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 | 4 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 | 9 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 | 10 Comments

Women’s Protection in Syria: Stop Support For Terrorists!

A ‘new report by the London School of Economics’ (LSE), so announced the British press – The Times, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror – describes sexual crimes against women in Syrian prisons. It alleges these to be a matter of state policy. Published just ahead of Geneva talks about a political settlement in Syria, the press interpreted it as supporting renewed calls for regime change.

The paper provides no new grounds for that conclusion, however. In fact, its sweeping allegations obscure good reasons why, under present circumstances, a responsible approach to the problem of sexual violence in Syria would involve supporting the government against the terrorist insurgents.


Syrian Christians

United Nations research had previously found (in 2015 and again in 2016) that while some conflict-related sexual violence was perpetrated by state personnel, ‘non-State actors account for the vast majority of incidents’.[1] The UN made clear that efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, as the Syrian government is committed to, ‘are an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.’ Such groups use sexual violence as part of their strategy to spread terror among those that oppose their ideology. They engage in trafficking of women and slavery. They drive the displacement of women who, then, ‘remain at high risk, even when they reach the supposed refuge of neighbouring countries.’

Marie Forestier, the LSE paper’s author, complains that the UN paid ‘disproportionate attention’ to the terrorist groups as perpetrators of sexual violence in Syria. She wants to highlight crimes on the government side, and she relays some horrific allegations about some individual cases. This illustrates specific experiences of a problem that the UN had signaled. However, while harrowing in themselves, these testimonies cannot speak to the comparative scale of the problem.[2] Forestier therefore does not show the UN’s concerns about the egregious sexual violence of the terrorist insurgents to be disproportionate. Furthermore, her interviews relate to experiences from a period – 2012 and 2013 – that is earlier than covered by the UN reports of 2015 and 2016. Forestier herself admits that accusations of sexual violence on the government’s side were ‘most frequent from late 2011 to 2013, in disputed areas such as the Damascus suburbs, and in central and coastal governorates … with a peak in 2012, and comparatively fewer cases in 2014.’ She thereby shows the situation was worse in places where the government had to fight insurgents and improved when the government regained control. In light of her own admissions, it seems perverse to cite limited older evidence in criticizing considered conclusions of fuller and more up-to-date reports.

The perversity is heightened with unwarranted generalizations in the present continuous tense. Press coverage has, unsurprisingly, transmitted the message that the most shocking details of individual allegations from up to five years ago capture what is occurring on a general and continuing basis today. Forestier herself even makes demonstrably false general claims in the present tense. For instance, she says: ‘According to an estimate by United Nations investigators, Syrian security forces detain tens of thousands of people at any one time.’ However, the source she cites for this claim says no such thing.[3]

Some of her most damaging claims are simply inexplicable, as when she says: ‘According to testimony, the overwhelming majority of men committing rapes have been State forces.’ This extraordinary claim flies in the face of the palpable evidence and reports of the UN. Bizarrely, the source Forestier cites for it is an article on ‘general data on sexual violence by state forces’ attained for 129 other conflicts, not including Syria, and during a period (1989-2009) prior to the outbreak of war in Syria.[4]

The LSE paper’s headline message thus misrepresents what is actually shown regarding the extent of the government’s responsibility for sexual violence. Buried within its text are admissions that the paper should only ‘be considered as a starting point for further research’ and that ‘it is impossible to conclude that sexual violence by regime forces is a mass phenomenon.’ Yet this did not stop Forestier making such damaging accusations as that ‘rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities’ (p.12).[5]

Regardless of lack of evidence, she seems determined to convey a message of rape and sexual violence being state policy approved at the highest levels.[6] Yet she admits: ‘The decision to resort to sexual violence (or tolerate it) seems to have fallen under the regional level or even the branch and military unit level’. ‘No information indicates that high-level officials in Damascus ordered rapes’ and ‘the President or high level security officials probably didn’t give explicit orders’.

She rightly notes that ‘commanders may be prosecuted where they know or should have known of the abuses and failed to take action to stop them.’ She also correctly observes that ‘ending impunity is central in preventing sexual violence.’ I would add that ending impunity, like bringing the problem itself under control, requires well functioning institutions. The Syrian government is evidently aware of this, and, under difficult conditions, has sought to improve its systems for the protection of women and children, as welcomed by the UN OHCHR. But the good functioning of institutions is favoured by peaceful conditions rather than by war.

One does not have to be an enthusiast for the present government to recognize its legitimacy and the simple fact that it is uniquely well-placed as things stand now, and foreseeably, to protect ordinary men, women and children against violent threats.


Freed from ISIS

A realistic general presumption has to be that rape and sexual violence tends be more common in war than in peacetime.[7] That is a reason – on top of so many others – why war should be avoided. A country that finds its territory turned into a battleground has to reckon with sexual violence being more prevalent than in peacetime, while its resources to tackle the problem are diverted and diminished. A government that has to defend its people against armed insurgents, particularly when these routinely engage in sexual violence, faces extraordinary challenges. That does not absolve it of responsibility for ensuring good conduct by its own forces. The practical ability of a government to maintain discipline, however, is not enhanced by having to engage on many fronts with ruthless opposition.

Realistically, and morally, the best way to avoid rape in war is to avoid war itself. I cannot believe that Marie Forestier would disagree on this general point, but I am less sure what she thinks with regard to the specific case of Syria, or even whether she has fully thought it through.[8] The thrust of her argument would support continued efforts by foreign powers, exercised through terrorist proxies on the ground, to depose the government of Syria, something that could only worsen further still the problem of sexual violence.

… [11]

It may incidentally be worth noting that the Syrian army prominently features all female units, including the famed Lionesses for National Defence unit of the elite Republican Guard.[12] Western commentators who note the propaganda value of this also grant that its success reflects the wider social solidarity that has made the Syrian Arab Army so resilient. As a French commentator observes, ‘The war in Syria is a face-off between two societal structures and Assad is showing that, in his system, women have an important role, even in the defence forces’.[13] If the Syrian government sees the propaganda value of promoting women’s equality, we might reasonably suppose it would see the irrationality of undoing such reputational gains by pursuing a delinquent policy of the kind Forestier alleges.

The fact is that what people widely believe throughout Syria – in Arab areas as in Kurdish – is that the overwhelming problem of sexual violence, like that of extremist violence more generally, comes from ISIS and other terrorists that violate, torture, enslave, traffic and oppress women. This is consistent with the UN findings. Forestier’s allegations are consistent only with the foreign drive for ‘regime change’.

For anyone genuinely concerned to deal with sexual violence occurring in – and occasioned by – conflict situations, a central preventive strategy is not starting a war in the first place, and not prolonging a war needlessly once started. It certainly means not intervening in a war on the side of those inflicting by far and away the most extensive and egregious sexual crimes.

In short, if the government had been supported in its efforts to defeat the insurgents, a great deal of sexual violence would have been avoided. Forestier’s claims, seen in this light, in being unfounded, are counterproductive and irresponsible. The view she opposes has a coherence hers lacks. It also has basic morality on its side. The problem with Forestier’s paper is not simply that it is poor research and writing.[14] The real concern is that, in being publicly promoted, it has been fed into the narrative beyond academia that would continue seeking to destabilise Syria (and the wider Middle East) and to prolong conflict against the Syrian government. One effect of this would be to prolong the circumstances in which sexual violence continues unabated on that territory.


Civilians freed by Syrian Army

[1] United Nations Security Council, Conflict-related sexual violence Report of the Secretary-General 23 March 2015: https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/203. United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, 20 April 2016, S/2016/361 http://www.peacewomen.org/node/94106.

[2] I do not take propose to take issue with any of Forestier’s reporting of testimonies, even though her methodology is unclear. (For instance, she mentions that three interviews with survivors ‘were excluded because they seemed exaggerated or false’ yet she does not explain how she decided whose word to give how much credence to, particularly in cases where she was speaking through a translator via phone to someone she hadn’t met.)

[3] The source she cites is UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission
of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/ HRC/31/68, 11 February 2016, http://www. ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/ CoISyria/A-HRC-31-68.pdf. (Having checked that source I find the only mention of thousands of people refers to ISIS crimes. I could not find any statement remotely resembling her claim, and I would readily correct the record here if she can direct me to it with a page reference.)

[4] Dara Kay Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, 1989−2009”, Journal of Peace Research 51(3) (2014), 418-428.

[5] This assumption is manifest, too, in her claim – made much of in the press reporting of her paper – that sexual assault in detention was so routine that contraception was supplied. Damning as this may be, assuming it is true, it does not self-evidently suggest that those assaults were part of a policy as distinct from an atrocious practice. It could in fact be taken to suggest a desire of perpetrators to prevent evidence of violations coming to light.  A related claim involves the testimony of a victim that her attacker used Vaseline. Forestier takes this, along with the contraception, to ‘indicate that rapes followed a regular pattern that involved some degree of organisation and were part of a broader state policy of widespread repression against the civil population.’ Since the organization required is that of a visit to a pharmacy, and we can have no idea how widespread the practice was, we cannot simply infer what Forestier claims about a ‘broader state policy’.

[6] At one point she asserts that ‘when soldiers or militiamen raped women during military operations, this was part of the attack against their adversaries and their relatives. Thus, rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities.’ But the inference stated after her ‘thus’ is a non sequitur: she provides no reason to think such attacks follow from a policy rather than opportunism or vindictiveness.

[7] The presumption has to be defeasible, but it seems clear that simply to presume the contrary would be imprudent. For a discussion see e.g. Doris E. Buss, ‘Rethinking “Rape as a Weapon of War, Feminist Legal Studies (2009) 17.2: 145-163.

[8] Her puzzling take on the situation is illustrated by a claim like this: ‘the Syrian government has sought to increase antagonism between communities’ and ‘to frame the conflict as a fight between Alawites and Sunnis instead of a struggle for democracy.’ Yet the government owes its resilience precisely to a longstanding and conscious strategy of defusing sectarian tendencies. (The government has consistently framed the conflict as an attack on the secular multi-faith state by primarily Islamist jihadists.) Furthermore, however much a desire for greater democracy may originally have motivated the political opposition, the conflict that has ensued was taken over by jihadists committed to imposing the most anti-democratic regime imaginable.

[11] This passage originally mentioned the example of the Kurdish women’s units and has been edited on advice from early readers. (Original 1 March 2017; amended 2 March 2017)

[12] Daily Mail 26 March 2015 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3011838/Syria-s-female-tank-drivers-Battalion-800-women-commandos-fierce-clashes-rebels-line-Damascus.html#ixzz4ZnIjB3tT

[13] Fabrice Balanche, quoted by France 24, 2 April 2015: http://www.france24.com/en/20150402-syria-women-soldiers-assad-army-propaganda

[14] Given its status as a Working Paper, the academic community is aware that Forestier’s claims have not been peer-reviewed. The wider world does not observe such niceties. The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Times did not. Most tweeters do not. They all present it as coming from the prestigious LSE. Which is fair enough, given that it features conspicuously on the LSE website. Since LSE has promoted this paper, there is a case for saying they should own it and answer for it. If my argument in this post is correct, there is a case for suggesting they should retract it.  

Posted in disinformation, global justice, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 15 Comments

NGOs Fabricating Evidence Against Syria

Last week, Amnesty International published a report that was severely criticised for literally fabricating evidence to support implausible accusations against the Syrian government.[1]  The report included a project of ‘Forensic Architecture’ that served in guiding the imagination as to the horrors that might be perpetrated in a building used for torture and execution. Computerised modelling of this kind may have its uses, but it clearly has limitations when it comes to determining who may have done what in a building. A computer can only simulate on the basis of inputs. The inputs come from elsewhere, and they may or may not be reliable or appropriately detailed.[2]

This week, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they too have been commissioning  research in Forensic Architecture. This might seem a strange thing for an organisation of doctors to be doing.  Still, their ostensible concern is that the bombing of hospitals – something contrary to the law of war and human morality – should not go unrecorded nor, ultimately, unpunished. An added difficulty is that ‘often, the only real redress available to MSF is to publicly denounce perpetrators of bombings in the hope that the damage to their image will incite them to modify their practices.’ Denunciations may have little enough effect, particularly when even the grounds for them is uncertain. Where there is a known threat of danger to the staff running a hospital, MSF prudently does not even attempt to operate.  The organisation does sometimes offer support of some kind to medics who do work in war zones, however, like the province of Idlib in Syria.

Just over a year ago, the MSF-supported Ma’arat Al Numan hospital in Idlib province was hit by an airstrike. At the time, ‘Dr Mego Terzian, president of MSF’s French section, publicly accused the Russian-Syrian coalition of being responsible for the bombings – a conviction based on an analysis of the context, the military forces present and testimonies from Syrian civilians (some known to MSF for some time) who were at the scene.’ However, the accusation sparked ‘much heated debate within the MSF Movement. On what grounds is MSF accusing Russia and Syria? How reliable are the witness statements it is using to support its allegations?’ (See also my recent article on How We Were Misled About Syria by MSF.)

Now, MSF tells us, ‘The Forensic Architecture team has conducted an investigation based on videos and photographs circulating on social media, taken by medical personnel, activists and ordinary citizens.’


‘While their investigation does not provide solid evidence, it does confirm MSF’s conviction as to the responsibility of Syrian and Russian forces in the bombing of the hospital in Ma’arat Al Numan.’

So, no evidence, and yet a confirmation of a ‘conviction’?

I think perhaps the research team promoting this new use of computerised modelling should make clear the limitations of its proper use. The recent case of Amnesty International appealing to the same source of non-evidence highlights an overreach that the researchers now risk seeming complicit in. The timing of the release of these dramatic pieces of non-evidence hardly looks accidental to any serious observer. Do the people at Forensic Architecture really want to be seen as partners in a continued drive to destabilise the Middle East?

As for MSF, and this goes for Amnesty International too, their publications on Syria sometimes read like the worst kind of tabloid journalism. Exaggerated headline claims backed up by no supporting evidence, and with crucial caveats, if included at all, tucked away where they are unlikely to register with any but the most cautious readers.

Is there something going on in the direction of those organisations that is not quite what ordinary supporters among the public believe?


[1] On the fabrication see Tony Cartalucci. The report was critically analysed by Rick Sterling as well as Moon of Alabama. The former UK Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. A former prisoner there, who remains an opponent of Assad, stated that while atrocious things certainly occurred, the scale of Amnesty’s claims was preposterous. Further critical discussions are cited here.

[2] MSF say, ‘Investigations use amateur photographs and video footage to help reconstruct the “crime scene”‘. Specifically, they add, ‘Using cartography, image analysis, and legal and architectural expertise, research agency Forensic Architecture collects and analyses images taken of a crime committed by a State to establish the facts and ascertain who was responsible.’ An obvious question concerns the difference between establishing the facts of physical changes undergone by a structure and attributing responsibility for causing them, since the latter challenge necessarily involves input of extra-architectural data.


Posted in Amnesty International, MSF, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Leave a comment

Amnesty International on Syria – at it again!

Writing recently about how we were misled by Amnesty International’s reports on Syria, I was criticised – for using the past tense.

This week Amnesty International has published a ‘new’ report – Syria: The Human Slaughterhouse – that presents no new evidence of the deaths it purports to be documenting. Even the BBC’s take on it makes clear: ‘it does not have evidence of executions taking place since December 2015’. The publication repeats previous claims about the years 2011-2015, and extrapolates.[1]

Such grave allegations need to be taken very seriously, but that starts with being scrupulous about their basis.

Previously I showed how Amnesty International did not follow its own prescribed research guidelines for earlier reports; it did not do so this time either.[2]

Those guidelines were those set out by Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and I think he could give a clearer steer on the need to observe them. In an interview, it was put to Shetty that accusations of bias are sometimes levelled at Amnesty International. His reply was that, since the organisation is criticised from all sides, ‘it must be doing something right’. This facile reply is fallacious. I can think of one controversial Amnesty representative, for instance, who has been accused of making unjustified claims against the governments of both Israel and Syria. I suspect many people who check will think he is wrong in one of those cases, although not necessarily the same one, without thereby assuming either he must be right in the other. I myself would simply regard him as simply insufficiently reliable.

Even if it is in fact true that the organisation is doing ‘something’ right, I do not think Amnesty should be content that this is good enough. I would want to insist that Amnesty needs to be tenacious in ensuring not to get it wrong. Its practice in Syria of extrapolating on the basis of conjectures made following conversations with representatives of the opposition is not guaranteed to ensure that.

What I think the grassroots supporters of Amnesty International need above all to be concerned about is what the organisation is trying to achieve with this new publication. With more constructive possibilities of international involvement following the end of the siege of Aleppo, what is the reason for reviving attempts to demonise the Syrian government?

Whatever excesses any parties need eventually to be held to account for, the concern of Amnesty International is supposed to be with human beings, and their interest lies overwhelmingly in achieving peace – not in stoking the embers of the war.


[1] A critical discussion of this is available at http://www.moonofalabama.org/2017/02/amnesty-report-hearsay.html

[2] For the 2012 report, which covers the first year of the five referred to in the new publication, I showed, point by point, that the report admits failing to fulfil some of the research criteria and fails to show it has met any of them. Substantially the same verdict applies to what is said here for 2012-2015; regarding the period 2015-2016, which many readers will understandably, but mistakenly, assume the ‘new’ evidence relates to, no evidence at all is even claimed to be presented.

Posted in Amnesty International, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 5 Comments