How We’re Misled About Syria: UK Propaganda and the BBC

Previous posts about misleading Syria coverage – from MSF, Amnesty International, Channel 4 and George Monbiot of the Guardian – used the past tense in their title. However, this one is current. At the time of writing, the BBC is about to start airing a new radio series centring on the life and work of the late James Le Mesurier, the former British Army officer responsible for establishing the White Helmets, a prime source of information used by the Western media in coverage of the war in Syria.

To write in connection with a man so recently taken from his wife and children is not easy. Although finding him an intimidating – even threatening – figure in life, and notwithstanding his documented animus towards the working group I’m a founding member of, I respect the memory his loved ones will hold him in. But this post is not about personal feelings or, indeed, about judgements of personal failings.

I mention this because the BBC production promises to include appeals to emotion, if the prior communications by its producer are any indication. And the recent piece by Martin Chulov for the Guardian seems intended to set the tone for this latest chapter in the official UK narrative on Syria. Furthermore, in the course of his emotive eulogy for Le Mesurier, Chulov reiterated a suggestion put forward on other occasions by the likes of Hamish de Bretton Gordon, Richard Benyon, Idrees Ahmad and others, that critics of the White Helmets had driven the former military man to take his own life.

If Le Mesurier were my relative – and many of my relatives have served in British armed forces – I would find it as offensive to his memory as it is to the targets of the smear to hear suggested that, for all his training and years of experience on the ground as an army officer, he was so emotionally fragile as to be pushed over the edge by some critical words from quarters upon which the whole weight of the British establishment is anyway bearing down in his support. Having myself been attacked repeatedly by the British press I can tell you the last thing their smears would ever elicit from me is suicidal thoughts. So I shall respect Le Mesurier enough to presume that he would be unfazed by unfounded criticisms in social media. (Janine di Giovanni in fact affirms, in the New York Times, that he shrugged criticisms off with nonchalance.)

As for accusations of siphoning funds from an organisation dealing with some very dangerous men, however, these could potentially point to more serious sorts of threat. Whether the truth is simply that careful bookkeeping was not his forte – as his widow, business associate, and co-accused, Emma Winberg, suggested to Chulov – or whether there was actual fraud, as alleged by Ana van Es & Anneke Stoffelen and Kit Klarenberg, I shall not comment (although other WGSPM members have provided a briefing note here). Either way, once others with a stake in Mayday funding got wind of financial irregularities, their suspicions could conceivably have had troubling implications for Mayday’s director. It is perhaps worth noting that the White Helmets leader, Raed Al Saleh, had already started publicly distancing the group from Le Mesurier’s organisation Mayday. Also to note is that the Dutch Government had withdrawn support for Mayday and the White Helmets, due to concerns about the destination of its funding.

So what can we expect from the new BBC podcast series? The burnishing of Le Mesurier’s reputation may well be accompanied by counterattacks on his critics. This is implied in the line of questioning that the series producer Chloe Hadjimatheou has directed towards those who look set to be cast as villains of the piece. They include Eva Bartlett, who has published a response to Hadjimatheou’s rather loaded questions, and Vanessa Beeley, one of the most smeared journalists in Britain, whose own open response includes the following observations.

The British public broadcaster has sent out requests for comments to those who have dared to expose the role the UK government and its intelligence agencies have played in the destabilization of Syria, which look more like neo-McCarthyist charge sheets. The producer … had been in email and telephone conversation with the author of this article, as well as Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, and members of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda (WGSMP) since June 2020. The result of those conversations, during which the evidence emanating from serious scientific research and on-the-ground testimony was presented to the producer, was a familiar list of accusations of “conspiracy theorism” and suggestions of “incentivized” Russian or Syrian bias.

In Beeley’s view, we can anticipate

a damage limitation exercise designed to discredit the evidence that points to the White Helmets being a propaganda construct with extremist connections funded by the US/UK coalition to vilify the Syrian government and allies, thus justifying military intervention by proxy and aggression against a sovereign nation.

She also cited former Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford:

The BBC have systematically tried to suppress views on Syria which run counter to the standard one-sided narrative. This programme’s efforts to smear dissenters takes BBC conduct to a new low. …

As for the response of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, this focused attention on a question that Hadjimatheou looks unlikely to address in her programmes. The group asked her why Raed Al Saleh had never revealed the location of the bodies of the victims of the Douma incident on 7 April 2018, despite having told Reuters on 18 April 2018 he had given the location to the OPCW. She replied that Al Saleh had told her the bodies were buried in a mass grave within 24 hours in accordance with the wishes of the families, in a location known to them and the Syrian authorities. Yet the only witness on record who has identified a relative among the Douma victims reported that “the fighters” had refused to deliver his brother’s body to the family, and he did not know the location of the grave. Hadjimatheou declined to press Al Saleh to comment, leaving an impression of her being less concerned to investigate what really happened to the Douma victims than to interrogate independent commentators about their ‘beliefs’.

My own response to a more speculative approach by the BBC producer was limited to politely indicating that I, like so many other citizens, have lost faith in the BBC as a news medium. With regard to its Syria reporting particularly, the broadcaster has a track record of contravening its statutory duties of accuracy and impartiality. Here are a few illustrations:

The BBC in 2013 broadcast the Panorama documentary ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ featuring a scene at a hospital dealing with the alleged aftermath of an incendiary bomb on a school, which, according to the painstaking research of Robert Stuart, is very likely faked. BBC has responded to this charge by seeking to remove copies of the film from the internet rather than offer a satisfactory response to it.

The BBC has misreported alleged chemical attacks, and made sweeping allegations of chemical attacks on the basis of unnamed and uncorroborated ‘sources’.

The BBC has participated in smear campaigns against independent journalists whose work injects some balance and impartiality into the public discussions of the war in Syria.

The one-sidedness of BBC reporting is also manifest in its complete silence in relation to highly significant stories such as the continuing OPCW scandal.

The BBC has failed to acknowledge or follow up the claim made by one of its own producers, Riam Dalati, that the hospital scene showing alleged chemical weapons victims in Douma 2018 was staged.

In this post I have not wanted to pre-judge the series that Chloe Hadjimatheou has put together but to set the baseline of expectations that an optimist might hope it would exceed. It will be updated once the programmes are aired if, as the optimist in me hopes, they throw up interesting new insights or if, as I fear, they present claims that warrant critical attention.

This entry was posted in BBC, disinformation, media, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How We’re Misled About Syria: UK Propaganda and the BBC

  1. Tom Welsh says:

    “I have not wanted to pre-judge the series that Chloe Hadjimatheou has put together…”

    Neither have I. But then I shall not be watching it. The BBC has rather simplified my life by removing itself from the realm of credible discourse.

    Nevertheless, thanks for this level-headed review.

  2. A says:

    I think a correction is needed to “the only witness on record who has identified a relative among the Douma victims”- Nasr Hanan and father also identified victims as their relatives

    also Khaled Nuseir

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  4. Paul McKeigue says:

    You’re right — I hadn’t noticed that in this video, Nasr Amer Hanan identifies one of the victims shown dead in a photo (victim M1 according to Adam Larson’s coding system) as his brother. 

    However, as James Harkin’s Intercept piece notes, Nasr Hanan’s story was so inconsistent that it’s hard to take him seriously as a witness. His story that he had been sheltering in the basement with his family and the other victims at Location 2, who then ran outside to the street then back into the building and upstairs to the apartment was contradicted by other opposition sources,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but on a quick skim I don’t see the other witnesses making an identification from an image of a deceased victim.

    • A says:

      Hanan senior here-

      Nuseir is more difficult but from timing given (family removed after 2am), his relatives would have to still be there when victim videos were filmed.

      Not to say that they are reliable as witnesses, just that it is wrong to say that the only witnesses claiming to be related to the victims are those presented by Grigoriev. The opposing claims also highlight the need to actually verify the genuine relatives.

    • A says:

      Harkin did a longer version of that article with links, who he actually spoke to (Stefan Borg not Nasr Hanan) and more context (e.g. Higgins only verified the location ~2 weeks later, it seems Harkin did not actually know where he needed to give his “minders the slip” and go investigate)

      Click to access Second-Draft-History-Harkin-2019.pdf

    • A says:

      I tried to leave this reply earlier, I’m not sure if it worked so apologies if this appears twice

      Hanan senior:

      Nuseir is more difficult but by his timing (family removed after 2am) they should be there at the time victim videos were filmed

      Not to say they are reliable witnesses, only that it would be wrong to state that the only witnesses that have identified victims as relatives were those presented by Grigoriev.

  5. Pingback: How We’re Misled About Syria: UK Propaganda and the BBC – Tim Hayward – The Critical Thinking Times

  6. michakobs says:

    Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir, survivor of alleged chemical attack in Douma:

    “I came back from my work around dusk then went down to the basement, we were around 50 to 60 people in the basement. All the alley was in this basement. We were praying during the dusk prayers when we felt a bottle of gas was opened – it was not a hit. I fainted for almost 10 hours. … ”

    Chlorine gas is heavier than air. According to his own words he “fainted” for 10 hrs where that gas (if it was there) would finally arrive. There is no way he could survive such a scenario.

    “…When I woke up, I ran to the hospital here, where the (Syrian) Civil Defence (commonly known as the White Helmets) were. So we asked them to bring the people, but they did not accept. …”

    At that time the White Helmets already carried the bodies out of the house to wash them in the street in front of the house. Not only that everyone would have missed the only surviver inside the house in the basement, he obviously also missed all the bodies, White Helmets and media activists in front of the house blocking his way to the hospital.

    “… I told them: ‘For God’s sake, the people are still alive.’ They did not accept to go and help. I woke up at two o’clock after midnight (0200 local time), I ran to the basement and found my children and my wife on the ground with foam at their mouths….”

    This timeline puts the alleged chemical attack one day earlier since he again fainted and woke up at 2am. The media crews took most of their videos at about 10pm and there was definitely no living surviver inside that house.

    “… I carried my children to the hospital and they (White Helmets) did not help me until the next day. At 10 o’clock we brought them out, while they refused to help. On the second day, local officials (from the local council of Douma) came to inspect. We went up and found a missile with a certain volume, but it had not exploded – as if someone put it there and opened it, but it was not dropped by a plane. We could not see anything. We were in the basement and if someone came and shot us we would not know.”

    That cylinder was allegedly found shortly after 10pm. According to the different accounts the attack allegedly happend 1 … 2.5hrs before the cylinder was found and filmed. So Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir’s account has nothing to do with any reality of that day.

    The same can be said for Hanan who allegedly smelled the chlorine in the basement, ran up with all the others and saw his brother at the 2nd floor at the end of the hallway in the kittchen washing his face. While everyone along that hallway dropped dead, witness Hanan somehow escaped. While he claimed that he was in the basement with all of the victims, he identified no other victim.

    Finally the old man with the bleached baby surrounded by a media crew. Watch him waiting for his breakdown until the media guy is ready with his speech. Maybe I’m wrong but as a father I don’t believe that ANY father in the world would/could hold back all emotions until a young media guy has finished his speech about politics and whatever.
    In my holy opinion, all three accounts are a very clear hint that some “victim identification” was arranged and stories were prepared.

    • A says:

      Yes Nuseir’s account seems to be a mix – fainting for ’10 hours to 2am’ would match the earlier alleged 4pm attack but “dusk prayers” would match the later 7:30pm.

      Questionable Douma stories are a theme of course (a long explanation in case any unknown BBC producers want to actually investigate something):

      With “over 500” genuine victims with “respiratory distress” and “excessive oral foaming”, instead activists only photograph children where (FFM 8.93) “none appear to be ill” and film a hospital where (FFM 8.95) “no critically ill patients are seen”.

      Although the majority of those 500 are “women and children”, every media outlet strangely end up speaking to the same family who claim to have been in a neighbouring basement. They claim to have heard the cylinder and that they were affected by the gas -Diaa Mohammed, Amani (who has a “wretching cough” but “already suffered from lung problems before the attack”) and twins Masa (sprayed with water in the hospital videos) and Malaz.

      Diaa Mohammed infamously provided their backpack for CNN to sniff even though at the time CNN were reporting it had been a nerve agent. With implausible timing, they also claim that two men immediately investigate the “hissing sound”, returning “seconds later” followed by enough chlorine gas floating down the basement stairs to later knock out Amani (and in some versions the daughter). Even though their basement entrance is either adjacent to or across the street from the building with the balcony cylinder and that balcony is on the opposite side of the building.

      Three wandering doctors then arrive to rescue them (via the streets the White Helmets couldn’t use to reach them because of the (FFM 8.63) “intensity of the shelling”. Nasr Hanan also sat on the ground in the street outside the building and by 9pm all but (FFM 8.63) “20 to 25” people had already “self-extricated” which all rather undermines the idea of tens of people being ‘trapped’ in an apartment with no front door and 4 seconds from the street). On BBC’s news at 10, the story differed slightly in that they were rescued by the “Civil Defence” – something that would add 1.5 hours sitting around waiting.. which doesn’t feature in their account.

      • A says:

        Maybe worth noting too, Eliot Higgins was apparently unfamiliar with the story above (“[the hospital scene] seems most likely another conventional incident confused with the chlorine attack”) as were Bellingcat’s friends (“People at the hospital were not exposed to Chlorine”). As a caveat, Bellingcat’s friends also think that the ground floor apartment is not at ground level.

        Before it was revealed that there were no traces of nerve agent, everyone with a modicum of common sense from US government (” A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin”) to the Human Rights Coucil (“[chlorine] does not explain other reported symptoms, which are more consistent with the use of another chemical agent, most likely a nerve gas)” to the medical professionals consulted by the Sunday Times above (“Medical professionals say these are symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve gas”), accepted the evidence wasn’t consistent with simply chlorine. This included the (Bellingcat friendly) chemist on Chloe Hadjimatheou’s podcast, Andrea Sella.

      • A says:

        For the record, the earliest tweets I could find also allege that “hundreds” had already made it to hospital(s) from L2 immediate area by 8pm

        Starting at 8:02pm-

        minutes later the White Helmets tweet at 8:14pm claiming they are unable to get there

        similar to their earlier tweet at exactly 4pm (where alleged ‘chlorine victims’ can have literally only just arrived according to FFM 8.55 & figure 5)

  7. Le Mesurier’s widow Emma Winberg seems to be planning a career in Green NGO-land. Her CV reveals a startling career battling deforestation and climate change in Kabul, Yemen, East Jerusalem etc. Some reflections here:

  8. A says:

    I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes but I was only really interested in the Douma part. Unfortunately it includes some flat out lies (list here may not be exhaustive):

    11:45 Chloe Hadjimatheou claims cylinder “fell from the sky” and “lodged in the roof of the building”

    28:05 Andrea Sella also claims cylinder was “lodged in the roof”

    (Eliot Higgins also claimed the cylinder was “stuck in the roof” although I’m not sure where the claim originated - )

    The earliest White Helmets (now private) video of the balcony shows the cylinder is not “lodged” or “stuck” in anything at all but is, in fact, balanced by the hole.

    29:03 Chloe Hadjimatheou claims the victims “all died at the same time of the same cause” – cause never established of course.

  9. Pingback: Media Coverage of OPCW Whistleblower Revelations | Tim Hayward

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