BBC Radio 4 are set to release a new audio series, entitled ‘Mayday’, about the notorious ‘White Helmets’ and its late co-founder James Le Mesurier. But what may seem to be a harmless dive into the subject, is seemingly set to include character assassinations of journalists presenting a separate narrative to that of what has generally been presented by the British Broadcast Corporation.

In a fashion which to some is reminiscent of how world renowned journalist Julian Assange – WikiLeaks frontman currently held in Belmarsh maximum security prison – has historically faced character assassinations, it is feared that a similar tactic is set to be used against independent journalists reporting on the war in Syria.

The ‘White Helmets’ have become an organisation synonymous with the ongoing war in Syria, presented by the likes of the BBC as simply being a humanitarian organisation worthy of international praise for their role in helping injured Syrian civilians. That narrative however, perpetuated continuously by the UK government-funded network, had come under some scrutiny following a wave of reports produced by independent journalists, who had gathered information which they believe proves a direct connection between terrorist organisations – directly linked to al-Qaeda – and the ‘White Helmets’.

The BBC’s ‘Mayday’ is yet to air and so casting an overall judgement on the program, at this point, would be a fruitless endeavor. However, what can be discussed, is what has been made public from online exchanges between journalists such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley – whose work has been integral to the counter narrative on the ‘White Helmets’ and its co-founder – and BBC journalist Chloe Hadjimantheou, who is working on the program, reportedly ready to air later this month. 

In the case of Independent journalist Vanessa Beeley, she reports that she was contacted by Chloe Hadjimantheou on the 16th of May via a Facebook message to her public Journalist page. Communication then later took place over email. In earlier email exchanges, made public, Chloe was attempting to interview Vanessa on her work, however Vanessa declined the offers made for an interview, on the grounds that Chloe had made mistakes in her emails, such as claiming Beeley was an RT Journalist. Vanessa stated that she would be open to an interview on the grounds that it would not be edited, due to her concerns of distortion.

Despite disagreements having taken place in the initial exchanges, they were relatively respectful. A turn was later taken on October 12, when another email was then sent to Vanessa Beeley, notifying her that she is to be discussed, in some detail, during the course of the program.

In the email, it is indicated that the main focus, when it comes to Vanessa Beeley, is not just her work on the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier, but instead her character, her funding and her opinions on subjects irrelevant to the war in Syria. Rather than presenting questions, the majority of the email is riddled with evident character smears and a persistent theme of alluding to Vanessa being an asset of the Russian and Syrian government’s, in order to push State backed “conspiracy theories”.

It could be easily interpreted from the email that Vanessa is to be painted in the BBC program as a tool integral to a Russian-Syrian government propaganda campaign. It is unlikely that such a claim is to be made directly, since doing so with such an absence of evidence could backfire on the BBC. One could point to a certain irony in a paid employee of British State-owned media, confronting an independent journalist on being an asset for State funded propaganda.

To give a sample of the statements made, in the October 12 email, Chloe writes “…you self-identify as a journalist although you have no formal training and do not conduct yourself with the rigour of a professional journalist”, which is clearly a personal attack, bearing no substance.  On top of this, the email states that there will be focus on Vanessa Beeley’s opinion on Covid-19, that she has “spread conspiracy theories”, that she allegedly shared anti-Semitic material, accompanied by a litany of other claims made about her. These subjects however, which occupy a large portion of the email, are wholly irrelevant to Vanessa’s work on the White Helmets.

Speaking of conducting oneself with the rigour of a professional journalist, character assassinations of those who disagree with your own conclusions, is not exactly behaviour worthy of owning that title.

Even if we are to approach this issue, pretending for a moment that there is ample proof that Vanessa Beeley and others have been directly paid by the Russian and/or Syrian governments in order to consciously push an agenda, why is it warranted to attack the personalities of said given journalists, rather than simply the presented arguments.

With the absence of evidence, which should be required of a professional journalist, to suggest a government backed agenda being behind the works of Vanessa Beeley and others, why even touch such a subject? In Chloe’s email, she claims that Vanessa “promote[‘s] a story of the war in Syria in which the Syrian and Russian states are the victims of a huge Western Conspiracy involving the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier”, however it could be interpreted that Chloe is seeming to indicate that she holds the belief that Vanessa is in some way connected to a Russian-Syrian conspiracy to mislead the general public. It would seem as if entertaining conspiracy theories in order to attempt a rebuttal of said conspiracy theory doesn’t make much sense.

Perhaps the most concerning element to the email however, is what Vanessa Beeley has in her own words characterized as “psychological warfare” against her. This “psychological warfare” came in the form of stating that an unnamed Lawyer, that the BBC spoke to, claims “someone who spends time with Syrian ministers and who is publicly called for humanitarian workers to be bombed may be liable to face charges of aiding and abetting, inciting or conspiring to commit a crime under international law”. This suggestion in of itself could be interpreted as warning of coming legal action, but also places a lot of importance in Vanessa Beeley.

The narrative presented by the BBC, when it comes to the evil “Assad Regime”, is that they are essentially butchering civilians with complete intent to do as such, so why would the words of a Western Independent journalist make any impact on what actions they are to take? Regardless of how you frame it, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that it took a white woman to incite the Syrian government to attack targets where White Helmets members were operating.

Regardless of whether you believe all the claims which will make it to air, to be true or false, journalists should not have their reputations targeted over a disagreement with a mainstream narrative. Character assassinations, carried out as a reaction to a journalist releasing an alternative view, is in reality an attack on freedom of the press. When journalists feel threatened to reveal things they have concluded to be the truth, for fear of persecution, this hurts journalism as a whole.

If the program set to be aired on BBC Radio 4, is to include an extensive dive into Vanessa Beeley’s opinion on irrelevant issues and takes little time in attempting to refute arguments made about the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier, it will prove a damning indictment of the journalists involved in making the program. This would essentially make the program a partisan-view, echo chamber style look into the White Helmets and its co-founder and a piece of work aimed at creating character assassinations of journalists who actually visited Syria and took it upon themselves to find, according to them, the truth about what was/is going on inside war-torn Syria.