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Dear Mr Barry,
I am writing in response to your Media Watch report Monday 6/2/17 – FakeNews and Alternative Facts. In it, you quoted Charlie Beckett.
Fake news is a real problem. Not just because it gives people rubbish information but, you know, because it undermines the idea that anything is true and I think it’s a real challenge in the sense that mainstream media has been too complacent. You know, you’re looking for stuff that you could call fake news, that’s been in some so called reputable media, so there is a real challenge there for journalists to get their act together basically because I think that in a world of lies, truth is actually quite a good selling point for journalists.
— Charlie Beckett, Professor of Media, London School of Economics,26 January, 2017
Media Watch’s report on ‘fake news’ avoids a bigger issue, which is that impartiality, fearless investigative journalism and rigorous analysis are increasingly absent from mainstream media reporting and commentary.
In regard to Syria, bias towards a US-led war against multi-faith Syria seems to dominate the ABC, and that bias often makes no moral or rational sense.
For example, ABC’s foreign correspondent Sophie McNeill presents a pro-‘revolution’ bias in her reporting on Syria, yet the ideology of the Islamist ‘revolution’ she favors is not examined, nor are the foreign clerics who recruit insurgents and suicide bombers.
The impact this ‘revolution’ has on the lives of members of the general public in Syria, people from every faith background, is generally ignored by her and her fellow ABC ME correspondent Matt Brown.
The claims of ‘rebels’ and supporters are favoured, thus indirectly encouraging the ‘opposition’ to manufacture ‘fake news’, and this fake news will inevitably rely on the presentation of victims.
A further reason the bias makes no moral or logical sense is that Islamist fighters Ms McNeill favours in Syria would be barred from entering Australia, while Australians who travel to Syria to join the ‘revolution’ are likely to be deemed terrorists by Australian authorities.
In December 2012, British journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in an article titled ‘Syria: The descent into holy war‘,
This misperception of the reality on the ground in Syria is fuelled in part by propaganda, but more especially by inaccurate and misleading reporting by the media where bias towards the rebels and against the government is unsurpassed since the height of the Cold War. Exaggerated notions are given of rebel strength and popularity. The Syrian government is partially responsible for this. By excluding all but a few foreign journalists, the regime has created a vacuum of information that is naturally filled by its enemies. In the event, a basically false and propagandistic account of events in Syria has been created by a foreign media credulous in using pro-opposition sources as if they were objective reporting.
Trust is lost not just in individual mainstream reporters, but also in media outlets and national institutions such as the ABC and, by extension, the government.
There is reason for concern that in this climate, fair-minded and well-informed Australians become disengaged and/or disempowered while the power of those who can alienate and divide communities increases.
Someone who has expressed despair about mainstream media reporting on Syria is Dr Ted Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Postol has referred to the ‘scandalous failure of due diligence by the mainstream Western press’. He and Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, wrote a report titled, ‘Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013‘. The conclusions of the report include the following:
The Syrian Improvised Chemical Munitions that Were Used in the August 21,
Nerve Agent Attack in Damascus Have a Range of About 2 Kilometers
The UN Independent Assessment of the Range of the Chemical Munition Is in Exact Agreement with Our Findings
This Indicates That These Munitions Could Not Possibly Have Been Fired at East Ghouta from the “Heart”, or from the Eastern Edge, of the Syrian
Government Controlled Area Shown in the Intelligence Map Published by the White House on August 30, 2013.
This mistaken Intelligence Could Have Led to an Unjustified US Military Action Based on False Intelligence.
Michael Flynn who was director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency at the time of the chemical weapons attack in August 2013 and who is now President Trump’s National Security Advisor has admitted that he is not confident that the Syrian army committed the chemical attack, that it could have been a false flag. See 21 Nov 2016 CNN report.
Yet there were clearly victims seen in videos produced by rebels and their supporters. Some activists who have investigated this contend that the victims included children kidnapped by rebel groups in Latakia in early August 2013. Perhaps the most thorough analysis of the videos was carried out by retired US pharmacologist Dr Denis O’Brien. His conclusions also contradict the claims of rebels and their supporters. Unfortunately, because so many of us are time-poor, few will access Dr O’Brien’s rather lengthy report ‘Murder in the Sun Morgue‘. It may be some time before mainstream journalists investigate what is most likely one of the biggest fake news stories of the last 5 years.
I am confident you and your colleagues at the ABC will agree, a discussion on fake news is not helpful if it is not matched by a commitment to the best journalistic practice. Fake news and war are a potent mix.
100 years ago, an organisation guilty of producing fake news was the Committee on Public Information in the US set up by President Wilson to persuade a reluctant US public to support American participation in the First World War. Its propaganda depended on the recruitment of journalists, academics, actors, artists and business people.
Early in 1918, the CPI made a premature announcement that “the first American built battle planes are today en route to the front in France,” but newspapers learned that the accompanying pictures were fake, there was only one plane, and it was still being tested. At other times, though the CPI could control in large measure what newspapers printed, its exaggerations were challenged and mocked in Congressional hearings.The Committee’s overall tone also changed with time, shifting from its original belief in the power of facts to mobilization based on hate, like the slogan “Stop the Hun!” on posters showing a U.S. soldier taking hold of a German soldier in the act of terrorizing a mother and child, all in support of war bond sales.
Recently, a complaint letter was sent to ABC Managing Director Ms Michelle Guthrie in response to Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’. Among the signatories were Syrians who are in Australia on humanitarian visas. I urge you and your colleagues to give it attention.
The media is a powerful force in times of war. Those working in media outlets can best determine its impact.
In the US and the UK, some politicians are taking strong stands against their governments’ hawkish policies on Syria. (Refer to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Baroness Cox.) May our politicians in Australia be capable of in-depth, responsible discussions on the conflict in Syria. They may need assistance from you and your colleagues to reach that point.
The email was cc-ed to colleagues of Paul Barry at the ABC, including Ms Sophie McNeill based in Jerusalem, as well as several Australian politicians.
Above: Screenshots showing Syrians whose perspectives were ignored by Australian Story‘s ‘The Road From Damascus’. (Screenshots were taken of videos posted online or of Syrian TV.)
Email to Managing Director of the ABC, Ms Michelle Guthrie
17 January 2017
Dear Ms Guthrie,
We are writing to you about serious breaches of the ABC Code of Practice that potentially relate to Australia’s security and social harmony. Please see the attached complaint letter, whose signatories include Syrians in Australia on humanitarian visas.
The complaint concerns ‘The Road From Damascus’, Australian Story‘s last program for 2016.
‘The Road From Damascus’ features a Syrian nurse, Mr Khaled Naanaa, who is in Australia on a humanitarian visa. ABC Middle East correspondent Ms Sophie McNeill connected with Mr Naanaa when he was living in rebel-held Madaya. She describes him as a close personal friend. ABC viewers learn that in July 2012, he left his wife and baby daughter in Damascus for rebel-held Madaya.
Mr Naanaa made that journey when the terror and violence of the militarised opposition was becoming part of the Syrian landscape. In 2011, Egyptian-born Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, then considered the unofficial spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, had said, “if it is necessary to kill a third of the Syrian people to get rid of the heretical regime, that’s okay”. The Grand Mufti of Syria refers to Sheik Qaradawi’s words after his son was assassinated in early October 2011.
Just over 6 months before Mr Naanaa travelled to Madaya, another Syrian made a similar journey. On 27 December 2011, Ammar Baloush, a medical engineering student at Damascus University, shot 5 of his classmates during an exam. Two died. The 5 students were from minorities – Christian, Druze, Shi’a, and Alawi. Mr Baloush fled and joined a rebel group.
This is some background to the terror and sectarianism faced by Syrians on a daily basis. We believe it is relevant to the complaint letter.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Phil Davies and Susan Dirgham
Managing Director of the ABC
Ms Michelle Guthrie
GPO Box 9994
Sydney NSW 2001
RE: Letter of complaint to ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs
Program: ABC TV, Australian Story
Date of broadcast: 21/11/2016; available on Australian Story website
Title: The Road From Damascus
Producers: Winsome Denyer, Sophie McNeill
Presenter: Sophie McNeill
Research: Fouad AbuGosh
Specialist Contributor: Caroline Jones
17 January 2017
Dear Ms Guthrie,
Because of the seriousness of the matter detailed below, we believe it is appropriate to bring it to your direct attention for consideration.
We, the signatories of this letter, believe that Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’ breaches the ABC Code of Practice, particularly in regard to Accuracy; Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives; and Harm and Offence. We maintain that the program’s presenter, ABC Middle East correspondent Ms Sophie McNeill, has allowed her personal views and friendships to influence her journalism. In the program, she takes a credulous approach to the ‘opposition’ in Syria, effectively giving credibility to rebels that are affiliated with al-Qaeda.
We maintain that the breaches of the Code are significant and relate to highly contentious matters which impact on Australia’s security. Also, these matters are the subject of ongoing debate about the war in Syria and deserve the highest standards of journalistic practice.
Please note, signatories of this letter include four Syrians in Australia on humanitarian visas.
Breaches of the ABC Code of Practice that relate to Accuracy; Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives; and Harm and Offence
- Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’ unduly favors a militarized ‘opposition’ in Syria, which is widely known to include foreign ‘jihadists’ fighting for an Islamic state or for a Caliphate. Australian Story displays this bias without making reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts presented are accurate and without giving due consideration to both the wider context of the war in Syria and the suffering of people at the hands of anti-government armed groups.
- Australian Story introduces Mr Khaled Naanaa, the main character in the program, as compassionate and credible. He is presented as a close personal friend of Ms McNeill, and this gives his claims additional weight. His assertions are not questioned or qualified despite the fact that there is reason to believe he provided material support to Ahrar al-Sham, an armed group supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey and affiliated with al-Qaeda through its membership of Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). Australian academic Dr Jeremy Salt describes Ahrar al-Sham as ‘one of the most violent takfiri/jihadist groups in Syria’. (See the letter Dr Salt sent Australian Story below. We have his permission to include it in this complaint letter.)
- Australian Story’s tacit acceptance of Ms McNeill’s bias would indicate to viewers that there is, in effect, an implicit ABC editorial policy with regard to Syria expressed in the program. This contravenes the Code of Practice and makes it unlikely that the viewpoints of Syrians opposed to the militarized ‘opposition’ will be given equal time and respect in such high-profile ABC programs as Australian Story.
- ‘The Road From Damascus’ makes no effort to ensure the accuracy of its fact-based content through the presentation of a range of perspectives and contending views. No consideration is given to the fact that there are alternative views that an ABC audience would find even more compelling. Given the contentious and highly politicized nature of the matters dealt with in the program, ABC viewers would expect that all fact-claims had been carefully checked and no relevant material omitted. We maintain that this was not done.
- Australian Story does not consider the views and experiences of those Syrians now in Australia on humanitarian visas who oppose the rebels. It does not consider the distress that the program could cause these Syrians by giving credibility to a ‘rebel’ supporter, and thus potentially breaches their trust in the national broadcaster.
- We hold that ABC audiences would expect to be informed of the views and experiences of Syrians who support the continuation of their secular, liberal multi-faith society, which provides freedom of religion and equal opportunities for women. Presenting their views could have helped address the issues raised by Ms McNeill’s pro-‘opposition’ bias. Furthermore, as the national broadcaster, the ABC has a commitment to basic democratic principles, including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity. In the light of this, Syrians genuinely committed to these beliefs and values should have had their views presented in Australian Story.
- We maintain that the information presented in the program cannot be considered reliable because it favors the testimony of ‘rebel’ supporters, namely Mr Naanaa, James Sadri (The Syria Campaign), Dr Ammar Ghanem (Syrian American Medical Society), and Widney Brown (Physicians for Human Rights). By giving implicit support to ‘opposition’ armed groups, the national broadcaster does not act in the public interest. It could contribute to the decision of some Australians to support jihadist extremism both here and overseas, which is in contravention of government policy and detrimental to our national security.
There is extensive documentation on file in support of our concerns and we would be pleased to forward it, upon request. Dr Salt’s letter to Australian Story presented below highlights the need for a much more sophisticated and balanced commentary on Syria than that presented by Australian Story.
Our most basic concern is that Australian Story gives weight to people who support the militarized opposition in Syria and denies a voice to the vast majority of Syrians, people who would respect Australia’s democratic beliefs and who would be potential victims of that ‘opposition’.
Another key concern is that despite the pro-opposition bias in ‘The Road From Damascus’, the ‘opposition’ is not defined. There is no description of its violence, agenda or tactics, so ABC viewers could be misled into thinking the ‘opposition’, as represented by Mr Naanaa, is a homogeneous benign force. Yet, that ‘opposition’ includes Ahrar al-Sham in control of Madaya where Mr Naanaa worked in a field hospital as well as rebels and foreign ‘jihadists’ who besieged the towns of Kafriya and Fu’ah.
FOR THE COMPLETE LETTER TO THE MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE ABC, PLEASE GO TO THE PDF LINKED BELOW.
Screenshots below include the following (not necessarily in this order):
Sheik Yousef Qaradawi issuing a fatwa on his weekly Al-Jazeera program, published on Youtube 2 January 2013; a mainstream program on Al-Jazeera broadcast on 8 May 2015 and titled ‘Do the Alawites Deserve Genocide?’; Sheik Adnan Arour, a Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia, declaring what will be done to those who oppose the ‘revolution’; a sign from the ‘revolution’ in Kafranbel, Syria; article in The Australian concerning Egyptian-born Australian Mostafa Mahamed, who has been a spokesperson for a group that has been affiliated with al-Qaeda; Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth and his Australian wife Dr Annie Sparrow at a White House function; Sheikh Abdullah al-Mohaisany, the Saudi cleric who recruits young boys from refugee camps for an al-Qaeda style ‘revolution’ in Syria.