Dismissed in the press, the academics behind the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media have found few outlets for their research. Despite this, they have extended their studies from the Syrian war to the Skripal case.
Made up of 15 academics, researchers, and PhD candidates across the UK, the group was established to "facilitate research into the areas of organised, persuasive communication (including propaganda and information operations)... with respect to the 2011-present conflict in Syria, including related topics."
So far, the group has been slammed by the media, including a hit piece in The Times that accused the group of "spreading pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories." Others have praised their work for questioning mainstream narratives and providing pluralism.
Sheffield University Professor of Politics, Society and Political Journalism Piers Robinson took aim at The Times' accusations on Twitter, retweeting a comment suggesting that the paper's actions were akin to a "McCarthyite witch hunt at the exact moment that the UK is illegally bombing," in reference to the UK's recent participation in the airstrikes on Syrian government facilities.
Robinson spoke to RT following the release of the group's most recent investigative analysis, an "update on the Salisbury poisonings." Robinson said that the UK government's theory that the chemical smeared on the front door was what led to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, was an unlikely scenario.
"Our briefing notes that it is implausible that exposure to a nerve agent on the front door could have caused both Skripals to collapse suddenly and simultaneously at least three hours later," he said, declining to enter into speculation about other possible scenarios. "Our concern is about what the evidence shows, not what we think," he said.
The paper did note, however, that there were obvious possible motives for actors other than the Russian state to assassinate Sergei Skripal in early 2018. "The UK's case that 'only Russia' had such a motive does not stand up to critical examination," it read.
Robinson did have his own questions for the UK government. "Why will they not reveal the identity of the compound, what is known of its toxicity and how to treat it, and what is known of how to deal with contamination? This information is needed in case any more attacks occur," he said.
"What steps has the UK government taken to rebut the Russian suggestion that Yulia Skripal is being isolated against her will," Robinson questioned. "For instance, why not allow a neutral lawyer or diplomat to take a deposition from her that she has freely chosen to isolate herself from her family and from social media?"
Fellow member, Leicester University International Relations Lecturer Dr Tara McCormack slammed The Times' hit piece, labelling it "a hatchet job on me and other colleagues who are against [Syrian] intervention."
SPM member and Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University Tim Hayward echoed the sentiments laid out by his working group colleague. Referencing the questionable veracity of the Douma attack, Hayward said "such claims have been questioned by many people, including senior British military figures. The fact that people who aim to provide support to the questioning are attacked in a major news outlet is itself a matter of concern."
Professor Hayward told The Express in April that the group was not pro-Assad at all, having only released one paper at the time… on the Skirpal poisoning. "Members of the working group have so far published just one item, a research note on the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury," Hayward said.
"Although still work in progress, the piece, [an] update to briefing note 'Doubts about Novichoks,' has been well received by academics and serious commentators. It has been singled out by Cornell University's Professor of Organic Chemistry David B. Collum as the most definitive work on the Novichok nerve agent scandal.
"According to The Times, the group is 'spreading pro-Assad disinformation.' In fact, the group is scrupulous in its analysis and presentation, which stands always open to correction, as any academic work in progress does. The group is not 'pro-Assad.'"
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