BBC News amplifies Syrian and Russian propaganda yet again

Readers may recall that over the past sixteen months the BBC has repeatedly given amplification to Syrian and Russian government propaganda concerning the ‘White Helmets’ rescue teams in Syria.

BBC promotes what it described in April as ‘conspiracy theories’

BBC News website readers get yet another dose of Assad’s propaganda

Amplification of Assad propaganda on BBC World Service radio

New BBC report on ‘White Helmets’ again amplifies falsehoods

More false balance in BBC News report on Douma chemical attack

On November 11th the BBC News website published an article about the death of the ‘White Helmets’ co-founder James Le Mesurier in Turkey and readers of that report were told that:

“…the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran have accused the White Helmets of openly aiding terrorist organisations and the Russian foreign ministry last week accused Mr Le Mesurier of being a former agent of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.”

The BBC also thought it appropriate to embed a screenshot of the Tweet from the Russian foreign ministry in which that accusation was made before telling readers that a UK official had denied the allegation.

In April 2018 BBC Trending produced a report titled “Syria war: The online activists pushing conspiracy theories” which included a whole section on conspiracy theories relating to the ‘White Helmets’. The BBC is certainly aware that the Russian and Syrian propaganda was exposed and debunked two years ago and it also surely comprehends why such propaganda is spread by those regimes.

“Since 2015, the year the Russians began fighting in Syria, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets. Syria and Russia have claimed they were attacking only terrorists, yet the White Helmets have captured footage of dead and injured women and children under the rubble. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as eyewitness accounts, Putin’s bombers have targeted civilians, schools, hospitals, and medical facilities in opposition-held areas, a clear violation of international law. “This, above all, is what the Russians hated,” Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council specializing in Russian disinformation, told me. “That the White Helmets are filming war crimes.””

Nevertheless, the BBC continues to amplify that baseless propaganda despite the fact that it contributes nothing to audience understanding of the topic and notwithstanding its legal obligation to “provide accurate and impartial news…of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues across the UK and the world”.

 

More false balance in BBC News report on Douma chemical attack

A report published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on March 1st was presented as follows:

The article itself – titled “Syria war: Chlorine likely used in Douma attack – OPCW” and tagged “Suspected Syria chemical attack” – similarly told readers that:

“The global chemical weapons watchdog has concluded chlorine is likely to have been used in an attack on the Syrian town of Douma last April.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said data gave “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”.

“This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine,” it added, without assigning blame.” [emphasis added]

With readers having been told that the OPCW had not specified which party had carried out the attack (but not why), the short report then went on to uncritically amplify Syrian regime denials which have already been proved to be baseless and Russian regime propaganda concerning the ‘White Helmets’.

“The US, UK and France accused Syrian government forces, who were besieging Douma, of using chemical weapons in the 7 April attack, and carried out air strikes in retaliation.

The Syrian government has denied ever using chemical weapons. Its ally Russia has said the attack was “staged” by rescue workers.”

Only some thirteen hours later did the BBC find it appropriate to amend the article in order to inform visitors to the BBC News website that:

“In June, the OPCW was given new powers to assign blame for chemical attacks. However, it was not the mandate of the fact-finding team sent to Douma to do so.”

As we see the BBC continues its policy of promoting false balance in the form of claims from Syria and Russia – despite both those regimes having been shown to have lied about previous chemical attacks.

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New BBC report on ‘White Helmets’ again amplifies falsehoods

Readers may recall that last July the BBC News website amplified conspiracy theories cooked up by the Syrian and Russian regimes in two reports relating to the rescue of members of the ‘White Helmets’.

BBC promotes what it described in April as ‘conspiracy theories’

BBC News website readers get yet another dose of Assad’s propaganda

“Members of the BBC’s funding public may well be asking themselves why – yet again – their public service broadcaster is generously amplifying conspiracy theories no different from those put out by the regime-controlled news agencies of Syria and Russia.”

On February 21st an article by Catrin Nye appeared on the BBC News website’s ‘UK’ page under the headline “UK rehomes some 100 Syria White Helmets and family members”.

The article is based on a filmed report by Nye shown on BBC television channels and a link is included. In that film Nye correctly tells viewers (from 2:35) that the White Helmets:

“…operate in rebel areas. When the Syrian regime and its allies falsely linked them to Al Qaeda they became targets for the Syrian regime…”

Nevertheless, later on in the written article, readers are provided with a link to one of the BBC’s reports from last July in which 30% of the word count was given over to amplification of that falsehood from the Assad regime.

“Khalil was one of 422 volunteers and family members who had to be rescued by the Israel Defense Forces following a request from the US, UK and other European nations, after they became trapped following a military offensive in July 2018.”

The BBC’s public purpose remit includes the obligation to “accurately and authentically” portray people of “different cultures” in the United Kingdom with the aim of contributing to “social cohesion”.

Quite how the BBC thinks its repeated amplification of a totalitarian regime’s falsehoods concerning these new UK residents contributes to social cohesion is of course a mystery.

The BBC examines conspiracy theories – but not its own

Once in a while the BBC produces content relating to the topic of conspiracy theories – for example here, here, here and here.

The latest item in that genre was commissioned from an academic contributor from Oxford University and it appeared on the BBC News website on February 12th under the title “Why so many people believe conspiracy theories”.

The article provides readers with several examples:

Given its long-standing interest in the topic, one would of course assume that the BBC would by now be able to recognise conspiracy theories for what they are and avoid promoting them – and the people who peddle them – in its own content.

One prime example of BBC promotion of conspiracy theories is its relentless amplification – most recently in November 2018 – of the notion that Israel poisoned Yasser Arafat. In November 2013 alone visitors to the BBC News website saw nine separate reports which amplified that conspiracy theory.

Another example is the BBC’s amplification of the dangerous notion that Israel intends to change the status quo on Temple Mount and even destroy the al Aqsa mosque.

In 2015 and 2016 BBC audiences saw amplification of the ‘Mossad stole my shoe’ conspiracy theory. BBC Monitoring has amplified conspiracy theories found in Middle East media and on social networks.

The BBC has amplified Middle Eastern conspiracy theories pertaining to wildlife and in June 2016 the BBC News website promoted a conspiracy theory formulated by a Bangladeshi official.

A 2007 BBC report promoting the notion that “Israel itself was behind” the Entebbe hijacking is still available online.

In July 2018 the BBC amplified misinformation concerning the ‘White Helmets’ put out by Russia and the Syrian regime – despite having previously categorised it as conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theorists are not considered too outlandish to be quoted or interviewed by the BBC and BBC phone-in shows do not eschew callers who promote conspiracy theories either.

In December 2015 BBC Radio London allowed a phone-in conspiracy theorist thirteen minutes of air-time and the same station repeated the exercise – in the name of ‘free speech’ – just months later.

“In relation to the Brussels attack two days previously, from around 22:17 ‘Steve in Streatham’ told listeners that:

“This is a terrorist false flag. Anyone who knows about false flags will know that these covert operations include Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and MI5 to blame other countries for their agenda in the Middle East and this is what’s going on time and time again. […] Those Zionists out there that are doing all this, they wanna blame certain sections of people to achieve their agenda of taking over the Middle East….””

So before the BBC publishes its next article purporting to inform audiences on the topic, perhaps it should take a long look at its own record of mainstreaming a variety of Middle East related conspiracy theories and seriously consider the question of how that practice contributes to meeting its obligations to audiences.  

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Weekend long read

1) At the Times of Israel Julie Masis tells “The unknown story of Moroccan Holocaust survivors“.

“Between 1940 and November of 1942 when the Americans landed in Morocco, Moroccan Jews also had to abide by discriminatory laws: Jewish children were expelled from schools, Jews were fired from government jobs, and there were quotas on how many Jews could attend universities or work as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists, said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who wrote a book about the Holocaust in Arab countries. […]

Historians also say that had American troops not landed in North Africa in 1942, Moroccan Jewry — which numbered approximately 250,000 during WWII — may have also been sent to the death camps.

According to documents that outline the Final Solution, Hitler had planned to exterminate 700,000 French Jews – a number that makes sense only if the Jews in French North Africa are included, Satloff said.”

2) Terry Glavin documents “The untold story of the dramatic, Canadian-led rescue of Syria’s White Helmets“.

“It started with a telephone call, just before the Canada Day weekend. It was Nadera Al-Sukkar from Mayday Rescue, the British-based foundation that serves as the Syria Civil Defence White Helmets’ administrative agency in Jordan. “She sounded really scared,” is the way Peter MacDougall, Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, remembers the call. Al-Sukkar wasn’t the type of person who scared easily. “She’s usually really impressive, but really low key.”

The way Al-Sukkar remembers it, the situation was desperate, and calling MacDougall was a long shot. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were streaming out of the towns and cities of Dara’a and Quneitra, Syria’s southern governorates. Medical clinics were being targeted and bombed. The White Helmets—Syria’s famous civilian emergency first responders—were in Bashar al-Assad’s crosshairs again, just as they had been in the hellholes of Aleppo, Douma, Ghouta and Homs.”

3) At the Algemeiner Shiri Moshe reports on a new study of Palestinian Authority school books.

“Israel is routinely referred to as the “Zionist Occupation” within the curriculum, including in contexts before the 1967 Six-Day War, in which it came to control the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and eastern portions of Jerusalem.

Various areas within Israel are described as Palestinian, with a geography textbook for 12th graders stating that the “Negev Plateau is located in southern Palestine,” while a entrepreneurship textbook for the same grade claims that the Israeli city of Nazareth is located in the “Palestinian North.””

4) Amos Yadlin, Zvi Magen and Vera Michlin-Shapir analyse “The Crisis over the Downed Russian Plane” at the INSS.

“The downing of the Russian Il-20 plane by the Syrians on the night of September 17, 2018 has become one of the most complex incidents in the framework of Russia-Israel relations, at least since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria in October 2015. Following an Israeli attack in the Latakia region, a Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft battery struck a Russian reconnaissance plane, which crashed into the sea, killing its crew of 15. Although it was Syria that failed to identify the Russian plane, Russia chose to blame Israel for the incident. However, it appears that both Russia and Israel still have a fundamental interest in continuing the good relations between them and maintaining their understandings in Syria. The recent announcement by the Russian Ministry of Defense about the transfer of advanced S-300 systems to Syria changes little in this regard, since Israel is well-equipped to withstand this challenge. However, it puts Russia and Israel on a precarious path and may signal that Russia has broader political motivations in this crisis.”

 

Amplification of Assad propaganda on BBC World Service radio

As documented here previously, after the IDF announced on July 22nd the completion of the overnight evacuation of hundreds of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ personnel and their families from southern Syria, through Israel and into Jordan, the BBC News website published two articles amplifying Syrian regime and Russian propaganda concerning that group.

BBC promotes what it described in April as ‘conspiracy theories’

BBC News website readers get yet another dose of Assad’s propaganda

Yet more amplification of that propaganda was seen in one version of an article on a different topic published two days later.

Similarly, listeners to the July 22nd afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ heard presenter James Coomarasamy introduce its lead item (from 00:01:01 here) as follows:

[emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

Coomarasamy: “We begin though in Syria where the rescuers – or some of them at least – have been rescued. According to the Israeli and Jordanian authorities, an international operation has managed to evacuate hundreds of members of the volunteer civil defence force known as the White Helmets and some of their family members from the country. The White Helmets have become a familiar presence at the scene of attacks in Syria but the Assad government and its Russian allies have condemned them as terrorist sympathisers.”

Coomarasamy then went on to report that Western diplomats had been commenting on the rescue operation and read out a Tweet from the British foreign secretary, before introducing (at 01:57) journalist Paul Ronzheimer of ‘Bild’ who had witnessed and reported the event.

Following that conversation Coomarasamy introduced (at 06:30) the founder of the ‘White Helmets’, James Le Mesurier, who explained that the group’s members “are under extraordinary threat” because “they have been – and continue to be – witnesses to the regime and Russian atrocities on the ground”.

When Mr Le Mesurier mentioned “the evacuation of fighters in buses, including those terrorist organisations that the regime claims to be fighting”, Coomarasamy interrupted him (at 10:58):

Coomarasamy: “And of course…yeah and of course the regime would say that the ‘White Helmets’ are a front for some of those organisations.”

Mr Le Mesurier explained the different conspiracy theories promoted by the Assad regime and Syria.

Le Mesurier: “Inside Syria they very much push the narrative that the ‘White Helmets’ are a Western organisation, that they are a front for the intelligence services, to create divisions inside the country and to make life more difficult for them. And at the same time externally in Europe they push the narrative that the ‘White Helmets’ are Al Qaeda and are terrorists. And at the same time they say that the ‘White Helmets’ don’t exist, that all of the rescues are filmed and so on. This is clearly propaganda.”

Coomarasamy nevertheless persisted with his theme (11:51):

Coomarasamy: “But I wonder, does this operation – the fact that it was Western-led – will that not only add credence to some of the arguments that the Assad government tries to make about the ‘White Helmets’?”

The same story was also the lead item in the later edition of the same programme (from 00:00:57 here) and was introduced by Coomarasamy as follows:

Coomarasamy: “We begin though in Syria and a rare example of international cooperation successfully coming to the aid of people apparently under threat from the Assad government. They are people who are used to coming to the aid of others – members of the civil defence force known as the ‘White Helmets’: Western backed and Western trained volunteers who help civilians in rebel held areas. Well overnight more than 400 ‘White Helmets’ and members of their family were brought out of southern Syria in an Israeli-led operation.”

After listeners had heard a voiceover translation of a statement from the Israeli prime minister on the operation, Coomarasamy continued:

Coomarasamy: “The ‘White Helmets’ are viewed by Western governments as life-saving humanitarians but the Syrian authorities and their Russian allies insist that they are a front for terrorist groups.”

Listeners heard (from 02:10) an edited version of the previously aired interview with the ‘Bild’ journalist Paul Ronzheimer and (from 06:14) an edited version of the interview with ‘White Helmets’ founder James Le Mesurier. The editing included repetition of Coomarasamy’s prior amplification of Assad propaganda.

Coomarasamy: “And of course…yeah and of course the regime would say that the ‘White Helmets’ are a front for some of those organisations.”

Coomarasamy: “But I wonder, does this operation – the fact that it was Western-led – will that not only add credence to some of the arguments that the Assad government tries to make about the ‘White Helmets’?”

Although in the previous edition of the programme Le Mesurier had clarified that the operation was led by the UK, Canada and Germany and supported by the US, Israel and the UN, at 08:58, Coomarasamy next chose to focus on just one of those countries, posing the following bizarre question:

Coomarasamy: “So, what does Israel get out of its role in this rescue operation?”

Notably, the person brought in to answer that question – described by Coomarasamy as “Joshua Landis…a Syria expert who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma” – is renowned for his portrayals of the Assad regime as ‘the good guy’ in the enduring conflict (and before it) and has himself amplified propaganda pertaining to the ‘White Helmets’. It therefore came as little surprise to hear Landis – unhindered by Coomarasamy – promote some Assad-style propaganda in his own more subtle style.

Landis: “They’re doing a big favour for the United States and for the European powers in carrying out important humanitarian work and we’ve noticed that throughout the war, Israel has taken in a number of Syrian rebels as well as their family members and civilians who’ve been wounded, treated them in its hospitals, has tried to do humanitarian work in Syria. Of course Israel has been bombing Syria at the same time, attacking Iranian emplacements, Syrian emplacements, shooting down the odd Syrian plane. But for Israel this is about doing a good deed.”

Failing to clarify to audiences that Israeli strikes have targeted Iranian weapons transfers to the terror group Hizballah, Coomarasamy went on:

Coomarasamy: “But as you allude to, it’s something that’s happening on Israel’s doorstep and is very much a military conflict that Israel is getting involved in as well.”

Landis: “Yes, Israel has increasingly become involved in the Syrian civil war. It has supported a number of rebel groups, helping to build a small buffer zone. That has collapsed now, so Israel is going back to dealing with the Assad government and particularly through the Russians and this means that the rebels are collapsing and some of them are seeking asylum, through Israel, to the West.”

Landis’ roundabout portrayal of the ‘White Helmets’ as “rebels…seeking asylum” unsurprisingly went completely unchallenged by Coomarasamy as did his false claims that Israel is “involved in the Syrian civil war” and “has supported a number of rebel groups”.

As we see, the UK’s publicly funded public service broadcaster continues to amplify conspiracy theories no different from those put out by the regime controlled news agencies of Syria and Russia.

BBC News website readers get yet another dose of Assad’s propaganda

As noted here previously, on the morning of July 22nd the BBC News website published a report about the evacuation of members of the ‘White Helmets’ and their families from Syria in which unfounded propaganda put out by the Assad regime, the Russian government and their sympathisers was amplified.

“In that report BBC audiences were told that:

“The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones.

They say they are non-partisan but supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and his ally Russia, allege links to jihadist groups.”

And again, in a sub-section headed “Who are the White Helmets?”:

“Say they are neutral and have no political affiliation but have been accused of links to jihadist groups by the Syrian government and its Russian allies”

That propaganda has indeed been vigorously promoted by the Assad regime, Russia and their sympathisers. However, it has also been exposed and debunked – as the Guardian reported in December 2017.”

Apparently not content with that dose of unquestioning promotion of the propaganda of a brutal regime that has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its own civilians, on the afternoon of July 23rd the BBC News website published a follow-up report currently titled “Syria White Helmets evacuation criticised by government” in which 30% of the word count was given over to further amplification of disinformation from the heart of the Assad regime.

“The Syrian government has condemned the evacuation over the weekend of the White Helmets civil defence group from a war zone in the south of the country.

Damascus described the move, carried out by Israel, as a “criminal operation” by “Israel and its tools”. […]

Responding to the move on Monday, Syria’s foreign ministry said that “words of condemnation are not enough to denounce this despicable act”.

It added that the White Helmets supported “terrorists” and that the world had been warned of the group’s “dangers”, according to Syria’s state news agency Sana.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s administration regards the White Helmets as agents of Western powers. His supporters, and his Russian allies, say the volunteers support the rebels and also have links to jihadist groups. […]

But Syria’s government and its ally Russia have accused the group of links to jihadist groups.

President Assad said it used “humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement a certain agenda”.”

The article ‘balanced’ those claims with the following 34 words:

“But Mr Assad’s opponents see them as heroes for their rescue work in bombed, rebel-held cities.

The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones.”

Readers were not informed of the research – including by BBC Trending – which has shown how conspiracy theories concerning the ‘White Helmets’ have been spread.

Another notable aspect of the report was its knee-jerk use of the BBC’s favoured ‘Israel says’ formula:

“The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they were acting on a request from the US, the UK and other European nations.”

Seeing as by the time this article was published officials from the UK, the US, Canada and Germany had acknowledged their countries’ role in the operation’s organisation, the BBC’s use of the phrase “the Israel Defense Forces said” is obviously superfluous.

As we have had cause to note here all too often in the past, the BBC’s ‘public purposes’ oblige it to provide accurate and impartial “news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”.

Members of the BBC’s funding public may well be asking themselves why – yet again – their public service broadcaster is generously amplifying conspiracy theories no different from those put out by the regime controlled news agencies of Syria and Russia.

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BBC promotes what it described in April as ‘conspiracy theories’

On the morning of July 22nd the IDF announced the completion of the overnight evacuation of 800 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ personnel and their families from southern Syria, through Israel and into Jordan.

“The evacuation took place from Quneitra, which straddles the frontier with the Golan Heights and where the civil defense team was trapped. […]

The evacuees arrived at the border with Israel, and the IDF opened the gates and let them through. Medical treatment was provided to those in need, and the evacuees were provided with food and water.

The humanitarian workers and their families then boarded a fleet of buses that was already waiting for them at the site. The army and police blocked roads in the area, allowing the convoy to pass unimpeded.”

After the story broke, the BBC News website quickly produced a report titled “Syria conflict: Israel evacuates ‘White Helmets’” which appeared on its main homepage as well as its ‘World’ and ‘Middle East’ pages.

In that report BBC audiences were told that:

“The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones.

They say they are non-partisan but supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and his ally Russia, allege links to jihadist groups.”

And again, in a sub-section headed “Who are the White Helmets?”:

“Say they are neutral and have no political affiliation but have been accused of links to jihadist groups by the Syrian government and its Russian allies”

That propaganda has indeed been vigorously promoted by the Assad regime, Russia and their sympathisers.  However, it has also been exposed and debunked – as the Guardian reported in December 2017.

“The campaign to discredit the White Helmets started at the same time as Russia staged a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s army with airstrikes bombarding opposition-held areas. Almost immediately, Russian state media such as RT and Sputnik started falsely claiming that Isis was the only target and throwing doubt on the bombings of infrastructure and civilian sites.

The same propaganda machine scooped up fringe anti-American activists, bloggers and researchers who believe the White Helmets are terrorists, giving them a platform on state TV and amplifying their articles through social media.”

In April of this year BBC Trending produced a report titled “Syria war: The online activists pushing conspiracy theories” which includes a whole section on conspiracy theories relating to the ‘White Helmets’.

“The Sarah Abdallah account is, according to a recent study by the online research firm Graphika, one of the most influential social media accounts in the online conversation about Syria, and specifically in pushing misinformation about a 2017 chemical weapons attack and the Syria Civil Defence, whose rescue workers are widely known as the “White Helmets”. […]

Graphika found 20 million messages about the White Helmets, split between tweets in support and in opposition. Among the opponents, Kelly says, Sarah Abdallah was “by far the most influential”, followed by Vanessa Beeley.

The firm found that Sarah Abdallah’s account was primarily followed by a number of different interest clusters: supporters of pro-Palestinian causes, Russians and Russian allies, white nationalists and those from the extremist alt-right, conservative American Trump supporters, far-right groups in Europe and conspiracy theorists.

These groups were instrumental in making the hashtag #SyriaHoax trend after the chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017.”

Nevertheless, three months on BBC News is still amplifying the propaganda of the Syrian and Russian regimes concerning the ‘White Helmets’ – and that despite the corporation’s obligation to “provide accurate and impartial news…of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues across the UK and the world”.

Judging by many of the replies to a Tweet relating to the story sent by the British Foreign Secretary, the BBC News website’s longstanding habit of promoting false balance in the name of ‘impartiality’ by repeatedly amplifying any and every propaganda put out by the Assad regime and its Russian ally is certainly not contributing to meeting that particular ‘public purpose’.

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