Today I find myself on the front page of The Times, as one of the members of the recently formed academic working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.
Members of the working group have so far published just one item, a research note on the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. Although still work in progress, the piece, Update to briefing note “Doubts about Novichoks” has been well-received by academics and serious commentators. It has been singled out by Cornell University’s Professor of Organic Chemistry, David B Collum, as the most definitive work on the novichok nerve agent scandal.
According to the Times, the group is “spreading pro-Assad disinformation”. In fact, the group is scrupulous in its analysis and presentation of information, which stands always open to correction, as any academic work in progress does. The group is not “pro-Assad”.
Speaking for myself, I am simply “pro-” getting at the truth. If I make a mistake, I always stand to be corrected and endeavour to learn from the correction. So, in response to criticism of one of my posts last year, for instance, I took it down and re-wrote it. Twitter is an area in which I am on a learning curve, since misunderstandings so easily arise when thoughts are compressed into a few words that are easily taken out of context. Certainly, now that my twitter feed has been brought to wider public attention, I do invite any reader to point out anything there that needs correcting.
Incidentally, I don’t think The Times article has been scrupulously fair on its front page when it refers to some claims I retweeted, because it fails to mention that they were being quoted as the reference for the following words of my own:
“Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions about the conduct of ‘rebel’ factions who had been in control. Questions also concern who and what has been supported by UK FCO.”
I have not claimed to verify the witness statements that prompted the questions, but since the witnesses are due a degree of respect, I believe, those questions arising from them can reasonably be aired, without prejudice to the question of their truth.
A question thoughtful readers will likely be asking is why The Times has gone the trouble it has to give such prominence to a small group of critical academics.
In the early hours of this morning, as I looked at the front page prepared by The Times, news was coming in of the military attack taking place in Syria. That attack – whose legality under international law, I believe, stands to be clarified – was “justified” on the basis of exactly the kind of claims that the academic working group is subjecting to critical assessment. Such claims have been questioned by many people, including senior British military figures. The fact that people who aim to provide support to the questioning are attacked in a major news outlet is itself a matter of concern.