The British government is responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, then falsely accusing the Kremlin of the crime and killing two guinea pigs in order to cover up the damning evidence. Meanwhile, a purported chemical attack on civilians in the Syrian city of Douma was a hoax concocted by British agents in order to disseminate hatred of Russia.
Well, no. Obviously not. These are weird, fantastical calumnies without a trace of a factual basis. You’ll find them where you’d expect them to be — on websites of the racist Right and the purportedly anti-imperialist Left, in common with other extremist and denialist tropes. Yet they’re also being promulgated, with no sense of irony, by the regime of Vladimir Putin. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, claims to have “irrefutable evidence” (which he unaccountably has failed to make public) that the Douma attack was a “staged event” involving the British secret service.
The term “information warfare” is sometimes deployed to describe the clash of competing claims between Russia and the West. It’s a misnomer and it ought to be abandoned. There is no information war when only one side is interested in providing information. The output of Russia’s regime, diplomatic service and broadcasting apparatus comprises instead wild, unsupported and mutually inconsistent conspiracy theories.
International relations have been in this state before. On New Year’s Day in 1990, shortly after the collapse of communist autocracies across Eastern Europe, the president of what was then Czechoslovakia gave the traditional broadcast address to the nation. Vaclav Havel (for it was he) recalled that for 40 years his compatriots had been told by their rulers that the economy was flourishing, the government was trusted and the steel mills were producing at full capacity. “I assume”, he continued, “you did not propose me for this office so that I too would lie to you.”
Tragically, the progress from tyranny to liberty didn’t take place in what was still then the Soviet Union. Organised lying as a deliberate policy of state has hence never gone away. In the digital age it has been given wings. It doesn’t have to be coherent: the mere act of denial and misdirection accomplishes its purpose of muddying public discourse. The malevolent and threatening messages of Russian diplomacy can’t be stopped but they can be countered with the only weapons available to free societies, namely the dogged efforts of civil society to tell the truth.
My profession has a particular responsibility. As I write this, the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic has begun an appeal against his 40-year sentence imposed at The Hague in 2016 for genocide and war crimes. While he was on trial, he issued a deranged apologia that blamed Western journalists for his downfall. Those named included Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Martin Bell of the BBC and others.
Bell (who is my uncle) gave evidence for the prosecution in the trials of Karadzic and also of Karadzic’s military commander Ratko Mladic and their malign puppet-master Slobodan Milosevic. He described the horrors he’d seen as a BBC war correspondent.
During the Bosnian war, he’d coined the term “journalism of attachment” to express frustration that conventional news outlets were not depicting the extent of Serb aggression in a conflict where the parties were far from morally equivalent. I had doubts about the term (and told him so) but applaud his courage and his witness to the facts of a catastrophic conflict. The task of a journalist is to tell the truth about what they see, while being aware that their information is partial and that they bring biases and assumptions.
That’s what the great reporters of war have done, including William Howard Russell (the Times correspondent in the Crimean war) and George Orwell in Spain. It’s the opposite of the practice of Russian state propaganda. As I’ve written for CapX before, the English-language channel Russia Today (now calling itself RT) is not a normal broadcaster but a purveyor of deliberate falsehoods and denialism.
As RT’s own correspondent Sara Firth declared on resigning in 2014 in protest at its coverage of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine: “It was the most shockingly obvious misinformation and it got to the point where I couldn’t defend it anymore.”
Those who denied the crimes of Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic more than 20 years ago are in some cases literally the same people who exculpate the depraved regime of Bashar al-Assad now. Again, I wrote for CapX a few months ago on the death of Edward Herman, an American academic who for years defamed the victims of the Srebrenica genocide by claiming the massacre was a hoax. Unsurprisingly this shameless fraudster also claimed that chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime were “false flag” incidents. Despite his record of fakery and disrepute, you’ll find one of his books, titled Manufacturing Consent (co-authored with the linguist Noam Chomsky), on some media studies courses. It purports to be a critique of the media but is a dated polemic that mainly impresses the ideologically driven and the irredeemably gullible.
This month The Times exposed a few such gullible people as pro-Assad propagandists working in reputable British academic institutions including the universities of Sheffield, Leicester and Edinburgh. None of them have Middle Eastern expertise but they call themselves portentously the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.
They churn out not research but the same crude conspiracy theories that you’ll find on Russia Today. As an accompanying Times editorial concluded, this activity is a violation of the ethic of academic inquiry: “No reputable university would employ a Holocaust denier in a department of history or a geocentrist to teach astronomy. The universities who unwittingly provide cover for these agents of disinformation and cheerleaders for despotism have a case to answer.”
In the meantime, those of us committed to the values of inquiry, whether in journalism or academia or politics, have a moral obligation to uphold them. The struggle is never-ending.