[Update: Was Tim Hayward’s unabashed paean to Eliot Higgins actually a brilliant manoeuvre, a “high-level dialectical move”? I have update this article to take account of this argument, strongly endorsed in some quarters. See Addendum below.]
For those following the Syrian conflict, Bellingcat has become a byword for fake science and fake investigation, all carried out for the purposes of propaganda against Syria and to facilitate an airstrike on that country. The shoddiness of Bellingcat’s work and its blatant bias is an ongoing source of ridicule on social media. Bellingcat has produced widely debunked ‘investigations’ on matters relating to Syria such as the Ghouta sarin attack, the alleged Russian attack on an aid convoy, Bana Alabed’s twitter account and the Khan Sheikoun chemical attack, along with the downing of MH17 over the Ukraine (see Bibliography below). In all cases Bellingcat is firmly on the side of Nato interests from the outset.
Bellingcat was founded by Eliot Higgins, college dropout, gamer, blogger and self-taught forensic scientist. He now works for the Atlantic Council.
Bellingcat always starts from the position of a lawyer defending Nato interests, aiming to refute and discredit rather than to investigate facts or claims.
It came as a shock to many when Tim Hayward, academic and regular contributor to 21st Century Wire, which is not known for compromising on issues to do with Syria, suddenly produced an article that endorsed Bellingcat and its founder Eliot Higgins, without reservation.
The huge gulf between Hayward and the vast majority of pro-Syrian activists or commentators is unmistakable.
Bellingcat has a difficult job, and I admire its founder and leading light, Eliot Higgins. For those who don’t know, the difficult job is to set the record straight when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The particular skill required is in maintaining a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time.
That Bellingcat sees its job as anything like setting the record straight, is a claim that both anti-war activists and scientists have been contesting for years (see bibliography).
And if Bellingcat has a reputation anywhere for reliable and truthful analysis, it has been artificially and dishonestly created by anti-Syria forces, and has no basis in fact.
I admire Eliot Higgins because he does his work with dedication and, for the most part, good humour and civility. Some of his associates will owe their positions to their research skills rather than talents of persuasive communication, but together they make a diligent and, for the most part, effective team.
Given that Bellingcat’s work, solely and absolutely, is disinformation, being effective is hardly a desirable attribute. And that being that case, the good humour and civility hardly figure.
“Some of his associates will owe their positions to their research skills” – no examples, no analysis given. Hayward is strongly implying that the focus of the team is on genuine research even if, simple honest people that they are, communication skills are not a priority.
Higgins is sharp and resourceful. His deft ability to see certain key aspects of a problem and devise insightful and innovative ways of analysing it have brought him deserved renown.
Or to put it another way, Higgins determination to ignore all the known facts and options in order to fulfill his brief of making propaganda against perceived enemies of the West has brought him deserved ridicule.
As an academic myself, I have thus come to regard Eliot – I hope not too presumptuously – as a colleague.
That Tim Hayward should endorse the totally unqualified Eliot Higgins as an academic and a colleague says more about Hayward than it does about Higgins.
His scrupulousness was clear to see only last Sunday. I put it to him – in an amateurish way, via Twitter – that the UK Government could not quite rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun this April. Higgins was very gracious in response to my simplistic question, and very patient, given how long he has been studying these matters in depth.
“Scrupulousness” and “Studying these matters in depth” is correct, but Hayward is putting a very charitable spin on the Bellingcat way of studying events to see how they can be used against the Syrian and Russian governments.
Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist, published a piece in the Mail on Sunday […] arguing that while everyone now realises we were lied to about Iraq, it would be a very good idea also to check now, rather than 15 years after the event, whether we are being lied to about Syria.
Yes, and in the vanguard of those who are lying to us about Syria is Bellingcat, which Hayward does NOT acknowledge. (As an aside, Tim Hayward must be aware of the evidence that Peter Hitchens plagiarised the painstaking work of John Delacour on Khan Sheikhoun, to enable himself to come in just a few days from a position of almost complete ignorance on the subject to that of ‘expert’ who had carried out exceptional investigative journalism, see bibliography.)
Certainly, we have learned – as millions of people have died in the showing – that if the lie is big enough, the circulation of it will acquire a great deal of momentum and can take a long time to stop. Better to try and stop it at the outset.
Hayward is still not admitting that Higgins is one of those responsible for the circulating of lies.
Between them, Robinson and Hitchens brought a professional edge to the engagement with Bellingcat in the Twitter colloquium, exemplifying the kind of constructive collaboration that is possible – and arguably much needed – between journalists and academics. The upshot was edifying. Higgins admitted it was just a judgement call whether the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun incident. On the specific question whether opposition access to relevant chemicals could be ruled out, Higgins was clear on behalf of Bellingcat that the UK Government position is an ‘opinion’.
Higgins admission on twitter that the UK government position is an opinion, is presumably Hayward’s evidence of Bellingcat’s scrupulousness.
The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. […]
Well, no, but Hayward is careful not to suggest that Higgins might be guilty of that fault.
It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can. If I admire Eliot Higgins for his skills, determination and good grace, I reserve admiration of a wholly distinct order for people who go up against governments to press for acknowledgement of the truth, even when doing so calls for remarkable courage. In the course of Sunday’s Twitter colloquium, one of the voices called as a witness to Syrian opposition capacities was that of Serena Shim. […]
Again, the reference to Higgins’ personal attributes, and a complete ducking of the question whether skill and determination are so admirable if they are used for immoral purposes. Like warmongering.
Hayward is not actually suggesting that Higgins does not press for the truth – he is merely leading, for reasons best known to himself, into a paragraph or two about Serena Shim, a journalist who certainly displayed both courage and integrity in her fight to reveal the truth about Syria.
Hayward manages to express admiration for Eliot Higgins three times in one short article, without providing at any point a meaningful justification.
At no point in this article does Hayward refer to or analyse the deficiencies in Bellingcat’s research. Although Hayward has researched areas also covered by Bellingcat, such as the Bana Alabed twitter account, he makes no reference to the more obvious flaws: in their fact checking: the blatant falsehoods, the strawmen, and the failure to address essential points, never mind the question of the dubious science.
In sum, Hayward has given a wholehearted endorsement of Higgins and Bellingcat. He has attributed to both characteristics which they are widely considered to possess in the negative, most bizarrely an aspiration to revealing the truth. He has made no reference to Bellingcat’s fundamental objective of disseminating disinformation, the controversy attached to every single one of its reports, or to the derision with which Bellingcat is regarded by most people following the Syrian war. He has made no reference to the fact that Bellingcat is funded to produce propaganda in order to facilitate open war on Syria.
Reactions to Hayward’s article have ranged from shock, disbelief and anger, to an amused assumption of satire, to spirited defence. The idea that the article was a satire had allure:
but Hayward’s response was hardly consistent with that of a misunderstood satirist.
Tim Hayward’s unashamed endorsement of Higgins and Bellingcat flies in the face of all the work that has been put into exposing Bellingcat over the years. Failure to condemn it is inexcusable.
Postscript: after receiving numerous complaints, Tim Hayward first edited and then deleted the article. The link is to an archived version. [A reworked version has since been posted.]
Addendum: Is Hayward’s homage to Higgins actually a high-level dialectical move?
Tim Hayward’s paean to Eliot Higgins passed without remark from either friends or the uninterested until twitter warrior John Delacour picked it up. The immediate reaction of the greater part of the pro-Syrian twitter community, at least those that had heard of Eliot Higgins, was to condemn Hayward’s article out of hand. Although the condemnation, including my article, was directed at the article in question, it gave rise amongst Tim Hayward’s personal friends to a rather strange campaign of justification. Those that criticised the article were vilified, while a series of contradictory justifications were proposed: it was ‘ironic’ or ‘sarcastic’; it was a mistake born of ignorance; it was actually a high-level dialectical move. While some of these interpretations were made in good faith, there were others who appeared to back all three at once. (Tim Hayward himself has described it as a ‘misunderstanding’, whatever that means.)
The strangest of these explanations was that Tim Hayward, by writing this article, had executed some kind of coup, a dialectic manoeuvre, a sophisticated literary tactic, to achieve an admission damaging to Higgins or the regime-change cause. It was even mooted that Hayward might teach Higgins the error of his ways. “In short, this was a dialectical move by Hayward. Not satire. Not parody. Not a joke. A high-level dialectical move. If it went over your head, raise your damn game” (John Schoneboom).
One might be forgiven for reading Shoneboom’s own interpretation as satire. It received warm approval, however, from a number of people, including Hayward’s colleague Piers Robinson and Tim Hayward himself:
Tim Hayward’s description of events is as follows:
I put it to [Eliot Higgins] – in an amateurish way, via Twitter – that the UK Government could not quite rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun this April […]
Between them, [Piers] Robinson and [Peter] Hitchens brought a professional edge to the engagement with Bellingcat in the Twitter colloquium, exemplifying the kind of constructive collaboration that is possible – and arguably much needed – between journalists and academics. The upshot was edifying. Higgins admitted it was just a judgement call whether the Syrian government was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun incident. On the specific question whether opposition access to relevant chemicals could be ruled out, Higgins was clear on behalf of Bellingcat that the UK Government position is an ‘opinion’.
The crucial question that Hayward directed at Higgins was presumably this:
I have been criticised for not discussing this aspect of Hayward’s article in my own critique. My view was that, firstly, as this supposed coup happened before Hayward wrote his piece, the article can hardly be given credit for it, and secondly, its importance was overstated, as it consisted of one retractable tweet. I certainly did not foresee that it would effect a change in Higgins’s approach to Khan Sheikhoun or any modification in his overall purpose. However, I checked the relevant twitter discussion, finding this (link):
Thus the acclaimed ‘dialectical move by Hayward’, said to justify his endorsement of Higgins, was in fact a duologue between Piers Robinson and Eliot Higgins, which did not involve Hayward, who can hardly claim credit for exchanges that take place subsequent to his question on opposition use of sarin (though he seems to be doing just that). Nor does a search of Tim Haywards twitter does not indicate that high-level dialectics were at play.
Why these two professors were engaging Eliot Higgins on the OPCW report is a mystery. Robinson makes it very clear that he himself has not read the report with a critical eye, passing up a golden opportunity which many others, including John Delacour would have seized on with alacrity:
Higgin’s supposed damning admission, that the British government’s position on Khan Sheikhoun was based on opinion, was a single tweet, easily retracted or clarified. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that the publication of Hayward’s article was likely to result in a change in the manifest purpose of Bellingcat, which is to facilitate war on Syria by demonising the Syrian government and forces. Hayward’s endorsement could only aid Bellingcat.
To refer to this single tweet obtained before Hayward wrote his article, made by Higgins in an exchange that Hayward did not participate in, as a clever dialectical manoeuvre which somehow justifies Hayward’s endorsement of the work of Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat, is disingenuous at best.
Graham Phillips looks at the Bellingcat/Higgins phenomenon, in Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, Who is He? Everything You Need to Know…
Ghouta sarin attack 21 August 2013
Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, Attempts to Blame the Syrian Opposition for the August 21st Sarin Attacks Continue One Year On
Bellingcat, Dan Kaszeta, Examining the Turkish Sarin “Recipe”
WhoGhouta, Review of Turkish MPs Allegations
Downing of MH17 17 July 2014
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat, e.g. New July 17th Satellite Imagery Confirms Russia Produced Fake MH17 Evidence
Speigel interview with Jens Kriese, ‘Bellingcat Report Doesn’t Prove Anything’: Expert Criticizes Allegations of Russian MH17 Manipulation
Alleged Russian bombing of aid convoy 21 September 2016
Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, Confirmed : Russian Bomb Remains Recovered from Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Attack
Bana Alabed twitter account (@alabedbana)
Nick Waters (Belllingcat), Finding Bana – Proving the Existence of a 7-Year-Old Girl in Eastern Aleppo
Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack 4 April 2017
Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, Summary of Claims Surrounding the Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack.
Bellingcat’s later report on Khan Sheikhoun cited focuses on Hersh’s article, when others have carried out more detailed and more authoritative investigations.
John Delacour, twitter thread, so far more than 30 tweets: