This article originally appeared at Counterpunch
On February 17, 2015, The Guardian ran a story with the headline “Russia shelled Ukrainians from within its own territory, says study.” The title alone is enough to convince many casual observers that yes, the mainstream media reporting on the civil war in Ukraine has been correct all along. You see, it’s all because of Russian aggression, or so the meme would go. But closer analysis of this story, and the key players involved, should cause any reasonably intelligent and logical person to seriously doubt the veracity of nearly every aspect of the story.
Let’s begin first with the headline and subhead which, as anyone in media knows, is often all that will be read by many readers. The headline leads with a conclusion: Russia shelled Ukraine from within Russian territory. Simple. Clear. Why bother reading further? Well, in reality, the article both overtly and tacitly admits that the so called “study” (more on that later) has not reached that clear conclusion, not even close. Here are some key phrases sprinkled throughout the piece that should give pause to any serious-minded political observer or analyst.
Despite the declaration in the headline, a close reader encounters phrases such as “near conclusive proof,” “estimated trajectories,” “likely firing positions,” and other ambiguous phrases that are more suggestive than they are declarative. In other words, these are mere rhetorical flourishes designed to lead casual, uninformed readers to make conclusions that are simply not backed up by the evidence.
The so called study relied heavily on “crater patterns from satellite photos of three battlefields,” and it is from these crater patterns, and the equally dubious “tyre tracks” that the authors of the study drew their conclusions. However, even the independent military forensics expert contacted by The Guardian “warned that the accuracy of crater analysis in determining direction of fire on the basis of satellite photography was scientifically unproven.”
Indeed, conveniently buried at the end of the long article is the key quote from Stephen Johnson, a weapons expert at the Cranfield Forensic Institute, part of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom who said quite clearly that crater analysis is “highly experimental and prone to inaccuracy.” Mr. Johnson added that “This does not mean there is no value to the method, but that any results must be considered with caution and require corroboration.”
Wait a second. I thought that our dear expert authors of the study had “near conclusive proof” according to the lead paragraphs of the story. When you actually read what the real expert, as opposed to the non-experts who conducted the “study,” has to say, it immediately casts a long shadow of doubt on the entire narrative being propagated by the article. Is The Guardian here guilty of clear manipulation of the story for political purposes? It would seem at best unprofessional and dishonest reporting, at worst it’s outright lying in the service of the agenda of those at the top of the western political establishment.
Now of course we know that The Guardian has repeatedly been taken to task by highly respected journalists and analysts for its biased and one-sided reporting of issues ranging from its coverage of Russian President Putin and Russia’s actions in Crimea, to its shamefully biased (here,here and here for three of the many examples) coverage of Israel-Palestine conflict, and a number of other important issues.
Perhaps most germane to this discussion is The Guardian’s own reporting last summer, which it references in this article, of Russian military vehicles crossing the border into Ukraine – a significant charge that would be taken seriously if there were one shred of tangible proof. But alas there isn’t. There is only the word of The Guardian’s reporter Shaun Walker, who conveniently could not get a photograph or video of the alleged military vehicles crossing into Ukraine. One would think with mobile phones all equipped with cameras and the vast resources of a major western media outlet, not to mention the seemingly all-encompassing global surveillance architecture at the disposal of western governments, at least some credible, verifiable evidence would have emerged. But no, we just have to take the Guardian’s word for it.
There’s a lot of that going around when it comes to Ukraine. We just have to “take their word for it,” as we were supposed to with regard to the charges of Russian military shooting down MH17, a baseless charge that has since disappeared from the headlines, with the actual results of the investigation being buried or suppressed entirely.
Not only should The Guardian’s reporting be scrutinized, but so too should their darling “expert” blogger Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, the author of this inconclusive “conclusive report.”
Fifty Shades of Brown
Aside from the deceptive language and misleading statements, there is a broader issue that must be addressed, namely the reliability of the source of this so called study. Perhaps first we should dispense with the use of the term “study” as that would imply experts using objective facts, data, etc. Rather, what we are dealing with is a politically motivated report by a source that has already been discredited numerous times.
The report comes from an organization called Bellingcat, purportedly an independent citizen journalism platform that uses social media and other open source information to draw conclusions about everything from military hardware movements to the firing of missiles and artillery. Of course it should immediately raise questions that The Guardian’s article is co-authored by one Eliot Higgins, a self-proclaimed “military expert” who founded the “Brown Moses” blog. Why is this important? Because Bellingcat is a creation of the same Eliot Higgins. Indeed,Bellingcat’s Kickstarter page made no secret of the fact that “Bellingcat is a website founded by Brown Moses…the pseudonym for Eliot Higgins, a laid-off government worker turned blogger turned weapons analysis expert and leading source of information on the conflict in Syria.”
A close look at some of the blurbs noted on the Kickstarter page reveals that this “independent blogger” has been touted by The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, UK’s Channel 4, The Daily Beast, and many other corporate media outlets. Anyone with an understanding of how hard it is to actually be an independent analyst knows that such establishment outlets do not simply promote independent media that provides thoughtful analysis. Rather, Brown Moses and Bellingcat have been seized upon as a convenient foil to true alternative media, spinning the establishment narrative under the guise of “independent reporting.” However, let us not simply deride this obvious sham. Let us evaluate Brown Moses’ own record, which for an “expert” is dismal.
Higgins aka Brown Moses aka BM claimed to have proven that the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Syria on August 21, 2013 could only have been carried out by the Syrian military and government. His claims are based on his own “expert” analysis of missile trajectories and other “evidence” he claims to have obtained through videos and other open source information. Of course, in making this claim, Higgins places himself in direct opposition to former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd and Prof. Theodore Postel of MIT, the authors of an actual reportfrom the MIT Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group entitled “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013.” The report, conducted by real experts, not armchair bloggers, concluded that the Syrian government could not have carried out the attack, and that such intelligence was nearly used as justification for yet another aggressive war.
Also debunking BM’s spurious charges is the report from Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh which revealed the existence of a classified US Defense Intelligence Agency briefing which noted unequivocally that the Al Nusra Front had its own chemical weapons, not to mention deep ties to Saudi and Turkish intelligence and chemical arms suppliers. Hersh’s reporting finally firmly established the fact that the rebels were indeed capable of carrying out the attack on East Ghouta, and that they had help from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and possibly other regional actors. And so, not only did they have the motive (to blame Assad for using chemical weapons while international investigators were in Syria, thereby justifying a military intervention and regime change), but also the means and opportunity. This is an essential point because the entire ‘case’ against Assad relied on the fact that only Damascus was technologically and logistically capable of carrying out such an attack.
But BM contended that he was right, Hersh, Lloyd, and Postel were wrong, and that the narrative should reflect that. So, on the one hand we have a blogger with no formal training in ballistics, physics, or any relevant scientific or military field, and on the other we have a Pulitzer Prize winner with decades of experience and high-level contacts and sources all over the world. We have the word of some guy in an apartment in the UK, or the scientifically arrived at findings of a former chemical weapons inspector (read actual expert) and an internationally respected Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, a world renowned academic and research institution. And which do you think The Guardian chose to promote?
But BM’s noxious odor also pervades the reporting on the downing of MH 17, yet another story that The Guardian utterly distorted, before mostly dropping it from the headlines when the western narrative was discredited. In an August 2, 2014 article written by Higgins entitled “MH17 Missiles Can’t Hide From These Internet Sleuths,” Higgins claims to have concluded that Russia or the anti-Kiev rebels must have shot down the plane with a Buk missile launcher – a weapons system also in the possession of Kiev’s military. What is his evidence? It’s a series of photographs published in various media outlets that he cannot corroborate in any way. Instead, this “sleuth” is making his case based on faith – faith that the photographs were taken where and when they claim to have been, and show what they claim to show.
Of course, it has since been publicly acknowledged on more than one occasion that photographs purporting to show Russian military incursions into Ukraine have been fabricated and/or misrepresentedcausing tremendous embarrassment for US and European governments that have repeatedly claimed to have such evidence. But our dear BM is unfazed by such revelations. Instead, he seems to simply shriek louder. Rather than leaving analysis of MH 17 to aviation and military experts, he peddles his “opinion.” Rather than acknowledging the bias in his own reporting, to say nothing of the limitations of armchair technical analysis, he continues to grow his image, and with it, the lies, omissions, and distortions he propagates.
And so we return to the new “study” by Higgins and his Bellingcat group of “digital detectives.” They are obviously front-and-center in the western media because their conclusions are aligned with the US-NATO political agenda. They are a de facto arm of the western corporate media and military-industrial complex, providing the veneer of “independent analysis” in order to penetrate the blogosphere and social media platforms where the mainstream narrative is being questioned, scrutinized, and discredited. Bellingcat and Higgins’ names should be known to everyone, but not because their analysis is worthwhile. Rather, they need to become household names so that those who understand how western propaganda and soft power actually works, will be on the lookout for more of their disinformation.
Perhaps The Guardian should also be more careful in how it presents its information. By promoting Higgins and his discredited outfit, they are once again promoting disinformation for the purposes of selling war. The US almost went to war with Syria (which it is doing now anyway) based on the flawed intelligence and “analysis” of people like Higgins. Naturally, everyone remembers how The Guardian, like all of its corporate media brethren, helped to sell the Iraq War based on complete lies. Have they learned nothing? It would seem so.
But those interested in peace and truth, we have learned something about propaganda and lies used to sell war. We who have called out these lies repeatedly – from Iraq in 2003, to Syria and Ukraine today – we once again repudiate the false narrative and the drumbeat for war. We reject the corporate media propagandists and their “alternative media” appendages. We stand for peace. And unlike The Guardian and Higgins, we stand on firm ground.