NEWS
24/04/2018 10:54 BST | Updated 24/04/2018 16:18 BST

Pro-Assad Academics Blame Criticism On Conspiracy

Prof Piers Robinson told Sputnik that 'powerful actors in the British government and so on [are] very, very concerned'.

UK academics accused of promoting pro-Assad conspiracy theories about Syria are claiming they are victims of a conspiracy theory.

Prof Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield told Russian state media channel, Sputnik, that “powerful actors in the British government and so on [are] very, very concerned”.

And writing on his blog, Prof Tim Hayward of the University of Edinburgh, said articles highlighting his reliance on conspiracy theorists as sources were evidence of a “coordinated smear campaign”.

Hayward and Robinson are members of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WG), set up by a number of left-wing professors to examine the “role of both media and propaganda” and provide “reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers”.

But the group’s refusal to acknowledge alleged crimes by the Syrian regime, and its insistence that rescue workers in rebel-held areas are a terrorist-linked propaganda group, have drawn accusations from the Syrian community that it was “whitewashing” war crimes and “peddling conspiracy theories”.

Neither Hayward nor Robinson addressed or acknowledged the concerns raised by Syrians interviewed by HuffPost UK.

Prof Hayward wrote:

“Whoever devised the smear campaign perhaps underestimated the public’s instincts of fairness and its appetite for truth...

“By coordinating their concerted smear campaign, those with centralised power over information have literally revealed what they don’t want revealed. Nobody reading their words will be much the wiser about the alleged problem of “Assad Apologists”, but anyone reflecting on the mere fact of this extraordinary campaign will know that they are pointing out with neon light the people who must not be listened to and certainly not emulated.”

Speaking to Sputnik about a piece in The Times, Prof Piers Robinson said:

“I think that really shows you very, very clearly that the kind of questions that we’re asking are extremely important, and going back to The Times, I think everyone should just ask themselves why is it, that a small group of academics should be subjected to that kind of attack on the front page of a newspaper, doesn’t it tell people something that quite possibly we’re on to an issue which has got powerful actors in the British government and so on [are] very, very concerned.”

Robinson is a Director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Sputnik has been accused of being at the forefront of Russia’s “digital information war against the West”. Last year the outlet’s Washington Correspondent quit alleging pressure from his bosses to write stories implying murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich, was killed in retaliation for the leaking of documents to WikiLeaks.

Robinson has also appeared regularly on RT, a channel funded by the Russian government and known for its use of “useful idiots” to lend credibility to its output, according to a study by European Values.

Since the publication of HuffPost UK’s ongoing series on disinformation in the Syria conflict, Prof Robinson and Prof Hayward have seemingly doubled-down on their claims about the reality on the ground in Syria.

The pair have continuing to retweet controversial blogger Vanessa Beeley, who is currently on a regime-guided tour of Douma, the town where international chemical weapons inspectors are trying to establish whether President Assad’s forces carried out a devastating attack two weeks ago.

UK faith leaders and members of the House of Lords have also become embroiled in the controversy after a regime tour of Syria that, according to a journalist with the group, was shown a succession of staged events in the constant presence of Syrian secret police

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “The comments were posted on Professor Hayward’s personal blog, not on a University website. 

“The University would not seek to limit the freedom of its members, as employees or in a personal capacity, to express their views within the law.”

The University of Sheffield has been contacted for comment.