Interview with Piers Robinson of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies

As the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons launched a report last week stating that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Syrian government launched a chemical weapon attack in the town of Saraqib in February 2018, an allegation which Damascus has vehemently denied, we spoke to Dr Piers Robinson, a British Academic who has closely followed the Syrian conflict and repeatedly asked difficult questions which have made the authorities in the West who seek to overthrow the government of Bashar Al Assad feel distinctly uncomfortable.

In this interview, we asked Piers about the background to the conflict, the problems within the OPCW which have allowed for its institutional neutrality to be repeatedly questioned, the lack of investigative journalism within the mainstream media, and what people can do to better inform themselves about situations which ultimately lead to war and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives. Piers also talks about the unbearable media attacks he has been subjected to as a result of asking difficult questions.

The complete transcript can be found below the video.

Pressenza: So, welcome to all of our viewers here present today. We are going to be conducting an interview with Piers Robinson on the subject which has kind of flown under the radar a little bit this week with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons published a report which basically laid blame at the hands of the Syrian government for a an alleged chemical weapons attack in 2018 in the town of Saraqib. It has gone kind of accepted by all of the mainstream media, but when you start looking around you see that there are concerns about this. So we are talking today with Piers Robinson from the Organisation for Propaganda Studies in the UK. He’s going to tell us about his organisation and hopefully give us a few more elements of information which we can use in order to consider whether the report coming out of the OPCW is useful or not. So Piers, thank you so much for accepting this request for an interview. We’re very happy to have you with us. And before we go into the details of the chemical weapon attack in Syria could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and also the Organisation for Propaganda Studies?

Piers Robinson: Sure. My background: I was an academic for 20 years or 20 years plus if you include my PhD. I was at Bristol University whilst doing my PhD and then at Liverpool University, Manchester and then at Sheffield University. For the last two years I’ve been an independent researcher. I’ve organized, well I’m involved with the Organisation for Propaganda Studies which is really very much a fledgling organisation. I’ve actually been very busy working on matters relating to the OPCW which has taken up most of my time in the last two years. But the Organisation for Propaganda Studies is essentially established by a group of academics and researchers. And it really grew out of my own academic inquiry which took me from the realm of foreign policy and political communication and study of the media for many years into a more focused examination of what we would historically have called propaganda, but today we have a range of euphemisms: public relations, political marketing, strategic communication, and so on.

And my interest in this is very much driven by, in a sense, a normative or ethical concern about the way in which propaganda disrupts democratic processes. In democracies where propaganda has a strong hold, it becomes very difficult for the public to hold their government to account or rational informed debate. And really the Organisation for Propaganda Studies was set up, because as myself and some colleagues felt, that a lot of scholars had a blind spot when it came to propaganda and democracies. That of course the term public relations was coined by Eddie Bernays in order to rename propaganda, because propaganda got a bad name by the 1950s. And so these techniques of manipulation, which include deception and a variety of other manipulation techniques are still very much current in contemporary democracies, but we call them something else. And because we call them something else people are less aware and even academics are less aware of how significant these processes are.

So really the OPS has been set up to try and foster, over time, growing engagement from academics, but also the public, into these questions of propaganda and this kind of idea that propaganda isn’t just out there in authoritarian states or historically during wartime, it’s actually very much alive and surrounding us in our own democracies.

And that’s really the kind of raison d’être for the OPS, but as I say is it’s a fledgling organisation, and I haven’t had as much time to devote to it as I would have liked to, because of really my involvement on the OPCW and Syria issue for the last couple of years, which has taken up the lion’s share of my time.

Pressenza: Sure, now let’s get into that, because this week, as I said, in the introduction, the OPCW released another report, the Syrian government has very angrily denounced this report. And so we’re left with a sensation that someone’s telling the truth, someone’s not telling the truth. But before we go into that, what is it that we actually know about this particular attack that happened in Saraqib in in 2018?

Piers Robinson: Yes. The report issued by the OPCW, its attribution mechanism, the IIT, which has been tasked with attributing blame for alleged chemical attacks which have already been investigated by the OPCW’s own Fact Finding Mission. So the IIT report this week is essentially taking as a basis the original FFM report into this alleged attack and then attributing blame. And in this case, as you correctly point out or correctly say, they have actually blamed the Syrian government. And so that’s what has occurred this week. In terms of trying to understand, as it were, the context of this. The context of this is that since 2013, the Ghouta chemical attack, which is still controversial, but following that Syria signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and went through a policy of handing over or destroying all the bits of chemical and biological weapons.

But since then allegations have been consistently made by western governments, and also their allies on the ground in Syria that the Syrian government is systematically carrying out chemical attacks and some sarin nerve agent attacks in the country. And this has been a regular feature of the allegations being made since 2014, which as you rightly point out, the Syrian government, the Russian government denies that they are responsible for it. The western governments are saying that they are carrying out these attacks. And in the middle of this the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has been tasked with investigating these events and then reporting on them.

So that’s the broad context. There’s a series of systematic claims and allegations made over time. They have been investigated.

Now where this has all become very, very controversial and, although you’re correct to point out the IIT report which has just come out over Saraqib, really, the really big controversy over the last two years has been over the alleged counter-attack in Douma and what has flowed from that. And really the underlying issue here is that, or the argument made for people who are questioning the OPCW investigations and also questioning what the western governments are claiming is that the OPCW, nearly all of these incidents, has not been able to actually visit the sites themselves. They have been primarily reliant upon groups on the ground passing information which goes out of Syria and then goes to the OPCW. And the criticism is that the information that they’re taking in order to build their reports and in order to essentially to establish their allegations of chemical weapons use, this is all information which is being supplied by groups who are not independent in the conflict, who are effectively associated with belligerent groups in the conflict, most famously of course being the White Helmets, who also describe themselves as the Syrian Civil Defence. But the White Helmets have been a key part of this information being passed. And so the criticism has been is that this isn’t necessarily reliable information, that if you’re relying upon facts and material being produced by one side in a conflict in order to produce your reports, you might well be dealing with disinformation.

And that has been at the heart of this concern and over time. Criticism has always been there since the Ghouta attack in 2013 as to who was responsible for this. And of course back in 2013 the Obama Administration had drawn a red line and was going to carry out an attack but Obama pulled back from that because there was doubt within US intelligence services as to who had carried out the sarin attack.

And Seymour Hersh, the American journalist at the time wrote about how rebel groups or opposition groups had obtained sarin via Turkey and so on. So that controversy has been there since then but then, with these FFM missions and the chemical weapons attack, this is built and built over time and culminated in some way with the Douma Incident—and I’ll stop in a second—in 2018 when this was an area of Damascus which was about to be retaken by Syrian government forces, and then there was an alleged attack where 50 plus civilians were killed. And what was different about this incident, apart from immediately there were claims that had been staged, the Russian Federation claimed it was a staged attack and so on, almost immediately what happens is the Syrian government was able to regain that territory and then, for the first time, an OPCW team was actually allowed in on the ground in Douma to actually investigate what had happened.

So rather than relying heavily upon White Helmets and belligerent associated groups for information, they were able to get a team in on the ground. And what happened was that the team produced an initial report on what had happened. And the report, which is now publicly available, because it’s been leaked raised a lot of very serious questions about whether an attack had occurred at all. When that report was prepared by the Douma team, then, at the last minute before it was published, somebody in the OPCW came in, secretly altered the report and then attempted to publish a doctored version. And this created immediately an argument within the OPCW, because one of the inspectors who’s involved in the report production discovered that it had been changed and manipulated. And then there was an internal protest. And since then, really in a way the rest is history. There’s been this growing building controversy over manipulation of the OPCW investigation in the case of Douma which has led to leaks, it’s led to testimony and it’s led to statements from former OPCW scientists and so on, really making the argument that the OPCW investigations have been co-opted effectively by western powers in order to shore up the allegations that it’s the Syrian government current carrying out the attacks and that, I think, covers the key points of where we are today. And of course this report, this week on Saraqib, it’s the same issues that relate to Douma are applicable to that report. You have questions over what is going on in the OPCW. Is it suffering from undue influence from America, Britain and France, who I know publicly they claim that their bystanders in the conflict, but I think everyone knows full well, it’s well established that France, Britain, America have been seeking to overthrow the Syrian government since very early on since 2011.

And that’s where the controversy is, and that’s where the controversy is today, persisting really but as you said with all sides sticking to their guns and so on, and the OPCW under increasing scrutiny, I guess, is the best way to put it for what’s been going on.

Pressenza: Yes, I think, I find this to be very, very disturbing because the OPCW which, I think, was set up as a result of the Chemical Weapons Convention should be, in theory, a neutral organisation which goes in there and has a particular job, has a role but is not taking sides on whether blame should be apportioned to one particular side or not. So what’s happening internally within the OPCW, which is allowing this manipulation to happen?

Piers Robinson: Well, in a way this is in a way nothing new. If people look into the OPCW controversy, they will see that there have been a number of open letters signed by a variety of international experts but José Bustani who was the first director general of the OPCW has been one of the figures who has been speaking out, “saying something has gone wrong in the OPCW, we must listen to these inspectors who are trying to blow the whistle within the organisation”. Of course, José Bustani was ousted by the Americans from the OPCW in the run up to the Iraq War. And of course, as most people know, the history of the Iraq War, the deception over weapons of mass destruction, the Bustani heading the OPCW was seen by the Americans as somebody who wasn’t playing ball and they forced him out of the organisation. And really, I think, since then the working idea is that the OPCW has not been properly independent of the US, not properly independent of US and its allies, specifically in relation to the Syria FFMs. And you can see this in statements which have emerged from former officials and senior officials in the organisation. One of the problems within the OPCW with Syria is that the investigation of alleged events in Syria have been conducted by a fact-finding mission which is not directly accountable to, I think, the verification and inspectorate divisions. It is directly accountable to the Office of the Director General, the ODG. And so what that means is normally when the OPCW investigates something it should be the scientists who are in control of the verification and inspectorate divisions, but with the Syria FFM, it’s been controlled from the Office of the Director General, and when Douma happened the chief of cabinet was a British career diplomat, Robert Fairweather. Since then, Sébastien Braha, who’s a French career diplomat, has been the Chief of Cabinet. And so what you effectively have is you have a potential for political influence on the FFM operations. They’re not really being conducted in the way that the OPCW would normally carry out investigations. And obviously, because if you think of those personnel, obviously French diplomat, British career diplomats, it opens the door for that kind of political influence into what’s been going on. And I think structurally, at the core that’s the problem. I could say more and in the Working Group I’m a member of, we have published material on this, but there are individuals who are clearly within the OPCW, but clearly closely associated to the UK government. So for example, OPCW inspectors who also are awarded an OBE from the British government and so on. And if you get into the details of what’s been going, there’s clearly been an issue, a serious issue with personnel and their relationship to France, America and particularly the UK, in this case, because the UK has been a particularly important player in the Syrian conflict, in terms of strategic communications, and so on. And I think that’s the core problem you have.

It’s important to emphasize that mostly the OPCW does a very good job and most of its staff are dedicated and do an excellent job. The problem here is with the Syria FFMs and the way they have been set up in a way that has made them vulnerable to influence, which I think is at the heart of why you see this problem that we see with the chemical weapons claims, that it’s not already objective, it’s not really independent. And of course things have reached a kind of a boiling point with Douma, because the inspectors got in on the ground, they came back, they have an awful lot of questions about what had really happened, and then they get closed down, then they get side-lined, reports get changed, and that creates what you have now, which is that you have there are two main inspectors who are known to have been essentially blowing the whistle on what happened, but also there are other people within the organisation who have also spoken to people such as myself and to other people, about what has been going on.

So clearly co-optation is the best way of describing it, the co-optation of the Syria FFM’s by France, UK and the US, primarily. And of course they are belligerent in the conflict.

Pressenza: Sure, what I find also very disturbing about this whole thing, as someone coming from the independent media, is that it took me possibly 10 or 15 minutes of research to find all kinds of articles online, sites which are raising alarm bells about this, but somehow the mainstream media doesn’t have any particular interest in questioning the narrative which is being fed by the OPCW, in this case, but clearly from the states which are France, the UK which are which trying to manipulate these reports. What’s going on? Why is the mainstream media not interested in doing its job and highlight and putting a spotlight on issues like this?

Piers Robinson: Well I think there’s a general answer and a more specific answer to that question. The general answer is that if you look at the political, or if you look at the critical political communication literature generated over the last 40-50 years, it continually points out that mainstream media are very closely located to political and economic power and, I guess, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent is the most well-known articulation of that argument, but lots of other communication scholars have made this argument. And we know that, especially when it comes to foreign policy, mainstream media are very risk-averse. They’re very reluctant to challenge. There’s a whole variety of reasons for that, from patriotism through to dependence upon official sources. And that goes some of the way to explaining the fact that the mainstream media and, when it comes to war and conflict, it tends to toe the line. And even in the controversial wars, if you look at the Vietnam War for example, it took a long time before American media started to really question the Vietnam War. And it wasn’t until the Tet Offensive and after that really when you had actually a political argument over that war, that you saw American mainstream media really starting to get more critical of that war.

The same goes for Iraq in 2003. A lot of the mainstream media was supportive of the invasion and the controversy didn’t really emerge until after that invasion had occurred. So we know the media doesn’t tend to play a very particularly independent role, that’s putting it mildly when it comes to foreign policy, this case, and if you listen to people such as Peter Hitchens who’s one of the few mainstream journalists who has reported on this issue, he says it’s remarkable that even here, where you have whistle-blowers and you have documents, a very large volume of documents available, it’s remarkable that the mainstream media still seems so reluctant to engage with it. And the only explanation I have for that is that I think in recent years the mainstream media has become, in a sense, even more intensely or closely linked to political power than it was say in Herman and Chomsky’s time, or 20 years ago. We know that the mainstream media is a very vulnerable industry, journalists on short-term contracts, there’s a problem with “churnalism”, just repeating press briefings. I think the strength and the strength and degree of autonomy that you could detect, say, back in Vietnam or over Iraq 2003 has dissipated almost entirely from the mainstream media now. And so they’re very reluctant to touch it.

I think the other side of that argument is that the war in Syria is, whatever your position on the war, it’s certainly the case that western media has very much bought into one specific narrative on the war. And this has been going on for a very long time now. And I think there’s an awful lot to lose for mainstream media who have clearly shored up and supported western government claims. They have an awful lot to lose credibility wise to admit that maybe we’ve got this wrong. It’s not as with Iraq where you had, well the invasions happened and all the information comes out and the media said, “well we made a mistake”, because that was just a phase of about a year, wasn’t it, the run up to the Iraq invasion and then immediately after. This has been going on for so long. So I think that that’s a factor.

The final thing I would add and, I’m a good example of this, a walking case-study a bit. Anybody who does ask questions about the war on Syria is subjected to the most ferocious attacks on social media. I mean when I formed a working group with some academics we were immediately being smeared as Assadists, Putinists, conspiracy theorists, war crimes deniers. And this has really been quite ferocious. I mean, I’ve lost count of the numbers of newspaper articles written by, well by the Huffington Post and The Times, particularly which attack us for asking questions and for investigating this, even when we now have I think the latest open letter about the OPCW with Admiral Lord West who’s on the Intelligence and Security Committee signing that and saying in public there’s a problem. He doesn’t get attacked as an Assadist, but all the small, low-hanging fruit like me, you get severely attacked. And it’s intimidating and it puts a lot of people off. I know an American, a high-profile celebrity who said to me—one thing was said by this person on social media regarding Syria—and they had never seen the volume of attacks and smears and trolls on any other issue in their life. So there is a very well-oiled machine out there and if you raise questions, even if you just raise questions, you get attacked very ferociously. And so when Douma happened on the 7th of April, 2018, the working group I’m a part of hadn’t actually even published anything on Syria. I said some comments about questions to be raised, and the day that the US and the French, and the Americans were bombing Syria, the 14th of April, which was three years ago now, the front page of The Times newspaper “Assadists working in British universities, conspiracy theorists trying to deny that Assad is carrying out chemical weapons attacks”. That was on the front page of the times. There’s also an editorial essentially calling for our jobs, and then there was our pictures in there, and so on. And that’s an extraordinarily concerted attack on an almost unknown group of academics who were simply saying, well there are some questions to be asked about the Syrian war, as academics should be doing. And the scale of that cannot be underestimated. I have files of the attacks and the smears and some of them very unpleasant, threats almost, over social media. And that puts people off touching the issue. People just think, is this really worth my while? Do I really want to get involved in talking about this conflict? And it does it does have an effect. It doesn’t shut up everybody, but a lot of people.

I think look at look at the war and just think I’ve got bigger fish to fry, or it’s not worth it. This is a feeling I get from some of my academic colleagues who know me well, I’ve worked with for years, who don’t touch the subject. I just get the sense that they just think “I don’t want to go there”.

Pressenza: Cancel culture alive and well! I wanted to change the subject a little bit because Pressenza, we’re an independent media, we want to publish reliable information, information that people can trust and which comes from the point of view of trying to show the benefits of peace and non-violent conflict resolution, this kind of stuff that we do, but what can people, at least those who are a little bit suspicious of the information that comes to them through the media, what can they do to better protect themselves from the propaganda that surrounds them?

Piers Robinson: Well I think in the first instance people really need to learn that the mainstream media is very closely located just with an economic power. Read the classic text, read Herman and Chomsky. Read even the mainstream versions of that from people like Lance Bennett the American academic. Understand that when you’re watching mainstream media, you’re getting an angle on this issue in the same way that somebody in China who’s watching Chinese state news is getting an angle, etc. It might not be as propagandised but it’s still an angle. So recognize that first of all. And then second, especially given what I said before about the state of mainstream media today, is that people need to go to independent media such as you and other alternative, independent media and start to read around and start to try to recognize that there is useful, important information in a whole variety of media outlets, even Russia Today and Chinese media and Iranian media. Look at that. Look at the BBC, but also very much look at the independents, because the independents is probably the most important site of information at the moment. And of course people have got to stop thinking they’re going to get all the answers if they look at one or two of these, but you at least start to see the variety of opinions and arguments being made. And in the process of doing all of that to better protect yourself is people really, I think, most people have the intelligence to start to sift through information to draw their own judgments after a period of time. And people really need to have confidence in their own intelligence and confidence in their own ability to judge information. And I think one of the things that I saw when I was teaching in university was this decline in independent thinking and students wanting to be told. “Well, what’s going on?” etc. But I think democracy requires people to work hard, right? People have to think and think for themselves, but people can do that. And I think if people separate themselves from adherence to mainstream media, look at this rich variety of independent media out there, think, and think for themselves. Go and look at the primary documents which is circulating around about the OPCW. Don’t take the word of a journalist or me. Let’s just look at the documents which are available and then use their own intelligence. It’s hard work but that’s what democracy is. I think democracy involves hard work from citizens. If we’re apathetic, we lose democracy, right?

Pressenza: Thank you so much for this really fascinating half an hour. We’re very grateful for you to be available to have this conversation with us and I’m fairly sure that in the future we’ll be back in contact with you to ask about other elements that you and the Working Group and the Organisation for Propaganda Studies are investigating. So thank you so much.