Blog: Conspiracy at the BBC (23-02-15)

Nine years ago I had a long chat with the man entrusted with investigating the collapse of three skyscrapers in New York on 9/11. From the off he knew what caused the collapse of World Trade Center 1 and 2. “We were not looking at a bomb. We knew what the source of the problem was, which was the airplane impact. There was substantial evidence for that. We didn’t really need to understand what caused the building to collapse. We knew what started the process.”

The airliners crashing into the buildings had dislodged the fireproofing. Fires weakened the supporting steel framework and the top floors came down, crushing the rest of the 110 story buildings to dust. A computer simulation was used to confirm this thesis. There was no need to test for the presence of explosives, examine the steel to establish how hot it had got or even study the collapse itself. .

“Once you get to the point of initiation”, said Dr Shyam Sunder, head of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, “once you get to the point that this large block of building at the top has started moving downward, the calculations are obvious. You don’t need to do a calculation to figure out that the kinetic energy far exceeds the strain energy of the capacity of the structure below. This is the equivalent of adding two plus two equals four in elementary kindergarten school.”

But having put Newton to shame, Dr Sunder was unable to offer any explanation for the disintegration of  World Trade Center 7, the 47 story Salomon Brothers building which was not hit by an airplane. In fact he thought it might remain a mystery forever. “There are some things that are unknowable, even if the building’s debris was there.” None of this is convincing but you’re a conspiracy theorist if you say so.

This became an issue in Maistry v BBC, the case I have been diligently reporting in the public interest. The only professional criticism of my journalism came from Husain Husaini, a BBC news editor. He claimed, in his witness statement ahead of the trial, that in 2007 I wanted to broadcast an interview – Last Man Standing – advancing the conspiracy theory “that the American government had demolished the twin towers with explosives to synchronise with the crashes of the aircraft”. The interviewee was alleged to be William Rodriguez, a janitor at the North Tower.

After carefully listening to the ‘interview’ and meticulously researching the background, Mr Husaini concluded it was not up to BBC standard. Even worse I was unable to “argue or defend the piece”. As this was a matter arising for the first time I was entitled to respond. I said that Mr Husaini was being fanciful as no such piece had been produced or proposed for broadcast. I added that in 2006 Mr Husaini had been invited to hear some brief audio clips featuring the theologian Dr David Ray Griffin and the author Nafeez Ahmed. He had also been given an analysis of the fires by Dr Griffin to read.

Employment Judge Monk dismissed my objection and allowed Mr Husaini to change his witness statement a month after I had lodged my rebuttal. He now claimed that the remarks he made referred to one of the ‘interviews’ he heard in 2006.  He didn’t say which ‘interview’ but he heard neither. The BBC objected to any of the audio being played and this evidence was ruled out of court. It would have shown Mr Husaini’s conspiracy theory claims were baseless.

At the trial the following was submitted as evidence of Mr Husaini’s editorial approach.

From: Ishfaq Ahmed
Sent: 08 September 2006 13:43
To: Husain Husaini
Subject: Monday
Hi Husain,
It’s 9/11 on Monday – I’d like to do the following hits on it …
1600 Taleet Hamdani from a group called Peaceful Tomorrows. Taleet is a woman of Pakistani origin who lost her son in 9/11. She doesn’t believe in the official version of events and wants an inquiry into what happened.
1700 Frank Gardner  – is the war on terror being won by America.
1800 Member of the 9/11 commission on the thoroughness of their investigations against a member of an interfaith group on what they say are questions still unanswered.
By the way – Devan has had no input into these thoughts! Let me know what you think.

From: Husain Husaini
Sent: 08 September 2006 14:01
To: Ishfaq Ahmed
Subject:  RE: Monday

i think it’s fine to say to someone…
“there are of course lots of conspiracy theories.. some academics in america even say this was an inside job and the americans  deliberatly blew up the twin towers themselves..and the plane attack was just a front…  what do you think about these kinds of theories”
to either Frank or the commission person..
and then you can hear them laugh like a drain …

Last Man Standing is really part of the title of an open letter to journalists at the BBC Asian Network written in response to a note from from Mr Husaini about conspiracy theories.

From: Husain Husaini
Sent: 15 June 2007 06:53
To: Pamela Gupta; Asian Network Breakfast; Asian Network News

As Devan and anyone from the mornings team will tell you I get quite exercised by 9-11 conspiracy theories….
If you ever want to do anything on them give me a shout first..
He may have rescued a lot of people but it doesn’t change the facts…

From: Devan Maistry
Sent: Wed 20/06/2007 09:09 To: Husain Husaini; Pamela Gupta; Asian Network Breakfast; Asian Network News
Subject: Conspiracy theory: Last Man Standing

Husain attracts attention to the perils of reporting 9/11 conspiracy theories. Here are some thoughts on an issue which can divide and impoverish newsrooms.

The BBC recently broadcast a series of documentaries which investigated a clutch of conspiracy theories. The intention was to debunk them but also to explain a social phenomenon that is increasingly the object of academic attention.

‘Conspiracy’ in the legal sense is an agreement between two or more persons to commit an unlawful act or to accomplish a lawful end by unlawful means .‘Theory’ has a number of distinct meanings depending on context. As the outcome of scientific speculation theory provides explanations of phenomena which can be tested or verified and enable prediction. More commonly theory is equated with conjecture often independent of fact and removed from hypothesis.

‘Conspiracy theory’ is somewhat different and a relative latecomer, entering popular usage in the 1960s and the supplement to the OED in 1997. Essentially it describes attempts to explain major political, social and historical events as the outcome of covert activity undertaken by an alliance of powerful people or organizations.

But the term also has an increasingly pejorative connotation. Mark Fenster, Professor of Law at Florida University says that “in political discussions with friends and opponents, one can hurl no greater insult than to describe another’s position as the product of a “conspiracy theory”.

That’s because these days the term is equated more generally with claims that are regarded as paranoid, outlandish, irrational and unworthy of serious consideration. The purveyors of such theories are simply ‘conspiracy nuts’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’. Fenster also notes that employing the term “conspiracy theory” serves as a strategy in political discourse for keeping some areas of inquiry off-limits.

It’s easy to understand the irritation of editors asked to afford time, space and credibility to the patently ludicrous. But it is equally obvious that good journalistic practice must first establish that such speculation is deeply flawed. Some claims, like the contention that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth, are of course simply bizarre and can be discounted swiftly.”

The letter goes on to show how even an eminent thinker like Noam Chomsky is reduced to mumbo-jumbo when confronted with the implications of 9/11. Other leading representatives of the ‘Left’ like George Monbiot are driven to rabid hysteria. Dr Sunder’s contradictions and the holes in the official narrative are ducked; emotional overload drains rationality.

This is how Last Man Standing ends:
“Now for a postscript of sorts: For a week in February the hottest download on YouTube was the BBC’s reporting of the collapse of Building 7 some 24 minutes before it happened. Asked to explain why the reporter was confirming the collapse, and speculating on the causes, while the building remained standing and clearly visible over her shoulder in the shot, World Editor, Richard Porter offered the following:

*don’t accuse us of conspiracy, after all we have just made a series of documentaries on the phenomenon
*we have lost the tapes
*we always cross-check our facts and use words such as allegedly
*our reporter does not remember what happened despite some searing memories
*if we had reported the building had collapsed it would have been an error, nothing more.

Subsequently he suggested that the BBC had reported the collapse of Building 7 because a number of other media outlets had been reporting the collapse in circumstances that lent credibility to their dispatches.

Here’s how he concluded his second blog on the subject:
“I’ve spent most of the week investigating this issue, but this is where we have to end the story. I know there are many out there who won’t believe our version of events, or will raise further questions. But there was no conspiracy in the BBC’s reporting of the events. Nobody told us what to say. There’s no conspiracy involving missing tapes. There’s no story here.”

There’s no doubt that for Richard what matters most is the credibility of the BBC and its journalism. It’s unhelpful though in that defense, unnecessary and counterproductive, to imply that questions about the reporting of an event yet to happen could only have been asked by a conspiracy nut.

Nobody wants to be labeled a conspiracy theorist and for journalists it’s pretty close to the kiss of death. So do we walk away from the story? Well that’s always a possibility. I’d prefer to think that the question does not even arise and that, especially at the BBC, good journalistic practice, as always, is the expected response.

‘There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is a proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance -that principle is condemnation before investigation’ (Herbert Spencer). And the principle holds – whether we regard the concerns raised about the official narrative of 9/11 as an overarching theory of conspiracy, or as a discrete set of hypotheses offered in an effort to reconcile obvious and troubling discrepancies.”

The judgment in Maistry v BBC records the following finding of fact at paragraph 7.12

“The claimant wished to broadcast two interviews which focused on conspiracy theories in relation to 9/11, and in particular on the theory that the American government was responsible for the attacks and had arranged to blow up the twin towers with explosives at the same time as crashing two aircraft into the buildings…Mr Husaini had changed his evidence, but only to the extent that he accepted that the interviews were with Dr David Ray Griffin and Nafeez Ahmed, not William Rodriguez. For the avoidance of doubt we do not consider that this in any way impacted on Mr Husaini’s credibility. He admitted his mistake, which we consider to be a minor one…”

Conspiracy theory as peddled by the BBC is little more than a smear campaign. But this propaganda model – which extends beyond 9/11- is difficult to challenge. British courts as shown are impervious to such influence. Still, irrationality today, superstition and the inquisition tomorrow. After all there’s reason to believe the CIA came up with the conspiracy theory scam to discredit dissenters long before the BBC. Or is that the other way around?


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