The Guardian recently published an article claiming that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Many readers were dismayed at this crude defence of a – presumably – pro-imperialist perspective, and at the unwarranted smearing of reasoned questioning based on evidence from independent journalists.
What The Guardian did next:
- quickly closed its comments section;
- did not allow a right of reply to those journalists singled out for denigration in the piece;
- did not allow publication of the considered response from a group of concerned academics (posted in full below);
- did not respond to the group’s subsequent Letter, or a follow up email to it;
- prevaricated in response to telephone inquiries as to whether a decision against publishing either communication from the group had or had not been taken;
- failed to respond to a message to its Readers’ Editor from Vanessa Beeley, one of the journalists criticised in the article.
Meanwhile, the article’s author, Olivia Solon, tweeting from California, allowed herself to promote her piece while simply blocking critical voices.
Conduct hardly more becoming was that of The Guardian’s George Monbiot who joined in, tweeting smears against critics and suggesting they read up about ‘the Russian-backed disinformation campaign against Syria’s heroic rescue workers’. Judging by the tenor of responses to this, the journalist misjudged his surprising intervention. It seems that people who follow these matters are able to decide for themselves who and what they find credible.
As for allowing a fair hearing to independent researchers like Vanessa Beeley, it is poignant to observe that while The Guardian’s journalists were tweeting away, she was actually on the ground in Syria, again putting herself at personal risk of bombs and mortars dispatched by the fighters that the White Helmets provide support to; she was there meeting – and filming – Syrian people who provide grave witness statements concerning those that The Guardian uncritically commends as ‘heroic rescue workers’.
A growing number of us believe that it is high time the critical questions raised by independent investigators be treated with the seriousness and scrupulousness they warrant. That is why the academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and the Media offered the following response to The Guardian under its ‘Comment is Free’ rubric. Since it was not published there, I post it on behalf of the group here.
From the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media:
Seeking Truth About White Helmets In Syria
The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorizing and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict. In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives. More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked … These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations’. These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.
It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II. The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID. Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.
Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.
The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”. The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.
In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be. Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued. It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.
Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media
Professor Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh
Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh
Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism University of Sheffield
Jake Mason (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)
Divya Jha (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)
 Having sent the article reproduced here to ‘Comment is Free’ at The Guardian on 23 December, but receiving no definite response, despite a follow up email, on 5 January, we sent the following letter to The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor. (This also received no response.)
Dear Mr Chadwick
We are writing in relation to an article by Olivia Solon “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine” published on 18 December. This article asserted that those who have questioned the ostensible role of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization, including the experienced journalists Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, are part of “a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government “.
We sent on 23 December a request (reproduced below) to Comment is Free requesting that they consider for publication a brief (800-word) response to Solon’s article. This article set out the grounds for a more serious engagement with the questions that arise from UK and US government support for media-related operations in Syria. The text of this article is reproduced below. The original is attached as a Word document, in case the embedded links do not work in the unformatted text.
Despite a second message on 28 December specifically requesting a written response to the original message on 23 December (and copied to you), we have not had any response from the Guardian other than automated acknowledgements. Before we proceed to publish this material elsewhere, it is important to document that this article has been seen by an editor and rejected (if that was the decision). I understand that Comment is Free editors are not able to reply to every pitch, but this one concerns an article that has serious implications for the Guardian’s reputation.
We request therefore that you ask your editorial colleagues to respond in writing with a confirmation that our article has been seen and rejected. A one-sentence email message from an editor would be enough – we shall not bother you again.
Prof. Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh
Prof. Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh
Prof. Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield