Qatar is – to put it mildly – not one of the most frequently covered countries on the BBC News website’s Middle East page and its domestic issues in particular usually remain far away from the BBC’s spotlight. On the comparatively rare occasions upon which BBC News does publish an article about Qatar, it is sometimes worth taking a closer look at the source of the information provided to BBC audiences – as the examples in this series of posts will show.
On March 6th 2015 the BBC News website’s Middle East section published an article by Dr David Roberts of King’s College London titled “Is Qatar bringing the Nusra Front in from the cold?“. Readers were informed in the article’s opening sentence that the Jabhat al Nusra militia operating in Syria was “rethinking its allegiance to al-Qaeda, in a move allegedly partly engineered by Qatar”. Later on the article states:
“Being a directly affiliated al-Qaeda group, the Nusra Front is nearer the IS end of the spectrum.
Yet, while the Qatari relationship with the Nusra Front appears to be far from straightforward with some of the state’s initiatives failing, indicating some distance between the two, according to recent reports, Qatar appears to want to reform this relationship.”
As the link to a Reuters article provided in that latter paragraph shows, the BBC was not the only media outlet at the time promoting the claim that Qatar was about to steer Jabhat al Nusra into the fold of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups – a claim which appears to have had origins among assorted Qatari sources . Roberts later wrote:
“If the state [Qatar] can get the group to eschew its al-Qaeda affiliation and adhere to a broadly moderate Islamist platform, Qatar can officially commence, with Western blessing, the supply of one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria.”
Making no mention of Qatar’s material and ideological support for the Islamists of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Roberts’ contextualization of Qatar’s alleged links with Jabhat al Nusra included the following:
“…the fact remains that Qatar is a key Western ally. It hosts a critical US military base, it grafted US and UK higher-education institutions and ideas onto its education system, and has long promoted the Middle East’s most visible and powerful woman, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the Emir’s mother.
These are transparently not the policies of a state with sympathies for the likes of IS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone: the US and UK governments will certainly be involved in or at least apprised of Qatar’s plans.”
“Qatar is not the first state to reason that it is time to talk to groups that are unpalatable and extreme, but who are, nevertheless, influential.”
The literal bottom line of this article was to persuade readers that:
“…in a context where the best that can be hoped for is the “least worst” solution, Qatar’s plan is as viable as any other.”
Three days after the appearance of this article Jabhat al Nusra reaffirmed its allegiance to al Qaeda and denied the Qatari promoted claims of a potential split.
So how come BBC audiences were fed obvious Qatari spin by a British academic described as “a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London”? Perhaps if readers had also been alerted to the fact that Dr Roberts’ department currently holds a contract with Qatar apparently worth £26 million, their ability to put the information promoted in this article into proportion and context would have been enhanced.