Formal complaint letter or “Code Complaint” – to SBS Ombudsman Ms Sally Begbie. Copied to SBS executive producer Andrew Clark. Sent 25th June 2019 in response to SBS news reports on the situation in Idlib province, Syria from early May to mid-June.
(detailed response received 15th August – see OffGuardian article)
Dear Ms Begbie,
I request that you consider the following complaint in the context of SBS’ commitment to provide “a balance of perspectives over time that does not unduly favour one over another”, as well as SBS’ claims to editorial independence and freedom to express dissenting views.
The context and background to this current complaint.
On the 26th of February this year I wrote a complaint concerning SBS coverage of the war on Syria, specifically focused on your presentation of the events in Douma last year, when a combined missile attack on Syrian facilities was launched by the US, UK and France following allegations of a chemical weapon attack. Information and videos purporting to show the aftermath of this poison gas attack were presented by SBS as credible, and the claims of scores of deaths of civilians in an apartment block hit by a gas-filled bomb repeated. In the context of a history of disinformation about the war on Syria, disseminated by SBS in common with other Western mainstream media, such a claim was seen to justify a military strike – ostensibly on chemical weapons production and storage facilities – even without verification by the OPCW. Russian and Syrian “claims” that no such attack took place were mentioned but given little credibility in SBS’ report.
Despite my request that my complaint be examined in detail before a decision was made to dismiss it – on the trivial basis that the report in question occurred more than six weeks earlier – I received a rapid response and rejection of my complaint. SBS may now regret that decision, as a recent critical development has turned its failure to properly represent events on that day into what can only be called culpable collusion in a war crime.
As I stated at that time:
The question that SBS must answer is this, with only two choices: If SBS producers and staff were unaware that they were presenting a false and misleading narrative about the Syrian war, which played a role in facilitating lethal and illegal actions against innocent civilians and Syrian defence forces, what should be their response when this deception is proven? (the alternative is that SBS was aware that it was acting against all the dictates of its charter, effectively giving propaganda support for the Australian government and its NATO partners’ illegitimate actions in Syria).
The critical development to which I refer is the publication of an engineers’ report on the alleged gas attack, whose damning conclusions were evidently suppressed by the OPCW. To understand fully the significance of this “leaked” report, a little background is necessary. This is also necessitated because SBS has neither reported on the publication of the full OPCW report on its Fact Finding Mission to Douma, nor on the subsequent revelations in the suppressed engineers’ report. As a consequence of this absence of reporting, no complaint has been possible until now, when the misrepresentation of new developments in Idlib province has made such a complaint obligatory. As I stated on 26th February:
“The Syrian and Russian move to finally take back control of Idlib from Al Qaeda linked forces must not be allowed to develop into yet another Western-created “humanitarian crisis” by yet another White Helmet facilitated propaganda offensive streamed through Western mainstream media, with SBS playing its part.”
Details of the specific news reports broadcast since May 18th which present this exact and highly misleading narrative about the latest developments in Syria are in an attached document.
Details of my claim and information misreported or not reported by SBS.
The OPCW team that visited Douma in late April 2018 included a small group of engineering experts, led by long-time OPCW employee Ian Henderson, (see note #a below) who were tasked with measuring and calculating the possible trajectories of the two yellow gas cylinders that Opposition sources claimed had been dropped from Syrian helicopters onto the apartment block where civilians died – allegedly from gas poisoning. Pictures of these cylinders were widely circulated at the time, both in Opposition videos which included a man wearing a full sized gas mask, and in Russian and Syrian media where unprotected reporters examined the cylinders. The incongruity of the latter scenes, where a gas cylinder lay on a bed beneath a hole in the ceiling yet glass light fittings on the wall were undamaged, made even those who believed the Opposition’s story uncomfortable.
The OPCW released an interim report in July 2018, which did little to persuade sceptics that the cylinders were dropped from the air – though that was its official conclusion. Four days after I submitted my complaint in February, and a couple of weeks after the “pre-emptive” Intercept report which I discussed in detail in the “Appendix” to that complaint, the OPCW issued its final report (*1). The OPCW’s findings relevant to this complaint are summarised in the extract below, which states merely that there were “reasonable grounds” to conclude that Chlorine was used as a toxic weapon, and came from the gas cylinders dropped from the air:
2.13 The team analysed the available material and consulted independent experts in mechanical engineering, ballistics and metallurgy who utilised specialised computer modelling techniques to provide qualified and competent assessments of the trajectory and damage to the cylinders found at Locations 2 and 4.
2.14 The analyses indicated that the structural damage to the rebar-reinforced concrete terrace at Location 2 was caused by an impacting object with a geometrically symmetric shape and sufficient kinetic energy to cause the observed damage. The analyses indicate that the damage observed on the cylinder found on the roof-top terrace, the aperture, the balcony, the surrounding rooms, the rooms underneath and the structure above, is consistent with the creation of the aperture observed in the terrace by the cylinder found in that location.
2.15 At Location 4, the results of the studies indicated that the shape of the aperture produced in the modulation matched the shape and damage observed by the team. The studies further indicated that, after passing through the ceiling and impacting the floor at lower speed, the cylinder continued an altered trajectory, until reaching the position in which it was found.
2.16 Based on the analysis results of the samples taken by the FFM from the cylinders, their proximity at both locations, as well as the analysis results of the samples mentioned under paragraph 2.6, it is possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine.8
2.17 Regarding the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon on 7 April 2018 in Douma, the Syrian Arab Republic, the evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered by the FFM—witnesses’ testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results, toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts, additional digital information from witnesses—provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. The toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.
It hardly needs noting that the OPCW’s conclusions are insipid and unconvincing – “reasonable grounds” or “likely” is hardly “beyond reasonable doubt” and clearly there were serious doubts that the “reactive chlorine” found at the site did not merely come from disinfectants. As the victims were all buried by the time the OPCW team arrived, no physical samples were taken to prove they had been killed by toxic chemicals rather than by suffocation or other means. For an exhaustive examination of the physical evidence provided by video footage of the corpses, Adam Larson provides this analysis. (Also linked in my Complaint and see *2)
More concerning however is the reference to the engineering and ballistic assessment, including “computer modelling by independent experts”. The OPCW’s conclusions in the extract above suggest that they are referring to the experts from “Digital Forensics” whose very similar analyses and conclusions were detailed in the Intercept report, rather than the conclusions of their own engineering team, whose existence was unknown to the public until the recent leak. Most notably, this team concluded that the damage to the concrete observed in Location 2 was NOT consistent with an impact by the gas cylinder found beside the aperture.
This team’s studies and measurements on site in Douma were assisted and endorsed by technical and academic specialists in the UK, and their final report submitted to the OPCW in October 2018. Motivated perhaps by the prospect of the “chemical weapon ruse” being exploited again by the opposition forces and their Western backers, Ian Henderson sent a copy of his team’s engineering report to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, based at Sheffield University. The group of academics have already written extensively and rigorously on Syrian controversies and related issues, drawing much criticism from NGOs and Western governments but little attention from Western media. Had those media – including SBS – already considered their research and evidence, that finds in favour of the Syrian Government and its allies, this latest and most damning revelation would perhaps have been given the urgent attention it deserves.
The response from the OPCW to the leaking of its own engineering study has only confirmed its role in suppressing information damaging to the NATO powers and to its own credibility as an independent investigative body. While initially denying the engineering report’s authenticity, it has most recently sought to dismiss its conclusions as “attributing blame”, while simply restating its now fundamentally disproven claims of the use of Chlorine as a toxic weapon dropped from the air – thereby itself attributing blame to the only party possessing helicopters – the Syrian Government. For the OPCW’s latest statement, and comment on this travesty see here (*3) and here (*4)
The consequence of this, as I noted earlier, is that my complaint concerns SBS failure to report on an event, rather than a direct demonstration of editorial bias. This failure is however far more serious than a mere example of “lack of balance” or “favouring one perspective over another”; the missing information in the suppressed OPCW engineers’ report totally negates the “perspective” presented by SBS over an extended period of time.
It is necessary to state the broad details of this SBS “perspective” or “narrative” as I perceive it, while noting that this is the same narrative about the “Syrian Civil War” as is shared across almost all Western mainstream media, and presented as true by Western governments and NGOs.
First that it is a “civil war” that began with a “popular uprising against the Assad government”.
Second that the Syrian government or “Assad regime” is responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of civilians who oppose it, including “moderate rebels” seeking “democratic freedoms”.
Third that the Syrian army has used and continues to use unconventional weapons and chemical weapons against non-combatants.
Fourth, that the assistance of Hezbollah forces and Russian airpower and military police at the invitation of the Syrian government is illegitimate.
Fifth, that US coalition forces including those of Australia can claim some legal or moral justification for their illegal presence and actions in Syria, including the targeting and killing of Syrian soldiers.
Sixth, and most importantly, that the mercenary force calling itself the “Syrian Civil Defence” or “White Helmets” is a volunteer force rescuing Syrian civilians from Syrian and Russian bombings.
All of these claims are made or implied in one or more of the eight cited news reports about the Idlib situation, yet none of these six claims is true, in any respect.
Of these elements of the Western mainstream narrative – to which most NGOs and UN bodies subscribe – the most significant are the claimed use of chemical weapons, including Chlorine and Sarin, and the presentation of video reports from the White Helmets as credible and legitimate. And it is these two narratives, which sustain and feed the West’s war for regime change in Syria, which are proven quite false by the suppressed engineers report from the OPCW.
The engineers’ report, which can be read here, (*5) establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the two gas cylinders the Opposition claims were dropped from a Syrian helicopter could not have been. For a detailed analysis by the academics from the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, Paul McKeigue, Piers Robinson and David Miller, see this report (*6)
Unlike the OPCW report released to the public, which starts with a presumption the cylinders fell from the air and looks for confirmation of this false hypothesis, the engineering team examined several hypotheses to explain the observed situation and selected the one which offered the “best fit”. The significance of this is considered in the commentary from the Working Group, as summarised by Prof. Tim Hayward from Edinburgh University (*7):
- As the Working Group has repeatedly emphasised, evidence can be evaluated only by comparison of competing hypotheses. A key weakness of the published FFM Final Report was that no competing hypotheses were considered. The FFM’s unpublished Engineering Assessment does not make this error: competing hypotheses are clearly set out in advance.
- The conclusion of the Engineering Assessment is unequivocal: the “alternative hypothesis” that the cylinders were placed in position is “the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene”.
- These findings establish beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 was staged.
- This raises the question of where and how did the victims seen in the images recorded at location 2 die?
- The conclusion appears inescapable that the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of at least 35 civilians to provide the bodies at Location 2.
The technical details and calculations in the suppressed engineers’ report, which I also attach, may be expressed simply: they demonstrate that in neither case is it possible that the apertures in the concrete slabs were made by the gas cylinders, nor that the ruptured cylinder on the roof sustained that damage as a result of hitting the concrete. The other conclusions follow from this, including the most serious claim of all – that civilians were intentionally murdered and presented as victims of a chlorine attack. That they appear to have been subject to some sadistic torture including the use of poison gas is also a claim that must be taken most seriously.
So we see that this is a situation where a collaborative and well-planned “chlorine attack” has been staged by opposition forces in Douma, with a view to provoking a military response by those forces’ Western backers. As can be seen from my previous analysis of the staged hospital emergency room actions, all those supporting the Opposition in Douma were complicit in this scheme, including fighters for Jaish al Islam, White Helmets’ operatives and “doctors” from SAMS and the “Syria Relief Fund”. The use of that highly emotive footage, carefully edited by NATO-supported activists to “sell” the story, worked like a dream on its target audience, which included the unquestioning Western mainstream media as well as the US President.
It did not include most Syrians – who knew what was happening on the ground and would never have believed the White Helmets’ videos if they had seen them. Neither did it include most Russians, Lebanese or Iranians or their government leaders and ministers. The most respected of those, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, gave a long interview to the BBC’s “Hardtalk” the day after the US/UK/French missile attack on Syria which presented the Russian government’s view on the question of chemical weapons use both in Syria and in Salisbury. (*8) It well demonstrates the failure of Western governments and media to understand why Russia has lost its “last remnants of trust” in them following the staging of both these events.
It is the recorded and witnessed behaviour of White Helmets however that is of the greatest concern, as these men operate in Syria principally at the behest of the UK government. (This is uncontested fact, as the Intercept has adequately described (*9) Whether individual White Helmets members were involved in the “preparation” of bodies for their propaganda film in the apartment block cannot be said, but is irrelevant; this was an integral part of the operation that they conducted and which they conveyed to the outside world. It was an action for which the UK government and its closely involved allies the US and France cannot possibly deny responsibility nor claim ignorance.
In reviewing the reports screened on SBS World News over the last six weeks (which I summarise in a separate document) one thing stands out above most others, and that is the credibility ascribed to the White Helmets as “Syrian Civil Defence” volunteers or workers or rescuers. They are seen in all the reports in some capacity, and most often in their signature action of pulling a wounded child from under a pile of rubble and carrying it to safety. Often the video of the event is from their helmet cameras, but they are also commonly the source of video reports and the claims made against Syrian and Russian forces.
At the same time as these “civilian rescuers” dominate the videos, the presence of armed militants, who in all other circumstances would be identified as “Islamist extremists” and “Islamic terrorists” is concealed. (a notable exception was in the report broadcast on May 23rd, in which militants were seen preparing a stack of Grad missiles, imported through Turkey (*10 and see #B). That White Helmets members themselves have been photographed carrying weapons and cooperating closely with terrorists engaged in egregious human rights abuses and war crimes is also well documented. SBS would do well to familiarise itself with the reports of independent investigative journalists like Eva Bartlett (*11) and Vanessa Beeley (*12) who have spent many weeks in Syria investigating crime scenes and interviewing witnesses. Their testimony has been repeatedly broadcast on Russia’s RT network, (which has an Arabic service and studio in Damascus) and widely shared on alternative news websites) Both of these women visited Douma following the April 2018 incidents at around the time of my own visit in May. Also investigating the White Helmets activities, particularly around Aleppo, was Maxim Grigoriev of the Foundation for the Study of Democracies. He presented a report (*13) to a special panel of the UN last December that included video interviews with many witnesses including former White Helmets workers, revealing a catalogue of crimes committed by the fake rescue organisation.
At the same time it must be noted that there is a huge amount of misinformation on the web, and specifically targeting the work of Bartlett and Beeley. Attempts to debunk their rigorously researched material by independent or state-funded supporters of the Syrian Opposition such as this one (*14) do not stand much scrutiny, relying on smear and misrepresentation in place of actual evidence.
If SBS wishes to check the details of the claims I have made here, there is little better resource than the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Syria’s own Ministry of Information in Damascus. The absence of any commentary from Russian or Syrian government officials on the situation in Idlib presented in SBS World News reports epitomises their fundamental lack of balance and political bias. As Vanessa Beeley’s recent report demonstrates, the true situation confronting Syria’s defence forces and citizens is virtually the opposite of that described by the various sources used by SBS, including most regrettably the UN.
If SBS truly seeks to present news “with a difference”, then it should immediately send a correspondent to Damascus who can interview Syrian and Russian spokespersons, as well as visiting areas near the frontline or deconfliction zone. As I have noted before, SBS has Arabic-speaking members of its own staff such as Heba Kassoua who might well be capable of such a mission. It is not much to ask.
I look forward to your response, and welcome further supply and exchange of information as soon as is feasibly possible. I intend pursuing the matter with the appropriate government ministers and media organisations, but urge SBS to respond positively by reviewing its sources of information and correcting its news presentation accordingly.
25th June 2019.
*1. OPCW FFM report summary:
*2. Analysis of photographic evidence of victims in Douma:
*3. OPCW statement 29th May 2019:
*4. Aaron Mate’ commentary, June 20th 2019:
*5. OPCW Engineers’ assessment October 2018:
*6. Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media analysis:
*7. Tim Hayward, overview:
*8. BBC Hardtalk, interview with Sergei Lavrov 16th April 2018:
*9. James Harkin’s Intercept report on Douma:
*10. CIA weapons supply to militants:
*11. Eva Bartlett on Canada’s assistance to White Helmets:
*12. May 26th Vanessa Beeley talks about White Helmets and OPCW, with links to her work:
*13. Maxim Grigoriev UN session on White Helmets:
*14. Syrian opposition activist smear story on OPCW claims:
I have also written extensively on these and other aspects of the Syrian conflict in alternative media including American Herald Tribune, Russia Insider and OffGuardian:
Ian Henderson’s credentials may be established from the minutes of this meeting of the OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board meeting of Feb 14th 2018, six weeks before the Douma incident. The meeting included two Australian experts – Anna Davey of Forensic Foundations, and Dr Veronica Borrett, BAI Scientific and Honorary fellow Melbourne University, who was then chair of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board.
Ian Henderson describes his activities as OPCW Inspection Team Leader, in section 7(b) Challenge Inspection and the Rapid Response and Assistance Mission.
This extract from Wikipedia’s review of Project Timber Sycamore (*10) merits close attention:
According to American officials, the program was highly effective, training and equipping thousands of US-backed fighters to make substantial battlefield gains. American officials stated that the program began to lose effectiveness after Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian Civil War. David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post, remarked that while the CIA program ultimately failed in its objective of removing Assad from power, it was hardly “bootless”: “The program pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups. One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”
Taken from David Ignatius, July 20th 2017: