By David Macilwain
This is the story of my challenge to Australia’s SBS TV over their role in passing on criminal disinformation about Syria, chemical weapons and the White Helmets.
On the 8th of April last year, SBS television broadcast a report claiming sixty people had died in a chemical weapons attack in Douma on their evening world news bulletin. It was substantially the same as reports in all Western and West-friendly countries, though with an SBS commentary added.
SBS – the “Special Broadcasting Service” was set up by the Australian government in the ‘70s to serve the many different ethnic communities here; it also broadcasts foreign language news bulletins from many countries, including Russia and Turkey but not Iran or Lebanon.
While SBS remains partly government funded, it claims editorial independence – including from its commercial sponsors. Its current promotional slogan is “We tell stories – with a difference”, supported by appealing testimonies from the story-tellers, who no doubt believe this delusional claim. Not only are SBS stories on the chief issues of contention no different, or even sourced from other Western media, they are mostly just stories, with a loose or non-existent relation to the truth.
Challenging the SBS narrative is therefore problematic, but SBS has a well-defined Code of Practice on balance and bias against which one can make complaints for up to six weeks following a broadcast. Complaints are assessed by the “SBS Ombudsman” Sally Begbie, and a verdict delivered within sixty days.
I have gone through this process a few times over the last decade, and the result has been the same regardless of the case – “SBS has found that the broadcast complied with the Code, etc. etc.”
So it was that at the time of the Douma Incident, complaining to SBS for spreading the same lies as everyone else was not the highest priority! I was also preparing to head off for a holiday starting in Syria and struggling with a visa.
In addition though, it was not until later that there was substantive evidence on which to build a case for a complaint that might succeed. It’s easy to forget this, and that people in Douma knew nothing about a “chemical weapon attack”.
The big story there was the Syrian-Russian liberation of this last terrorist stronghold, at least until a week later when the US coalition missile attack became the story. The idea that a chlorine attack had killed people was anyway innately unbelievable, and even on the mainstream news it was the story of the children being hosed and choked in the Douma Hospital ward that dominated the bulletins.
Ironically, the best news reports – not stories – from Syria were broadcast every morning on SBS in the Russian news from NTV.
The simple sight of their Syria correspondent was sufficient – crouching beside the gas cylinder on the roof, and then chatting to a Russian military policeman in the bedroom while the toxic gas container lay there amongst its entourage of unbroken light fittings on the bed beside them.
The Russian news also showed the film that Western audiences saw, of some guy in a full gas mask in the same place.
Given the ongoing disinformation about Syria and my focus on the closely connected Novichok story, it wasn’t until the appearance of the Intercept’s report on Douma in February 2019 that the question of what actually happened there became important once more. Released in advance of the OPCW’s final report, and likely in the knowledge of it, the Atlantic Council sponsored report looked like an exercise in damage control.
The slick video production succeeded in giving some very dubious characters the appearance of independent and unbiased judgement, and credibility to their conclusion that “on balance it seems likely there was a gas attack there”.
There was of course no ‘balance’ question involved, as it was extremely unlikely or impossible there would have been such an attack from the Syrian army, leave alone on the very civilians the army was trying to rescue from their terrorist oppressors.
It was however the deceptions in the lengthy written part of the Intercept’s Douma report that made it significant, and which formed the central point of my subsequent complaint to SBS. James Harkin who wrote the report didn’t attempt to hide the questionable allegiances of the White Helmets, detailing their funding by the UK and US and association with British Army advisors.
But by admitting to their already-exposed propaganda role, Harkin reframed this as well-motivated; the White Helmets “association” with Opposition Islamist militias could then be excused as part of “their unobjectionable and utterly necessary work rescuing civilians from buildings bombed by the Russian and Syrian air-forces.”
So I put together an elaborate complaint to SBS following the Intercept report, in anticipation of the release of the OPCW’s final report and a predicted SBS rehash of all the false claims made a year earlier. This included my own observations from visiting Douma in May 2018 which pointed out the subtle ways that Harkin and Mackey had distorted the picture to suit their story.
Central to this was the “disappearing” of Douma hospital, whose most obvious survival was something of an embarrassment for them – evidence that Syrian and Russian militaries had avoided hitting this hospital, which unlike so many health centres had not been completely taken over by terrorist fighters and was vital for the local community.
Harkin also “admitted” that the terrorist group controlling Douma, Jaish al Islam, “ruled with an iron fist”, and so could take the blame for video trickery, rather than the White Helmets who merely witnessed it. A close scrutiny of the Douma emergency room footage however revealed the truth, of the White Helmets’ intimate involvement in the “treatment” as well as it fabrication.
This was assisted by the uncovering of another video of the hospital scene distributed by Turkey’s Anadolu Agency. From detailed examination of this video I was able to conclude that it was an earlier “take” featuring the same four men and same young child as was depicted in the SBS TV report, where a near-naked child is forcibly given Ventolin and slapped “to get her breathing”.
It was easy to see why this video report got left on the cutting room floor, as the man-handling of the infant victim was so clearly fake; the child screaming and struggling while her clothes were pulled off by four men, including one wearing a White Helmets jacket and a “nurse” from “Medical Relief for Syria”. It was this child who then appeared white with fear after further Ventolin treatment and hosing down, as a credible “gas attack victim” in the SBS report.
The object of my complaint to SBS was to show that they were guilty of using footage of violent child abuse as a propaganda tool to facilitate illegal and lethal action, wittingly or unwittingly. Even when serious doubts were cast over the credibility of the event by the testimony of one victim Hassan Diab, SBS had continued to promote the false story with the same emotive footage.
“We cannot consider your complaint as the program in question occurred more than six weeks ago.” – was the response. And as SBS had never mentioned the OPCW final report with its insipid confirmation of a chlorine attack in Douma, there was no more recent report for me to reference.
At the time however, there were frequent warnings that the Syrian army was preparing to move in on Idlib, and Russia was reporting plans by the White Helmets to stage another “chemical attack”. In anticipation of this, I ended my complaint with a warning, that –
The Syrian and Russian move to finally take back control of Idlib from Al Qaeda linked forces must not be allowed to develop into yet another Western-created “humanitarian crisis” by yet another White Helmet facilitated propaganda offensive streamed through Western mainstream media, with SBS playing its part.”
Just after sending off that complaint, the OPCW Engineers’ report was leaked to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media by its team leader Ian Henderson.
This was the final nail in the coffin of the Syrian opposition claims, as well as evidence of White Helmet collusion in torture and murder of the “gas attack victims”. But it was only when the “worst humanitarian disaster this century” warning was issued, and swarms of child-carrying White Helmets filled the news bulletins again in May, that I could put together a new complaint to SBS.
Over a period of six weeks to mid-June, SBS ran reports on different aspects of the alleged Idlib offensive by the Syrian and Russian militaries. There was the humanitarian crisis, with 300,000 people fleeing the province. There were attacks on hospitals and schools.
There was the targeting of rescue workers, and then of journalists, with a cameo appearance of Channel 4’s Alex Crawford pointing out an approaching Syrian helicopter to an HTS commander. And of course there were “unconventional weapons, even chemical” and a sickening episode at the UN reminiscent of Samantha Power’s “have you no shame?” attack on Russia’s Vitaly Churkin.
And through it all, White Helmets running and digging and finding children, in the usual places.
I think my complaint made a good case, at least for exercising caution in presenting any more emotive White Helmet footage. Unlike almost every other news report where the faces of children are blurred out, these reports apparently depend on people seeing and being affected by such shocking images, while being issued with an obligatory warning that “some viewers may find these images upsetting”.
My second complaint, sent in late June, included copies of the video reports under review with a precis of their contents, but focused principally on the hugely significant investigations of the OPCW engineers’ team and the apparent attempt to suppress their findings.
It followed on and quoted from the WGSPM’s report with its unavoidable and logical conclusion – that the White Helmets had colluded in the torture and execution of civilians to make a propaganda film, on behalf of their paymasters in Whitehall and Washington.
SBS agreed to review my complaint, and respond “within 60 days” – as required by their charter. While the propaganda barrage that began on April 28th had fizzled out as attention turned to provocations in the Persian Gulf, it had just restarted on the day in mid-August that I received the SBS Ombudsman’s response, and with renewed and malignant vigour.
SBS played a Channel 4 report, where Lindsay Hilsum conjured up the spectre of Stalin in a stomach-turning concoction that included a long speech by an HTS commander, and a venomous attack on President Assad. And of course, White Helmets digging and running with children.
Somehow I thought this time SBS would have to concede some fault. The case was indisputable; even the Atlantic Council’s staff agreed the hospital scenes had been staged, and the claim the gas bottles had fallen from the sky had been completely trashed. And there were 35 bodies of women and children showing signs of violent death in another location.
Most importantly, the White Helmets were implicated by their own admission, but this is why my complaint was dismissed:
“For the reasons below, the SBS News coverage that concerned you was found to be in line with the Code” – on “balance and impartiality”.
SBS considered that: “your overall concern seems to be that SBS does not cover the Russian or Syrian perspective adequately in reporting the Syrian Civil War.”
SBS identified my other apparent “concerns”, including:
You feel SBS did not place adequate weight or provide balanced coverage that supports your view that “Not only are the Syrian Army and Russian air-force not responsible for such attacks against civilian targets and infrastructure, the actions they are taking are in defence of the local civilian population under constant attack by terrorist militias.”
You feel that “there was an almost complete absence of opinion from genuine Syrian sources or Syrian government officials in SBS reports.”
You were also concerned that SBS presents the White Helmets as “Civil Defence”, “rescue workers” and “volunteers” when in fact they have “staged” attacks and made “false claims.”
To support its defence, of reports with which we are all too familiar – whether broadcast on Al Jazeera or the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, or CNN, the Ombudsman had to make some extraordinary claims.
Picking through the bones of all eight bulletins I had cited, Sally Begbie found half a dozen mentions of a Russian or Syrian viewpoint, such as this:
Syrian ally Russia, which has veto power at the Security Council, claims it is working with President Assad to fight terrorists.
“Russia claims” is reporting a “Russian viewpoint”, apparently. SBS then offered this general excuse for its failure:
SBS has no journalists based in the Middle East, and its coverage is based on material received by the world’s major news agencies on which SBS relies including Reuters, APTN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC. This material provides a comprehensive range of sources, ensuring coverage that is as balanced as possible within the circumstances.
When possible SBS uses official Russian and Syrian spokespeople to provide their views, however such people were often not available able to SBS on the standard news feeds.
When they are available they are used in the evening’s news coverage. This included on 18 May when Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, said “The terrorist organisations use hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields” and on the 29 May when the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Vershinin, said “The fighters from HTS are terrorising civilians and they are using civilian infrastructure for military ends and are also using civilians as human shields.”
Far from acknowledging that the eminent representatives of Syria and Russia at the UN “support my view” – that their armies are fighting a war against Western-backed and armed terrorists besieging Idlib the way that they besieged Aleppo and Ghouta – Begbie used the exchange at the UN to support the view of Mark Lowcock and the White Helmets.
Jaafari and Vershinin were actually reacting to Lowcock’s claims of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, itself based on activist claims and White Helmet propaganda rescue videos. SBS broadcast Lowcock’s whole tirade so the responses in Russian and Syrian with subtitles had little impact. I don’t honestly know how SBS dared to present this travesty as “as balanced as possible”.
But it was SBS’ response to my White Helmets accusations that really left me dumb:
In relation specifically to the White Helmets, SBS’s coverage from 18 May to 17 June was not “propaganda” as you assert but consistent with widely held views about the role of this group.
First Begbie cited the New York Magazine from July 2018:
In 2016 and 2017, the White Helmets—Syrian volunteers who have risked their lives to rescue civilians trapped in rubble following air strikes, barrel bombings, and chemical-weapons attacks—were among the front-runners for the Nobel Peace Prize. A collection of bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, and students nicknamed for their protective hats, they have saved more than a hundred thousand people in Syria’s vicious civil war.”
And then Wikipedia:
As of April 2018, the organisation said it had saved over 114,000 lives, with 204 White Helmet volunteers losing their lives in the process. They assert impartiality in the Syrian conflict, though only operate in rebel held areas. The organisation has been the target of a disinformation campaign by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian-sponsored media organisations such as RT, with false claims of close ties with terrorist activities and other conspiracy theories.
But finally SBS came up with this master stroke – unwittingly finding one of the Guardian’s most egregious pieces of “journalism” on the Syrian conflict that also betrayed its own active role in assisting the FCO-supported White Helmets:
This disinformation campaign was recently detailed in The Guardian, in an article titled ‘How Syria’s White Helmet’s become victims of an online propaganda machine’.
For anyone concerned enough to reach the end of my complaint, it will be seen that I specifically detailed the work of Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley that Olivia Solon, technology reporter from San Francisco deigns to dismiss as nonsense. Although she took over fifty days to do it, it doesn’t seem that the SBS Ombudsman got that far, nor realised just how insulting her suggestion was.
In fact I am left wondering whether Ms Begbie properly read any of my complaint, or examined the video clips I shot in Douma, or consulted any of the links that supported my case. She seems unaware that I am a vocal supporter of President Assad and an active participant in the campaign to expose the White Helmets’ criminal conduct and propaganda, despite this being the subject of my complaint.
Even more astonishingly, Begbie completely ignored my detailed dissection of the OPCW reports that constitutes the actual evidence for my claims the White Helmets are a criminal organisation and that Russia and Syria are fighting a war against foreign-backed terrorists. Just as the OPCW reports were missing from SBS news and so provided no basis for complaint, so their absence from the SBS response fails to address this central issue – the broadcasting of false news.
Were it a relatively trivial matter, the exclusion of some information could be called “white lies”, but it is not. The failure to acknowledge the truth of what happened at Douma is a “black lie”, because it facilitates further lethal and criminal actions by the White Helmets and their takfiri comrades, which were taking place at the same time SBS was broadcasting their sham videos.
So where to now? Have we lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the victims of the disinformation super-highway?