BBC Radio recently broadcast a File on 4 programme called Ukraine: The Disinformation War, promoted with the strapline ‘British academics accused of sharing Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine.’
Those accused by the BBC were Dr Justin Schlosberg and myself: him on the basis of a Twitter thread, and me on the basis of two tweets. Each of us had sought to urge some caution about uncritically accepting news reports that were being appealed to as the basis for potential escalatory intervention in Ukraine. We were concerned for the sorts of reason people understand to be relevant from previous cases of acting on flawed intelligence, as notably, but not only, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Justin has already discussed serious concerns about how his position was misrepresented by the BBC, and raised questions about its good faith. Here I shall set out some of my own.
It has to be said, though, that judging by comments from the public, particularly on Twitter, a lot of listeners already share our concerns and find the BBC’s case against us underwhelming at best. Unclarity about the news value and real purpose of the programme has led some to see it as supporting attempts to constrain academics to toe the line in an information war on behalf of UK government – which would appear to be an illegitimate and unacceptable restriction on academic freedom and rights of free speech in a democracy.
Is the programme justified by a genuine public interest in the accusations it makes? Can it be considered an accurate and impartial account, presented in good faith, of a matter of genuine public concern? If it proves not to be, then more important questions arise about what might really be behind it.
A genuine public concern?
A public interest in a particular tweet of mine could be claimed – so journalists have pointed out to me – on the basis of its having been cited in a question prompting a government response in the UK Parliament. It might be noted, though, that the question itself was prompted by a news story, so it was a journalist, Theo Usherwood, who first bestowed news value on the tweet. His story was then referred to in a question from the Conservative backbench MP to the Secretary of State for Education:
‘Has my right hon. Friend seen the investigation by Theo Usherwood on LBC exposing pro-Putinist propaganda at some of our leading universities? … At Edinburgh, Professor Tim Hayward retweeted a Russian representative to the UN…’
The “retweet” in question was actually a quote-tweet in which my own words were:
‘As long as we’re still able to hear two sides of the story we should continue striving to do so.’
That sentence includes an implicit point, namely that freedom of expression is in the process of being eroded through increased censorship and other forms of restraint. Such threats to the free exchange of information and ideas are a matter one might expect journalists to be concerned about. As for the explicit point about hearing two sides of a story, this is a fundamental principle of journalists’ own professional practice insofar as it is necessary to ensure their reporting is duly impartial.
One might therefore have expected a free press to have voiced some concern at the response from the Secretary of State to the question:
‘The Minister for Higher and Further Education is already on the case and is contacting those universities. …. Putin and his cronies are a malign influence on anyone in this country buying their false narrative. I repeat: it is a false and dangerous narrative and we will crack down on it hard.’
Yet instead of giving coverage to concerns about the nature and justification of this ‘crackdown’, the British press engaged in a pile-on – united in condemnation of my tweet. That press coverage was extensive, including articles in Yahoo News 11, March, The Herald 12 March, LBC 14 March, Independent 14 March, Telegraph 14 March, Daily Mail 14 March, PA News Agency 15 March, New Statesman 16 March, The Times 22 March.
That degree of coverage for one tweet from one relatively unknown individual really is a remarkable fact in need of some kind of explanation.
Also in need of explanation is why the Minister would be contacting universities about tweets from personal Twitter accounts run by concerned individual citizens that have nothing to do with the academic positions they happen to hold. This is where the BBC makes a move that the rest of the media had not so determinedly attempted.
Accurate and Impartial?
In an evident effort to establish a link from a tweet to a university, the BBC accompanied the radio programme with a written article that takes a different tack. This article is not about lecturers (plural), but only myself. It strives to connect my social media engagement with my academic position. The BBC journalist put it to me that ‘helping to shape young minds entails responsibilities’. While not disagreeing, I did point out that students at world-leading universities do not passively allow their minds to be ‘shaped’ by the academics they encounter.
As the BBC broadcast’s own interviews with two students demonstrates, they are amply able and ready to engage critically with the ideas and theories they are presented with, including those of their lecturers. Each of the two students has her own specific point to make.
The first student, who I’ve never met or taught, commented disapprovingly on my tweets. That’s perfectly fair: in any public debate there will be different perspectives. On the broadcast she is a highly articulate speaker on behalf of hers. In fact, she already has a public profile as an accomplished journalist, with 54 publications in the Kyiv Post to her credit. The BBC tells us she has family in Ukraine – some of them fighting there – and anyone would empathise when she points out that, where one side is an aggressor against another, we should not ‘equate the two sides of the story’, morally speaking. The moment we do that, she says, ‘we lose our humanity’. We should not see the standpoint of the oppressor as being morally equivalent to that of the oppressed.
It is this idea of moral equivalence I take her to have in mind when she says “there are no two sides” to the conflict. For in a more literal, non-moral, sense, there is no conflict without two sides. Experienced journalists and scholars know that conflicts, when closely investigated, seldom prove to be entirely simple, and that can complicate the moral picture too. So while justifiably condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one might also consider how the moral situation appears, for instance, to Ukrainian students whose own families have been torn apart by conflict within the country which, from 2014-2021, according to the United Nations caused more than 50,000 casualties and more than 14,000 deaths.
Just as journalists have a professional obligation to reflect the complexity of such terrible situations, universities and their members have a duty of care to all students, recognizing that many of them may be dealing with their own difficult, even tragic, circumstances that can sometimes be very different from each other’s. It would be a damaging injustice if, when rightly heeding the concerns of some students, an institution appeared to tacitly dismiss those of others.
An illustration of unnoticed difficulties that can arise from allowing one perspective to prevail in a university context was provided a few years ago by a Syrian student, who wrote me a letter that they permitted me to quote:
‘As a Syrian student who comes from a pro-government family, I have often felt conflicted between my personally held views and the overwhelming outlook of those around me in Scotland and at the university. I have found it very difficult to know how to research the issues at stake, as any information available tends to be extremely biased in one direction or another. Having now read your wordpress and other materials, I feel it could be extremely refreshing to speak to you and perhaps get a proper perspective on an issue that is extremely personal and important to me.’
The reason the student had been spurred to contact me is also worth noting: it was because they had just been approached by a journalist seeking adverse comment about me for another of HuffPost’s many hit pieces. I don’t know how that journalist had come to identify a Syrian student, with no public profile, studying at my university.
Nor do I know how the BBC came to be speaking to the second of the two students they quote, who is not a well-known journalist. She was one of 45 who took a course with me in Autumn 2021, some months before the war in Ukraine. The comment she makes about one of the lectures, which is framed by the BBC as a criticism, is a quite reasonable one. Since students provide feedback on courses, I know which of the debates we cover attract something of a consensus and which elicit more mixed responses. The student the BBC had tracked down commented on one of the latter:
‘she came away from the lecture thinking it “could be true” that [the alleged chemical attack in Douma 2018] was faked … “He [Prof Hayward] essentially frames it as… ‘the Working Group is saying the truth, and they’re not listening to us’,” she said.’
The student reasonably conveys the gist of my stance on this topic, which has become the subject of extensive academic literature (some of which is cited here). (For more information on the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, and its support for whistleblowers concerning OPCW’s Douma investigation, see the links here.) As expected at a world-leading university, I’ve contributed to the academic literature on topics I teach, and if I didn’t believe in what I write I wouldn’t publish it; but I also know others could prove me wrong. When giving students a debate to study, I clearly label any article of my own as contributing to one side of it when that’s the case. The students – bright senior undergraduates with solid background knowledge and acute analytical skills – understand that a good criticism of the lecturer’s perspective will get a better grade than an uncritical reproduction of it would. It’s actually one of the delights of the job when students come up with challenging critical insights.
But while the student conveys honest perplexity about a challenging lecture, the headline of the BBC’s article gives her words a misleadingly inaccurate framing. For they contain no accusation, and they do not mention Russian lies. Nor do they refer to the war in Ukraine or any comment of mine about it.
Given this misleading framing and the insinuations it permits, I should also clarify that no complaint was made about the course (which finished in December 2021), and I would know if any had been. Furthermore, no student initiated contact with the BBC. I know this because when BBC journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou and her colleagues were discussing their programme with me in April and early May 2022, they made no mention at all of having communicated with any students. In fact, when I learned they had been cold calling students about me (28 April), they assured me their investigations at that time had not turned up anything to put to me. That was still my understanding during the 5-6 hours of conversation with them the following week in Edinburgh, when no student comments were mentioned.
Meanwhile, I don’t know how many students in total they contacted, or how they identified them and got their personal contact details, but I do know from one student who alerted me that the BBC producer calling her private cellphone did not seem to have an impartial interest in me.
Accordingly, a question to the BBC: what relevance does a lecture on a course completed in Autumn 2021 – which makes no mention of Ukraine – have to do with discussion of events there since February 2022? Was it merely part of an attempt to smear me? Or did the BBC discern – in the lecture’s focus on how strategic communications can be used to promote geopolitical interests at the expense of international institutions – some predictive relevance about events on the horizon?
When I asked Chloe Hadjimatheou why the BBC was paying me so much attention, I found her response somewhat oblique. She explained that, because I have been challenging certain other official narratives on social media for some time, there is concern in certain quarters that credibility is lent to my comments in virtue of it being known that my day job is as a professor at a top UK university. She also indicated that my Twitter following of 20k (or 22k as the count now stands, thanks to the attention generated by her programme) betokens some influence. She was far too personable and professional in her dealings with me to say explicitly or even hint that I need to be taken down, but her programme has as a matter of simple fact provided another launch pad for others to repeat their calls for me to be fired.
But why would anyone even be aiming at that? I approach this question not as a target but as an analyst. There are issues here are of far greater significance than the personal employment status of some academic.
One of these issues concerns a war crime, and possibly two. On 7 April 2018, 43 civilian adults and children were found dead of non-natural causes in Douma, Syria. This is the event referred to in the lecture mentioned earlier. I am quoted as saying:
‘One narrative says the White Helmets helped rescue victims, provided evidence and gave witness statements about the chemical attack on Douma on 7th April 2018. The critics say the White Helmets were responsible for staging a false flag event to spur the West to attack the Syrian Government. In fact, dispute about this case is still current.’
Something the BBC does not tell its listeners is that one of its own producers, Riam Dalati, has publicly stated that staging was involved in the evidence the public were shown:
‘After almost 6 months of investigations, i can prove without a doubt that the #Douma Hospital scene was staged.’
Dalati also stated:
‘I can tell you that Jaysh al-Islam ruled Douma with an iron fist. They coopted activists, doctors and humanitarians with fear and intimidation.’
These observations do not prove the incident was a false flag, but they show why the public has reason to be cautious about what claims it gives credence to.
In fact, the question of what really happened remains an open one in the eyes of some very eminent commentators. For although the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued an official report about the incident, its accuracy and integrity have been contested by OPCW inspectors involved in the actual investigation it is based on. They claim its conclusion differs from what is warranted by the evidence.
Here it is relevant to mention that Chloe Hadjimatheou had previously produced a podcast which purported to debunk the whistleblowers’ claims. It relied heavily on an anonymous source reportedly from the OPCW, and it presented the same line of argument as developed by the chemist Tariq Bhatti for Bellingcat, an organisation whose controversial practices include faking a letter from OPCW’s Director General.
Journalists who have followed the investigations closely, and who have met with OPCW whistleblowers, put a significant number of important questions to Chloe about the blanks, inconsistencies and misleading claims in her podcast. She has been unable or unwilling to answer any of these. Furthermore, her podcast went to the length of not only smearing the whistleblowers but even making a defamatory insinuation about one of them that was condemned by the BBC’s own Executive Complaints Unit.
So she is very aware that dispute remains current, even as she faithfully adheres to the position of the UK government that the matter is settled – settled on a basis that the Western alliance has decided, notwithstanding the reservations or opposition from governments representing half the world’s population. She restates it in the programme that includes part of my interview.
What the programme does not include is our actual discussion of the matter. It was the only occasion, during conversations over two days, when she appeared visibly uncomfortable and in less than full command of the situation. I asked about her anonymous informant who was said to work for the OPCW – how could she have contacted him via OPCW given that they don’t allow press contact with inspectors? What was his actual role in the investigation? How did she vouch for his bona fides? Why should he be trusted over the named whistleblowers whose professional competence and integrity has been vouched for by the OPCW’s own founding Director General, Jose Bustani?
This last point, at least, received a response: Bustani has an axe to grind, Chloe said, alluding to how he had been driven out of his position under pressure from the US. Yet people who know Bustani – including other distinguished signatories to a Statement of Concern that was issued – would regard this as calumny. An alternative view is that the ejection of such an honourable diplomat is stark proof that an OPCW Director General who does not toe the Washington line will not survive in the job.
It appears that the BBC, likewise, cannot depart from the official line on this matter.
This is because the stakes are high, on at least three counts. If it were to be shown and accepted that the Douma incident was not a crime committed by Syria, then the joint French, US and UK missile attack on Syria in retaliation would itself be a war crime. If the Douma crime were not committed by Syria, then the question of who was responsible could have troubling implications for those involved in supporting the official story. But perhaps the most crucial point, from the UK perspective as reflected by the BBC, is the one I am quoted as mentioning: since the Douma chemical weapons allegation was the only one, of a long series of allegations, to have been fully investigated by OPCW, if it should prove to have been false, this would cast doubt over the rest.
For the BBC, Chloe seeks to frame this last point as a controversial one, but it is simply a principle of common law, reflecting common sense caution about trusting sources known to be capable of deception. Perhaps it is precisely because its significance is so well understood she feels obliged on behalf of the state broadcaster to try and problematise it. Perhaps it is the Working Group’s part in keeping the question alive, and my affiliation with the group, that has made me a target.
Has the BBC fulfilled its Public Service remit?
So far, we have seen that the BBC makes claims that are not entirely accurate or impartial, and we have found reasons to be uncertain as to the good faith of its production. We have also noted that the real public interest relates to matters other than where this programme and accompanying article primarily direct their audience’s attention.
This raises a fundamental question: why is the BBC lending implicit support to the shutting down of debate and giving succour to those who would crackdown on academic freedom and freedom of speech?
As the BBC’s programme nears its conclusion, a sort of answer is offered. Referring to ‘a relatively small number of individuals voicing their personal views on Twitter’, Chloe does ask: ‘What effect could they really be having on geo-politics?’ In response she cites an instance:
‘In December 2019, the Russian ambassador to the Hague referred to the Working Group Tim Hayward is a part of to bolster their denials about chemical attacks.’
So the claim is that briefings by the Working Group can provide insights that are convenient for Russia to cite.
Before commenting on the substance of this specific claim and whether such a consideration justifies a crackdown on academic freedom and freedom of expression, I would just point out how little it has to do with the ostensible topic of the programme. The cited issue makes no reference to tweets, nor to student lectures, but in fact refers to briefing notes, for which I was not an author, and nor was Justin, who is not even associated with the group. Nor has any error been identified in those notes.
On the substance of the claim, the fact that the results of a Working Group investigation were convenient for Russia to cite does not make them mistaken. It does not make them in any way immoral. In fact, their publication facilitated the possibility of OPCW’s own whistleblowers making public their concerns about the political subversion of a major international institution – an institution known to be vulnerable to political capture since the expulsion of the first and only Director General to take a public stand against US bullying.
The OPCW was instituted by and for all countries of the world and not only those aligned with NATO.
The truth is always more convenient to some than to others, just as lies can be. The question that any reasonable citizen, and especially any academic, will want to consider – even those who allow national loyalties to influence their values – is whether we really should only accept convenient truths and be prepared to reject inconvenient ones in favour of convenient falsehoods. Some state actors may find this pragmatically tempting in the short term and within a narrow horizon. But it commits them to maintaining a lie, and over the long haul, that is unsustainable. It also affects their reputation in the wider world.
So it is a question I would put to British diplomats like James Roscoe, who expresses to Chloe his worry that people may “hear that there are two sides to this story”. He makes plain that the UK government only wants its own side to be heard, and, as he does so, he rather patronises half the population of the world by saying that other states “don’t always see through the disinformation.”
Some of those whose intellectual capacity he doubts might likely respond that his real problem is that they do see through the disinformation. And that, I would suggest, is the problem the Working Group is part of: independent, unaligned and critical observers who do not accept being passively manipulated into acquiescence with the government’s convenient untruths.
As a founding member of the Working Group, I can state clearly that it was formed because of our deep concern, as British citizens and as parents of the next generations of citizens, about how public debate – particularly regarding justifications for foreign interventions and aggressive foreign policy generally – is distorted by pervasive misinformation in the West’s dominant media channels. This concern has everything to do with successive UK governments’ trashing of any idea of ethical foreign policy and nothing whatsoever to do with wanting Britain to be more like Russia.
Emulating Russia, in fact, is precisely what those seeking to shut us down do seem to advocate with their attempts to curtail freedom of speech and persecute dissent.
To cap off this irony of BBC’s hastily-conceived programme, it gives the final word to the journalist Paul Mason. He contrives to claim that the effect of independent investigators like the Working Group is ‘to undermine our ability and our willingness to defend our own democracies.’ It is a worrying understanding of ‘democracy’ that takes the promoting of more informed debate, as the group aims at, to be inimical to democracy. The worry has a serious practical side, particularly as Mason himself has meanwhile been exposed as ringleader of an intelligence-linked plot, along the lines of the discredited Integrity Initiative, to use dirty tricks to prevent inconvenient journalists being heard. The plotting has also included targeting dissident academics.
To suggest for one moment that such attempts to stifle public debate would serve to protect democracy reveals an understanding of democracy that only totalitarian regimes subscribe to.
The BBC’s public service remit includes as its first two purposes: sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning. The fulfilment of these purposes is integral to the flourishing of a well-informed democratic society. The programme under discussion conspicuously fails to fulfil those purposes: its promotion of the idea that educators should not examine more than one side of a controversial story is antithetical to learning; and the discouragement of citizens from critical questioning of their government is antithetical to the values of citizenship and civil society.
Worse still, the programme gives practical support to a troubling agenda that would undermine the very idea of public service broadcasting by casting doubt on the value of freedom of speech and academic freedom. When a government starts talking about cracking down on these freedoms, the role of any journalist, and especially one with a public service mission, is to ask critical questions. In a situation where the BBC appears to be simply doing Government’s bidding, talk of democracy is not only hollow, but carries profoundly worrying resonances of how authoritarian regimes use the word ‘democracy’ to refer to systems of totalitarian repression. Any regime that starts to target intellectuals is already on the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
The defence of academic freedom is vital because universities have the unique social role of creating, curating and disseminating the most reliable knowledge possible about all aspects of the world and human experience of it. Society has instituted universities with the purpose of pursuing science, scholarship and education in the interests of the people who make up society. Universities with global stature have at their heart a mission to serve the people of the world as a whole. That mission inherently requires intellectual independence.
In this study, I have shown that a particular BBC programme gives cause for concern. But is it just a one-off, and therefore a relatively limited cause for concern? Or may it be symptomatic of a bigger problem? This is a question I shall return to.
(Featured Image: “File:Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, Plato’s Cave, 1604, NGA 62542.jpg” by Jan Pietersz Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem is marked with CC0 1.0.)