Bearing false witness: The western media, Syria, and the evil Russians

Last week, the Independent published an article by Patrick Cockburn entitled “This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong.” What I found most surprising about it was that a newspaper saw fit to publish an article that not only said that western media reports about Syria and Iraq tended to be one-sided and misleading, but also effectively suggested that readers shouldn’t believe everything they read in newspapers.

Fake News

What Cockburn has to say is scathing:

“The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.”


On Syria the crucial paragraph is this:

“The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.”

For example, one of the most reported stories from Syria this year concerned the attack on an aid convoy in Aleppo, which the American government blamed on Russia. 

However, as is pointed out by Gareth Porter in his article “How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media “, all the evidence that points to Russia comes from extremely dubious sources who are close to the Syrian rebel forces.

The subheading says it all: “Reporters who rely on the White Helmets’ leader in Aleppo ignore his record of deception and risk manipulation.”

Who decides the story?

But this is the really interesting thing that Cockburn says:

“A word here in defence of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.”

Cockburn seems to be saying that reporters often report the truth back to head office, but that editors simply publish whatever suit their agenda.

And that really is the big problem with the media.

Those evil Russians

And just as significant as Cockburn’s reference to “deciding the story of the day”, is his use of the phrase “a threat to the world”. In 2003 the threat was Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Today it is Vladimir Putin and his alleged cyber-attacks on western elections.

Last Friday, the Washington Post published a story about claims that American “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails” from both the DNC and John Podesta’s email account.

The reaction has been astonishing.

Earlier this week, Ben Bradshaw, M.P. for Exeter, speaking at the Aleppo debate in Parliament, said

I don’t think we have even begun to wake up to what Russia is doing when it comes to cyber warfare.  Not only their interference, now proven, in the American presidential campaign, probably in our referendum… We don’t have the evidence for that yet, but I think it’s highly probable. Certainly in the French presidential election they will be involved, and there are already serious concerns in the German secret service.’

I don’t believe a word of it. Note that Bradshaw said that this was “now proven”. That is complete nonsense . Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Intercept, describes the Washington Post’s story as “in many ways .. . classic American journalism of the worst sort” and continues: “The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.”

Far from being “now proven”, there is, in fact, not a shred of evidence – at least not that Ben Bradshaw will have seen.

But it gets better. Not only is there not a shred of evidence, but the CIA’s apparent claims have now been completely debunked. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan tells the story on his website:

“I have watched incredulous as the CIA’s blatant lie has grown and grown as a media story – blatant because the CIA has made no attempt whatsoever to substantiate it. There is no Russian involvement in the leaks of emails showing Clinton’s corruption. Yes this rubbish has been the lead today in the Washington Post in the US and the Guardian here, and was the lead item on the BBC main news. I suspect it is leading the American broadcasts also.

A little simple logic demolishes the CIA’s claims. The CIA claim they “know the individuals” involved. Yet under Obama the USA has been absolutely ruthless in its persecution of whistleblowers, and its pursuit of foreign hackers through extradition. We are supposed to believe that in the most vital instance imaginable, an attempt by a foreign power to destabilise a US election, even though the CIA knows who the individuals are, nobody is going to be arrested or extradited, or (if in Russia) made subject to yet more banking and other restrictions against Russian individuals? Plainly it stinks. The anonymous source claims of “We know who it was, it was the Russians” are beneath contempt.

As Julian Assange has made crystal clear, the leaks did not come from the Russians. As I have explained countless times, they are not hacks, they are insider leaks – there is a major difference between the two.”

Got that? Unidentified sources say that the CIA says that Wikileaks got the leaks from the Russians. Identified named individuals (Craig Murray and Julian Assange) associated with Wikileaks, say that they did not get the leaks from the Russians. In fact, Murray says “I know who leaked them. I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

Who are you going to believe? Murray and Assange should know what they are talking about – and they are known to be reliable sources. Murray was sacked as Ambassador to Uzbekistan for revealing that MI6 was using intelligence obtained through torture from Uzbek intelligence services via the CIA – which, in my opinion, indicates that he is a person of integrity. The CIA, on the other hand, is not exactly known for honesty and integrity. And we don’t (yet) even know what the CIA says; we only know what some anonymous individual says that they said.

Selective reporting

But it gets worse. The way the western media have largely ignored Murray’s account is astonishing.

The Guardian did refer to what Murray said, but buried it deep within an article headlined “CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election, say reports.” (Note the words “say reports” – i.e. the CIA has not issued a statement; this is just “Someone says that the CIA says”.)

And, furthermore, the Guardian has continued to run stories that simply take for granted that Russia did indeed covertly intervene in the American elections – here, here, here, and here.

And guess what? Not one of these other Guardian pieces mentions Craig Murray (or Julian Assange).  

At least the Guardian did report what Murray wrote  – as did the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.  The BBC, however, has been silent on the matter.  Not one single BBC News report on the story on the BBC website has mentioned either Craig Murray or Julian Assange, even though they have covered the story.  Indeed, their original report on the story says “Democrats were enraged when hackers breached email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta,” even though Wikileaks has said that the email accounts came to them through a leak (an insider giving out the information) rather than a hack (an outsider breaking in and taking it).

False witness

Fake News? Well, not exactly. But, in choosing to cover the story that the CIA apparently believes that Russian hacking was the source of Wikileaks emails, while not mentioning what Murray and Assange have said, the BBC is deliberately misleading people. And that is simply dishonest.

But it goes further. A lot of people have been getting angry at the Russians because of this. Ben Bradshaw certainly sounded displeased with them, and Lindsey Graham, a member of the American Senate has been quoted by the BBC as saying “We should tell the Russians that on no uncertain terms, you interfere in our elections, we don’t care why, we’re going to hit you and hit you hard, we’re going to introduce sanctions.”


For myself, I am not convinced that by hacking into the DNC emails, and then passing them to Wikileaks, the Russians would have been doing anything wrong. After all, the emails were perfectly genuine, so all the Russians would have been doing (had they done this) was making information available to American voters about their politicians which would have otherwise been unavailable to them. It sounds to me like that would be performing a useful public service. Messrs. Bradshaw and Graham apparently disagree (which may have something to do with the fact that they are politicians!)

But the point is that the Russian government is being accused of something which is widely regarded as bad, and could lead to people taking action against them.

And that brings us to the heart of the issue. An accusation has been made against the Russians. It is apparently serious. And yet evidence of their innocence is available, and the BBC, and much of the rest of the western media are not reporting it, and and thus causing people to get angry at Putin.

Let’s put it this way. If you had been accused of something, and people were getting angry at you and threatening you, and someone had evidence that you were innocent, but was choosing just to keep quiet about it, how would you feel?

In other words, the BBC is not just being dishonest, it is also, by choosing not to report a significant bit of news, causing someone’s reputation to be damaged. In short, the BBC is in breach of the 9th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

And that forbids (according to Question 78 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) “whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name” – and that means anything at all that hurts someone’s good name – including undue silence.

So the BBC may not be guilty of what is called Fake News. But it is guilty of bearing false witness.  And that, it seems to me, is much more serious.