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The BBC Has Legal Protection to Spread Fake News: the Curious Case of ISIS, Andrew Neil and Jeremy Corbyn

Photo Source Edwardx | CC BY 2.0

The BBC spreads fake news. We all know that. From the uncritical parroting of the British government’s Iraqi weapons of mass destruction claims to the unchallenged lies spouted by war-mongering politicians, that Libya’s dictator (who was armed and trained by Britain, incidentally) was going to commit a “bloody massacre” in Libya’s Benghazi region. (A postwar British government report confirmed that the “ethnic cleansing” claim was based on what they cautiously called poor intelligence. The cruel irony is that after the BBC helped whip up support for the invasion, it reported on a real ethnic cleansing of black Libyans committed by the Islamist terrorists organized by the US and Britain to topple Gaddafi.)

But what if the BBC had legal protection to tell and spread lies? As I document in my book Real Fake News, the answer to a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that, as an arts, literature, and news organization, the BBC has no legal obligation to give its audience any information about its sources. Often, journalists cannot and should not name their sources, for obvious reasons; the main one being that no one will tell them anything in confidence ever again. However, when general claims that contradict the customary understanding of things are made, and without supporting evidence, it’s only fair to ask where the person making the claim obtained their information.

ISLAMIC STATE IN IRAQ BEFORE 2003? GET OUTTA HERE!

During an interview with the antiwar leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, BBC presenter Andrew Neil claimed that ISIS existed in Iraq beforethe 2003 invasion by the US and Britain. Corbyn stated, in gentle terms, that US-British foreign policy had smashed up Iraq and Libya. This, said experts cited by Corbyn, had created a political vacuum filled by ISIS, an organization that would not have existed. Neil replied: “I’m struggling to find the role of foreign policy. See, Islamic State was founded well before the invasion of Iraq.”

What?! Did I hear that right?

Could there be a clearer example of fake news? My suspicion is that whoever handed Neil the copy had taken the absurd claim from the Wikipedia entry for the Islamic State of Iraq. When one Googles the name of the organization (at least in the UK), the Knowledge Panel states that it was founded in 1999. The entry for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) makes the tenuous link between ISIS, “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraq-based Jordanian who allegedly founded in 1999 al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (later known as Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn). Wikipedia’s chronology goes something like this: Zarqawi’s group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Iraq which in turn splintered into ISIS (or ISIL).

There are many problems with this narrative. Firstly, US intelligence admitted in statements and documents obtained by the Washington Post’s Thomas E. Ricks, that Zarqawi’s profile had been artificially inflated by the US so that the violence wrought by the 2003 invasion could be blamed on him. Secondly, there was no “al-Qaeda.” Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, wrote shortly before his death that al-Qaeda meant “the computer file” or “database” of terrorists armed and trained by the US (and Britain) to fight the Soviets in the ‘80s. In his book Al-Qaeda, expert Jason Burke agrees that Bin Laden’s network never called itself “al-Qaeda.” Thirdly, the Bin Laden network deniedthe authenticity of the letter in which Zarqawi allegedly pledged allegiance to them (as the BBC itself reported). In addition, a US intelligence document says that by late-2004, Zarqawi’s group was “referred to as al-Qaida in Iraq”: note “referred to,” not actuallyal-Qaeda in Iraq (in keeping with Ricks’s discovery about exaggerating Zarqawi’s influence).

Zarqawi’s alleged group (“al-Qaeda in Iraq” or whatever you want to call it) did not splinter into ISIS until 2007,according the US Army—long after the US-British invasion.

ISIS VS. ANDREW NEIL

So, there was no Islamic State in Iraq prior to 2003. The interview with Corbyn was conducted at the end of May 2017, just before the UK general election. Neil’s producers and editors presumably wanted to make Corbyn’s antiwar position—the violence abroad provokes violence at home—seem untenable and thus make him even more off-putting to  voters than the media already do.

Given the absurdity of Neil’s claim, I wanted to confirm my suspicion that his source was Wikipedia. I failed to do that. But I did discover something more important: The BBC has legal protection to lie and remain free from scrutiny; i.e., getting caught. I filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request with the BBC in an effort to identify Neil’s source. The BBC replied: “The information you have requested is excluded from the [FOI] Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’. The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you.”

Journalism, art, and literature. That’s wide protection. As this was the case, I emailed Andrew Neil asking for his source. Surprise, surprise he never replied.

ISIS & THE FAKE MAGAZINE

Neil’s second prong in the anti-Corbyn assault was his effort to undermine Corbyn’s claim that suicide bombers attack Western interests because we attack the Muslim-majority Middle East. Neil went on to quote what he claimed was ISIS:

“Some might argue that your foreign policies are what drive our hatred. But this particularly reason for hating you is secondary. Even if you were to stop bombing us, we would continue to hate you. Our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”

The only problem with this is that it is fake news. I discovered that Neil, who again never revealed his source, was quoting from Issue 15 of ISIS’s magazine Dabiq. But ISIS warned its followers that Issue 15 was a fake, not authorized by them (as we shall see). The forgery was likely the result of US Cyber Command or related psychological operations (PSYOPS). In April 2016, the New York Times reported that the US Cyber Command was disrupting ISIS and ISIL operations: “The goal of the new campaign is to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters.”

Two months after the Pentagon announced its cyberwar, ISIS issued a statement confirming that Issue 15 of Dabiq is a forgery and was not authored by them:

“Brothers and sisters, We noticed that dubious attempts were made to spread a fake Dabiq magazine issue (claimed to be ‘Issue 15’, with two varying covers) … We would like to clarify that Al-Hayat Media Center has not yet released any new Dabiq issues. We advise you not to download this fake magazine for your own safety.”

Corbyn knew nothing of this and was put on the spot by Neil. It was unfair of Neil to quote a forgery at Corbyn and then repeatedly state “it’s not foreign policy!” (i.e., to blame for suicide bomber attacks).

CONCLUSION

On the issue of ISIS in Iraq before 2003, it’s one thing for the news media to lie, but it’s quite another for those media to have legal protection from scrutiny.

On the issue of quoting fabrications without double-checking, in this respect the BBC is little better than the far-fight, anti-Islamic Breitbart, which also cut and paste the fake ISIS quote, conveniently without proper investigation. Even Dr. Gilbert Ramsay of St. Andrews University (writing in the left-wing alternative publication Open Democracy) was taken in by the PSYOP, quoting the fake ISIS passage at length and explaining it away by adding that the link between terrorism and foreign policy “isn’t simple.”

We’d expect this kind of agenda and/or sloppiness from a rag like Breitbart, but not from the respectable BBC or certain “progressive” alternative media, right? Err, actually…

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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