Who to believe about Syria?

I’m no expert about Syria, so why these blogposts? The initial stimulus was realising that people of good will and similar ethics can have some markedly contrasting views of the situation in Syria.  This was a puzzle to me. And given the gravity of what’s at stake, I felt an obligation to try and solve it.

The basic disagreement could not be explained by familiar sorts of political bias. It cuts across left-right and authoritarian-libertarian lines; a person’s stance on it can not even be predicted by their stance, say, on Palestine, or Cuba.  Attitudes to Russia can be a better indicator, but if my own case is anything to go by, this has nothing particularly to do with political views and is anyway an effect rather than a cause. What Putin says about Syria tends to resonate with what I’ve come to think; I have never thought that any statement was true because Putin made it. I also just don’t think it very intellectually mature or responsible to suppose that something is false because he says it!

Still, it is understandable that people would rather accept the consensus view of our news outlets, especially since it is echoed by the vast majority of our politicians and opinion formers, along with NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and MSF. They present Assad as the problem in Syria and regime change as the solution.

The general public do not perceive that view as a controversial one.  It seems established beyond the range of normal political debate that ‘Assad must go’.  ‘Assad’s regime’ is regarded, like Hitler’s, as beyond the pale of reasonable disagreement.  The only kind of debate there can be on this basis is whether Assad is as bad as Hitler. In fact, US spokesperson Sean Spicer recently suggested Hitler was less bad.

As karma would have it, the hapless Spicer also let us know, with a slip of the tongue, that America’s “first goal is to destabilise Syria”.

Should we believe the official narrative or the one that, while suppressed, still sometimes slips out? I have asked this question of reports from Channel 4, from BBC, from Amnesty International, from Doctors Without Borders, and from UK Government. I’ve shared my findings in the five blogs respectively linked. I have concluded that none of those reports provides credible evidence to support the mainstream account of what has been happening in Syria these past six years.

I ask nobody to take my word for it, though, and I would urge everybody, who gets the chance, to look more closely for yourself. This is not a matter on which any established authority should simply be assumed reliable.

It is not a matter of normal political loyalties. On Syria I now have more faith in the views of Peter Hitchens or Peter Oborne writing in the Daily Mail, for instance, than in those of George Monbiot in the Guardian; I got blocked on Twitter by Paul Mason for asking an awkward question; I’ve even questioned the wisdom of a statement by Caroline Lucas (here). I feel all the more resolutely ecologically socialist for recognising that independently conservative thought can sometimes be more astutely resistant than that of progressives to the deceptions of a delinquent neoliberal globalism.

The issue here is not a normal part of political argument. Politics can even serve to distract us from what I believe is a serious matter of truth against war. The agenda underlying foreign states’ investment in the war in Syria is continuous with what came to fruition in Iraq and Libya. We have good reasons to fear that it will lead on to a still more catastrophic confrontation with Iran and even Russia.

Perhaps that’s why those who do not accept the mainstream narrative can be presented as ‘siding with the Russians’, who don’t want war either! But I’d go further and say there are people of no nation on this planet who want war. That is why we should not let ourselves be deceived into thinking that anything we truly want can only be achieved at the price of war.

As for the war in Syria, please don’t believe me. Please just don’t let yourself be deceived. This is too important, not only for you and me, but for our children, and everyone else too. Please ask questions about who wants war and why, and please then think about how they can be stopped from getting it.


Who do I believe? I tend to believe those I find sincere and whose statements are coherent, consistent, and not belied by their actions. I believe ISIS when they say they want to destroy the Syrian secular state and create their caliphate.  I believe Al Qaeda and the multitude of other Islamist terror organisations that threaten terrible violence of the kind they routinely execute. I believe the ordinary people who live in Syria and say they just want to be left to live their lives in peace. I find I also believe, on the basis of scores of interviews I’ve now seen, that the Syrian president is doing all he can to fulfil the wish of the latter against threats of the former. I believe his claims that the foreign states’ regime change agenda has nothing to do with trying to do right by the Syrian people. If that makes me an ‘Assad Apologist’, I make no apology. For anyone who thinks Iraq or Libya today have better governance than Syria’s government-protected areas do is not someone I would feel capable of debating with. Of course, Syria could do a lot better still, and the Syrian people should be free to choose their government. My instinct, for what it’s worth, tells me that Bashar Al Assad and the First Lady Asma Al Assad long for such a day to come. But the nation’s sovereignty has first to be fully restored.

I have stopped believing reports about Syria from Amnesty International, an organisation I actively supported for two decades. For no report I have seen produces credible evidence to support its claims about the war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the Syrian government. I illustrate this here, and here, and I further show how the organisation has been captured by people with no interest in human rights here. I fear there seems to be a similar problem even in some parts of MSF’s organisation. As for the news outlets, with almost nobody on the ground, they provide little coverage of areas that are under legitimate government, while, from occupied areas, they rely heavily on terrorist sources like Al Qaeda, under its various rebrandings. And our government? It provides funds, weapons and training for Al Qaeda. Some of this goes into the PR campaign sustained as White Helmets. If you are inclined to believe what the White Helmets say, then I suggest you watch the Oscar-winning documentary about them and ask yourself one simple question: where are the terrorists? I assume that anyone who is reading these words does not need me to make any comment about poor little  Bana Alabed. But you might know people who do, so please be gentle with them. We are all at different stages of learning about how we are misled.


Survivor of evacuation bus bombing

Posted in Amnesty International, BBC, Channel 4, global justice, human rights, journalism, MSF, political philosophy, prisoners' rights, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 21 Comments

Chemical Attacks in Syria: is Assad responsible?

The use of chemical weapons on 4th April in Syria, which prompted the American bombing of an airfield, was blamed on Syrian government forces by the US and UK.[1]

UK ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, has stated scientists at Porton Down ‘have analysed samples obtained from Khan Shaykhun’, the site of the incident, and ‘these have tested positive for the nerve agent Sarin, or a Sarin like substance.’[2]

This prompts a simple question. Given that the Russians, amongst others, are disputing the UK/US assessment, why not present them with the evidence as revealed in analysis?

The Russians may not take our government’s word for it, but I think they would trust Porton Down scientists. Scientists in Russia and UK (and USA as well) tend to trust each other, I believe, and confer too.

It is worth keeping this background in mind.  Although not mentioned much in our press, tests showed that the 2013 chemical attacks could not credibly be blamed on Assad’s forces.[3] President Obama had been all set to bomb Syria when, at the 11th hour, General Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who knew of the true state of intelligence, had a word with him.[4] Obama called off the bombing, apparently mindful that congress would be apprised of the intelligence.[5]

The Americans and Russians and Syrians went on to defuse the situation by agreeing on the destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. So even if those stocks had ever been used in the past – which Syria denies – they could not be used in the future. Still, just to be sure, the exact molecular profile of the chemicals was ascertained and recorded at the time.

So, about the present controversy: if there is evidence that Assad was behind the recent Khan Shaykhun incident, then Porton Down scientists have it.

At least, they will, if they have indeed analysed soil samples gathered by rescue workers  from the scene of the 4th April attack, as claimed.[6] For the scientists can obtain the complete chemical profile of a chemical agent, including impurities that are present at very low concentrations, when the sample comes from the soil. They can determine how the sarin was synthesized and whether the sample matches the ‘kitchen sarin’ used by opposition fighters in 2013 or the military-grade sarin from Syria’s former stockpile.[7]

The strange thing, however, is that the UK’s ambassador Rycroft has spoken of the sample containing a ‘sarin-like substance’. Analysis of a sample molecule identifies it by its ‘signature’[8] or else just does not identify it. If it’s not identified, you can’t say anything about what kind of molecule it is.

Ambassador Rycroft’s statement is therefore confusing: its uncertain reference to ‘sarin or sarin-like substance’ is incompatible with a claim that the chemical was Syria’s military grade sarin. Either Porton Down scientists showed the sample to be military grade Sarin, in which case Assad would be strongly implicated, or it failed to, in which case he would be in the clear.[9]

If UK/US authorities have definite evidence implicating Assad, they have no reason not to share it (and, one might have thought, quite a strong incentive to do so). As long as they fail to, the reasons for doubt will remain.



A special word of thanks goes to Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, for his advice on the science and its application to the question at hand.

[1] In the words of Ambassador Rycroft, Assad’s responsibility is ‘highly likely’. (This is the same form of words used by the Joint Intelligence Committee in its 2013 briefing to Prime Minister Cameron before the emergency debate on support for Obama’s proposed bombing of Syria. Then, as now, hearers of the words were asked to take on trust that there was more compelling – and yet still not definitive – evidence than they were being shown. Having the opportunity to debate the matter at length, the MPs voted against.)

[2] http://www.itv.com/news/2017-04-12/british-government-tests-confirm-sarin-was-used-in-syria-attack/

[3] The most readable, now classic, source on the chemical evidence of 2013 is Seymour Hersh’s ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’, London Review of Books, 17 April 2014 https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line. Seekers of further or more comprehensive information and analysis are referred to the extensive wiki resource of A Closer Look On Syria http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Main_Page

[4] The bombing had looked so certain to go ahead that the UK parliament was recalled from recess to debate it. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10277522/Syria-vote-crisis-timeline.html

[5] Obama’s surprise reversal of decision followed consultation with his ‘most senior military advisor’ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/31/syrian-air-strikes-obama-congress

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/syria-chemical-attack-idlib-province

[7] For how a lab in the Netherlands showed in 2012 that this type of analysis was feasible see Report of the Temporary Working Group on Sampling and Analysis to the Nineteenth Session of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board.  Annex 2, Agenda Item 8 [Internet]. 2012 Sep. Available from: https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/SAB/en/sab-19-01_e_.pdf

[8] I am informed that this is a combination of retention time in the gas chromatography step and mass/charge ratio in the mass spectrometry step.

[9] Unless it turns out that there was some ‘misunderstanding’ about how the sample was gathered or the testing done. I mention this possibility because while soil samples can yield definite analysis of the chemical used, samples from blood or tissue (physiological samples) cannot. In 2013, the early use of soil samples (as furnished General Dempsey with the understanding referred to) was in subsequent cases ‘inexplicably’ supplanted by the less useful method of analyzing physiological samples by the US. (Perhaps some institutional learning about this was lost in the transition between presidential teams and perhaps Rycroft was not briefed on the significance of the point. But that, of course, is pure speculation.)

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Green Party On Syria

I have supported the Green Party for as long as it has existed within the UK.  I think its speakers often make more sense than most other politicians.

However, the statement on Syria, by co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, seems to me misguided. While they express concern about the illegitimacy of US airstrikes on Syria, they at the same time condemn the president of Syria, advocating alternative measures against his government.

Would such measures not hurt Syrian people? When Caroline speaks of freezing ‘the continued flow of arms to the region’ she makes no mention of how supplies from the West – including from Libya via Turkey – are supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda, who, in turn, are killing, trafficking, raping and oppressing Syrian civilians who come under their de facto rule.

Caroline and Jon ought to be aware that there is as yet no authoritative account of the chemical attack last week and that critical observers caution all of us not to jump to conclusions about who is responsible. The event fits a longstanding pattern of trumped up pretexts for intervention that were subsequently discredited.

Which brings me to a point that goes beyond the rights and wrongs of this past week’s events.

For many years – for far more even than the six that the Syrian people have been subjected to constant violence – there has been a geopolitical strategy to remove Assad from power in order to have a Syrian region that is more compliant with the goals of the various external interested parties.

These interested parties, the Greens ought to be aware, are the very same that drive environmental destruction and social injustice across the planet. If you think Assad is the problem, I fear you may not have understood what the problem is.

My reason for posting these remarks is that none of the vision I share with the greens includes breaking up other people’s countries for the sake of the planet’s delinquent elite.

I hope some of the critical intelligence so much in evidence elsewhere in Green Party thinking might be brought to bear more keenly on the narrative you are accepting. My own discovery, for what it’s worth, is that once you start to ask questions about evidence and sources concerning Syria, you realize you may have been misled by seemingly reputable organisations like Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, by news organisations like BBC and Channel 4, and by UK Government.


Why Assad Opposed to Sending his Family to Tehran?

Posted in Amnesty International, BBC, Channel 4, environment, environmental ethics, global justice, journalism, media, MSF, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 17 Comments

A Theory of Bullshit II: Serious Stuff

Serious Bullshit, I suggested previously,[1] was exemplified in the justification offered for the US-led destruction of Iraq. The specific lie deployed initiating it – concerning alleged WMD – has long since been exposed. But a particular lie may be merely an instrument for a more fundamental strategy of deception.

To achieve mass deception, it is not enough simply to invent a lie, since untruth always stands to be discovered; what matters is getting the relevant people to believe the lie, at least for as long as you need them to. The capacity to generate compliant beliefs on the grand scale can require an elaborate apparatus. Ordinary individual people do not command such a thing, but states and other powerful forms of organisation do. Such entities may develop strategies of deception for a variety of reasons. They can then produce serious bullshit.

Serious bullshit can involve years of advance planning, applying vast resources in preparing the ground, the actors, and the partner organisations. If you think that sounds conspiratorial and even far-fetched, bear with me. We can in fact consider a concrete illustration of such a strategy.


In a paper published in 2004, the American liberal Suzanne Nossel looked theoretically at how to achieve the ambitious task of deploying U.S. power so as ‘to promote U.S. interests through a stable grid of allies, institutions, and norms’.[2] This would embody liberal internationalist principles of ‘trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values’. The use of power would have to be smart, Nossel emphasised, because not everybody would spontaneously embrace American values. In fact, she lamented the deterioration in America’s reputation under the Bush administration:

‘By invoking the rhetoric of human rights and democracy to further the aggressive projection of unilateral military power, conservatives have tainted liberal internationalist ideals and the United States’ role in promoting them. A superpower that is not perceived as liberal will not be trusted as a purveyor of liberalism.’

For America to achieve its international goals, it should become a trusted purveyor of liberalism. ‘Selective efforts to seed democracy and free markets in strategically important territories will always be dogged by perceptions of hypocrisy and narrow self-interest unless accompanied by a broader foreign policy that is viewed as genuinely liberal.’ Her emphasis is on how the policy is viewed. Accordingly, the goal would not be achieved by a genuinely liberal policy that was not perceived as such; but it could be achieved by an illiberal policy that was erroneously perceived as ‘genuinely liberal’.

In order so to be perceived, ‘Washington must reconceptualise the fight against terrorism and WMD as a sustained effort to expand freedom and opportunity.’

To support and promulgate this reconceptualization Nossel advocates a strategy that ‘recognizes that military power and humanitarian endeavors can be mutually reinforcing.’ Since there are suspicions abroad about America’s humanitarian motivations and intent, she understands, it is important to have credible reassurance about them from organisations that are perceived to be independent. But here is the tricky bit. If an organisation straightforwardly is independent, it may be unhelpfully sceptical about U.S. intentions. So what to do?

Here we turn from Nossel’s theory to her practice. For it is not her repackaging of the general idea of wrapping an iron fist of military force in a kid glove of humanitarian concern that makes her a person of interest in this context.[3] It is her remarkably practical way of ensuring that organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would be on message for US foreign policy as required. (Nossel knew the message well, having worked in a senior position in US government before writing her 2004 paper.)  What more effective way to get it across than to become Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch, as she did, and then Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, as she was from January 2, 2012 to January 11, 2013?[4]

During her sojourn at Amnesty International, Nossel engaged particularly in highlighting human rights issues in Syria. In her short time there she galvanised the organisation into campaigning vigorously in criticism of the Syrian government. The actual research her campaigning drew on was problematic – as has elsewhere been shown by myself, and others – but her focus was clearly on getting the message right, rather than the facts. Amnesty International continued doing some truthful reporting around the world, including some factual information about Syria, but its activities in relation to that country can be described as bullshit, according to the definition I gave last time, insofar as their concern is not whether what’s said is true or false but only whether it leads to achievement of the ulterior purpose. That purpose was to achieve a greater degree of public support in the West for what was planned for Syria than had been managed for Iraq.

That purpose was accomplished, insofar as wide acceptance was achieved for the version of events Nossel so aggressively promoted,[5] holding Assad’s government responsible for human rights abuses on a massive scale (without robust corresponding evidence) and presenting the problem of terrorist violence in Syria as minor by comparison (despite the horrendous evidence of it). With such a perception being supported by an organisation with a high reputation in the West, belief in a humanitarian basis for America to intervene militarily in Syria was quite firmly established.

We must remember, however, that it takes much more than a single opportunistic individual – or even a single organisation – to achieve such widespread dissemination of false beliefs. We should keep in mind that Nossel did not appoint herself to the prominent positions she has held in HRW, AIUSA and PEN. We have to infer that these organisations were already prepared to implement the strategy, of which she was a conspicuous advocate, at the time of her appointment. Within those organisations, it seems, there was already a commitment to a foreign policy agenda that had little to do with their ostensible concern to protect human rights. And those are by no means the only organisations that are so aligned.

Once we start examining serious bullshit, bullshit that spreads widely across the world’s media, we realise that it must have greater depth than we might at first have imagined. Next time, to get a better understanding of how we can get so misled as even to endorse  warfare that benefits no human being, we will have to dig deeper.



A Syrian refugee girl. (Photo credit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)


[1] See my blog A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/a-theory-of-bullshit-introduction/

[2] Suzanne Nossel, ‘Smart Power’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2004 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2004-03-01/smart-power [quotations included in the text are from this webpage]

[3] The general concept of a Trojan Horse had not awaited her invention and the more particular ideas of what Jean Bricmont had called ‘humanitarian imperialism’ were already well-understood, as Noam Chomsky usefully discusses: https://monthlyreview.org/2008/09/01/humanitarian-imperialism-the-new-doctrine-of-imperial-right/

See also Patrick Henningsen on ‘Smart Power and the Human Rights Industrial Complex’: http://21stcenturywire.com/2016/04/19/an-introduction-smart-power-the-human-rights-industrial-complex/

[4] At the time of writing she is Executive Director of the American centre of PEN International, whose aims are broadly aligned with the organisations she previously worked at. For her summary CV see Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzanne_Nossel

[5] For a critical discussion of her influence on Amnesty International publications during her year there see my earlier blog ‘How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’ https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/amnesty-internationals-war-crimes-in-syria/

Posted in Amnesty International, bullshit, disinformation, human rights, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 2 Comments

Channel 4’s ‘Case Against Assad’: some questions to keep in mind

              We will not hear a case for the defence, so viewers who believe in due process are left to work out questions to ask of the accusers.

Channel 4 this week is to present a renewed ‘case against Assad’. Having examined a number of previous such cases advanced via the Western media and NGOs, I have learned to look carefully at whether they claim more than they prove, or are even actively misleading. So I shall be watching the programme with some questions in mind.

Although what follows is very much a note to myself – a reminder to stay critical even as I prepare to be moved emotionally by harrowing human stories – I am posting it here because I do think that if a prosecutor’s case is being made in the court of public opinion, we, the viewing jury, should endeavour – in the spirit of recognizing the right of due process – to imagine together what a counsel for the defence might have asked, given a chance. And it is not just procedures at stake. Those hoping to precipitate regime change leave uncertain what would follow, except that any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, enslaving, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s actions against insurgency and of how best to prevent crimes against humanity.


For what it’s worth, then, here are some questions I shall keep in mind:

– How much does this new ‘case’ recycle material that has been used in previous attempts to sway public opinion (usually just before some important decision is to be taken) only subsequently to be discredited by critical analysts? (I shall watch out particularly for a revival of the notorious and repeatedly discredited Caesar photographs.[1]) I shall also be alert to the presentation of large numbers of alleged victims provided without evidence or corroboration by NGOs created since 2011 with the clear mission of supporting regime change in Syria.[2]

– If new evidence is presented, does the programme explain why it is only now coming to light? What does it show? How credible is it?

– How much of the programme is devoted to conjuring a picture of the horrors of being subjected to appalling mistreatment, as opposed to presenting evidence of occurrences? (I have in mind, for instance, how computerised models of ‘forensic architecture’ were used in the imaginative storytelling technique recently deployed by Amnesty International, in place of actual evidence.[3])

– Do the programme makers, to enhance the effect, throw in mention of other allegations that they are not directly making and which have already been seriously questioned, if not refuted, by authoritative sources (such as chemical weapons accusations[4]).

– If anonymity is accorded any witnesses heard, are satisfactory grounds given for it? (Otherwise, one is left unsure whether the anonymity really serves to prevent discoveries that would tell against the testimony supplied.)

– Does the programme present a vivid case for a small number of victims and then extrapolate to very large numbers without explaining the methodology? Are the direct witnesses interviewed for the programme definitely representative of larger numbers? Can we have confidence in the numbers presented?

– Finally, I shall be wanting to check whether the programme corrects or repeats the errors and omissions of similar-sounding reports that have been presented before, as for instance, in April 2016 by Ben Taub, whose claims were critically analysed by Daniel Lazare.

I realise that anyone who has not closely scrutinised previous ‘cases’ against Assad might feel that the degree of scepticism implicit here – before the film has even been broadcast – looks somewhat prejudicial. But a documentary is not supposed to be a drama that enlists our willing suspension of disbelief, so a sceptical approach should not be objectionable.  More importantly, an unprejudiced commitment to human rights means accepting that the accused has a right of defence. If the media seldom allow any defence to be heard, it is left to us to ask questions of the prosecution’s case.[5] Most important, of course, is our collective obligation – and, I hope, our right – to scrutinise any public pronouncement that could influence support for military deployment in our name.

If none of the issues flagged arises, then I shall be greatly pleased that Channel 4 will have earned the commendation of an erstwhile sceptic for an accurate and illuminating documentary.


Photo credit: Reuters

[1] Rick Sterling has made a close study of what he calls the Caesar hoax, and links to it from his summary of it here. For an extensive wiki-style discussion of the Caesar photos, their uses and credibility see the collaborative investigation for A Closer Look On Syria gathered here.

[2] Among NGOs that have asserted large numbers of deaths and detentions without providing checkable evidence of the people concerned or clear methodological justification for the large numbers projected are Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, and Syrian Network for Human Rights. If information from these organizations is relied on, then it is subject to the criticism already made of Amnesty International in relying on it. (For an introduction to this, see my earlier piece ‘How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’.)

[3] This strategy of the recent Amnesty International publication was widely condemned as tantamount to fabricating evidence. See, for instance, Tony Cartalucci, and Moon of Alabama. I also briefly remarked on it at the time here. Those shown here to have discredited it include former British Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, and stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. The Independent acknowledges that there is concern about the report. CNN sets out the immediate political stakes in the controversy at the time. Further critical discussions are cited here.

[4] Such accusations have repeatedly been leveled at the Syrian government in the media despite considerable evidence and testimony to indicate the opposition’s responsibility for the confirmed uses of chemical weapons in Syria. This has been acknowledged even by opposition sources, along with independent experts in American and UK as well as Russia. It was this awareness in the background that probably explains why the UK and US held back on their planned attacks that took the alleged red line crossing as their justification. For a detailed discussion of these matters, with many key references, is to be found here, and still more exhaustively here.

[5] For the sake of brevity, I cut the original introduction for this post.  As it serves to contextualise the discussion (and the photo included) it is restored here for anyone interested:

< The government of Bashar Al-Assad has unswervingly sought to defeat the foreign-backed insurgents in Syria by all means necessary. In view of the destruction, death and displacement caused by the warfare, charges of disproportionality could stand to be answered. A proper judgement on such charges may one day be possible.

Those who wish to hasten the pressing of such charges might meanwhile be expected to share Assad’s interest in eliminating terrorism from the territory and in restoring the sway of legitimate government.

Yet, instead, we hear vociferous and repeated calls from a variety of Western PR outlets (which is what I fear so many media and non-governmental organisations are becoming) to pronounce him guilty of crimes against humanity. This could support a bid to sharpen the conflict so as to precipitate regime change. What would result is unclear, except any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s failings and of how best to ward off crimes against humanity.>

Posted in Channel 4, human rights, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 2 Comments

A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction


“we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”  Harry Frankfurt


Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, writing On Bullshit, bestowed academic respectability on the subject. His analysis served to show that while bullshit often involves lying, the two things are not the same: the bullshitter ‘does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.’

Indifference towards the truth can be a very great enemy indeed. And that is why I find myself writing the book that is being introduced here.[1]

Frankfurt alerted us to the need for a theory of bullshit, and I believe the need may be even greater than he suggested. His analytical focus was on what we may call the common-or-garden variety. The braggadocio of the locker room Lothario, for instance, would be a typical and redolent case. Frankfurt was certainly also concerned about how advertisers and PR people, for instance, can widely spread the stuff in sophisticated and elaborate ways, but he did not draw any particular distinctions between their practices and those of the individual braggart. Nor did he attend specifically to the phenomena associated with what we might call serious bullshit.

Frankfurt’s analysis focused on general features common to the various kinds of bullshit we encounter, and I consider his results sound. But I shall propose that we can adjust our analytical lens to reveal interesting differences between varieties. Frankfurt at one point observes that bullshit is not designed or crafted, but merely dumped. This, at a certain level of analysis is true.[2] Nevertheless, looking more closely, forensic scatology can reveal substantial differences between samples at more elemental levels of composition. Less figuratively, my point is that we should look more closely at how bullshit can be deployed to a variety of effects in different settings by means of alterations in its internal discursive structures.

But that sounds rather abstract. So let me illustrate just how significant the analysis of bullshit might be.

In 2003, a US-led military coalition went to war on Iraq. The consequences in terms of destruction, suffering, chaos and lives lost have been horrific. The onset of these hostilities was justified by a specific lie, namely, that there was evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) ready for deployment in Iraq. However, that particular lie – momentous as it was – might be seen as but part of a longer and more involved story. One might say it was a bullshit story that had led to attention being placed on Iraq in the first place, given that the ostensible provocation for US retaliation against terrorists from the Middle East – i.e. the attacks of 9/11 – involved no Iraqis, with those actually involved being largely from Saudi Arabia (and having anyway somewhat unclear loyalties).

Is such an egregious offence against humanity appropriately described as bullshit? Does using the term in such a serious context not risk trivialising the matter? Having reflected on these questions, my view is that the lack of seriousness – the atrocious lack of human feeling, integrity or honesty – resides with those who actually deploy bullshit as a strategy for achieving their ends. To call it as it is makes stark the contempt they show for humanity in using bullshit justifications for genocidal actions. In fact, every crime against humanity has a bullshit rationale, for there is no conceivable lie that could rationally or morally justify it. Those who cynically send our fellow humans to kill and destroy other humans are deserving of no better description than bullshitters. If they are also deserving of much worse, I leave its elaboration for others.

What, though, can we hope to learn from studying bullshit on a grand scale? Frankfurt  provides a crucial insight, namely, that the key pragmatic feature of bullshit is aiming to deceive about what you are up to. We need to develop this insight further, however, since Frankfurt does not engage in discussion of what particular kinds of thing a bullshitter might ‘really be up to’. Deception about what one is up to, on a grand scale, and especially if intended to endure for some time, can be expected to involve deployment of a variety of sophisticated strategies.

In order to detect and analyse these, we need a conceptual framework that enables us to differentiate varieties of bullshit.

At the outset, it is helpful to distinguish two very general categories of intention involved in deception. (Although Frankfurt is well aware of both, he does not call particular attention to the difference between them.) The difference I shall refer to in terms of proactive vs reactive bullshit. One common intention in bullshitting is to draw some advantage towards oneself or one’s business, say, by seeming somehow to be more important or alluring than might otherwise appear. The general kind of intention here would be manifest in what we might call proactive bullshit. We can distinguish this as a category from what we might correspondingly refer to as reactive bullshit. Paradigmatically, this is what people may engage in when making excuses for failing to meet some expectation others have of them. (Tellingly, Frankfurt points out how people might find bullshit a more generally convenient means of evading blame or responsibility than lying would be.)

Now one can certainly notice similarities in the intents of bullshit as bragging and bullshit as excuse-making: it is like the similarity between trying to look good and trying not to look bad. However, the circumstances in which the bullshitter finds the one rather than the other called for have a noticeable difference. In the proactive mode, the bullshitter calls the shots, so to speak, and has quite free rein to decide what the story’s to be; in reactive mode, with the story told and thus opened to questions, the bullshitter is on the back foot inasmuch as there is the constraint of maintaining consistency of any added information with what has already been said.

This difference, I shall later show, is fundamental in understanding different strategies of bullshit deployment on the grand scale. A key point to have in mind from the outset, though, is that the bullshitter in proactive mode has greater freedom of action than in reactive mode. In proactive mode, the bullshitter has something of a blank canvass, he is free to tell pretty much any story with the constraint only of heeding items of general knowledge that might be available to a sceptical hearer. Just as long as the bullshitter refrains from making claims that are manifestly preposterous on the basis of common experience, he has a lot of leeway for making stories up. In fact, a particularly skilful storyteller might even be able to get away with preposterous claims if he can build up to them from a good basis of shared understandings and seduce the listener to follow him into his imagined world.

The proactive bullshitter composes a narrative. However, he will know that what can be composed can also be decomposed. A story that involves any departures from truth – i.e. what can be confirmed by experience or by reason – is ultimately discoverable.[3] So although he may be indifferent as to which elements of his story are true and which not, he must, as a pragmatic matter, ensure that the receivers of the story do not discover its untruths, or, if they do, can be coaxed not to worry too much about them. This can involve quite some effort and planning when the trick is attempted on the grand scale.

So I demur somewhat from Frankfurt’s remark that bullshit is not the kind of thing that is carefully crafted, because I believe it can be. And how it can be will prove to be a matter of quite some interest when we come to look at cases involving the rise and fall of a bullshit story.

Next time, From Theory to Practice: Suppose you were to be tasked with achieving a major goal – say, a foreign policy goal – and you had to ensure that the world at large did not know exactly what you were up to. How would you go about it?


(Picture source: Freaking News)

[1] My plan is to produce a small book intended for a general readership. It will be, as announced here, A Theory of Bullshit, and will include some basic conceptual tools for bullshit diagnostics. In the preparation I shall be presenting each short chapter as a blog installment, and look forward to getting comments from readers that will help improve the final version. (Something that greatly heartened me in response to my recent blogs on communications about Syria was the quality of comment received. It also materially led me to explore new avenues. When I wrote the initial blog on MSF I had no plans to continue writing in that area, but it was thanks to readers comments that I got drawn into engagement with Amnesty International too, and then Channel 4. So who knows where this book will go. I have a plan, but it may change!) So please feel free to give feedback – it will be gratefully received and acknowledged.

[2] ‘Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.  The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity.’

[3] This is because of what we may call the natural entropy of lies (a topic to be discussed later on).

Posted in bullshit, disinformation, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

BBC Panorama As Propaganda? Controversy over Saving Syria’s Children

Propaganda is not easy to define. Nor can we always straightforwardly identify cases of it.[1] But we can distinguish propaganda as a category of activity from that of journalism.

There is some functional overlap, of course, since both activities involve communicating topical material as compellingly as possible. Similarities can be bracketed, though, as they can when distinguishing, say, an ambulance from a tank.

In principle the difference is clear. A journalist starts the day with a blank notepad and goes out to investigate what has been going on; she comes back with a report that she could not have anticipated producing at daybreak. A propagandist, by contrast, starts the day with a message that has to be conveyed and his task is to produce a report that most persuasively conveys that message.

Whatever overlap there may be in practice between these two kinds of activity, the categorical distinction itself seems perfectly clear.

Does the BBC have a clear and operative understanding of the distinction? Yes, and demonstrated it in a report from 6 June 2011 on the ‘Dark Arts of Propaganda’ in Libya. The report shows a press event set in a hospital featuring a victim of an alleged missile strike. The BBC reporter, however, takes the camera behind the scenes and puts questions to some witnesses who reveal the whole event to have been staged, with the victim having been otherwise injured and the missile strike being a fabrication. Moving freely on the ground, the BBC thereby engaged in journalism and exposed a piece of propaganda.

Consider now the Panorama programme at the centre of a controversy which does not look like going away.[2] Saving Syria’s Children – a documentary broadcast in 2013 – features a scenario very similar to the Libya report, namely, a hospital in a conflict zone featuring victims of an alleged airstrike. It contains scenes that are reminiscent of the Libya hospital scene. In fact, something that has struck a number of viewers is that some of the scenes do not seem very realistic.[3] Could they have been staged?

In the BBC’s Libya report, the staging and fakery involved in setting up the hospital scene is called out by the reporter on the ground because he is able to mill about in the crowd and put questions to witnesses there. Engaged in journalism, he has exposed an attempt at propaganda. In the Panorama documentary, by contrast, we get no glimpse like that behind the scenes. In fact, a request by another TV producer recently to view the rushes of the Panorama film was denied by the BBC. In other words, not only did we not see behind the scenes, we have not even been allowed to see the scene itself in its unadorned context.

Masked doctor to upload

A fact beyond dispute is that a piece of the BBC Panorama film has been manipulated. A scene where a doctor describes a crucial fact of an alleged airstrike has been broadcast in two different versions, each with a different audio track. We hear different words in the two versions of the same video. The doctor is wearing a facemask, so we cannot see her lips, but we know for a fact that in at least one version she was not saying what the BBC broadcast. This alone requires explanation. She is talking about a matter of critical importance – whether or not chemical weapons had been deployed – which was a ‘red line’ drawn by the president of the USA for triggering an escalation of warfare.

I do not speculate as to what the doctor actually said, or why she may have said different things; I do not claim to know whether or not that scene or any other part of the Panorama film was staged or misleadingly constructed. But I do think these are questions that are reasonably asked.

I think the BBC can reasonably be asked to apply the same journalistic standards to the Panorama scenes as it applied in its Libya report. It is not possible retrospectively to have a reporter roam around the set and interview witnesses. It is possible, however, to see the raw footage, the ‘rushes’, of the scenes broadcast. By making these available, the BBC could reassure the growing number of concerned viewers that what was broadcast was a good faith representation of what was happening on the ground.

Yet the BBC has not been anxious to show good faith in this matter. Repeated requests for further information about the making of the programme have been batted back. A request under the Freedom of Information Act by Robert Stuart failed, both at first hearing and at appeal.[4] But I think the concluding words of the appeal judge are worth pondering:

The law is very clear. The BBC’s status under FOIA recognises the importance of the freedom to communicate and express and receive ideas and information which is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and FOIA excludes such material from its regime in order to protect journalism and art from state control.’

I think if you ask the average man or woman on the proverbial Clapham Omnibus they might say that revealing the unedited footage is what journalism involves, as the BBC showed us in the Libya report; withholding contextual evidence serves only a propaganda interest. Therefore concealing the unedited footage is not journalism and so cannot be excluded from the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.[5]  So Jo Public could be forgiven for thinking that a request to see the rushes of the programme would not be covered by an exemption to Freedom of Information. Journalism would be distinguished from propaganda in striving to make them public.

Meanwhile, it may strike people as somewhat ironic to see the BBC’s right to withhold evidence being defended on the grounds of an exemption intended to protect journalism from state control.

[1] In fact, some say that good propaganda, functionally speaking, is undetectable as such. Furthermore, propaganda might be regarded as unobjectionable or even good, evaluatively speaking, if it is used, for instance, in public service statements about eating healthily or driving safely.

[2] A particularly tenacious critic is Robert Stuart, whose case against Panorama is set out in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wtt4LbWl84. A number of others have publicly shared his concerns, including, most recently, TV producer Victor Lewis-Smith, who, having his request to view rushes of the documentary refused by the BBC, publicly tore up a contract he was about to sign with the corporation, indicating the possibility of producing a documentary on the case against the bona fides of the BBC documentary.

[3] One sceptical viewer has posted a very brief clip from the documentary with the simple litmus test question for other viewers: Is this FAKE or REAL?

[4] Robert Stuart notes: ‘Following a hearing on 24 November 2016 the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) has dismissed my appeal against the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to uphold the BBC’s rejection of my Freedom of Information request for material relating to the September 2013 BBC One Panorama programme ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.’ The text of the Tribunal’s decision is reproduced at https://bbcpanoramasavingsyriaschildren.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/saving-syrias-children-tribunal-upholds-bbcs-rejection-of-foi-request/

The initial approach to the tribunal failed on the grounds that ‘the request is for information held for the purposes of journalism and that the BBC was not obliged to comply with Parts I to V of the Act”. The appeal failed because the appellant had not shown those grounds to be mistaken. The appeal judgement spelled out that ‘he had not provided grounds for appeal which explained why he considered the ICO was “wrong in law i.e. the ICO was wrong to conclude that the information was held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature.” She directed that he provide “any reasons that he says the information he sought was/is not held by the BBC for purposes of journalism, art or literature”.’

The judgement refers to this as a ‘clear instruction’ that the Appellant had failed to comply with. It seems to me that the instruction could be followed by developing the point I suggested above. The only reason to exclude the rushes from FOI availability have to do with the antithesis of journalism; journalism, as the Libya example illustrates, involves revealing and interrogating sources, including rooting about in the context and talking to witnesses.

[5] The Tribunal mentioned that the whole of BBC output could be regarded as protected, according to a precedent, but I think that has to be hard to maintain in light of all that has already come to light about the corporation.

Posted in BBC, disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 8 Comments