Democracy Lost: Propaganda, Character Assassination and the Campaign Against Professor David Miller

Dr Piers Robinson

On October 1st 2021, the University of Bristol decided to buckle in the face of a near 3 year-long pro-Israel lobby campaign and fire Professor David Miller. I have worked with David for many years now, co-published work on the theory of propaganda, researched and written about the UK FCO propaganda operation (ongoing) that has sought to overthrow the Syrian government, and developed the fledging Organisation for Propaganda Studies. David was, is, and will continue to be, a major intellectual force with respect to our understanding of propaganda, and his integrity, particularly in relation to the Israel-Palestine issue, is now cemented in history. He became a voice for the Palestinians, highlighting the ways in which propaganda has worked in order to simultaneously suppress public understanding of the nefarious actions of the Israeli government against them and erase awareness of their plight. Inevitably and predictably he became an essential target for the pro-Israel lobby and the implementation of a remarkably sustained and aggressive campaign designed to falsely smear him as ‘anti-Semitic’ and have him fired.  

I also have a relationship with the University of Bristol. I studied for my MSc in International Relations back in 1996-97 (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC]) and continued in 1997 to undertake a PhD (also ESRC funded) under the supervision of Professor Eric Herring. I left at the end of the 2nd year of the PhD to take up my first full-time academic post at the University of Liverpool, School of Politics and Communication Studies. My PhD was awarded in 2000 from the University of Bristol.  

Smear campaigns and character assassination are a core feature of contemporary propaganda and our ‘democratic’ landscape. There is even an academic Handbook on the tactic, titled The Routledge Handbook of Character Assassination and Reputation Management, whilst US investigative journalist Sharyl Atkinson has provided a powerful account detailing how legitimate political views are stifled through nefarious attempts to destroy reputations. I have witnessed this tactic first hand through my experience researching propaganda and the war on Syria. For the ‘thought crime’ of questioning and researching UK government-linked ‘influence operations’ in that war, in particular the controversy over the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) and the alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma 2018, myself and other colleagues (including David), have been subjected to aggressive and continuous smearing some of which is documented here. Even when OPCW whistleblower scientists emerged and corroborated what we had been saying, those attacking us have simply continued with accusations of our being ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘war crime deniers’ and agents of ‘disinformation’. That smear campaign also now incorporates OPCW whistleblowers with attempts to blacken their reputations.   

What we see today is not completely new and David’s experience is not an isolated one. In an earlier era, scientists such as Professor Steven Jones were smeared and pushed from their positions when raising perfectly objective, evidence-based and rational questions regarding 9/11. Chemist and laboratory director Kevin Ryan was fired for blowing the whistle on his own company which had obfuscated evidence related to the building collapses that occurred on 9/11. To this day, and as Dr David Hughes has recently detailed in an academic journal, mainstream academia continues to self-censor and avoid substantial analysis of 9/11. 

Today, with Covid-19, we now appear to be seeing an unprecedented level of attacks on academics who have raised what are, again, perfectly objective, evidence-based and rational questions regarding the efficacy of lockdowns and the drive toward coerced/mandated injections. High profile and leading academics such as Sunetra Gupta (University of Oxford) and even Professor Robert Malone, inventor of mRNA technology used in the current Covid-19 injection, have had to battle concerted drives to discredit them, with, for example, Gupta being accused of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’. Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, an early critic of lockdown, has been accused of anti-Semitismin what appears to be a wildly ill-founded and crude attempt to discredit his expertise. The assault on professional autonomy appears to be accelerating rapidly with Professor Robert Malone declaring in October 2021 that ‘[p]hysicians who speak out are being actively hunted via medical boards and the press. They are trying to delegitimize and pick us off one by one … This is happening globally’. Something is indeed ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’.    

In David’s case we have seen how powerful actors, in this case the pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli government, have worked to organize and influence in order to build sufficient pressure on the University of Bristol so that they would take the extreme step of firing him. The campaign has been huge and drawn upon both mainstream media and celebrity influencers, as well as student bodies, in order to relentlessly misrepresent his work as anti-Semitic when, in truth, David’s views and work are based on a clear commitment against racism and discrimination. It is worth noting that an independent report from a QC, commissioned by the University of Bristol, concluded that Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech and had also explicitly determined his remarks were not anti-Semitic. And, in all of this controversy, the progressive destruction of the Palestinian people and the illegal actions of the state of Israel government continue unabated. Of course, it is this wider issue that those attacking David most want us all to forget. By allowing itself to play along with a nefarious campaign to smear and cancel David, the University of Bristol has become an important element in what are widely acknowledged to be crimes and atrocities. In doing so the University has clearly placed itself on the wrong side of history.  

Smear campaigns and character assassination, then, are nothing new; but they are now intensified to the point that academics such as David are being fired, and high-profile scientists even from the medical sciences are targeted. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression cannot flourish in this environment and nor can academia, especially when rational debate is being supplanted with propaganda and politicized science. Our ability to evaluate, debate, and speak truth to power are being fundamentally undermined and, along with that, so is any pretence that we live in a functioning democracy. That the University of Bristol has become an active participant in these nefarious processes should be a source of shame for all those who work there. For sure, the memories of my time there are forever tarnished and I will never again think fondly of my postgraduate days at Bristol nor speak in positive terms about the institution.   

David’s experience is part of a wider process across democracies whereby power has sought to wrestle control of both professional classes and publics. We will now see, in the coming years, who will prevail. Trust in institutions, whether government, mainstream media or academia, is likely to decline and rapidly so. And we are now living in an era when there are unprecedented opportunities for the development of new institutions in which freedom of expression and speaking truth to power are cherished, promoted and protected. The vibrant independent media scene and increasingly discredited mainstream media are good examples of these dynamics although, as Glenn Greenwald explains here, there is a concerted drive by political power and corporate media to regain control; I doubt they will ever succeed.

The pro-Israel lobby and the University of Bristol might think that they have secured a major victory in their campaign to silence critical debate on Israel, but they will not have the last word and, certainly, they will not have succeeded in silencing Professor Miller nor putting a stop to his essential work.  Despite the personal loss, and unlike the University of Bristol, Professor Miller will emerge stronger and more influential than ever. 

Dr Piers Robinson is co-Director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, convenor of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda and associated researcher with the Working Group on Propaganda and the 9/11 ‘Global War on Terror.

***A petition in support of Professor Miller can be signed here.***