The Canary and conspiracies — the case of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack

To the outrage of the rightwing press, the panel of last Thursday’s edition of BBC Question Time included Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor-in-chief of The Canary. The fact that she was invited to appear on such a high-profile current affairs programme was quite a breakthrough, representing an “official” acknowledgement of the increasing influence exercised by the alt-left media, of which The Canary is a prominent example.

The rise of alternative left-wing news sources (The Canary, Novara Media, Another Angry Voice, Evolve Politics, The Skwawkbox) who are challenging media domination by the Right is in principle very welcome. Their enthusiastic promotion of Jeremy Corbyn and his political programme (in stark contrast to the hostility of most of the mainstream media) reportedly played a significant role in mobilising younger voters to turn out and back Labour in last month’s general election. However, as I’ve previously argued in relation to Skwawkbox, the growing reach of the alt-left media is not an unalloyed contribution to the cause of honest political journalism, or of progressive politics generally.

For example, the day after its editor’s appearance on Question Time, The Canary posted an article titled “People should be tearing into the BBC for the alarming decision it just made [VIDEO]”. This was a classic alt-left headline, designed to encourage the casual visitor to click on the link to see what the article was all about, along with the offer of a video for the benefit of those who regard the written word as a bit too MSM.

The subject of The Canary’s article was a controversial (to put it mildly) report by veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh published a week ago by Die Welt. In it Hersh challenged the official US government account of the Assad regime’s chemical attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April, during which at least 87 people were killed, many of them children. The shocking photographs of the massacre, which had obvious parallels with the even more devastating sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta in 2013, caused international outrage and provoked the Trump administration into engaging in a (very limited) military retaliation against the Assad regime.

In Hersh’s alternative version of events the regime carried out an airstrike on a building in Khan Sheikhoun where a jihadist meeting was taking place. This strike accidentally hit a store of “fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods” held in the basement of the building, releasing a chemical cloud that resulted in all those deaths. Although the cloud had “neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin”, it wasn’t actually sarin that killed the victims. The president was “warned by the US intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon”. Trump, however, according to Hersh’s informant, wasn’t interested in evaluating the intelligence objectively but simply “wanted to bomb the shit out of Syria”.

Hersh’s article has been ignored by the mainstream media, which leads the Canary author to conclude that a cover-up is under way in an attempt to deceive the public:

An acclaimed investigative journalist has now blown a giant hole in the official narrative of one of 2017’s most explosive world events: the Syrian ‘chemical attack’ and Donald Trump’s fierce response. But the BBC and other media outlets seem to be completely ignoring his exposé.

Instead, the public service broadcaster is just regurgitating now disputed stories. And it’s been publishing further unsubstantiated ‘evidence’ that supports this narrative. In doing so, it is essentially conning its audience; while making itself complicit in a looming catastrophe in the Middle East and beyond.

It doesn’t appear to have crossed the writer’s mind that the lack of mainstream media coverage of Hersh’s revelations might just possibly be the result of well-deserved scepticism about his article’s credibility. Hersh’s narrative is based on information supplied an anonymous “senior adviser to the American intelligence community” whose credentials cannot be checked, and it differs markedly from other accounts, including those of the Assad regime and its Russian sponsors. It flies in the face of other more reliable evidence too, notably the findings of the UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has confirmed the use of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun.

The Canary finds it significant that “Hersh struggled to find a mainstream media outlet willing to publish his findings”. It’s true that Hersh did originally submit his article to the London Review of Books, which had published his two previous pieces absolving the Assad regime of responsibility for gassing its own people. But even the LRB baulked at this new article, which was why Hersh had to turn to Die Welt to get it published. The Canary refuses to see this as the result of legitimate concerns about the quality of the article, reminding us that Hersh is a “Pulitzer prize-winning journalist”, as if that disarms any criticism of his methods. But maybe the widespread view that Hersh has degenerated from a serious investigative reporter into an embarrassing conspiracy loon has some merit?

It’s not as if Hersh’s interpretation of events hasn’t been challenged. Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat answered Hersh’s arguments, in detail, immediately after the publication of the Die Welt piece. But Bellingcat’s response doesn’t even rate a mention in the Canary article, never mind receive a rebuttal. I suppose it’s possible that over the five days following its publication the Canary contributor failed to read Eliot Higgins’ critique, even though it was widely shared across social media. At the very least that would demonstrate journalistic incompetence. More likely, it was decided not to refer to Bellingcat because this would have undermined the dramatic story of a politically-motivated MSM blackout of Hersh’s supposedly solid investigative reporting. If so, The Canary’s angry accusation that that the BBC has engaged in the suppression of a politically inconvenient analysis looks a tad hypocritical.

The author of the Canary article is one Tracy Keeling, whose name I haven’t come across before, despite quite extensive reading on the war in Syria. Perhaps this should come as no surprise since, according to her Canary bio, Keeling “has worked mainly in education and theatre over the years” and “has a wealth of experience in literary writing”. So, not much there to qualify her as an analyst of the Syrian war in general or of chemical weapons in particular, you might think. In the world of alternative media, though, an almost total lack of knowledge of a subject isn’t seen as an obstacle to fiercely expressing an opinion on it.

To be fair, this isn’t the first time Keeling has addressed the subject of Khan Sheikhoun. In May she contributed another article to The Canary which linked to a video of Noam Chomsky questioning the Trump administration’s account of the massacre. She quoted Chomsky as saying:

First of all, do we know what happened? Actually we don’t. We know that there was use of chemical weapons. Before any action should be taken, one should first try to find out what happened. Well, I don’t know. But there are perfectly credible figures who have raised very serious questions about it.

Just this morning there was a very important article… that came out by Theodore Postol. [An] MIT scientist who’s been one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues… He went through in detail the White House intelligence report claiming that it was Syrians, and just tears it to shreds.

Keeling helpfully provided a link to an International Business Times report of Postol’s criticisms, headlined “MIT expert claims latest chemical weapons attack in Syria was staged”. That was indeed what Postol suggested. He didn’t dispute that sarin had been used in Khan Sheikhoun but implied that the attack was probably a false flag operation conducted by anti-Assad forces, who had detonated a device on the ground and then falsely blamed the resulting horrific deaths on a regime missile strike. (The ever-excellent Bellingcat exposed the ineptitude of Postol’s research.)

The contradiction between Postol’s narrative and Hersh’s is obvious. Postol conceded that a chemical attack involving the use of sarin had indeed been carried out in Khan Sheikhoun but suggested it was the opposition who were responsible. Hersh denied that a sarin attack took place at all and claimed the deaths were the accidental result of a conventional airstrike by the regime. They can’t both be right. But our Canary author, evidently unable to resist stories of conspiracies and cover-ups, happily gave credence to both Postol and Hersh’s claims, without bothering to critically assess either of them.

Tracy Keeling’s explanation of her approach usefully outlines the flawed reasoning behind a lot of leftist conspiracism. She writes: “Politicians and the media fed people dodgy evidence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. But with the media now censoring evidence on Syria, it looks like it’s trying to fool people again — or at the very least failing to do its job. We must not fall for its shameful behaviour a second time round.”

This is a false argument. It is of course true that intelligence was cynically manipulated by politicians to justify the invasion of Iraq. It is also the case that much of the mainstream media was complicit in that deception. But it doesn’t follow that politicians always lie about foreign policy, or that all MSM reporting can be dismissed as pro-government propaganda. Or indeed that alternative narratives are necessarily valid. You have to study the actual evidence in each particular case and subject it to rational analysis.

Unfortunately this is something many contributors to the alt-left media show little aptitude for. Instead they mindlessly promote anti-establishment conspiracy theories, on the mistaken assumption that this furthers left-wing political objectives, and try to persuade their new and expanding readership to adopt the same unthinking approach.

The Left really needs to stop doing this stuff. It makes us look like idiots, little better than 9/11 Truthers. It is of course admirable that sites like The Canary have been able to win a mass audience for left-wing politics. But this shouldn’t be at the cost of renouncing critical thought and respect for empirical evidence or encouraging their readers to embrace cranky conspiracist fantasies.

First published on Medium in June 2017