Friday 25 July 2014

Sunday Times Debacle: Poor Reporting, or Something Else?

Sam Hardy ('Mistake after mistake in Sunday Times report on Islamic State looting of antiquities') is as puzzled as myself about continuing developments in the claims made that an item put on sale last year at Bonhams was the product of looting by ISIS. It quite clearly was not, but getting to the bottom of why anyone should claim it was (and who that was and why) continues to come up against a brick wall of denial and silence. As Sam Hardy says:
UNESCO are now accusing the Sunday Times of an unbelievable level of misconduct and mendacity. As Paul’s fact-checking has revealed, the ST has not revised its story as significantly as Al Hassan claims (and may not have revised it at all). I’ve captured an image of the front of the article as it is displayed now, even after Al Hassan’s statements to me. So, Al Hassan is now alleging that the journalist lied about making the correction, as well fabricated Al Hassan’s comments about the case, and fabricated the connection between the INTERPOL case and the Islamic State. I would dearly love for the Sunday Times to respond in any way whatsoever. Their silence is incomprehensible.
Perhaps shamefaced silence for poor and misleading journalism on this subject is their response. It seems the British papers have a history going back over a decade and a half at least of not really bothering too much about stories involving portable antiquities. They'll print any old glib nonsense somebody tells them, won't bother to look into much of it with any diligence . Take the guff the Portable Antiquities Scheme tells them about artefact hunting in the UK, accepted and reprinted lock stock and barrel by a totally uncritical UK press (that goes for the broadsheets as much as the tabloids). Zero investigative reporting in most cases (the Independent did one piece, repeat one, which showed thinking deviating from the Party Line). 

To illustrate why we are ill-served by sloppy journalism, let us take two other elements of the same story.
ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is the world’s richest terrorist group after seizing £250m from Mosul’s banks when it drove the Iraqi army from the city last month. It could be about to become richer after imposing a “tax” on looted antiquities in the vast region of Syria and Iraq it controls, much of it part of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. Local Isis emirs determine the tax rates and anyone refusing to pay is killed. The tax was revealed by Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian-born academic. They are part of a heritage taskforce set up by Syria’s opposition interim government and met local activists in secret to document damage to sites under ISIS rule. Al-Azm, associate professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said: “What we learnt suggests that Isis is involved in illicit antiquities trading, but in a way . . . more complex and insidious than that reported to date.”
The 13th July Sunday Times article might be forgiven for not knowing that four days later The Financial Times was going to publish an article debunking the  "£250m" stuff they uncritically reported (Borzou Daragahi, 'Biggest bank robbery that ‘never happened’ – $400m Isis heist', Financial Times, July 17, 2014). It is interesting to ask why that apparently false information was ever corrected in the updated version of the article. Certainly the online version (captured just now) still features this crucial information.

Then we have that "antiquities tax" information, allegedly "revealed" by Salam Al Kuntar and Amr Al-Azm, who "met local activists in secret". In secret from whom and where? The mind boggles. Dr Al-Kuntar is noted here as having been "forced to flee her home in Damascus last year" (ie 2012) and Amr Al-Azm seems to have been mainly based in the US since 2006. So neither of the people interviewed and quoted as sources by the hapless journalists are observers of what is happening on the ground at the moment in eastern Syria. In fact this antiquities tax is not "newly revealed" at all, it figures in an article by Joanne Bajjaly, 'Arms for Antiquities: Syrian Artifact Smuggling Bleeds Sites Dry', Al-Akbar, published over 10 months ago (September 3, 2013). She's a Lebanese archaeologist (co-editor of the book 'The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq', Woodbridge 2008) and the article is written from a Lebanese perspective. Syrians quoted consist of an anonymous archaeologist; she also quotes "former director of archaeological excavation in Syria Michel Makdissi". The main source of information is Lebanese: "Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Saad, from the Office of International Thefts", Saad is the main source of information used in the article, including the 'tax':
"A tariff is set between smugglers and collaborators, which changes depending on the quantity, size, and value of the smuggled pieces. Most smuggling operations are discovered due to disagreement on the amount. So they 'snitch' on each other and inform the authorities, which are not involved in the operation, and it gets stopped. However, as long as they agree on the fee, smuggling will happen."

 Perhaps Dalya Alberge and Jane Arraf can be induced to revisit the subject "Loot, sell, bulldoze: Isis grinds history to dust".

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