district court by Amnesty International and others the day before this programme was aired. Ingleton told of a colleague (who declines to be named) being sent a message on WhatsApp which Amnesty International believes was linked to an attempt to install spyware on his or her phone. In response to a question from Iqbal about “what’s happened” in such cases, Ingleton spoke of a “chilling effect” also presented in her affidavit.

At 08:38 Iqbal moved on to another interviewee.

Iqbal: “Let’s take a look now at how this technology has become what some people have described as a trophy weapon in the rivalries between various countries.”

Those “some people” would appear to be the Financial Times.

Iqbal: “I’m joined in the studio by now by Thomas Brewster: security, surveillance and privacy reporter for Forbes. Let’s start by getting you to outline a little bit more about what NSO Group is and what they do. We’ve heard that of course they do…ahm…use this Pegasus software to…give it [sic] to countries to prevent terrorist attacks, infiltrate drug cartels etc. But just give us a broader picture of who they are.”

Brewster: “If you think about NSO Group as one of many Israeli surveillance companies who are very, very talented at getting into people’s smartphones…”

Later on Iqbal interrupted Brewster to ask:

Iqbal: “Is it significant that these companies are in Israel or this particular one is in Israel?”

Brewster: “Well I mean Israel…the reason why Israel has this kind of cadre of businessmen who are very, very good at creating these kinds of companies and this kind of technology is because, you know, they come out of a country where they have to go into service. And if you’re technically very smart you get put in, you know, eh…either unit 8200 which is the kind of…eh….GCHQ, NSA equivalent or you go into Mossad and do technical things there or you’re a part of the IDF technology division, you know, there’s all…”

Iqbal [interrupts]: “The Israeli Defense Force.”

Brewster: “Exactly, yeah. All these incredibly talented units and you come out of those units and you either set up a consumer technology business, you set up a cyber security business or, like these handful of people, you set up a surveillance company that, you know, is bypassing cyber security.”

Iqbal: “And is it the case that this kind of software is used in terms of geo-politics in a region like the Middle East?”

Brewster: “If you’re able to do it like they did with WhatsApp today, very, very hard to trace back to who the actual owner of the product is. You know you can take guesses and a lot of them are geo-political guesses, you know…”

The signposting in this long item is of course amply evident. Despite Chris Fox having clarified near the beginning that “[w]e don’t know for sure that it was Pegasus involved in this attack”, rather than ‘unpicking’ the “complicated story” as promised in her introduction, Iqbal simply pursued her Israel theme for more than nine and a half additional minutes.

The day after this item was aired to audiences around the world Thomas Brewster made a discovery.

Those following the Israeli media would have already known in February that the NSO Group had been acquired by the London-based firm Novalpina Capital, whose above letter can be found here.

Remarkably though, ‘Newshour’ listeners heard nothing at all about that British connection to the company the BBC has chosen to portray as being linked to this story.

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BBC News website showcases Paul Danahar’s Middle East narrative

An AFP report from May 14th about the WhatsApp security flaw story states: [emphasis added]

“”This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company that works with a number of governments around the world” according to initial investigations, it [WhatsApp] added, but did not name the firm.”

AFP’s article goes on:

“The spyware appears to be related to the Pegasus software developed by Israeli-based NSO group, which is normally sold to law enforcement and intelligence services, according to Washington-based analyst Joseph Hall.

The spyware “could have gotten into someone’s hands” outside legitimate channels for nefarious purposes, Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told AFP.

It’s unclear who is doing this.””

Former BBC Jerusalem bureau chief Paul Danahar however has no such doubts and on May 14th he published an article on the BBC News website’s ‘US & Canada’ and ‘Middle East’ pages titled “Why the WhatsApp spies may have eyes on Iran”.

Readers got some early signposting in the form of the main photograph used to illustrate the article. The image – which has no connection whatsoever to the story itself – was captioned “Young Israeli soldiers take a selfie”.

Danahar opened his article as follows: [all emphasis added]

“Time to join some dots.

The WhatsApp hack, “sabotaged” oil tankers, the push in the US to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood and “plans” to deploy American troops to the Gulf are all strands of the same story. At its heart is the struggle between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Danahar then spent the next seven paragraphs establishing linkage between the Israeli army and tech companies while promoting an unsupported claim regarding the function of intelligence units.

“The Israeli army takes in every youngster, assesses their greatest strength and parks them where they can do the most national good.

The computer nerds who would otherwise be locked in their mum’s basement are forced out into the light and into doing their national service in cyber-warfare.

When they leave the army, they take the skills and the connections they made into the industrial sector and they form companies like the NSO Group.”

That section also promotes a link to another report on the WhatsApp story written on the same day by the BBC’s North America technology reporter, Dave Lee. In that report Lee linked to an article he wrote in 2016 in which he made some dubious claims concerning NSO and the IDF’s 8200 unit which remain in situ.

Danahar next managed to bring Palestinians into the story:

“The NSO Group makes hacking tools to sell to governments to fight crime and terrorism.

But – and it is a big but – they’ll only get an export licence from the Israeli government if it deems that the sale does not harm the national interest.

In the past that meant no sales to Iran and nothing to Arab Gulf states either.

That’s because in the past the Gulf states stood with the Palestinians against Israel.”

Ignoring the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council states ditched the Arab League boycott of Israel in 1996, Danahar went on to claim that:

“In the post-Arab Spring period, the Gulf states (apart from Qatar) have all but abandoned the Palestinian cause and moved to side with Israel against Iran.

This slow shift was accelerated by the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of so many anti-Iran hawks to his administration, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.”

The Gulf states’ recognition of threats posed by Iran was of course amply evident long before Donald Trump ran for president. Providing no concrete supporting evidence, Danahar then promoted “speculation”.

“There’s much speculation that the Israeli government would, to build relations with their new friends in the Gulf, have allowed the NSO Group to sell their software to Gulf states.

What suggests that? Well it’s perhaps not a coincidence that among those reportedly targeted by the WhatsApp hacking software were lawyers investigating human rights abuses in Gulf states, a Saudi dissident and a Qatari citizen.”

Failing to inform readers of Iran’s financing and support of terror groups such as Hizballah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas and ignoring the regular Iranian threats against Israel, Danahar continued:

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his reason for being (and his only political legacy) his effort to contain Iran, which he projects as Israel’s only existential threat.”

Danahar – now the BBC’s Americas Bureaux Editor in Washington then went on to promote his notion of how US foreign policy is made.

“The Saudi rulers see two existential threats. One from without: Iran. And one from within: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis are scared of Iran because of its military might.

They are scared of the Muslim Brotherhood because they offer political Islam as an alternative to the dynastic rule of the royal family.

The Trump administration is made up of people who hate the Iranian regime and everything it stands for.

So, this new “Axis of Egos” is all doing each other favours to position themselves collectively to fully unite against Iran.

Lots of trades are taking place.

Some involve arms sales, some involve the price of oil and gas, some involve political trades like the one that some in the White House are doing for the Saudis by trying to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.”

A photo caption tells readers that: “The Trump administration decided to pursue sanctions against the Muslim Brotherhood following an April meeting with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi”.

As was noted here when the BBC previously promoted that claim in late April, “the idea of designating the Brotherhood” predates both the Trump administration and that meeting.

Danahar next invoked the Iraq war spectre while a photo caption once again used scare quotes around the word “sabotaged” to suggest to readers that damage done to four ships off the coast of the UAE on May 12th may not have been deliberate.

“In a replay of what happened before the invasion of Iraq, it appears that any strand of intelligence that can be spun into a reason to ratchet up the pressure on Iran is being used.

This atmosphere is all very familiar to those of us who were around to witness the build-up towards the war in Iraq.”

Danahar closed his polemic by trying to persuade audiences that if the US did go to war with Iran, it would ultimately be because of Israel. 

“The present occupant in the White House has far fewer ideological bones in his body, perhaps none. […]

He’s unlikely to sign up to another war in the Middle East, certainly not this side of the 2020 election, unless he is seriously provoked.

That would require being able to pin some very bad action on Tehran. The best way to do that is to gather intelligence.

And the best way to gather intelligence is for all your allies to be spying on as many people in the region as you can.

One of the best ways to do that is to hack into the Trojan horse we all voluntarily carry with us, our smartphones.”

As we saw in November 2012 when Paul Danahar – then head of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau – signed off and personally promoted inaccurate reports concerning the death of a child in the Gaza Strip, he apparently does not find it necessary to have verified evidence before promoting a version of events which fits in with his chosen political narrative.

And as we see in this item, Danahar’s chosen narrative includes an Iranian regime which is so passive and innocuous that it would have to have “some very bad action” pinned on it by underhand actors.

Notably, that is being presented to BBC audiences as “news that you can trust”.  

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