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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28 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.

      • Tettodoro says:

        I think you are confusing Bellingcat with yourself (and your view of of the philosophy of science seems to be based on a naive positivism)). Take for example your piece on MSF -you don’t like the information that MSF provides to the world about what is happening in Syria so you set out to discredit them. You do this based on the assertion that “none of MSF’s *international* doctors have been on the ground in Syria’s war zones since 2015” (emphasis added). You raise the question of who the doctors are but you make no effort to address it. Your argument is simply founded on a principle familiar to any colonial district officer – “the natives can’t be trusted”. Do you do what any real investigator adhering to scholarly protocols would do – do you examine how MSG manages these “supported” hospitals; how they recruit and train staff;what communications and contact they maintain with them? Do try to set up a test of your hypothesis – e.g compare what MSF was saying when they did have staff in the country with what they said when they didn’t? NOto all of those. Do you engage with what multiple witnesses like Dr David Nott who has provided multiple accounts consistent with the MSF reports (and is as white as you could ask for) has had to say e.g http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/29/looked-like-coming-concentration-camp-british-surgeon-david/ No you don’t.
        If I thought you were of any significance in this debate I could carry out the same scrutiny of everything you’ve written on Syria.
        I don’t know what angers me most about your project – its complete abandonment of scholarly values or your intellectually laziness – if you want to cheerlead for a brutal dictatorship and slander people who are trying to help each other survive under terrible circumstances, then that is between you and your conscience. But you might at least not do it on the cheap.

  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

  12. Pingback: Tim Hayward, British Academic and Commentator on Syria, Unreservedly Endorses Bellingcat [Updated] – barbaramckenzie

  13. I think it’s all very well saying “let’s be reasonable about this” or “let’s apply academic standards” . However, we are not talking about a reasonable situation, and academics are if nothing else passionate advocates of particular sets of facts, as their job is basically to argue their point, rather than to find agreement. Eastern Aleppo has been destroyed by in the most brutal assualt on a city that we have seen in the 21st Century. I get that industrial capitalism is destroying the planet via military sponsored neo-liberalism, and that the US/Europe act as the main drivers . But in this case, the main aggressors are Russia and Assad. They are the ones who have killed the most people. Assad met peaceful protests with violent suppression in 2011. Putin acts like a paranoid petro baron with a flair for PR, says one thing and does another, relying on a strange mixture of radical leftist critique, authoritarian nationalism, clickbait crap, and an army of paid trolls. All underlaid by a proven tendency to use devastating military force, and to suppress minority rights. He does not deny his planes bombed Aleppo. He just says it was “against terrorism.” All I see is the academic tendency towards leveraging small amounts of doubt as if they were larger areas of doubt. This tactic has been used by the tobacco industry, the climate skeptic lobby as well as by deconstructionist attempting to undermine scientistic knowledge. I think if you condemn the illegal invasion of Iraq you should also condemn the bombing of Aleppo, and the actions of the Assad government. The instinctive and idealogical reaction against “western imperialism” I see here will not do, however reasonably it is articulated. It does no justice to the complexity on the ground, the suffering of the people of Syria, the history of Syria, or the lives of those already dead.

    • timhayward says:

      Academics, when doing their job properly, study, research and cite sources. That is why people who want to learn something with them can do so. Some other people do all that sort of thing themselves. Other people still, unfortunately, just sound off on the basis of unexamined information they picked up along the way.

      • Lupinecollides says:

        “Academics” do not make a homogenous group and do not agree on how to go about researching, studying or which sources to cite or how best to interpret them. They take philosophical and political positions. They may go through a process of convincing themselves of what they already thought based on their initial passionately held convictions. In fact college educated people may be less likely to change their minds than others as they may feel they have recourse to reason to support their initial starting point. I am not sure what kind of analysis would lead an academic to supporting a regime that has used the measures assad has used since 2011, or the military tactics putin has used.

  14. Adrian D. says:

    Hi Tim,

    More evidence, should it be needed, that Higgins and bellingcat are not the open-source seekers of truth they profess to be. I recently had three comments inexplicably deleted from Higgin’s recent ‘conspiracy debunking’ on the persistence of sarin.

    I pointed out (as others have done and the excellent Adam Larson has done again this weekend) that there are serious questions relating to be asked the air-drop bomb narrative, but my three comments have simply disappeared. They were up long enough for me to reply to one comment (which has also gone) and for Adam to refer to me in his comment (which is still up), but now they have disappeared.

    Adam’s post:
    http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.co.uk/

    I’ve asked Higgins directly and through his site to provide me with links to the witness statements he claims to have seen (and did so again in my first, now deleted comment), but still await a reply.

    It’s such a shame your original post on Higgins was so misinterpreted, but it’s an absolute travesty that he is taken so seriously elsewhere.

    Hopefully I’ll finally be getting my blog out this week if I can get the platform to work.

    Adrian D.

    FWIW my observations went something like this (unfortunately I did not make copies at the time – I won’t be making that mistake again).

    In a first post I pointed out severe flaws in the ‘air-droped-bomb-causing-over-a-hundren-fatalities’ (conspiracy) theory:

    That the entire basis for the Syrian-bomb theory relies on witness statements from individuals which contradict each other and often themselves.
    That there is no documented evidence of the immediate aftermath or rescue efforts at all. That individuals described as ‘journalists’, and whose footage has been used to prove an air attack, attended the scene without taking any footage at all.
    The reports of the number of casualties rely upon similarly dubious sources – the primary medical reports come from a struck-off UK doctor and a representative of SAMS who has a proven track record of making things up to attempt to discredit the Syrian government.
    That a surprising number of the ‘victims’ appear to have head and neck injuries.
    That the existence of the alleged casualties has never been verified by external sources – social media presence (FB, Instagram etc.), or matched to the autopsies.
    That the evidence for the location of the deaths relies on the same, contradictory ‘witnesses’ and actually places the victims upwind of the alleged bomb site.
    That the poster-boy for the victims, who reported over 20 members of his family as having died – including his beloved wife – has never been shown with pictures of any of them other than ‘his’ two twins (who could have been anyones).
    That said poster-boy’s FB account shows him and his brother to be strongly linked to violent anti-government forces.

    In my second comment I asked, given that Higgins was asserting that sarin was a non-persistent agent and that according to a Norwegian study he reported, would not have been effective after about 30 minutes, how did this stack up with witness statements who reportedly travel some distance before being rendered unconscious. I pointed out the statement from one who was raised by another commenter on the thread (which is still there) who said he was hospitalised after arriving 2 hours later. Also what did it say of HRW’s two star witnesses who arrived right on the scene 15 and 20 minutes after the alleged bomb, but reported no ill effects themselves. Or the others who report running into the ‘yellow mist’?

    I got a reply from a commenter pointing out that a ‘few’ contradictory witnesses did not disprove the air-drop theory and who attempted, as is usual on Bellingcat KS blogs, to bring the discussion around to technical arguments on hexamine. His comment has gone too, but I kept a copy of my reply this time:

    @Sean Lamb. The witnesses are not contaminating the record, they at least as far as the ‘air-dropped bomb causing more than 100 civilian deaths’ (conspiracy) theory goes, ARE the record.

    It’s not a case of ‘some of the witnesses’ – these are ALL of the witnesses. I’ve repeatedly asked Higgins and readers of this site to provide me with links to any of the ‘wealth’ of statements that they seem to find so convincing – but have never had a reply. Seriously where are the reliable witnesses?

    HRW and the OPCW claim to have interviewed many witnesses (HRW say 32, OPCW more), but they only provide heavily edited extracts from very few – HRW just eight, the OPCW using just one [who is almost certainly one of HRW’s anyway] – and these are all demonstrably unreliable and/or contradictory.

    These are exactly the same witnesses that we must believe regarding the number and location of the victims.

    You also mention the ‘footage’ – and here there is a serous problem too – there simply isn’t any. We have self-professed local journalists rushing to the scene without their cameras. We have NOTHING AT ALL of the immediate aftermath and ‘rescue’ from the never-usually-camera-shy White Helmets – one of them even claimed to be filming the event as he collapsed FFS – where are these images?

    HRW claim to have video of the ‘first attack’, but refuse to provide it.

    The OPCW do not provide links to or proper references for any of the media they were provided. In any case, they admit that they did not make any effort to forensically analyse the metadata – so their ‘digital chain of custody’ is as flakey as it is for their physical samples.

    Your right that the OPCW should be more forthcoming with the results of their analysis, but the presence of sarin or sarin-like substances in the samples – hexamine present or not – is irrelevant to the air-dropped bomb hypothesis. All of those samples could have come from just a small amount sprayed over the ground, onto some soild, or administered to just a few hostages, ‘expendable’ locals and/or a few determined jihadis willing or coerced to make themselves sick for the good of the cause (much better odds of survival than a suicide bomb, but with potentially much bigger effect). .

    Despite the apparently huge death toll and casualties across different medical facilities, samples were taken from only a handful of alleged victims – did none of the staff at the SAMS and Health Directorate facilities think this evidence might be of use?

    There is no evidence whatsoever to conclude that all the dead from the videos were killed by nerve agents or that there were anything like the hundreds reported.

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