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Mainstream Media on OPCW Leaks – The Good, Bad and Downright Ugly

Sheila Coombes
21st Century Wire

Since early this year when it was revealed that OPCW top management had undertaken censorship of their scientific staff’s reporting on investigations into the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria in April 2018, there has been relative silence from the mainstream media, with the exception of a few. Given that this story is surely the stuff of a Pulitzer Prize, one has to wonder at their reluctance to cover the issue. Instead, mainstream media journalists and their social media cohort have worked to attack and discredit anyone who is challenging the West’s official narrative on the OPCW report.

The initial leak of an OPCW Engineering report was provided by a whistleblower to the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda (WGSPM) early this year. The Group published the previously suppressed report together with a commentary.

The work of members of the group, Dr Piers Robinson and Professors Paul McKeigue, David Miller and Tim Hayward, has not been published by mainstream media, nor were any interviews with them undertaken with regard to the issue.

Later in October, following further revelations by Wikileaks of a second whistle blower’s testimony, a ground breaking meeting was held in Brussels. The meeting was organised and hosted by the Courage Foundation who provide support to whistleblowers.

A distinguished journalist by the name of Jonathan Steele, a former senior Middle East Correspondent for The Guardian newspapers, attended the meeting and wrote an article subsequently published in independent on line media outlet, Counterpunch. Steele’s article included new evidence of malfeasance at the highest levels of OPCW management. He also gave a short interview to the BBC World Service Weekend programme.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News, America’s largest cable news audience, undertook an interview with Jonathan Steele having previously interviewed US Democratic Presidential Candidate, Tulsi Gabbard right after the original leak of the OPCW Engineering Report. She has stated that she will make representations to the OPCW on the subject.

Since Steele’s short but hugely important piece on the BBC Word Service platform he has confirmed that there have been no follow-up interview requests from mainstream media. There are no BBC headlines, nothing on ITV, Channel 4, or Sky News. The same goes for the mainstream print media. No headline stories or centre spreads, and not even features hidden in the back section. All of these media organisations seem to have collectively stonewalled this story.

Looking back, the mainstream media have given attention to these types of stories before, most notably its critical coverage, albeit after the fact, of the 2003 WMD ‘dodgy dossier’ used as the pretext by the governments of Britain and the United States to attack and occupy Iraq.

When brave insiders like those at OPCW warn the world of another instance of falsehoods for war, the British establishment and corporate media falls silent, with the exception of a few. The most prominent of those few is Peter Hitchens, a senior journalist and columnist at the Mail on Sunday. Hitchens has followed the story from the beginning, covering the initial leaked Engineering Report and now with the second whistle blower’s testimony and corroborating documents. This month he also travelled to Europe for a secret meeting with one of the whistleblowers. Links to his articles on the subject of the OPCW leaks are listed below.

In April 2018, award-winning journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent had travelled to Douma in the immediate aftermath of the alleged ‘chemical attack’, where he spoke to residents who cast a shadow of doubt over the official narrative of the alleged chemical weapons attack.

When the OPCW leaks emerged earlier this year in May, Fisk discussed the omission of evidence in an article entitled, “The evidence we were never meant to see about the Douma ‘gas’ attack,” in which he cites Peter Hitchens’ representations to OPCW’s management. However, instead of going further to expose the gravity of the scandal, Fisk instead used the opportunity to attack what he calls “the West’s opponents,” namely Syria and Russia, as well as what he deemed to be “pro-conspiracy” websites. Fisk seemed to be perturbed that Damascus and Moscow had seized upon the scandal – as if they had no right to seize upon what is likely the great international scandal of military intervention since the Iraq War. He posited the following:

Far more dangerous is that its (OPCW) act of censorship has provided an ocean of propaganda for the West’s opponents, for the Syrian regime and for the Russians. Russia Today has been regaling its viewers with tales of how NATO powers politically control the OPCW. American websites – pro-peace but also, alas, pro-conspiracy are having a field day with the Engineers’ conflicting report.”

Whether this was an attempt by Fisk to discredit any other media sources reporting this story, or simply to try and control the damage to a rapidly crumbling western consensus narrative, should be an important point of discussion going forward, and should apply to other mainstream journalists echoing the same ‘shoot the messenger’ theme.

The Second Whistleblower 

Revelations in October of 2019 confirm assertions that the West, particularly the US, actively worked to control the narrative of the Douma incident when it was revealed that in 2018, three unidentified US officials were present at the organisation’s offices in The Hague and who, alongside the watchdog’s executives, pressured OPCW scientists, emphasising categorically that the Syrian regime had perpetrated a chemical weapons attack. The whistleblower, known as “Alex,” said that he and colleagues present at the meeting found this to be unacceptable pressure and in violation of the OPCW and Chemical Weapons Convention’s principles of impartiality.

Overall, it can be said that the mainstream media’s performance on this story ranges from bad to catastrophic. This includes the majority of all major UK broadcast and print titles. Those who’ve either ignored or tried to downplay the story include outlets like The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Observer, Mirror, Sun, BBC’s Radio 4 News, BBC News, BBC Breaking, Channel 4, ITV, Sky News and others. This despite hard copies of the leaked Engineering Report, a covering letter and extensive commentary from the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda which has been mailed directly to the following media personnel from June 2019:

BBC personnel:
Lyse Doucet, Justin Webb, Quentin Somerville, Riam Dalati, Martin Patience, Jonathan Munro

Channel 4 News personnel:
Lindsey Hilsum, Jon Snow, Cathy Newman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Matt Frei, Ben DePear

Sky News reporters:
Alex Crawford

ITV News journalist:
John Irvine

Only Channel 4’s Jon Snow responded to the mailing with an email in which he totally ignored the subject at hand, but enquired if the senders were interested in viewing Channel 4’s latest piece on the White Helmets due to air that night.

The US publication Newsweek was also exposed as having acively buried the story, after one of its journalists Tareq Haddad endeavoured to get his work on the leaks published by his employer. The result was a stonewalling which led to his decision to resign. He explains: “This is not a ‘conspiracy theory’ as Newsweek sadly said in a statement to Fox News – interestingly the only mainstream publication to cover my resignation. Real OPCW scientists have met with real journalists and explained the timeline of events. They provided internal documents that proved these allegations – documents that were then confirmed by Reuters. This is all I wanted to report.”

Perhaps the worst offender is the Huffington Post UK, whose Senior Editor Chris York has made every attempt possible to denigrate any discussion of the whistleblower leaks as the stuff of ‘conspiracy theory’. His attacks have been targeted at not only members of the WGSPM, but also the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and all who undermine the Huffington Post’s narrative of the Syrian government’s culpability for the alleged attack in Douma. Moreover, York fervently supports, defends and promotes the White Helmets, a group described by retired National Intelligence Officer Elizabeth Murray, a 27 year  CIA veteran, as ‘Discredited due to links with terrorist organisations’. She went on to note that some media still attempt to legitimise them – case in point, Chris York at Huffington Post UK. The White Helmets provided what has now been widely recognised as fake footage of hospital scenes following the alleged attack in Douma. York can be found patrolling any Twitter threads on the White Helmets and OPCW leaks, judiciously enforcing the official narrative while dismissing any contrarian views and smearing any skeptic posing legitimate questions as a “conspiracy theorist”. Here is one of numerous examples:

York also aligns wholeheartedly with the narrative of Atlantic Council and NED (National Endowment for Democracy) funded ‘open source investigative group, Bellingcat, along with its head Eliot Higgins. York also retweets Raed Saleh, White Helmets’ leader, the man who according to Josie Ensor of The Telegraph, passed the co-ordinates of a terrorist group’s burial of Syrian civilians to OPCW representatives. The hurried and unconventional burial by terrorist organisation Jaish al-Islam of some 48 Syrian civilians said to have been “gassed” in the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma,  is discussed sympathetically in Josie’s article here. Their claims form one of the key cornerstones of the West’s official Douma narrative, a story which all of these mainstream narrative enforcers are desperately guarding, and are actively mounting social media attacks against any academic, mainstream or alternative media journalist who threatens the primacy of the accepted western consensus narrative. Initially, the media speculated that deadly sarin gas was used, but after the OPCW’s reporting effectively ruled out sarin nerve gas, the narrative was then firmly fixed on “chlorine gas”, despite an obvious lack of evidence of any abnormal levels of chlorine traces on site.

SEE ALSO: Post-Truth World: An OPCW Cover-up, Shielded by MSM and Bellingcat

Interestingly, all of these mainstream media narrative enforcers appear to be tightly networked online, sharing all the same active anonymous account followers, and will move and react in concert in any Twitter threads which challenge the official narrative on OPCW related discussions.

Another one of the main mainstream gatekeepers in this cohort of narrative enforcers is former Middle East editor for The Guardian, Brian Whitaker, who now runs a blog called Al-Bab.com as well as a blog on Medium. Since the OPCW scandal broke, Whitaker has not missed an opportunity to try and marginalise and discredit not only the whistleblower, but any journalists who’ve challenged the official story. When Peter Hitchens began running with the OPCW whistleblower story, Whitaker was quick to try and discredit him:

Likewise, when Newsweek’s Tareq Haddad came forward with concerns of censorship, it was Whitaker who moved quickly to try and discredit Haddad, flippantly referring to the journalist as an “internet hero”:

Whitaker also repeatedly went out of his way to try and discredit the OPCW whistleblower “Alex”:

Both Whitaker and York are normally flanked by another narrative enforcer, Professor Scott Lucas of University of Birmingham, who also edits an obscure website called EA Worldview, and who has repeatedly tried (rather unsuccessfully) to discredit both Peter Hitchens and the OPCW whistleblower.

All of these revelations point to a more likely conclusion that no ‘chemical weapons attack’ took place in Douma, but it seems the same establishment media gatekeepers are determined to fight anyone who dares to break ranks with the official narrative.

The Missing Victims

Although the OPCW whistleblower’s leaks reveal that both Syrian and Russian governments requested investigation of the burial site to determine cause of death of those buried there, none has taken place. See https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/FirstdraftInterimReport/FirstdraftInterimReport.pdf (Page 8, paragraph  6.8–6.9).

It’s interesting to note how Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent, Josie Ensor, despite having recently won the Press Gazette’s British journalism award for 2019, has aligned herself with those who’ve endeavoured to shut-down the story of the OPCW leaks, deriding anyone questioning the Douma narrative as a “conspiracy theorist,” Like York and the others, she is also a fervent supporter of the White Helmets, as well as Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat, along with some very dubious individuals who regularly join-in with concerted social media attacks and are also prolific Wikipedia editors, such as Bob from Brockley aka Ben Gidley. The Telegraph’s Ensor has also suggested in a tweet that her followers should follow “Bob from Brockley” who is a fervent supporter of the ‘opposition’ to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and strong opponent of those journalists and antiwar activists who dare to reveal the deliberate regime change nature of the conflict in Syria. “Bob from Brockley” also detrimentally edits Wikipedia pages of those who defy current narratives on Russia and Syria.


It’s not surprising then to find “Bob from Brockley” keeping a watchful eye over the Wikipedia page of White Helmets, and editing alongside Philip Cross the notorious and highly vexatious establishment-friendly editor.

Together, these two logins have monitored and crafted the narrative on any Wikipedia pages dealing with Syria, Douma, the OPCW, the Labour Party’s alleged ‘antisemitism’ crisis, as well as any pages of prominent dissenters on US and UK foreign policy including Chris Williamson, Alfred de Zayas, Gareth Porter and many others. View Bob from Brockley’s full Wikipedia edit history here.

Given the above, we can conclude that both Mr. York of Huffington Post UK and Ms. Ensor of The Telegraph, and their cohort, fall into a special category of mainstream narrative enforcers.

Bellingcat Public Relations

Bellingcat head, Eliot Higgins (Image: Twitter)

But where do we place BBC’s Hardtalk programme hosted by Stephen Sackur? Given that on a BBC platform he undertook a necessarily soft soap interview of Bellingcat’s creator Eliot Higgins, he didn’t afford Mr. Higgins a totally free pass, injecting some discussion of Higgins’ funding and questioning the veracity of ‘open source’ investigations. Sackur was perhaps not doing this to adhere to tenets of journalistic due diligence and impartiality, but perhaps because there is a general awareness that Mr. Higgins’ house of cards at Bellingcat is at serious risk of being undermined, exacerbated by the OPCW whistle blowers’ revelations which Higgins and Bellingcat have fought desperately to undermine and discredit. Self serving, self-preservation is the overarching modus operandi of establishment journalists, many of whom still sit comfortably in media roles – despite their grossly inaccurate assessments of Western contrived regime changes in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and the West’s 9 year-long proxy war on Syria.

Although there are many more culprits who would slot neatly into the ‘Bad’ or ‘Downright ugly’ establishment and corporate media categories, it is right to applaud those journalists in the English-speaking mainstream who’ve grappled with this story, most notably veteran journalists Peter Hitchens, and Jonathan Steele, as well as American news presenter Tucker Carlson.

The Latest Leaks

We now have the third tranche of OPCW leaks released by Wikileaks and reported by the Mail on Sunday with Peter Hitchens on 15th December.

This tranche included an email sent by a OPCW staff member to Veronika Strosikova, OPCW’s Director of Strategy and Policy on 20th May this year.

The email heartbreakingly pleads for consideration of all OPCW scientist’s reports compiled by staff who worked on site in Douma at risk to their lives.  

That this was ignored and that Ian Henderson, author of the suppressed but leaked Engineering report, was frogmarched off the OPCW site, is indicative of corruption at the highest ranks of this formerly admirable UN organisation.

The OPCW’s first ever Director General, Jose Bustani, appointed when it was formed in 1997 states that he now hopes the organisation, “Can be resurrected to become the independent and non-discriminatory body it used to be.”

That mainstream media fail to trumpet this story which includes hugely marketable elements of human bravery and corruption is beyond understanding. With aforementioned exclusions accepted, mainstream and corporate media’s silence consigns it not just to ‘Bad’ or ‘Downright Ugly’ but to the dustbin of irrelevance when issues of real import are at hand.

Peter Hitchens articles for Mail on Sunday covering OPCW leaks:

March 2019

May 2019

Nov 2019

Nov 2019

Dec 2019

Author Sheila Coombes is an activist and founder of the UK grassroots antiwar organisation Frome Stop War. See Sheila’s 21WIRE archive here.

READ MORE OPCW NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire OPCW Files




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