A short story about evidence

On Twitter yesterday, journalist Peter Hitchens asked BBC Newsnight’s diplomatic editor Mark Urban to provide evidence for the assertion that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in 2013.

Here’s the conversation that ensued.

Urban fails to answer, so Hitchens asks again.

Finally, BBC’s Urban appears with perhaps the most half-baked non-response you could imagine, re-asserting that he believes in “the evidence” which he does not provide. He then attempts to scoot away and avoid the question.

Hitchens asks for clarification: What is the “evidence” though?

That’s when Urban comes back with an even worse response than before.

“It’s the evidence you don’t accept,” he says, again without providing the evidence and suggests it is somehow self-evident.

Hitchens asks Urban one more time to specify which evidence he is referring too. Urban promptly disappears.

This is interesting because it demonstrates how something can become a foregone conclusion among journalists simply because everyone seems to believe it, so it must be true.

Urban can’t even direct Hitchens to a report or an article or anything at all to back up his claim that “evidence” exists to prove his claim — something you’d imagine would be easy for an editor at a major BBC news program to do.

The reason Urban can’t provide the “evidence” he “accepts” is because it doesn’t exist. A UN report on the 2013 chemical incident in Ghouta found that yes, chemical weapons were used, but did not conclude that they were used by Assad’s forces. The report does not assign blame.

A BBC explainer on the report (the same BBC Urban works for) even acknowledged this.

Yet it has become common knowledge, an accepted fact, that Assad was responsible for using chemical weapons. Journalists state this as absolute fact all the time. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it.

This is important, because as Hitchens later said on Twitter, the assumption that Assad was responsible for the attack in 2013 is an important part of the case that’s being made against him regarding the latest chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun.

The same thing is happening this time. Assumptions are made and stated as fact, when in reality, many experts have urged caution in assigning blame.

Some have argued that it is possible that a conventional bomb hit a warehouse where anti-Assad rebels (many of whom are affiliated with Al Qaeda) were storing chemical weapons, but journalists don’t seem to want to hear it.

This reluctance to hear any narrative which competes with White House claims is glaringly obvious and should be a source of serious embarrassment for journalists. Particularly because in 2013, a UN investigator who was part of the commission of inquiry on Syria, said in an interview before the official report was complete, that early evidence suggested the rebels, not the government forces, had been using sarin gas.

It’s not an unreasonable request to ask journalists like Mark Urban to back up claims they make repeatedly without providing sufficient supporting evidence.