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It speaks volumes about the limitations of our democracy that a small group of academics and journalists are being attacked by the BBC and Times, simply for doing their job.

Do their respective smear campaigns show us the limits of what we are now allowed to question?

On the morning US and UK forces were bombing in Syria, Piers Robinson and Tim Hayward found themselves on the front page of The Times.

Last week, the Times newspaper attacked professors Piers Robinson & Tim Hayward, using the front page of the paper to admonish the academics & their colleagues for launching a research group examining the true origin of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, libelling them as ‘apologists for Assad working in British universities’.

Professor Robinson says The Times smear piece quite clearly demonstrates the limits of democracy.

“We are not anywhere near as free as we think we are,” he says

Professor Robinson is a propaganda researcher and the chair of politics, society and political journalism at the University of Sheffield. His colleague, Professor Tim Hayward, is a professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University and founding Director of the Just World Institute and the Ethics Forum.

Robinson tells Renegade Inc. that The Times’ claims are irrational and illogical because to question the sponsorship of chemical weapons attacks does not logically mean one supports Assad.

“They’re logical fallacies that are easy to dismiss in an intellectual setting, but in terms of maintaining an emotional and intellectual commitment to speaking the truth, there is no point in me doing this job if I don’t question power,” he says. “Otherwise I might as well go fishing, or sailing, do something else.”

Compliance through fear

Robinson says public discourse in the west is being permeated by propaganda and maintained through fear.  The attack by the Times shows how that is maintained: people incur significant costs for asking inconvenient questions.

“The fear from an academic point of view is if I say something a little bit too outside of accepted conventions, I’m going to get into trouble,” he says.  “It’s terrifying. We should be terrified that we’re in that environment.”

From conversations with his working group colleagues and other academics, Robinson says they are operating in a very fearful environment.

“I am fearful as well, if I am honest.” he says. “But I’m old and ugly enough, I have my professorship, I’m much more ok to push the boundaries. But that’s not the case for younger academics, many of whom are scared to do the same.

“What does that say about the health of the public sphere if academics and journalists feel intimidated to talk about issues they believe in? That’s not the principle behind liberal democracy, free speech and freedom of expression.”

Paper thin political discourse

Professor Robinson says the west is living through a phase of irrational public and political discourse which is currently paper thin.

“The public doesn’t believe what they’re being told about the Skripal poisoning, and about Syria,” he says.

“Just look at the war on terror, which we were all told was about fighting al-Qaeda, this existential threat to the west. In Syria, we’ve been fighting effectively on the side of al-Qaeda linked groups.

“That kind of inconsistency in the narrative shows you how irrational the public sphere is at the moment in the west.”

The professor says labels like ‘apologist’, ‘war crimes denier’, and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are designed to stop people thinking about important issues.

“That’s pretty obvious from my experience over the last couple years,” he says.

As for journalists, Robinson says there is no point doing the job if you don’t ask difficult questions.

“If you’re not asking questions then sure, you can get to the end of your career, and you can get lots of awards and be applauded and so on, but if you’ve never tugged at the leash, if you haven’t pushed boundaries, then you have actually wasted an opportunity and you haven’t done your job,” he says.

BBC throws its hat in the ring

Robinson isn’t the only person copping professional and personal attacks. Independent journalist, Vanessa Beeley, one of the few people actually reporting on the ground, from Syria, is the subject of a recent hit-piece by the BBC.

Beeley responded to the BBC’s ‘interview questions’ by asking whether the public broadcaster endorses the government’s role in formenting and potentially financing a violent, extremist insurgency inside Syria.

“The majority of the British people are opposed to the government’s recent attack on Syria, where are the BBC reports reflecting this?,” she writes. (See her full response above).

Beeley tells Renegade Inc. that the BBC isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last publication to attack her credibility. Beeley has long been subjected to a sustained – and often vicious – online smear campaign.

“The one thing I would say about the smear attacks is they’ve actually increased our platform,” she says.

“They’ve actually had a positive effect and they have given us a huge opportunity.

“It brings people to my work and they can see, one: I’m on the ground in Syria, and two: my work is researched and evidenced.

“I’m absolutely open to correction, but I’m not open to being attacked without any desire for a constructive resolution. I’m not prepared to tolerate that.”

The journalist says people are finally recognising the fact that even if they don’t want to entirely believe her reporting, they are at least beginning to see that they are being fed an opinion by many in the mainstream media.

“And they are reacting against that,” she says, “which I think is a huge positive.”

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