Category Archives: politics

Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias

A local reporter at the site of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun (Source: YouTube)

I fully accept almost all news reports we see are politically biased. It is up to the reader to recognise this and to critically analyse reports from all media. But I am still annoyed to find political bias in considered, and often scientifically and evidence-based, official reports from authoritative bodies.

The official reports on the  MH-17  commercial airliner tragedy in eastern Ukraine are an example of such political bias and I  discussed these in the past (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intactMH17 tragedy: 1 year on,  Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know? and But will it stand up in court?).

Unfortunately, I now draw the same conclusion of political bias in the recent report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-United Nations Joint investigative Mechanism (JIM). Mind you, I have seen similar bias in earlier reports from the OPCW in the past. In particular, I am shocked by the fact these reports never relied on evidence collected on-site by inspection teams – they were simply desk-top studies. While reports of chemical weapons use by terrorist groups were usually found “not confirmed” because of lack of supporting evidence the reported of use by Syrian armed forces were often accepted as reliable – without supporting evidence. Indeed, a reason for accepting these unconfirmed reports often given by the OPCW was that the Syrian Air Force had not answered the requests for flight logs!

So why do I think the current JIM report is politically biased?

I won’t go into a detailed analysis here but will simply take a few issues which I think stand out. I am using the leaked copy of the report Seventh report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism and readers can download this by clicking the link

No on-site inspection

This, together with the lack of proper identification and control of samples, is a huge problem with this report. I really think this approach of “desk studies” from a distance, and reliance on politically motivated non-state and militia reports underlies how unprofessional the chemical weapons investigation bodies have become.

At the time of the alleged attack in Khan Shaykhun last April, there were strong calls (including from the Syrian government) for the investigation groups to send teams to both Khan Shaykhun (where the chemical attack occurred) and the Al-Shaayrat airbase (which the US attacked within days claiming the chemical weapons had come from there). No team was ever sent to Khan Shaykhun but a JIM team did eventually visit the Al-Shaayrat airbase in October – months after the incident on April 4!

At the airbase, the JIM only collected information on flights from the base on the day of the attack and interviewed pilots but specifically excluded any sample collection. Their excuse:

“Collecting samples at the airbase was not an objective of the visit. The Mechanism had assessed that doing so would not advance the investigation. If a single chemical munition was flown from that base, the Mechanism considered that there was little chance of finding any trace of sarin or its degradation products in an airbase of that size without specific information as to where to sample.”

Why assume a “single chemical munition” – at an airbase where munitions are regularly stored? And why not make an effort to find out where such munition would have likely been stored on the base?

As for visiting the site of the explosion:

“While the Leadership Panel considered that a visit to these sites would have been of value, such value would diminish over time. Further, the Panel was
required to weigh the security risks against the possible benefits to the investigation.”

That seems very tame to me. As the Syrian government had offered what guarantees they could I am forced to ask what effort was made to get security guarantees from the “rebel”/”terrorist” groups in the area? After all, the media seemed to have no problem linking up with “activists” and others in that area at the time and the investigating agents had no trouble linking up with representatives of the militias when they collected samples from them in other countries.

I have since seen a report that the:

“Director of the UN Department for Safety and Security informed the Security Council on October 4, 2017 that in reality safety guarantees were duly received from the local field commanders but the OPCW Mission declined to use that opportunity and chose to conduct investigation remotely. “

In situations like this where investigating bodies are collecting evidence and where blame may be attributed I would have thought that it imperative for investigation teams to collect samples themselves and ensure the integrity of the samples during transport to a certified laboratory. But in this case, the investigators relied on samples collected by the “rebel”/”terrorist” groups and handed over on the territory of a neighbouring country!

The crater in Khan Shaykhun

Here are a couple of  very early photos (I think within a day) of the crater formed by the alleged chemical weapon in Khan Shaykhun

Credit: Aleppo Media Centre – a “rebel”/”terrorist” news agency in Syria

Credit: Syria Chemical Weapon Attack:  Truth Comes At A Cost

Now that does not look like the result of a bomb or missile launched by a warplane. It looks more like the explosion of a placed device – and that was the early conclusion of some independent investigators. For example, Dr. Theodore Postol concluded the sarin tube was placed on the ground and not dropped from an aeroplane. He presents this image of a likely mechanism in his own analytical report.

Yet the JIM did not properly consider that specific configuration. It did list an “improvised explosive device (IED)” as one possible explanation but discounted it because “No witnesses reported any activities related to the placing of an explosive charge on the ground at the location of the incident.”  That is hardly a good forensic approach – offenders placing such a device are not going to do this in full view of passers-by, are they? The JIM did have a witness statement “consistent with this scenario:”

“In an interview with the Mechanism, the witness reported waking up at around 0700 hours on 4 April 2017 to the sound of explosions. The witness stated that there had been no aircraft over Khan Shaykhun at the time and that aircraft had only started launching attacks at around 1100 hours.”

It also relied on interpretations from unnamed “experts” and “institutes.” (The lack of identification seems very unprofessional – we are asked to trust unnamed people!). But it all seems like straw-clutching to me. I have since read a report on the analysis of the JIT claims by Russian experts from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Industry and Trade. This can be found in Additional Assessment of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism Seventh Reportwhich was made available to the Security Council by the Russian UN mission. This expert analysis relies on mathematical analysis and research describing the behaviour of stationary and air-launched explosive devices. Their conclusion that the evidence indicated the explosion of a stationary device, and not an aerial launched (from several km high!) missile or bomb seems pretty convincing to me.

Chemical fingerprint of “sarin-like” material

The JIM report describes the expert analysis of the chemical residues found at or near the Khan Shaykhun crater and samples from the stockpiles of precursors for chemical weapons previously held by the Syrian government.  While the Russian analysis questions some of the conclusions (eg. whether the sarin could be produced by “artisan” teams or required factory manufacture) I think the JIM conclusion that the chemical evidence supported their claim that the Syrian government was the guilty party is well off beam.

When chemical weapons and precursor stockpiles were removed from Syria in 2013 the final conclusion was that while all government held material had been removed nothing could have been done about stockpiles which had previously been captured by jihadists – “rebels” or “terrorists.” Jihadist seizure of chemical weapons and precursors is hardly unknown. For example, Foreign Policy reports on an example of the capture of chemical weapons stockpiles by opponents of the government (Al Nusra) in the article How the Islamic State Seized a Chemical Weapons Stockpile.

Jihadists looting the weapons stockpiles in the Syrian army base known as Regiment 111, shown here in a still shot taken from a video posted online. Source: Foreign Policy

Yet the JIM report does not even mention this possibility. I would have thought the chemical fingerprint of the sarin samples they had indicated the guilty party was more likely one of the jihadist groups than government forces.

An objective consideration may have considered the possibility that the government had secretly manufactured chemical weapons since 2013 but surely it would have also considered the far more likely possibility that the sarin used came from stocks in the hands of one or other of the armed militia fighting the government. (And fighting each other in the area as there are credible reports of chemical weapons use in those conflicts).

The refusal to even consider this possibility is one sign to me of the very poor professional standards of the JIM team and the unnamed experts it relied on.

Conclusion

The reports of the investigations of this use of chemical weapons could be analysed in far more detail. I only discussed what I think are the most obvious aspects here but I can only conclude that this report to the UN was politically biased. It was certainly of very low scientific standards and did not give proper identification of the “experts” and “institutes” it used for analysis and opinion.

While it did give some qualifications underlining that they could not draw  definite conclusions about who used the chemical weapons (despite its chemical fingerprint) and could not identify any Syrian plane sufficiently close to the area which could have carried out the attack it still, nevertheless, finishes by stating:

“the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. “

An update: The mandate for this joint investigation mechanism was not renewed by the UN Security Council. The   US, the Russian Federation/Brazil and Japan submitted resolutions on its renewal but all were defeated. The stumbling blocks appeared to be:

  • The US wanted to declare the findings of guilt on the part of the Syrian government be accepted and opposed improvement of JIM’s procedures.
  • The Russian/Brazilian resolution insisted that the investigation team’s standards be improved and that, in particular, physical inspection of sites by the investigating teams themselves be obligatory.

Frankly, I think the Russian/Brazilian resolution identified a key problem and the US resolution was motivated by geopolitical interests and did not have proper evidence-based support.

As I said initially – we have come to expect political bias in news media reports but it is very disappointing to find such obvious bias in reports from bodies which are meant to carry out their investigations objectively.

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Political maturity in New Zealand – at least compared to the US

A moment of clarity in the NZ election negotiations. Credit: NZ Herald.

Maybe it is the social media silo effect but I think a lot of New Zealanders feel proud about the way our recent elections went.

Once again we are a world leader. A new impressive young female Prime Minister. An atmosphere of cooperation – or at least respect all around from (and towards) the winners and losers. And a feeling that our new Prime Minister may have the unifying skills necessary for the job at this time.

But what has impressed me is the beginning of some clarity about the nature and causes of our problems. We are talking about housing and child poverty as indicators of a failed economy and not low inflation, the balance of payments, etc., as indicators of a “successful economy.” No matter how good the “accepted” economic indicators appear to be an economy is not successful if it fails to protect its children and has the degree of homelessness we are seeing.

Winston Peters’ honesty about the causes of our problems being inherent in an economic system oriented towards the interests of dead money and not towards people is refreshing. It’s a long time since we have heard such economic honesty from a politician in our parliament. Also refreshing is the fact that our media (not known for admitting such basic problems) has repeated his statement.

And isn’t it heartening to have a Prime Minister flagging an interest in ministerial jobs aimed at helping children rather than something like finance?

Maturity

Like many, I am cynical of the concept of “capitalism with a human face” but New Zealand at the moment should be seen as a glowing example of how democracy should work. Yet we have the US promoting itself as exceptional, a leader of the free world” and the best example of “democracy.” A self-belief so strong it wishes to impose their example on “less fortunate” countries. And, too often, even New Zealander commentators and journalists get captured by such silliness.

But come on!

Just imagine if Bill English threw his toys out of the cot because his “natural” assumption of power has been denied by the electoral system. Just imagine if he attempted to “explain” his failure by promoting the fiction that the “Russians did it,” or blamed President Putin for his problems. Just imagine if all sorts of attempts were now being made to produce “evidence” of collusion between our new leaders and those horrible Russians. I am sure we could, if we were that childish, find examples of meetings with diplomats, maybe even professional or financial links with someone indirectly connected to a firm which may exist in St Petersburg.

And what about all those pro-Labour and pro-Green”trolls” on social media? Hell, they were all over Facebook and Twitter! Surely that is evidence of manipulation by Russian “troll farms.” And what about the “fact” that the pro-Russian media heavily promoted Jacinda Adern and is glorying in her victory?

OK, perhaps not even Hillary Clinton would accuse the NZ Herald of being “pro-Russian” – but here is the “undeniable evidence” – this story run by Sputnik which, for this purpose, we could describe as being a propaganda arm of the Kremlin!

Oh dear. The “evidence is mounting up.” It’s becoming “undeniable!”

I am glad we live in a country with more political maturity but isn’t it sad that the most powerful (militarily) country in the world is so politically immature. And, also sad when even commentators in New Zealand buy into that immaturity.

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Non-violence in the defence of free speech

I have always been a fan of nonviolent tactics in social movements. Being old enough to have seen the apartheid arrangements that existed in the US during the 5os and 60s and follow the movement to break this I have often wondered why the nonviolent methods used by Martin Luther King and his allies have not been adopted more widely.

In particular, it seems to me that the political situation in the US could do with some nonviolent political tactics at the moment.

So I was fascinated to see the video by Joey Gibson from the Patriot Prayer group. Fascinated to see the tactic being advocated now. But also fascinated to see the tactic being advocated by the founder of the Patriot Prayer group which is often described as “right-wing.” Even described by the US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California, as attempting to hold a “white supremacist rally.” Incidentally, Gibson is not even white – nor are many of his colleagues in Patriot Prayer.

It may be hubris on Gibson’s part, but he is claiming success for these tactics used in the recent Berkeley confrontation. He and his colleagues were beaten by extremists and had to be retrieved by police, but did not retaliate. They adopted a passive stance. He now claims this was instrumental and the apparent shift by the media, and some politicians, to recognise the danger presented by extremist violent groups like Antifa and their misleading charges that advocates of free speech are white supremacists.

If these tactics are having the success Gibson claims then I hope the success continues. It’s about time some sense came into the current political situation in the US and we should not denigrate these tactics just because we may not like some of Gibson’s political or religious views.

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From Charlottesville to Boston – a lesson

Participants in Boston’s Free Speech rally. Speaker is Republican Senate candidate Dr Shiva Ayyadurai. Not a Nazi or white supremacist in sight. Was the media feeding me porkies?

Funny thing – I have become more worried about the lessons of the Boston “free speech” rally than the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstration. Here’s why.

There is nothing new about fighting Nazis, neo-Nazis and fascists in street demonstrations. Many on the left did this, and did it violently, in the lead up to the second world war. It’s happening in Europe again – and, more seriously, in Ukraine.

Participants in genuine anti-Nazi actions are usually proud of what they did. It is one thing to attempt to get one’s head around the concept that freedom of speech should allow expression of racist views but I guess once the violence starts the moral issues become clearer.

So while we can debate the role played by anarchists, Antifa, and outright thugs on both sides in Charlottesville there does seem to have been an excuse there for moral outrage and the inevitable conflict is understandable.

But what about Boston? I originally thought the “free speech” rally held this last weekend was really about white supremacism. The mainstream media told me this. The 15 – 45 thousand demonstrators against the rally convinced me of this. I had absolutely no sympathy for those in the rally and identified morally with the counter-demonstrators. But I was thankful that police organisation prevented conflict – at least conflict between the rally participants and the counter demonstrators (fighting did break out between some counter-demonstrators and the police).

But I was wrong

I was misinformed by the media. It wasn’t until I got involved in a social media discussion that I decided to check out what was really happening in Boston. I checked out who organised the free speech rally and what their aims were. I tried to find out who spoke at the free speech rally and looked for videos of speakers and the whole event online.

In fact, the “free speech” rally organisers were not white supremacists or Nazis. Conservatives or “right-wingers” perhaps. But they do seem to have genuine interests in free speech and the various speakers represented a range from conservatives to Green Party members – and a Dr Shiva Ayyadurai, a Democrat currently standing for the Senate (See the video of his speech above). the placards were anti-Monsata and pro-Black-Lives Matter.

Here is what the Boston Free Speech people say about their rally:

“This Free Speech Movement is dedicated to peaceful rallies and are in no way affiliated with the Charlottesville rally on 8/12/17

While we maintain that every individual is entitled to their freedom of speech and defend that basic human right, we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence. We denounce the actions, activities, and tactics of the so-called Antifa movement. We denounce the normalization of political violence.

We are witnessing an unprecedented move towards sweeping censorship that undermines our democratic system. We are witnessing increasingly regular incidents of political violence being used to silence political opponents. We are witnessing our social media and online communities purging both progressive and conservative content from their networks. We oppose all instances of censorship. We believe that the way to defeat and disarm toxic ideas and ideologies is through dialogue and reason, and that attempting to silence any voice by force of mob or force of law only empowers the radical elements of society and divides us.

There is a lot of misinformation in the media slandering our name by likening our organization to those that ran the Charlottesville rally. THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! “I can tell you the march we had in May…That group pulled a permit, they worked very well with us” as stated by Boston Police Commissioner William Evans in a press conference Monday (8/14/17)

We are a coalition of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and independents and we welcome all individuals and organizations from any political affiliations that are willing to peaceably engage in open dialogue about the threats to, and importance of, free speech and civil liberties. Join us at the Parkman Bandstand where we will be holding our event. We look forward to this tide-changing peaceful event that has the potential to be a shining example of how we, in the city of Boston, can come together for the common goal of preserving freedom of speech for all and respectfully discussing our differences of opinion without engaging in violence.”

So, in Boston we had a very small gathering (probably well under 100) exercising their free speech at a permitted rally in the Band Rotunda. (Yes, there were apparently more, including some of the programmed speakers, who couldn’t get through the crowd of counter demonstrators which had blocked of entrances).

They were surrounded by 15 – 45 thousand counter demonstrators yelling a stream of abuse at the rally participants – accusing them of being Nazis, etc. Fortunately, the police had manned a cordon to keep the two groups well separated. I say fortunately because it did remind me of those brave anti-apartheid demonstrators who had invaded Hamilton’s Rugby Park in 1981 to prevent the Waikato – South Africa Rugby game. On that day the police helped to prevent some of the violence.

An aerial view shows how counter-protesters vastly outnumbered a few dozen participants at a ‘free speech’ rally (rotunda) in Boston. Image credit: Daily Mail.
This brought back memories of how the police protected anti-apartheid demonstrators on Hamilton’s Rugby Park in 1981. Photo Credit: Daily Mail.
 My lesson

The presence of a small number of white supremacists in society is probably inevitable and shouldn’t concern us too much. Similarly, the presence of a relatively small number of anarchists and thugs who attend such demonstrations with the aim of creating violence is also probably inevitable. The police in Boston showed how this could be handled in a relatively painless way.

So these minor groups really don’t concern me too much. Nor do honest anti-fascists who attempt to close down white supremacy manifestations.

But that was not the case here. What we had was a huge crowd of counter-protesters who thought they were opposing racists and Nazis – but they weren’t. They were opposing free speech.

These people were misinformed and misled. Misinformed and misled by the mainstream media and politicians who insist on labeling proponents of free speech white supremacists.

Nazis and anarchists do worry more. But not as much as a misinformed mass movement.

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Hypocrisy, irrationality and wise words from Monty Python

I wonder how many others feel like me.

All the old sureties seem to have disappeared. Political words like “liberal” and “conservative” no longer mean what I thought they used to mean.

“Liberals” are attacking “freedom of speech” demonstrations. And those fighting for “freedom of speech” seem to be Nazis – if you can believe the media.

What next, are we going to see nighttime demonstrations of book burning by “anti-fascist liberals!”

How is one to think anymore. Or at least, to think independently and objectively and not simply adopting the slogans and group thought pushed down our throats by the media.

Even if all the wild claims being made by media and demonstrators are true – that those demonstrating for freedom of speech are “Nazis” “white supremacists,” or just outright “conservatives” – what happened to the old adage I was brought up with:

“I don’t for a minute accept what you say – but I will fight to the death for your right to say it!”

So in these days of confusion and lack of any reliable moral compass when it comes to understanding politics, I have had to turn to that one reliable source of guidance – Monty Python.

I have always enjoyed the “Galaxy Song” from “The Meaning of Life.” And more than ever I am finding solace in the last lines of that song:

“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!”

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Are we all anti-fascist now?

US neo-Nazis and fascists supporters march in Charoltsvill, USA.
Image credit: Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters

Wouldn’t that be nice? What if the current almost universal condemnation of fascism by the main stream media and social media commenters were genuine.? That it represents an abhorrence for fascism and its modern supporters who attempt to revive it – and not just partisan politics.

Because fascism is abhorrent. And it does have its modern apologists, even revivalists. It is not new, even in the US, and people shouldn’t be surprised at its manifestation in Charlottesville.

After all, we have seen similar actions in other parts of the world – in parts of the world which understandably understand fascism and its consequences far better than the average US citizen does.

Thousands of nationals, neo-Nazis and pro-fascists march in Kiev, Ukraine, on the anniversary of the birth of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.
Image credit: South China Morning Post.

Yes, I know. Our media tends to treat the marchers in Kiev and Riga as “freedom fighters” and not what they really are – supporters of  Nazi collaborators and those organisations derived from them which still exist today and play a role in the politics of those countries. But, unlike the USA, those collaborators were responsible for thousands of deaths of their fellow citizens(see my article Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II).

Supporters of Latvia’s Waffen-SS legion hold an annual commemoration Nazi SS division formed from Latvians during World War Two. Image Credit: The Telegraph.

 

Sculpture of the “Unbowed man” at the Khatyn Memorial site near Minsk in Byelorussia. The sculpture depicts Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre by Ukrainian Nazi groups, holding his dead son Adam.
Image credit: John Oldale.

Which brings me to my real message – my suggestion for action

Why not take advantage of this new-found anti-fascist feeling? Rather than let the lessons of Charlotteville disperse and die out why not do something meaningful and specific? Something that might last. And something with an international influence.

My suggestion – the US should change its stance next time the regular United Nations General Assembly resolution on “Combating the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” comes up.

The resolution expresses concern about the fact that in some countries, famed Nazi movement leaders and former members of the SS are honoured, and monuments to fighters (e.g partisan heroes) against fascism are demolished or subjected to desecration. It calls on states to pass legislation prohibiting the denial of crimes against humanity and war crimes during the Second World War.

It was last passed in November 2016. Then the only countries voting against the resolution were Ukraine, the United States and Palau!

Just imagine, if the US goes with its current anti-fascist feelings it could, at last, vote for this resolution. Of course, Palau as a client state will also automatically reverse its vote.

As for Ukraine – well, who could say the country is such a mess. Chances are the current government in Kiev may not be in power next time the vote occurs. But, unfortunately, the extreme nationalist and neo-fascist forces which seem to dictate affairs in that country will still be around.

But what about closer to home

Can not New Zealand also learn from the current anti-fascist feelings emanating from the USA? New Zealand traditionally takes the cowards way out and abstains on this resolution. Apparently aligning itself with the 131 countries supporting the resolution in 2016 would have caused too much displeasure from the USA – something we still seem to be afraid of. So we joined the group of 48 countries that abstained.
But, I guess, if the USA changed heart and voted for the anti-fascist resolution we would meekly snap into line and also vote for it.

A job for the US (and NZ) House of Representatives?

OK, the current US president may be even less willing than previous presidents to take a real international stand against fascism. But don’t we have some recent history that might provide a solution. Why don’t the US Congress and Senate follow on from their recent almost unanimous resolutions constraining the president in his handling of international affairs?

They made it impossible for President Trump to take any action on sanctions against Iran, North Korea and the Russian Federation without a decision from Congress.

So why not a near unanimous Congressional resolution demanding the USA in future votes for this resolution in the UN General Assembly? A resolution that prevents the US Ambassador from voting against it again without a decision from Congress?

Perhaps the New Zealand Parliament could place a similar restriction on our representatives at the UN

After all, aren’t we all anti-fascist now?

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The main stream media is out of touch

I find the US mainstream media particularly boring and uninformative these days. It has become embedded in a partisan political campaign and seems to go into a frenzy over every bit of “evidence” or fake news it can garner, invent, or exaggerate in an apparent attempt to reverse the results of last year’s presidential elections.

I think many people must be heartily sick of this campaign. I would not be surprised if this is encouraging many to turn to alternative news sources and I suspect this media obsession is encouraging an increasing mistrust of the mainstream media.

But it is not just a matter of all the fake news and media lies. This political campaign is diverting media attention away from the things that really concern people. After all, they had their election last year and sensible presidential challenges should be off the burner until 2000. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of problems the ordinary person expects their government, and the media, to come to grips with.

So I am not surprised to see recent polling identifying a huge mismatch between the concerns of the media and the concerns of the public. Jon Gabriel’s Ricochet article What Americans Care About vs. What the Media Cares About illustrates this in the following graphic.

Constraining the President

Frankly, I think this US political hysteria is being produced by an alliance of the media, elements of the intelligence community and the “establishment” in general. For one reason or another, they just can not accept the result of the 2016 election and would like to see that result reversed. At the very least, they are using this artificial campaign to constrain the president in areas like foreign policy where they have big differences.

Perhaps pressure from the neocons and deep state to constrain and control a new president is not new. Certainly, we saw this with President Obama. But the campaigners have resorted to a more public and hysterical pressure in President Trump’s case because he is basically a political outsider. He came out of “left field,” was not part of the “acceptable” political establishment and is a maverick. His personality makes him difficult to control in the normal, behind the scenes, way.

Media does itself no favours

There are a number of objective factors creating turmoil for the mainstream media these days. transfer of advertising to social media, changes in technology and the loss of skilled reporters. But the old, established media is not doing itself any favours by diverting into a blatantly partisan political campaign and resorting to such bias in its reporting. And it harms society by encouraging the growth of neo-McCarthyism and supporting those who are working to reduce international cooperation and the relaxation of tension. That is dangerous for the American people – and in fact for the whole world.

But I guess the upside is that this self-exposure of bias is an education to the public. They may now search for alternatives – and that is a good thing. They will also be a lot more critical of what is delivered to them by the news media – and that is also a good thing.

The reader does need to beware – and to question more.

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Don’t rely on sources – follow the evidence

CNN pushes this mantra but many believe they promote fake news

When scientists evaluate published research we are more interested in evidence than in conclusions. In fact, the same evidence may lead scientific readers to different conclusions. That’s not surprising as in the real world no research project is able to consider all the theoretically possible evidence. Readers may, in fact, have other evidence. Or they may detect faults in authors’ interpretations.

I think this is a good thing. Considering the evidence allows competent critiques to be made and encourages knowledge to advance.

However, it annoys me that when we move outside the scientific environment we have to deal with situations where evidence may rarely be considered. People indulge in debating conclusions often with no regard to evidence. In fact, debaters seem to rely more on the real or perceived authority of their sources to support or discredit an argument, than on the evidence.

That’s just lazy. Source authority proves nothing and I would like to think that my discussion partners are capable of coming to a more reasonable position when they are forced to actually consider the evidence.

Both sides are guilty

Unfortunately, both supporters and opponents of a scientific viewpoint or consensus fall into this trap. Take the “fluoridation debate.” It annoys me that some supporters of the scientific viewpoint will respond to an opponent by disparaging their sources. The fact that the opponent is citing the activist Fluoride Action Network, the “Fluoride” journal or one of the shonky pay-to-publish journals where anti-fluoride activists sometimes get published does not, in itself, discredit their argument. On the other hand, if the actual evidence involved in those reports were discussed it might just be possible for the faulty conclusions to be exposed.

On the other hand, how often have I heard opponents of community water fluoridation reject the authority of scientific journals or published research because the workers were paid by the government (we must all get a wage from somewhere) or the journal or conference received industry sponsorship? I am not at all impressed by the refusal to consider the real evidence implied by falling back on disparaging sources.

The other tactic of supporting a claim by pointing to the high authority of the source is also repugnant. Even researchers and journals we generally consider “reputable” can still publish flawed work and even rubbish.

One of the most common arguments used by anti-fluoride campaigners is that the highly respectable, authoritative journal “The Lancent” has “officially” declared fluoride to be a “neurotoxin.” This is wrong on so many counts. The Lancet publishes research papers. It is not in the business of making official declarations on toxic compounds. The paper referred to did not describe fluoride as a “neurotoxin” – that word is inappropriate for describing a chemical of inorganic origin. The work cited in that paper was from areas of endemic fluorosis mainly in China and is not relevant to community water fluoridation. And the paper itself was not justified in making the limited conclusions it did on such poor evidence. I have discussed the paper more fully in Repeating bad science on fluoride.

The odds are, of course, that those activists citing this paper in such a manner have not actually read the paper – a common problem with people who rely on the authority of their sources rather than evidence. In fact, they are probably not at all interested in the details in most cases.

My point is reliance on authority is not a valid supporting argument any more than disparaging a source is a valid opposing argument. We should always follow the evidence – and rely on that evidence for our arguments in such discussions.

The political arena

This problem is even worse in the political sphere where so often we actually do not have evidence to fall back on. In fact, this situation seems to have got a lot worse of late where, for one reason or another, facts and evidence seem to be the last thing in the minds of “reporters” – or at least those who are continually telling us what we should think.

Unfortunately, discussion of political issues often leads people to claim they are using what they think as “reliable sources” or disparaging an opponent’s argument by claiming they are using “unreliable sources.” In fact, people who should know better, seem to often support their claims against any criticism by claiming it came from a “reliable source” or “authoritative source.” And these people who should know better will often resort to “attacking the messenger.” Criticising or rejecting information because it was reported by what they consider an “unreliable source.” The facts or evidence seem to be forgotten.

This can get pretty silly. I once had to confront the argument of a discussion partner who rejected the video recording of a statement made by a spokesperson for the US Department of State because it was part of a piece of RT news coverage! Especially silly as the video recording was probably an official one made by staff of the Department of State.

How often do we see people promoting partisan claims about the political hysteria in the US or the war in Syria by using sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN or Al-Jazeera? Sources they claim are “reliable?” In my article  I described how the New Zealand Ministry’s of Foreign Affairs and Internal Affairs carried out “due diligence” on the White Helmets organisation they were planning to give money to by referring simply to a report from Al-Jazeera. No attempt to dig deeper, to evaluate the veracity of the Al-Jazeera reports or to follow-up other sources critical of the White Helmets. Yet Al-Jazeera has a reputation for supporting “rebels”/”terrorists” in Syria. It is shocking that a New Zealand ministry was not prepared to make a more sensible judgment.

On the other hand, how often do we see people disparaging information or claims about the current US political hysteria or the war in Syria which with they disagree because it was reported by Sputnik, RT or one of a host of other “alternative” news sources?

Both sides of a political argument now denigrate the sources used by the other side as promoting “fake news.” And, to an extent, each side is probably right as every news sources these days has its own point of view – its own bias.

Reader beware – use a range of sources

Unfortunately, many readers seem more interested in confirming their own biases than dealing with real facts or evidence. Understandably these people will select the news source that suits them. That’s OK if you simply want to follow the “party line.” But it is lazy because it avoids any intelligent or critical analysis.

It is incumbent on the rest of us who are more interested in real facts and in drawing more credible conclusions to make an effort to consult a range of news sources and to critically analyse the claims, opinions and information we get from them. I believe that in today’s world there is no such thing as an authoritative or reliable source when it comes to political information. All the media – the “established mainstream media” as well as the “alternative media” are equally capable of publishing and promoting fake news.

We need to be aware of this, be prepared to use a variety of sources to avoid the “party line” problem, and critically analyse what we read so we can separate facts from opinions and unsubstantiated claims.

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Stovepiping to produce fake news

Image credit: THOSE ’17 INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES’ CITED BY HILLARY CLINTON ABOUT TRUMP AND RUSSIA TURNED OUT TO BE FAKE NEWS

I have discovered a new word – “stovepiping.” Must admit I had to look it up – but it seems to be highly relevant to the way media seem to authenticate their news reports today – particularly in the current political hysteria emanating from the USA. And, I think, stovepiping plays a central role in the promotion of fake news.

There is nothing new about fake news – we have been subjected to it for ages. But suddenly everyone is talking about it. Of course, it is always the “other” side which indulges in fake news – never “our” side. But I suggest that just demonstrates our own prejudices and confirmation bias. We should look more critically and objectively at the way “our” news media gathers and present what it feeds us.

Stovepiping in the intelligence community

So we come to “stovepiping” which Wikipedia says:

“has been used, in the context of intelligence, to describe several ways in which raw intelligence information may be presented without proper context. . . . . the lack of context may come from a particular group, in the national policy structure, selectively presenting only that information that supports certain conclusions. “

On the one hand, this may be an inevitable result of the way intelligence agencies work – “due to the specialised nature, or security requirements, of a particular intelligence collection technology.”

On the other hand, it may be purposely used to deceive politicians and the public  (to support “certain conclusions”) – the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the justification for the US invasion of that country provides a clear example.

Unfortunately, stovepiping is rampant in the current US media and political hysteria surrounding the current political struggles resulting from an election result which didn’t go the way the establishment wanted and believed it would.

Consider all the “confidence” that the US presidential elections were “hacked” by Russia – even by, or under the personal orders of, the president of the Russian Federation. The assertion is claimed to be unassailable, beyond any question, because it was a conclusion reached, unanimously, by 17 US intelligence agencies. Hillary Clinton made the claim last October in a presidential election debate:

 “We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”

The really “deeply disturbing” aspect is that this claim was repeated again and again without a sniff of evidence. Anyone questioning the claim, or asking for evidence, was jumped on as a “Kremlin troll” and no politician seemed to have the courage to draw parallels with the Emperors Clothes.” To actually ask – “where is the evidence.” Neo-McCarthyism is alive and active.

Welcome to evidence-free reporting – where stories rely on unattributed, unnamed sources. Where “intelligence reports” are completely free of evidence – yet presented with high authority. And worse – the media then claims the evidence-free reports themselves as “evidence!”

The retractions are buried and ignored

Sometimes such stories do get retracted. On June 29 The New York Times issued a retraction of the claim that 17 intelligence agencies had reported Russian hacking. The NYT admitted:

“The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”

Worse – we had stovepiping within stovepiping. Not only was the claim not approved by the 17 agencies – the claim itself was made by selected personal within the four agencies involved. Heavy reported:

“Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had already essentially admitted to this when he testified in May in front of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He said the Russia hacking finding came from a special intelligence community assessment, formed by hand-picked analysts from the NSA, FBI, and CIA.”

This sort of stovepiping is loaded with possibilities for anyone wishing to promote evidence-free but politically damaging claims as part of a political battle. Just hand-select a few anonymous agents who you know will support the story you want. The ultimate confirmation bias.

One might think the news media has the ethical responsibility to be a bit more critical of such stories. To refuse to repeat evidence-free claims. To avoid unnamed, and unchecked, sources. And to publish an analysis of the origins of these claims, stressing the lack of evidence.

Unfortunately, in the USA it appears that the mainstream media has forgotten these ethics. It is wholeheartedly participating in this political battle. It is cooperating with elements in the intelligence community who have also joined this political battle. The mainstream media and this politically motivated section of the intelligence community are taking in each others laundry. Unnamed intelligence sources are providing evidence-free information to fill the news reports. The media is giving public voice to these disaffected intelligence agents and the intelligence community (or elements within it), in turn, is giving “authority” to the reported evidence-free claims. After all, what patriotically-minded US citizen will refuse to accept the authority of the intelligence agencies – even without evidence?

Weak retractions, or even the absence of retractions, seems to be an accepted procedure within the mainstream media. Remember Omran Dogneesh, the “Aleppo boy?” Much media hysteria was spent on his story (accompanied by an admittedly outstanding photograph) promoted by the al Qaeda-affiliated White Helmets as part of their propaganda campaign against Syria. His family was liberated with the rest of eastern Aleppo and they can now tell their story about the way their boy was used – in effect kidnapped by the White Helmets – for propaganda purposes. His family’s story has been reported to some extent – certainly without any of the fanfare the original misleading story was promoted (see How Omran, the dazed Aleppo boy who reappeared this week, became a political pawn in Syria’s war). And a gullible public will be encouraged to continue to believe the original distortions.

Aleppo boy – his true story was buried. The first photo was trumpeted around the world as part of anti-Syria propaganda. The second practically ignored. Credit: India.com.  Aleppo boy Omran Daqneesh makes his first appearance since 2016 bombing! See heart warming pictures of the Syrian kid 

Just as “authoritative” mainstream media sources continue to report that 17 intelligence agencies had a “high confidence” the Russians “hacked” the US elections.

It’s wider than the Clinton-Trump conflict

While this example of stovepiping and fake news is typical of the current political conflict in the USA the problem is not going to go away when that conflict disappears. I think stovepiping and fake news have resulted from the danger the established news media sees itself in as a result of social media and wider digital sources for news.

In fact, when we look at the intelligence reports about the so-called Russian hacking of the US elections we find the main concern being expressed is the possible influence of alternative media. These reports concentrate on media like RT and Sputnik which have Russian origins – but the concern is really about alternative media in general. After all, if the best they can do is complain that RT gave coverage to minority candidates and ran one interview with Trump then we can see what their crime is. RT and Sputnik, just like the rest of the alternative media, is not under the thumb of the establishment. They are free to question the narrative promoted by that establishment.

The alternative media, just like the internet, is not going to go away. It will persist and it will provide alternatives to those of us tired by the conformity and fake news of the establishment mainstream media.

The political establishment in the US and Europe is trying to nip this phenomenon in the bud – after all the alternative media has limited reach so far. But the establishment can see the danger it represents and we cannot avoid the possibility it may take extreme action to prevent the loss of its influence a wider spread of alternative media represents.

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Darwin, sexual selection and Putin

Credit: RussiaFeed.

Must edge my way back in into blogging after a period of mourning. So here is something provocative.

Perhaps President Putin is “making Russia great again” in a way we haven’t thought of. Via Darwinian sexual selection?

If this song is anything to go by maybe Putin as a role model will lead to improvement in the Russian gene pool if women start preferring men with his moral and lifestyle characteristics.

Or perhaps his influence will operate more quickly by encouraging Russian men to smarten themselves up if they want to find a partner?

Is this yet another positive influence Putin has had on Russian life after the disastrous experiences of the criminal anarchy of the 1990s?

Or is it a sign that Putin has finally decided to run in next March’s Russian Presidential elections and this is his first campaign song?

Whatever – it’s a welcome (and tuneful) change from the usual demonisation of the man we get from our mainstream media. (And I expect to get from commenters here).

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