Nicholas Blanford: The Shoddy Journalism of Rafik Hariri’s Hagiographer
I have written about Mr. Blanford before, and I will write about him again. Here is an example to refute wide Arab misconceptions about Western journalism and their standards. Many in the Middle East exaggerate the professional standards of Western journalism and are often unaware of the extent to which many Western media suffer from the same problems as Arab media, including the dangerous effects of money. Blanford, who knows some Arabic, has been covering Lebanon for years but for some reason – or for obvious reasons – he has specialized in following the number of missiles in Hezbollah’s possession. He is comfortable telling readers how many missiles Hezbollah happens to have, all based – obviously – on Israeli estimates. As to why the story of Hezbollah’s missiles is so important, or why the story of Israeli missiles is not important, Blanford should speak for himself.
But the political style of Blanford shifted dramatically after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. His reporting became indistinguishable from the various propagandists in the Hariri and Saudi media. He has been faithfully reproducing the propaganda claims and allegations of the Hariri press office. You won’t find one story by Blanford that deviates even slightly from the propaganda of the Hariri-Saudi political movement in Lebanon. To be sure, Blanford continues to provide bi-weekly estimates of the numbers of missiles in Hezbollah’s custody. But the journalistic methods of Blanford have – how to say? – flourished over time.
Blanford wrote a pathetic hagiography of Rafik Hariri. The book reads like a paid political advertisement, and the Hariri family “subsidized” its publication by purchasing a large number of copies and funding its translation into several languages. The Hariri family hands out free copies of the book. Blanford is so loyal to the Hariri family that he echoes switches in allegations. The book was written when the Hariri family was accusing the Syrian regime of the Hariri assassination. Various Hariri aides, servants, propagandists, and MPs provided much of the material in the book. But then the Hariri family changed its mind: Saad Hariri made up with Bashar, visited him in Syria and stayed at his house. He then officially apologized for having accused Syria of the assassination. To be sure, the Hariri family never apologized for the racist anti-Syrian (people) climate that it had created in Lebanon, which resulted in the death, injury, and disappearance of hundreds of Syrians.
But when the Hariri family later accused Hezbollah of the assassination, Mr. Blanford quickly followed suit. He famously co-wrote an article in Time magazine which claimed to be an exclusive interview with the Hezbollah suspects in the Hariri assassination. According to the Time story, which is destined to be remembered as one of the most memorable journalistic comedies of the decade, the suspects from one of the most secretive parties in the world volunteered to parade its sought-after members, who – for extra effect – brandished their ID cards to prove their identities. The bizarre story got only weirder when Mr. Blanford later claimed that he in fact was not present during the spectacle with the suspects, although his name appears as a co-author of the article. He even claimed that he did not know the other co-author of the piece. If the story had dealt with Israel and not with Hezbollah, Blanford would have been forced to resign and would have become unemployable. But as long as his stories fit into the propaganda interests of the US and Israel, he could do no wrong. He has become accustomed to writing stories on Hezbollah in which he cites “Hezbollah commanders” or “Hezbollah fighters,” when everybody in Lebanon knows that Hezbollah commanders never ever identify as such. Those who identify as Hezbollah “fighters” are either crooks or not Hezbollah fighters, assuming that Mr. Blanford actually met them. And Mr. Blanford (like the authors of similar articles in Hariri and Saudi propaganda outlets) never explains why Hezbollah “sources” are so eager to share opinions and information that are so damaging to the party with the most hostile media.
But Mr. Blanford has recently outdone himself. I first learned of an article of his published in the Christian Science Monitor about the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria from the propaganda mouthpiece of Prince Salman, al-Sharq al-Awsat (Hariri and Saudi media habitually cite the authority of Mr. Blanford and other pro-Hariri Western reporters in Lebanon, although none are as loyal to Hariri family as Mr. Blanford). Al-Sharq al-Awsat allocated a big headline and printed a long story based on Mr. Blanford’s account.
The story that Blanford wrote for the Christian Science Monitor is really about a video that was uploaded on YouTube. For Mr. Blanford it warranted a long tedious article, only because it allowed him to insert Hezbollah into the story. And the story carried a sensational headline: “Video appears to show Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites fighting in Syria.” For extra effect, Blanford introduces his article thus: “An unprecedented and slickly-produced video is being circulated around Shiite areas of Lebanon showing alleged Shiite combatants fighting in Syria.” Blanford never explains what is unprecedented about a propaganda video about Syria when hundreds of such videos are uploaded daily. And why is the video unprecedented? And how did he judge it as “slickly-produced” when even al-Qaida’s video are far more “slickly-produced” than this video? And how did Blanford know that this video is circulating around “Shiite areas of Lebanon”? Does Blanford think that Shiites in Lebanon have a Shiite Internet that is exclusive to their areas? Or has Blanford relied on surveys of Internet viewership in Lebanon, which are broken down by sect? Or, better yet, did Blanford rely on that one Shiite source who could not be identified because he lives among the “terrorists” themselves? And why was his Shiite source reluctant to identify himself, when the suspects of the Hariri murder came forward to Mr. Blanford and showed him (or his co-writer) their ID cards?
But when Blanford realizes that his sourcing does not seem reliable, he resorts to typical tactics in all articles that are damaging to Hezbollah. He cites special “sources”: “According to Lebanese sources close to the militant Shiite Hezbollah.” I doubt that Blanford has ever told his readers or his editors in the US that Hezbollah have officially and publicly said in official press releases that any article about Hezbollah that cites “sources” in Hezbollah or “sources close” to Hezbollah are fabricated and made up.
But the video is available on the Internet to be watched and it does not in any way appear to be “slickly-produced.” There is absolutely no evidence that it was NOT made by Syrian exile opposition offices, which upload hundreds of propaganda videos on a daily basis. In fact, the video in question shows no more than four or five fighters together, which could have easily been arranged by Free Syrian Army fighters or even by Hariri fighters in Tripoli. Anticipating the skepticism of his readers, Blanford had to admit that there is indeed no mention of Hezbollah in the video: “There is no mention of Hezbollah in the film and it is not possible to confirm that the militants shown are from the Lebanese organization. But there are small clues suggesting that the fighters belong to Hezbollah, or at least have received training from the organization. For example, most of the fighters featured hold the AK-47 by the magazine when firing rather than the wooden grip beneath the barrel, a Hezbollah method that is supposed to allow them to swing the weapon more quickly. Another hint is that the fighters fire their AK-47s in semi-automatic mode rather than fully automatic, a technique taught to Hezbollah combatants to improve accuracy and save ammunition.”
I grew up in the civil war years after 1975 and there were fighters back then who would hold the AK-47 in the manner Blanford describes as the “Hezbollah method,” as if no one has ever thought of that, although there are videos of Syrian armed opposition groups holding the AK-47 according to the “Hezbollah method.” As for the “technique” of saving ammunition, one has to really be slow-witted to believe that no one has ever thought of saving ammunition before it occurred to Hezbollah fighters. Such are the journalistic methods of Blanford.
But Blanford did not rely solely on his deep and original analysis of a video showing five fighters clowning around for the video camera. He obtained confirmation: “A Western diplomat with contacts within the regime and opposition confirmed that Hezbollah militants were fighting in south Damascus.” And as if this farce of journalism was not complete, Blanford mentions in passing: “Hezbollah fighters are not the only Lebanese playing combat roles in Syria. Several hundred Lebanese Sunnis have joined various rebel Free Syrian Army units, and clandestine logistical support networks for the rebel forces have been established in parts of north and northeast Lebanon.” But Blanford could not explain why an anonymously uploaded video of five fighters (that Blanford suspects belong to Hezbollah) is far more important for an article than evidence of “several hundred Lebanese Sunnis” who are fighting in Syria.
The answer to that question resides somewhere in the Hariri press office in Beirut.
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