The BBC has admitted that an episode of its Radio 4 documentary series, ‘Mayday’, which focused on the alleged chemical attacks in Douma, Syria in 2018, contained unverifiable and unjust claims.
The episode in question, entitled ‘Canister on the Bed’, which aired in November 2020, includes the testimony of a former field inspector with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), known pseudonymously as ‘Alex’.
In this episode, Alex expresses concern about the veracity of the narrative in Douma, which alleged Syrian government forces had dropped chlorine canisters on civilians by helicopter. It was this narrative and accusation that resulted in the U.S, UK, and France launching airstrikes on Syria without UN approval, and before details of the attack had been confirmed.
BBC journalist and series producer, Chloe Hadjimatheou, however, insinuated Alex had been motivated to express his concerns by a reward of $100,000 from Wikileaks, and has only sought to express his concerns through “a select few journalists who share the Russian and Syrian state views on the war”.
Upholding a protest from Mail on Sunday Columnist, Peter Hitchens, the Corporation’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), adjudicated that the evidence surrounding Hadjimatheou’s insinuation about Alex’s motives, “was not strong enough to warrant the programme itself calling them into question”.
“Although they were limited to one aspect of a investigation into a complex and hotly contested subject”, they add, “these points represented a failure to meet the standard of accuracy appropriate to a programme of this kind”.
The ECU also confirmed that although Alex “had collaborated with journalists who held broadly the same views on the war as the Russian and Syrian governments, he had also collaborated with journalists of whom that could not be said (Mr Hitchens among them)”.
“This is a major victory for the truth” said Hitchens responding to the ruling. “The whistleblowers inside the OPCW were always motivated by a strict regard for scientific truth”, he adds.
Hitchens was also keen to clarify he does “not serve any government, least of all those in Moscow and Damascus”, and remarked that “it is astonishingly rare for the BBC to rule against itself”.
Yet, Hadjimatheou’s journalistic malfeasance, which has also included smears against journalists detailing ties between humanitarian outfit the White Helmets and Islamist militias, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reporting outright falsehoods on events in Douma 2018.
In March 2019, an OPCW Report seemingly substantiated the claims of Islamist militants and NATO nations, that the Syrian military had killed approximately 40 civilians with chlorine gas in Douma in April 2018.
However, in May 2019, an internal OPCW engineering assessment was leaked to the public, which was authored by Ian Henderson, an inspection leader and engineer with the OPCW for 12 years, who worked on the ground during the fact finding mission in Douma.
In the assessment, Henderson writes that “the “dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders” in Douma, “were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft”.
He also follows up by stating that there is “a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.”
6 months after the initial leak, a second OPCW whistleblower that collected samples in Douma also made a presentation to a panel convened by the Courage Foundation, demonstrating through internal emails, text messages, field analyses and reports, that vital evidence on what had actually happened in Douma had been wilfully suppressed by the OPCW.
On January 20th 2020, Henderson spoke before a UN Security Council Session, declaring that OPCW management had dismissed the evidence gathered by his group in favour of publishing a report that contradicted their findings, and which followed the narrative purported by Islamist groups and Western governments.
If the investigations and claims of Henderson and his fellow inspectors and whistleblowers are to be taken seriously, it would point to an international regulator that has been politically compromised.
The U.S government in particular, has a long history of manipulating the OPCW. Most notably, in 2002 during the prelude to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former OPCW Director, Jose Bustani, encouraged the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein to sign the chemical weapons convention, drawing the wrath of George Bush Jr’s neocon government.
Following the move, then Under-Secretary of State, John Bolton, made a personal visit to Bustani at the OPCW’s headquarters in the Hague, to warn him of the consequences of his diplomatic efforts.
“Cheney wants you gone”, and “we can’t accept your management style”, Bustani recollects being told by Bolton, in an interview from March 2018 with The Intercepts, Medhi Hasan.
“You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.” Bustani recalls Bolton continuing, followed by “we know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York”.
The West’s efforts toward regime change in Syria, rely like all NATO interventions since the turn of the century, on a veneer of humanitarian ideals and aims with no bearing in reality, and consequently requiring campaigns of political coercion and propaganda to gain legitimacy.
The OPCW leaks and the BBC’s reporting in particular, epitomise this mechanism, pointing toward a landscape in which neither supposed bastions of objectivity or ‘independent’ regulators are trustworthy.
The BBC’s Mayday series was a last gasp attempt to salvage the disintegrating reputation of the ‘White Helmets’ as humanitarian aid workers, a reputation so in tatters its attempted salvation required the inclusion of one fallacy too many.
As details regarding the reality of the events in Douma continue to unravel, the scale of deception coming to the fore marks what journalist, James Harkin, deems “a cautionary tale” in the evolution of propaganda. “In the era of ‘fake news” he adds, misinformation surrounding events in Douma provide a “case study in the choreography of our new propaganda wars”.