On Bellingcat, Truth, and War (revised)

This is a revised version of the original post.

Bellingcat has a difficult job. For those who don’t know, it is “to set the record straight” when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The difficulty lies in trying to sustain a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time. For facts are recalcitrant. They can only ever be spun for so long until a misleading narrative, the effort of maintaining it spent, subsides into acquiescence with the truth.

The founder of Bellingcat is Eliot Higgins. As well as leading the team at Bellingcat and being a Senior Fellow in research at Atlantic Council Higgins is Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, a leading UK university. This provides Bellingcat a particular source of credibility it could not otherwise claim to have.

It also makes Higgins an academic colleague of people like myself and Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who has done considerable research on how propaganda about war has come to permeate our media, including a recently published analysis of how we were misled about Iraq.

(We do not get to pick and choose all our colleagues, of course, nor will we agree with all of them, or necessarily rate their work, even though we will treat them courteously.[1])

What binds the academic community is a commitment to discovering and disseminating truths about the world through credible sources of reason and evidence. To contravene those standards is to bring one’s profession and university into disrepute. Engaging in deliberate practices of disinformation risks doing that.

With this in mind, and with Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University I put a question to Higgins via Twitter. It was a simple question about whether the UK Government could actually rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun. Higgins was brought to admit, thanks to some careful supplementary questioning by Professor Piers Robinson that he could not. He accepted on behalf of Bellingcat that if the UK Government suggested the opposition in Syria had no access to sarin, then that was merely an opinion.

Bellingcat’s admission was duly noted by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist who had also been party to the Twitter conversation, having that same day published a piece in the Mail on Sunday (found half way down the page here) urging caution (as I had previously) about rushing to judgement concerning the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The next week after the Twitter exchange Hitchens was to write an even more powerful article. Its careful critical analysis of the OPCW report demonstrated the severe weaknesses of its evidentiary base, and he foregrounded the fact that the UK Government opinion was merely an opinion.

The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. Aside from the many other reasons to be very cautious, there are good reasons to be critically alert on the specific matter of access to the chemicals analysed. There are abundant reports, analyses, testimonies and videos available from a variety of sources over the past five years that present at least circumstantial evidence, and potentially more than that, to suggest opposition access to the relevant chemicals. In fact, at times, there have been very grave concerns on the part of our governments’ intelligence agencies about the potential threat from opposition terrorists bringing chemical weapons back to our own lands. In the note beneath the text of this article I include links to some of those sources.[2]

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can.

Some people have fought for the truth at the cost of their lives. Such a person is Serena Shim.

If you have not heard of Serena Shim, that will not be surprising, given the priorities of our media, but I would recommend that you take at least a moment to find out something about the witness she was bearing to events in and around Syria. I wish here to honour her memory. Shortly before her untimely and unsatisfactorily explained death in 2014, she filed a report that was particularly germane to the question about the Syrian opposition and chemical weapons.

 

[1] In the original post I tried to be super polite to someone I am fundamentally critical of. In my choice of words I evidently over-compensated and conveyed a very misleading impression to some readers. Twitter went a bit berserk, even though both Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett intervened at a very early stage to urge some individuals to calm down. Higgins himself came along to have a laugh at a certain point, and the whole situation became ludicrous. I had not actually been under any illusions about Higgins or Bellingcat; but I evidently had been about some other people! Still, the vast majority of readers, even if they were a bit perplexed by my original tone, were either understanding or prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in light of everything else I have ever published. I thank you for this.

[2] This is just a small selection that I had readily to hand. There are very many more out there, and if readers mention others in the comments over the next week or so, I shall consolidate them into this list. Meanwhile, thanks go to all who have already sent links, including Qoppa

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/charles-shoebridge/syria-chemical-weapons-us_b_3443185.html

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/sarin-gas-materials-sent-to-isis-from-turkey-claims-mp-eren-erdem-34286662.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10039672/UN-accuses-Syrian-rebels-of-chemical-weapons-use.html

http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSBRE94409Z20130505

http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/responses-to-final-un-report-into-use_14.html

http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Alleged_Chemical_Attack_Khan_Sheikhoun_4_April_2017

 

 

journalist-dead-turkey

Serena Shim (born USA 1985 – died Turkey 2014)

 

 

 

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22 Responses to On Bellingcat, Truth, and War (revised)

  1. Pingback: On Bellingcat, Truth and War | Tim Hayward

  2. Vale Serena – thankyou Tim.
    Did you notice that today just happens to be the 3rd anniversary of the MH17 atrocity, over which Higgins remade his name as an agent of ‘the Atlantic Council’ and no doubt GCHQ?
    The guy has zero credibility, what with his ‘forensic architecture’ fairy stories and Ghouta fabrications. And unfortunately having to argue that AL Nusra had access to Sarin doesn’t completely put him out of the picture, when there’s little evidence that a Sarin attack even took place in Ghouta, and certainly not in Khan Shaikoun…

    • timhayward says:

      Thank you David. You make good points here.

      • Thanks Tim – and good to have your response, as I don’t have twitter and would like to convey a message to Peter Hitchens – having read his blog posts you mention. The second article in particular is very long and thorough, and goes over all the relevant points mentioned by some others – MoA and Jonathan Cook I remember.
        But there is one glaring omission – any reference to Seymour Hersh’s article ‘Trump’s Red Line’. I find it hard to believe that Hitchens had not at least heard about Hersh’s article, yet defy anyone to read it all and still think there was the slightest possibility that ‘Assad’ was reponsible for the ?Sarin attack of April 4th.
        There are of course many people who continue to say that ‘the case against the Assad government is not proven’, and very few prepared to say ‘the case against the Assad government is verifiably false’ – so I can’t assume that Hitchens doesn’t know the truth but prefers not to shout it out.
        For me, Hersh’s latest and best article on Syrian chemical weapons was a final vindication of Syria’s case, and Russia’s case, and its contents should have exploded onto the scene in Washington and London and Paris in a way that completely derailed the whole Western push for war – one which Hitchens seems to think is fairly serious still.
        So as the most mainstream independent commentator we seem to have on Syria, Hitchens presents a way that Hersh’s revelations on ‘what the US knew on April 3rd’ might get exposed before it’s too late.
        Perhaps you could send him a tweet?

        best wishes David.

      • timhayward says:

        Thanks again, David. I think people are being a bit cautious about the Hersh piece simply because with unnamed sources there is a concern that some parts of the story may have been mistaken or misinterpreted or something. Obviously I have no idea, even if I believe it was written in good faith. I do know Peter Hitchens won’t make any claims unless he is confident their basis is rock solid. (The fact that Hersh has been attacked so hard tells us two things, I think: one is that his story is perceived as genuinely threatening; the other is that they are confident/determined to show it is rebuttable.) But it is difficult to counter their nontransparent narrative on the basis of an alternative that lacks complete transparency, whatever one’s instincts. That’s my thought, anyway.

      • Mark says:

        On Hersh’s latest story, it seems prudent to have some physical evidence of the destroyed meeting house/chemical depot before accepting it as a hypothesis. For instance, where is it and is there evidence of it being bombed recently?

        Another reason for doubt is that the sources could be telling the truth, but the Russians lied about the anticipated strike on the meeting house. They could have been in favor of the chemical attack and tried to provide some misdirection, or at least confusion, about the attack.

        I am not a Hersh basher, but I try to be as skeptical of his claims as those of others.

  3. Thanks for this update Tim. As I know your work, and have appreciated it on many occasions, I got the impression that you were attempting irony and it just didn’t work. But that wasn’t the only thing running though my head.

    Realising immediately that many new readers, and even many readers accustomed to your pieces, may have got the impression you were a supporter of Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat, I felt something needed to be done. I entertained the possibility that you might had undergone some amazing conversion, following being blinded by God. Or were being blackmailed. I wanted to believe anything but believe you actually believed the impression I was receiving.

    Whatever the reason for the article, in the end I reasoned that it must have been a wrong-headed attempt at irony. I still have difficulty believing that it was a sign of being over-respectful, but feel obliged to take your word for it. Whatever, I felt the need to comment on Facebook, where I gave you the benefit of the doubt, at the same time as giving a couple of facts about Higgins and the company he keeps.

    But, when all’s said and done, though there’s nothing inherently wrong in making a mistake – we all do it – there is something terribly wrong in not being able to admit it. My respect for you has increased considerably, after reading your admission.

  4. Felicity Arbuthnot. says:

    Greetings,

    Take no notice of the bashers, Middle East is minefield get-bashed territory, whether one is right or wrong. The brickbats come with the territory! However the fact that he is in this camp – here is just one patronising bit of far right garbage (below) – they broke it and now are trying to fix and patronise it – and is with the likes of Ryan Crocker, should perhaps have rung a few warning bells!

    http://www.publications.atlanticcouncil.org/future-of-iraq/

    Warmest, felicity a.

  5. Sophia says:

    Hi Tim,

    I come from Academia, and I have no respect for some people in Academia, even though they could be my colleagues. Higgins did not earn his Academic credentials the standard way, he earned them by serving those in the establishment who want war, they gave him an Academic title to force his lies on those who doubt, with the weight of auhtority that comes with his title.
    I have listened to Higgins boasting about the scientific Method, and he has none. The first tenant of the scientific method is doubt.
    Your praise for Higgins comes from his suspiciously earned Academic title and this was the purpose of giving him the title: added respectability.
    It is courageous to revise your post, and you didn’t need to do it, but now I understand better why you had attributed all these qualities to Higgins that are absent in his character.
    Imagine what Higgins’ Academic title can do on someone who is not from Academia if it did this to you who is from Academia.

    • gantonius says:

      Sophia, Bellingcat/Higgins *has no academic credentials*, not even an undergraduate degree. He is a college dropout, elevated solely by his marginal usefulness to the powers that be, in organizing an internet constituency for them.

  6. PeeBee says:

    dear tim,
    we invisible need those like you, vanessa beeley, eva bartlett, lizzie phelan, carla ortiz and other brave truth warriors like john pilger, keith harmon snow, andre vltchek,… because of your courage, contacts, knowledge, experience, because your voice is heard and especially because you have conscience.

    i learn with every conflict during the last 2 decades – starting with bosnia, after years we all probably develop sort of sense who is who. it is then much easier to instinctively understand the whole process… but we need people like you to formulate it aloud to get the truth to more ears.

    btw, we never learned from authors like eduardo galeano or frantz fannon in european schools – what a shame.

    wish you the best!

  7. Liam says:

    This is what Bellingcat was created for: SouthFront – NGOs: Grassroots Empowerment or Tool of Information Warfare? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro1byfe5vUM&t=1s

  8. Bryan Neddin says:

    Eliot Higgins interrogates evidence. You lot are a bunch of brain dead Fascists. If you lot are academics , fucking hell, make me realise what insight Muggeridge had when he said some of the biggest dimwits he’d ever encountered had college degrees. Keep believing in your false flags and worshipping Putin you mad fuckers.

    • timhayward says:

      I can relate to what Muggeridge said! The thing is, I know Eliot HIggins interrogates evidence, but he is very selective in what he interrogates and how. The difference between real research and what Bellingcat does is that with real research you’re not sure what you will prove; with Bellingcat it is a question of how you will go about proving what you need to. Muggeridge would definitely have spotted that difference and how it works. He was also a flawed human being, by all accounts. But then, aren’t we all…

      • Bryan Neddin says:

        Er, no. Eliot examines revealed realities through meticulous raking through evidence. You are ‘projecting’ your flaws onto Eliot. It is you false flag maniacs who squint at the open source material and privilege your ideological positions. Thank Christ I’m not a student of yours, I’d puke in your ASSadist face.

  9. persiflo says:

    I’m just sending a little moral support, for the original version of the article seemed well crafted to me. I did even share it for the tone you chose. Not everyone understood, but the basic idea was good.

  10. Pingback: Inter-Media: Support Services for a High Maintenance Narrative | Tim Hayward

  11. Pingback: It’s Time To Raise the Level of Public Debate about Syria | Tim Hayward

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