Yesterday’s leading BBC News story (which was also the BBC website’s headline story) reported that two British Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons had, earlier that afternoon, been “scrambled to intercept two Russian [Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic] bombers heading towards UK airspace”. It all sounded rather threatening and unnerving for UK residents. To the casual observer, it might even have appeared that imminent disaster had been warded off at the last minute by quick-acting RAF fighters.
The story was duly (or perhaps dutifully) reported by the BBC in accordance with the narrative advanced by the UK’s ministry of defence.
Given the nature of the story’s content and the elevated prominence accorded to it by the British state broadcaster, its purpose appeared to have been to stir fear of and copper-fasten hostility towards a Russia presented to the British people as a uniquely or especially belligerent and menacing provocateur unfit to be trusted in international affairs.
Absolute objectivity in observing, perceiving, interpreting and recounting phenomena may not be humanly possible, but the BBC makes minimal effort to uphold even a degree of impartiality when it comes to reporting on Russia and what it singles out as alleged “Russian aggression”. The ongoing strong anti-Russian bias of the broadcaster (and, indeed, of the wider mainstream Western media) has been discernible for a considerable period of time.
Yesterday’s story, whilst giving the ominous impression that the two Russian jets had been in the wrong for “entering into” what the UK’s ministry of defence described as the “UK area of interest” (a term with no international legal weight or sovereign territorial significance, insofar as it refers to airspace outside of British sovereign airspace), was conveniently reported by the BBC without the provision of any contextual information whatsoever. I suspect this was intentional rather than negligent.
To be clear, the Russian jets were occupying international airspace and remained in international airspace at all times during the “interception”. The term “UK area of interest” simply refers to international airspace adjacent to British airspace within which the flying, passage and navigation of civil aircraft may be overseen by British air traffic control. Rather than constituting any concrete legal boundary, the concept presented the ministry of defence with a convenient and emotive propaganda term to throw, to their apparent moral advantage, into the public domain. Insofar as the Russian jets never entered into the UK’s airspace, however, Russia was doing nothing illegal and did nothing illegal or in violation of international law.
No evidence was presented by the BBC or the ministry of defence to suggest that the Russian jets were planning to enter or would have entered British airspace either. In all likelihood, they would not have done so had they been allowed to proceed with their mission objectives unimpeded. It is reasonable to assume, for a multitude of sensible reasons, that Russia was not intending to initiate a war with the UK.
These sorts of exercises – which the ministry of defence described as “Russia flexing its muscles” and which Russia contend are for “training flight personnel and verifying aircraft capabilities [whilst being] carried out in strict accordance with international regulations regarding the use of airspace” (the truth is probably a bit of both) – are common in international airspace. They are relatively-benign, as far as international “conflict” goes.
Indeed, NATO fighter jets often do the same in reverse and approach Russian airspace in much the same manner as how the Russian jets approached British airspace yesterday. Furthermore, such activity by NATO – along with the positioning of NATO troops and military installations in eastern European states along the Russian border – actually happens to contravene a promise made by the United States to the Soviet Union in 1990 that NATO would not expand any further than east of Berlin.
In early 2015, Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, documented, for the Russian state broadcaster RT (roughly, Russia’s equivalent of the BBC), the activities of NATO aircraft in the vicinity of Russian airspace:
[T]he military activity of NATO aircraft on Russia’s borders is far more intense [than Russian activities around foreign airspace]. Starting from 2014, the intensity of operations of NATO reconnaissance planes over the territory of the Baltic countries and the Baltic and Barents Seas, all of which are in close proximity to Russia’s borders, has increased significantly and account for roughly 8-12 sorties per week. US Air Force RC-135s conduct operations on an almost daily basis: more than 140 sorties in 2014, compared to 22 in 2013. Spy planes from Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Portugal (the latter’s aircraft are temporarily based in Lithuania) regularly monitor the activities of the Russian armed forces in the Kaliningrad Region and over the Baltic Sea.
The picture is similar in the Black Sea area: AWACS aircraft are actively used from air force bases in Germany, Turkey and Greece, and sometimes even from the UK and France.
These aircraft have increased the intensity of their duty in Romanian and Polish airspace from two sorties per month in January/February 2014 to 40-60 monthly since March 2014. The total number of sorties in March – December 2014 reached 460, compared to just 20 over the same period in 2013.
The number of tactical fighter jets permanently based in the Baltic States in order to patrol their airspace has increased from 4 to 14. They represent the air forces of Canada, Portugal and Germany. The two Dutch, two British and two Canadian jets stationed in Poland and Romania have been reinforced on a rotating basis by US/NATO squadrons of up to 12 warplanes.
Overall, the number of sorties of NATO tactical warplanes near Russian and Belarusian borders has doubled in 2014 compared with 2013, having reached 3,000. By way of comparison, over the same period, Russian reconnaissance aircraft carried out just over 200 sorties over the Baltic Sea area, compared to 125 sorties in 2013.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that RT is an impartial observer whose word ought to always and forever be trusted as fully accurate and comprehensive – RT, like the BBC, patently operates under an agenda – nor am I arguing even that RT is more reliable than the BBC. For what it’s worth, RT’s reputation in the West for bias is significantly worse than that of the BBC. A comparison between the two state broadcasters is ultimately besides the point, however.
What the above report by Yakovenko does offer is an appropriate and illuminating counter or supplementary narrative. It helps us place Russia’s conduct yesterday in context and permits us to comprehend a possible logic, motivation or guiding rationale.
Furnished with an awareness of this non-Western perspective, yesterday’s “security alert” perhaps seems much less curious or remarkable than the BBC might have its British audience believe. The incident clearly did not arise out of a vacuum. Indeed, NATO air activity continues regularly in the vicinity of Russian airspace.
For the BBC to have provided such contextual enlightenment to its audience, however, would have rendered it more difficult for the broadcaster to fulfil its role as gatekeeper for the British establishment. Had the broadcaster also detailed how Britain and its NATO allies routinely engage in the very same type of activity next to Russian airspace, it would have been unable to frame Russia as an erratic, irrational and unprovoked aggressor. Instead, the BBC simply did not and does not report on UK or NATO jets flying in Russia’s “area of interest”, to employ the jargon of the UK’s ministry of defence.
Indeed, the BBC does not always devote priority attention to British “interceptions” of Russian jets either. There have been an average of eight or nine “interceptions” of Russian jets by British fighters near British airspace each year over the past five years. Some incidents receive barely any coverage and go unnoticed by the general British population as a result, but distinguishing yesterday’s incident with headline story-status appears to have been in service of a higher purpose.
Interestingly, the story appeared after a very speculative and emotive BBC report the day before (the link contains a full audiovisual report) – which was also a main story on the BBC News service – placing responsibility for the air-bombing of Syrian hospitals and a school on Monday squarely upon a Russian bomber plane that the BBC had reportedly witnessed flying in the area.
As was reported by the BBC on Tuesday, “[u]p to 50 people were killed in missile attacks on at least four hospitals and a school in northern Syria on Monday”. Yesterday’s story, alleging further Russian wrongdoing in the air can possibly be interpreted as serving to reinforce or buttress the BBC’s case from the previous day’s report by seemingly removing any possible residual doubt as to Russia’s propensity for aggressive and galling conduct in international affairs.
Now, I am not necessarily denying that what the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall ambiguously reported in the recording as “what looks like a Russian fighter jet in the skies over northern Syria” was to blame for the “suspected cluster bombs” depicted raining down on a number of buildings “apparently north of the city of Aleppo”, but Kendall was exceptionally quick to draw an unsubstantiated rhetorical connection between the bombing footage and the preceding completely separate footage of the jet in the mind of the viewer without presenting any further evidence to support or prove the implicit link and resulting allegation or inference of guilt.
Perhaps I’m being overly sceptical, but I almost had a sense that a convenient concrete narrative was being concocted, or “stitched up” even, around not-so-concrete evidence. I don’t think one would have to be a conspiracy-theory crank to acknowledge and wrestle with the fact that the observed jet was not unequivocally identified as Russian, nor, according to careful viewing of Kendall’s report, was it actually seen to have later dropped the bombs over the area. The “evidence” against demonised Russia was circumstantial at best, yet the tone of the report remained accusatory and presumptuous, leaving little room for the reservation of judgment.
For what it is worth, Russia also completely denied the allegation that it was responsible for any of the reported atrocities (although that was perhaps to be expected regardless; whatever about its concern for Syrian life, which, truth be told, probably isn’t a major priority, to be implicated in the bombing of innocent civilians in hospitals and schools is viewed as the ultimate worst in possible international-warfare PR disasters).
In full, Kendall’s introductory dialogue (first, over footage of the alleged Russian bomber and, second, over footage of explosions in and around distant buildings, presumably either one of the hospitals or the school) ran as follows:
What looks like a Russian fighter jet in the skies over northern Syria. And then this… Suspected cluster bombs. Imagine being in one of those buildings, apparently north of the city of Aleppo yesterday [referring to Monday].
Kendall, in sympathetic voice, emotively tugged on her audience’s heart-strings and invited viewers to empathise with possible occupants in the visible buildings. I have absolutely no qualms in principle with pleas for empathy – what is occurring in Syria is a humanitarian crisis and human tragedy on a mass scale, after all – but the BBC’s appeal to emotion in this particular instance is so insidiously inconsistent with previous convention that one can only suspect it is disingenuous and agenda-driven. Of course, there is also an argument that a purported and self-proclaimed neutral media observer, such as the BBC, has a self-imposed moral and logical obligation to be doing its utmost to avoid colouring its reports with emotion.
The denunciatory report went on to document the “sort of damage being caused” by the strikes and stated that they were being “widely blamed” on Russian and Syrian state forces. This further explanatory dialogue was broadcast over footage “supplied by Syrian opposition activists” showing emergency workers and other helpers desperately searching through rubble, presumably for survivors and bodies, as well as a clip of a group carrying an apparent body covered entirely with clothing and blankets aboard a stretcher.
The report then featured the UK’s defence secretary Michael Fallon adding a “voice of repute” to the “chorus of outrage” against Russia. He began his statement under the seemingly-moderate and reasoned illusion of reserved conditional judgment, but then proceeded more-or-less under a strong presumption of Russia’s guilt.
There was absolutely no suggestion by Fallon that it might be prudent to reserve judgment until the full facts became clearer or until conclusive evidence was produced (as, no doubt, would have been the case had Britain or an ally been accused of involvement in such an incident and he had been asked to disclose his opinion).
His full statement was as follows:
If these reports are true, these amount to war crimes. These are war crimes against the civilian population in breach of the law of armed conflict – in breach of all humanitarian law – and Russia needs to be held to account for what it is now doing. Bombing innocent civilians is an abomination.
Fallon’s hypocritical rhetoric might even have lead the passive observer to believe that Britain and its allies have never bombed innocent civilians. Of course, they have killed hundreds of innocent civilians in this conflict alone and continue to do so, despite implausibly claiming otherwise.
If Russia is indeed to blame for Monday’s attacks – as seems likely considering coalition bombers have, as far as we know, no military reason to operate over Syrian opposition territory – it is right that Russia should be severely criticised and held to account, but the fact remains that we do not know for certain. Its activities should, of course, be scrutinised, as indeed should the actions of any power or party engaged in military conflict.
Would it be naïve, however, to completely rule out the possibility of the strikes having been false flag operations, in light of Russia’s steadfast denial? Or would it be outlandish to acknowledge the possibility? If an actor in a conflict is known to be the only party engaged in bombing over a certain area, bombing innocent civilians would, in itself, be a pretty senseless, irresponsible and ill-advised act of self-incrimination. Then again, brazen world powers have been happy to target hospitals in the past in pursuit of their twisted, morally-bankrupt interests and it’s not as if Russia is a diplomatic angel. Ultimately, who knows? Very little is surprising in the murky field of international warfare.
Nevertheless, it is worth comparing the BBC’s report on the alleged Russian bombing with its reporting of the US bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan operated by Médecins Sans Frontières last October. On that occasion, forty-two non-combatants (fourteen staff members, twenty-four patients and four relatives of patients) were killed.
The BBC News’ coverage of the consequences of that bombing (see from 00:44 in the video above) was not only superficial and perfunctory – the audiovisual report was incorporated very briefly into the body or mid-section of an item primarily dealing with Barrack Obama’s change of plans in respect of the reduction of the US military presence in Afghanistan – it also completely avoided examining the human cost of the tragedy.
Unlike the presumptuous report of the alleged Russian bombing, which, as outlined above, featured considerable vocal condemnation of Russia atop of pictures of people searching through rubble and carrying an apparent victim on a stretcher, no human beings featured in the BBC’s US bombing report footage at all. In fact, the latter might be best described as a pseudo-report.
Only material damage, as opposed to human damage, was depicted. No death tally was provided either. In fact, the report did not even mention that innocent people had been killed by the US. This was distinctly odd, given loss of life naturally adds considerable and tragic significance to any incident.
Of course, it is much easier for observers to empathise with imagery of other humans (especially when they are suffering) than it is for observers to empathise with toppled masonry and empty rooms filled with scorched and scattered furniture.
The emotions of viewers are thus being carefully manipulated, directed or crafted by the Machiavellian BBC, so as to subtly nudge public opinion towards the holding of certain view-points or towards supporting certain perspectives favourable, beneficial or conducive to allowing those in power to pursue their shady interests whilst being subjected to less scepticism and scrutiny.
In one instance – the coverage of the consequences of the alleged Russian strikes – viewers were being encouraged or led to feel sympathy for the victims. The victims’ suffering was being exploited as a visual emotional string and the BBC was more than happy to pull on it in order to invoke within viewers feelings of revulsion towards Russia, who had allegedly caused the victims’ suffering.
However, in the other instance – the US attack – viewers were denied the opportunity to even think about victims or their humanity. Viewers’ emotional responses were necessarily limited or stunted by the omission of crucial information. As far as the report about the US attack was concerned, those victims were non-existent, invisible or unworthy of coverage.
This stark disparity in treatment serves to demonstrate not merely the Russophobia of the BBC, it also exposes the broadcaster’s hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy; it is blatantly eager to exploit the deaths of victims when it is convenient, but goes to active lengths to sweep them under the carpet when it’s not.
Whilst such manipulative and selective omission in the process of information dissemination isn’t something most of us would expect from a broadcaster “committed to impartiality”, the BBC’s parroting of the official Pentagon-spun lie that the hospital in Kunduz had been bombed “mistakenly” was arguably worse, for there can be no professed defence of having fallen victim to passivity or negligence when proven falsehoods are actively perpetuated.
The BBC made this claim in spite of evidence existing that confirmed the US had been fully aware it was bombing a hospital. This fact rendered the bombing an undisputed war crime under international law.
The ever-thorough and reliable Media Lens – an independent watch-dog of those mainstream British media outlets legally-obliged to maintain impartiality as well as those purported or purporting to be liberal or moderate in outlook – outlined in a piece scrutinising the BBC report the implausibility of the BBC’s misleading claim:
One of the defining features of the corporate media is that Western crimes are ignored or downplayed. The US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on the night of October 3, is an archetypal example.
At least twenty-two people were killed [the eventual tally was forty-two] when a United States Air Force AC-130 repeatedly attacked the hospital with five strafing runs over the course of more than an hour, despite MSF pleas to Afghan, US and Nato officials to call off the attack. The hospital’s main building, which contains the emergency operating room and recovery rooms, was heavily damaged. Dave Lindorff noted:
‘the hospital was deliberately set ablaze by incendiary weapons, and the people inside not incinerated were killed by a spray of bullets and anti-personnel flechettes.’
‘The AC-130 gunship is not a precision targeting weapon, but a weapons system designed to spread death over a wide swath.’
Shockingly, MSF had already informed US military forces of the precise coordinates of the hospital in order to prevent any attacks. Indeed, the hospital is:
‘a well-known and long-established institution with a distinctive shape operating in a city that until recently was under full [Afghan] government control. That the US/NATO command did not clearly know the function of that structure is inconceivable.’
MSF were unequivocal in their condemnation of the American attack. The hospital was ‘intentionally targeted’ in ‘a premeditated massacre’. It was, they said, a ‘war crime’. The organisation rejected US assurances of three inquiries – by the US, Nato and the Afghan government. Instead, MSF demanded an independent international investigation.
On BBC News at Ten on October 15, 2015, BBC North America correspondent Jon Sopel told viewers over footage of the ravaged Kunduz hospital that it had been ‘mistakenly bombed by the Americans’. Not intentionally bombed, as MSF were saying, but ‘mistakenly bombed’. BBC News were thereby adopting the Pentagon perspective presented earlier by General John Campbell, the US senior commander in Afghanistan, when he claimed that:
‘A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility’.
In fact, the US has done so before, many times. In November 2004, the first target of the huge American ground assault on Fallujah, following several weeks of bombing, was the city’s General Hospital. This was a ‘war crime’, Noam Chomsky noted, and it was even depicted on the front page of the New York Times, but without it being labelled or recognised as such by the paper:
‘the front page of the world’s leading newspaper was cheerfully depicting war crimes for which the political leadership could be sentenced to severe penalties under U.S. law, the death penalty if patients ripped from their beds and manacled on the floor happened to die as a result.’
Going further back in time, US veterans of the Vietnam war have reported that hospitals in Cambodia and Laos were ‘routinely listed’ among targets to be struck by American forces. In 1973, Newsweek magazine quoted a former US army intelligence analyst saying that:
‘The bigger the hospital, the better it was’.
And now, in the case of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Associated Press reported that:
‘US analysts knew Afghan site was hospital’.
Moreover, it has since emerged that the American crew of the AC-130 gunship even questionedwhether it was legal to attack the hospital.
Our repeated challenges on Twitter to Sopel and his BBC News editor Paul Royall were ignored. Is this really how senior BBC professionals should behave when publicly questioned about a serious breach of impartiality? Simply deign not to answer?
However, one of our readers emailed Sopel and did extract a remarkable response from the BBC North America correspondent which was kindly forwarded to us.
Sopel wrote in his email:
‘At this stage whether the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz was deliberate or accidental is the subject of an investigation – and I know there are doubts about the independence of the inquiry – but what it most certainly WAS was mistaken. Given the outrage the bombing has provoked, the humiliating apology it has forced the US into, the PR disaster it has undoubtedly been, how can anyone describe it as anything other than mistaken? If I had used the word accidentally you might have had a point.’
But this is, at best, disingenuous nonsense from Sopel. Most people watching his piece, and hearing him say that the hospital had been ‘mistakenly bombed by the Americans’, would have assumed he meant that the Americans had not intended to bomb the hospital rather than that bombing the hospital was misguided.
As we saw above, the notion that US forces did not know the target was a hospital is the Pentagon propaganda claim, and is not the view of MSF. Moreover, it contradicts the evidence that was both available at the time of Sopel’s BBC News report and what has since come to light (that the US aircrew actually questioned the legality of the strike on a hospital). Christopher Stokes, general director of MSF, told Associated Press that the US bombing was ‘no mistake’.
‘The extensive, quite precise destruction of this hospital … doesn’t indicate a mistake. The hospital was repeatedly hit’.
Indeed, it might be said that Media Lens eerily foretold the double standards of the BBC that became all too evident as the broadcaster reacted to Monday’s alleged hospital bombing by Russia:
Yes, the [Kunduz] bombing was reported in the ‘mainstream’ media; sometimes with harrowing footage of ruined hospital corridors and rooms. Hospital beds were even shown where patients had burned to death. But the US bombing did not receive the extensive headline coverage and editorial outrage that it deserved.
If you are unsure of that, just imagine the response of the British media if it had been a Russian gunship that had bombed a hospital with the loss of 22 lives, despite pleas from doctors to call off the attack. Western leaders would have instantly condemned the Russian bombing as a ‘war crime’, and the corporate media would have taken their lead from the pronouncements coming out of the offices of power in Washington and London.
By contrast, we have not found a single editorial in any UK national newspaper condemning the US bombing of the hospital or calling for an independent investigation. This is one more example of the dramatic subservience of the corporate media to the state and indeed its long-term complicity in state crimes against humanity.