What happened when I complained about the BBC’s own disinformation around Skripal

Yesterday the BBC put up an article titled Sergei Skripal and the Russian disinformation game on its news website.

Essentially, the piece frames any viewpoint that conflicts with the endlessly-repeated but completely hole-riddled official narrative on the Skripal affair as Russian disinformation.

”A loosely-defined network of Russian state actors, state-controlled media, and armies of social media bots and trolls is said to operate in unison to spread and amplify multiple messages around cases like the Skripal poisoning.” (My emphasis).

Obviously a key question here is who is saying this. But the BBC makes no effort at all to describe the provenance of its source for the claim, which is the Atlantic Council.

Clearly you wouldn’t expect the BBC to relay something like the left-leaning Monthly Review’s depiction of the council as “a de facto PR agency for the U.S. government and NATO military alliance”.

But you might think the BBC would at a minimum mention that the AC is a self-described pro-Western think tank. And, given the context, that the AC’s main presence in its reader’s lives since last May has been as “the eyes and ears” of Facebook – effectively that platform’s state/corporate-funded censor.

Not a chance. Omitting key information about its sources’ interests is how the BBC does propaganda these days.

In the Skripal affair, the Beeb has been playing this game from the beginning – even before the former M16 spy and his daughter were attacked.

On 16 February this year, three full weeks before the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, which allegedly involved a chemical agent widely-described as many times more deadly than VX, the BBC published a viewpoint article by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the now-disbanded UK Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment.

Mr de Bretton-Gordon’s piece was very prescient. He wrote:

”In the new “Cold War” with Russia, NATO must be prepared for chemical weapon usage,”

adding

”…there is speculation that research has been done on new super chemicals many times more potent than nerve agents like Sarin and VX.”

Having absolutely nailed the trajectory of the future Salisbury ‘Russian chemical attack’ story, his article strongly pushes for increased NATO spending on “chemical defence capabilities”.

The byline put on the piece by the BBC describes him simply as ‘a chemical weapons expert and advisor to NGOs in Syria’. It leaves out the highly relevant detail of his full time job: managing director of Avon Protection, the Wiltshire-based supplier of CBRN respirators and other protective gear to several NATO militaries.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr de Bretton-Gordon’s being MD of a business that stands to gain millions if governments follow his advice on Russia doesn’t disqualify him from acting as a media expert.

But you would expect any self-respecting media outlet to explain to its audience, when they use him as a source, that they are quoting someone with a very strong commercial stake in defence equipment alongside his knowledge and field experience of CBRN weaponry and defences.

I didn’t think the BBC’s byline on the article gave readers enough information to judge whether they were reading a dispassionate opinion piece, an advertorial for chemical warfare respirators or a calculating slice of New Cold War propaganda.

I complained about the article and asked the BBC to add Mr de Bretton-Gordon’s main occupation to the byline. They rejected my complaint, not on the grounds that their omission was justified but on the grounds that I was too late.

They said:

While [we] appreciate your concerns, in order to make our complaints process more efficient the time-frame for making complaints about programmes or online content is within 30 working days of the transmission or event on BBC channels or services (this particular report was published back on 16 February 2018).

Heaven forfend that the interests of truth and full disclosure should override those of running an efficient complaints service. The BBC complaints procedure actually says that complaints should ‘normally’ be registered within 30 working days, so there was no insurmountable barrier to asking someone to go back and take 20 seconds to straighten out Mr de Bretton-Gordon’s byline.

As the BBC gets an average of 550 complaints a day, I can see why they feel they need to brush aside these picky little one-off gripes and focus on those major lapses that get more than one hundred people worked up, or on such huge faux pas as giving an inaccurate account of the gunpowder plot [PDF] in the drama Gunpowder.

So I won’t be contacting them to suggest that yesterday’s diatribe on disinformation ought to be updated to clarify that Ben Nimmo, the Atlantic Council spokesman they quote in the piece, was the same fellow who earned infamy for his groundless accusations that real Twitter users were Russian bots and that one British pensioner with a sceptical mindset was a Kremlin troll.

Because that fact wasn’t in the BBC article. And therefore, presumably, raising it would be a ‘multiple message’. Which would make me a Russian troll, not a 62-year-old English bloke in the West of England who simply wonders where the fuck the BBC thinks it’s going these days.

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