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December 22, 2020 7:21 am

Why Did the BBC Help Promote Syrian and Russian Propaganda?

avatar by Hadar Sela


Russian President Vladimir Putin alongside Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during a Decmeber 2017 visit to Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province. Photo: Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev.

Last month, the BBC Radio 4 program Intrigue aired a series that was produced, written, and presented by Chloe Hadjimatheou called “Mayday” (also available as podcasts) concerning the late White Helmets founder James Le Mesurier:

“Mayday” tells the extraordinary real story of the man who organized the White Helmets — rescuers who film themselves pulling survivors from bombed out buildings in rebel-held areas of Syria — and investigates claims that, far from being heroes, they are part of a very elaborate hoax.

The BBC’s longer synopsis includes the following:

The Russian and Syrian governments fueled the idea of a conspiracy. Using the United Nations as a platform, they promoted the idea that James Le Mesurier and the White Helmets were guilty of an increasingly wild and gruesome list of crimes. Kidnap, torture, and organ harvesting were just some of the claims on the charge sheet. An online network of bloggers, activists, and bots were publishing similar allegations.

The Syrian and Russian government’s [sic] had good reason to want to damage the credibility of James Le Mesurier and the White Helmets. Footage from the GoPro cameras they use to document their rescues have attracted the worlds’ attention to the Russian and Syrian bombardment of civilians in Syria. Evidence collected by the White Helmets was used to help prove [Syrian President] Assad’s responsibility for chemical weapons attacks against civilians, including children. Were those crimes ever to be prosecuted, the White Helmets’ evidence could be crucial.

The topic of the conspiracy theories surrounding the White Helmets is addressed inter alia in episode four of the series, with particular focus on Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, including references (lacking context in places) to their earlier anti-Israel activism.

Over two-and-a-half years before this Radio 4 series was aired (in April 2018), BBC Trending had published an article about Beeley and others titled “Syria war: The online activists pushing conspiracy theories”:

The activists call themselves “anti-war,” but as they generally back the Syrian government’s military operations against rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad and Russian air strikes carried out in support, it might be more accurate to describe them as “anti-Western intervention” or “pro-Syrian government.”

According to their narrative, international media organizations across the political spectrum, along with human rights organizations, are somehow covertly aligned with Western governments, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State group, and al-Qaeda and taking part in a secretive plot to take over Syria.

The BBC’s understanding of the fact that the propaganda war run by Russia and the Syrian regime — and supported by Western conspiracy theorists — included disinformation concerning the ‘White Helmets’ did not, however, prevent it from continuing to repeatedly amplify those claims.

For example, see:

BBC Promotes What It Described in April as Conspiracy Theories 

BBC News Website Readers Get Yet Anther Dose of Assad’s Propaganda 

Amplification of Assad Propaganda on BBC World Service Radio

New BBC Report on ‘White Helmets’ Again Amplifies Falsehoods

And Chloe Hadjimatheou’s series is not without issues. For example, in episode eight, which tells of the evacuation of some of the White Helmets workers and their families from southern Syria via Israel in July 2018, listeners are told (from 14:48) that:

Around 9:30 p.m., Farouk arrived at the Israeli side of the border crossing on the Golan Heights. … There’s a tall razor wire fence with concrete watch towers every few meters and there’s a huge metal gate.

The site of the entry of the White Helmets into Israel was not at a “border crossing” (the only border crossing on the Golan Heights is further north at Quneitra), the fence is not made of “razor wire,” and there are no “concrete watch towers” at all in that location.

Nevertheless, this series does provide an opportunity for the BBC to explain to its audiences why it adopted an editorial policy (which continues to this day) of promoting false balance — apparently in the name of “impartiality” — by repeatedly amplifying and mainstreaming what it knows to be propaganda put out by the Assad regime and its Russian ally, and further spread by assorted conspiracy theorists.

Hadar Sela is the co-editor of CAMERA UK — an affiliate of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), where this article first appeared.

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