Discredited BBC reporter attempts to intimidate EI in bizarre interview

30 August 2012

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Paul Martin upon his release in Gaza City, March 2010.

(Wissam Nassar / MaanImages)

In an extraordinary face-to-face interview with The Electronic Intifada, a BBC journalist has defended his record after an investigation last month drew attention to fabrications in his stories from a decade ago.

During the interview, freelancer Paul Martin tried to intimidate The Electronic Intifada into a retraction, and to stop looking into his past: “I’ve been criticized by all sides, and therefore I think that my track record over 35 years of reporting all round the world would compare and contrast very well with your reporting for The Electronic Intifada.”

“Why does The Electronic Intifada attack every single western news organization?” he complained, reeling off a long list of examples. “Admit what you are: a bunch of propagandists, don’t attack the other media … I’m a journalist, you’re a propagandist … You find two things that you think are ‘questionable’… and you want to try and ruin my whole 35 years of excellent coverage,” he said.

The “two things” in question are stories about Palestine and Lebanon from 2002. Martin was discovered to have written under the fake Arabic name “Sayed Anwar” and attributed a fabricated quotation to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, a major Lebanese military-political group.

The Electronic Intifada repeatedly asked Martin to specify what he claimed was incorrect about the report. He denied being a hoaxer or a fabricator, but would only say “just about everything” in The Electronic Intifada’s exposé needed retracting.

BBC stonewalls

Martin’s editors at the BBC have refused to comment on the current status of his next film about Gaza.

Friends Under Fire is a documentary set to be the follow-up to Martin’s previous film Rocket Man Under Fire. Both concern a former member of an armed Palestinian faction in the Gaza Strip who left a Fatah-affiliated brigade in 2009 because he opposed violence. In the course of making these films, Martin was arrested by Hamas authorities in Gaza who accused him of being a spy for Israel — a charge Martin said was ridiculous.

BBC World commissioning editor Mary Wilkinson ignored several emails, a voicemail and two messages left with a colleague who answered her direct line. Newsnight editor Peter Rippon did not answer email or phone messages.

Martin, whose original surname is Cainer, denied he was abandoning Friends Under Fire, insisting it would be shown on BBC World: “it is going ahead … it’s being scheduled and it will be shown … the BBC will broadcast the film.”

Asked if Mary Wilkinson had definitely commissioned it, Martin answered, “She has commissioned it.” The Electronic Intifada saw a rough cut of the film at a public screening last month, and afterward challenged Martin on his 2002 articles.

When asked why Wilkinson seemed reluctant to talk to The Electronic Intifada, Martin said: “I don’t think she’d want to speak to you … Quite frankly, who would want to speak to you?”

But the BBC’s relationship with Martin is deeper than previously thought.

What is Martin’s relationship with the BBC?

Multiple episodes of the BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service program From Our Own Correspondent feature Paul Martin’s reports from the Middle East, going back as far as January 2008. The web page for at least one of these programs describes him as “The BBC’s Paul Martin” (“The Egyptian-Israeli relationship,” BBC News, 21 May 2009).

As reported in the first exposé, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen had previously told The Electronic Intifada in an email that: “As far as I know Mr. Martin has never worked for BBC News” but had done freelance work for Newsnight.

In light of these episodes, Bowen responded in another email that: “I’m told by BBC management that Paul Martin is a freelance [journalist] who contributes to many news organisations. He is not employed by BBC News though he has done work for some programmes. If they called him ‘the BBC’s …’ they were wrong. I had no idea he had a pen name” (ellipsis in original).

Asked if the BBC would continue its freelance relationship with Martin, Bowen said: “I suggest you approach the editors who have employed him in the past. BBC News as far as I know is not hiring him.” Editors Wilkinson and Rippon did not comment.

Martin said: “My relationship [with the BBC] continues as it always has been since 1983 when I was no longer on a contract with them, I have always been a freelance [journalist] who contributes to the BBC on a very regular basis on a number of different programs across a number of platforms. I have a good relationship with the BBC and I’m very happy to have had one and I’ve been highly respected by them for many many years … All parts of the BBC.”

Including BBC News? “No, BBC News itself it not my main client,” he responded.

Martin is also known to work as a sports journalist. While evading The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment during research for the first article, one of the reasons he gave for not being able to answer questions was that he was busy covering a cricket match. At the screening of Friends Under Fire he also mentioned a past contract reporting on tennis matches for the BBC.

He has also worked for the UK’s Channel 4 News. A report on their website from around the time Martin was arrested by Hamas in Gaza says he “worked as a contributor for Channel 4 News during the Israeli offensive in the Palestinian Gaza Strip in January 2009” (“British journalist arrested in Gaza,” updated 15 February 2010).

Who is Paul Martin?

During the interview with The Electronic Intifada, Martin produced a British passport in the name of “Paul Martin,” and a South African ID document in the name of “Paul Cainer.”

He said that while Cainer was his original surname, he legally changed it in the UK not long after being forced to flee South Africa in 1977 to avoid conscription. Martin said he had been an anti-apartheid activist and was attempting to avoid South African agents in London. After the end of the apartheid era, his old ID with his original name was returned: “I use it sometimes, and I use this [name Paul Martin] sometimes … nobody except you has ever made a fuss about it.”

The Electronic Intifada previously found a photograph from a June 1972 edition of South African newspaper The Cape Times of “Paul Cainer” as a young student in a wheelchair after being beaten up by police while protesting against apartheid.

Although he uses the name “Paul Martin” in his journalistic work in Britain, his full original name is Paul Martin Cainer.

In 2010, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that “Israel’s Government Press Office … said it had issued a press card for a Cainer Paul Martin, who also has US and South African passports” (“Hamas faces calls to release British reporter,” 15 February 2010).

Commenting on the AFP report in a follow-up email, Martin said: “I have never had a US passport … The fact that the [Israeli] press office, when I was ‘arrested,’ immediately mentioned my full name as Paul Martin Cainer (or Cainer Paul Martin — they sometimes put what they think is a surname first) should show you it was never any sort of ‘secret.’”

The Electronic Intifada was unable to locate any Israeli government press release that used the name “Paul Martin Cainer.”

As reported in the original Electronic Intifada exposé, in 2002 Martin used the name “Sayed Anwar” and posed as a journalist reporting from Bethlehem for The Washington Times in at least two stories (“Exiled Palestinian militants ran two-year reign of terror,” 13 May 2002).

Both Martin and the paper later had to admit there existed no such person.

“Sayed Anwar” — the journalist who did not exist

Tim Palmer of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation told The Electronic Intifada it was he who first uncovered Martin’s use of a fake Palestinian byline in 2002.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, Palmer “described how, after numerous calls to various staff at the [Washington] Times, he was informed that Anwar was in fact a nom de plume being used by reporter Paul Martin, who filed his stories from London” (“Never spoil a good story with the facts,” 25 July 2002).

During the interview, Martin continued to stand by the stories written under the name “Sayed Anwar.”

He maintains that a footnote disclosing the use of a pseudonym was cut by mistake from the first article and “not used in the second article.” This contradicts earlier claims by Martin that only one article was ever written under the byline “Sayed Anwar,” after The Electronic Intifada’s investigation found evidence it had been used at least twice.

Martin’s account also contradicts that of his own editor at The Washington Times who admitted to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post that “A legitimate case could be made that we at least should have informed the reader” that a pseudonym was being used (“Journalists See An Alarming Trend In Terror Warnings,” 27 May 2002).

Fabricated quote

A few months after the “Sayed Anwar” stories, the front page of The Washington Times screamed: “Hezbollah calls for global attacks; Wants to export suicide bombings.” This was a new Paul Martin story, written under his own byline. But it turned out to contain at least one fabricated quotation attributed to Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah: “I encourage Palestinians to take suicide bombings worldwide. Don’t be shy about it” (4 December 2002).

The story conveniently appeared at a time when the Canadian government was considering a ban on the Lebanese armed resistance group’s political-social branch. But Neil Macdonald of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation conducted an extensive search of the TV archives in Lebanon and concluded that Nasrallah had never said it, or other quotes in the story.

“I watched the videos. I watched the speeches,” Macdonald told The Toronto Star at the time. “I have done more research than maybe the Canadian government has done, certainly more than Paul Martin has done … He came up with three quotes, one of which, to be charitable, was a gross mistranslation, and the other two were never even uttered” (“Curious silence greets discredited Hezbollah tale,” 13 December 2002).

A Lexis-Nexis database search for the “don’t be shy” quotation found it was first used by Stewart Ain in the 29 November edition of The Jewish Week (“Israel’s Might Examined After Attacks In Kenya …”). The quotation was unsourced.

Paul Martin demands an interview with The Electronic Intifada

On 22 August, taking place at the request of Martin himself, the interview itself was bizarre. It seemed to be another attempt to intimidate and discourage further revelations about Martin from being published by The Electronic Intifada.

After declining to speak on the phone on 17 August, Martin sent an email three hours later which said: “I am willing, as I told you by phone, to have a face-to-face meeting with you, on the record, in which all questions can be asked and answered.”

Martin added: “This should take place as fast as we can: I am available all of Sunday, maybe early Monday.” This reporter offered to meet on Monday. On Sunday, 19 August, at 12:53am Martin replied: “Cannot do it Monday now” and insisted on meeting Sunday.

After further such equivocation, an ultimatum was laid down to Martin: “I will be at the British Library café tomorrow morning [Wednesday] 10am. If you’re serious about wanting to meet me, you’ll be there. If not, it’s your loss.”

Martin showed up early with two friends in tow, although this had not been mentioned in advance. One identified himself as a freelance cameraman who said he had done work for Al Jazeera, who filmed the whole interview — also not agreed to in advance. Paul Martin said he was making a documentary, something this reporter stated on camera he did not consent to appearing in.

The second friend was Richard Dove, a former executive producer for Al Jazeera English’s People and Power documentary strand, who said he had commissioned several films from Martin, and his work was “not challenged by anyone … it was journalistically full of integrity.” Dove also said he had worked in the BBC for nine years, including on Newsnight.

Martin once produced a segment for Newsnight which accused Palestinians of hiding explosives in a Gaza mosque. What did he think of former Irish army colonel Desmond Travers’ description of this as “propaganda”? Dove got agitated and intervened: “Newsnight doesn’t publish propaganda! Absolute nonsense, I worked for Newsnight,” he scoffed.

BBC World’s Mary Wilkinson, who did not reply to The Electronic Intifada’s queries, has also worked for Newsnight in the past, as a deputy editor.

Martin chimed in with Dove: “Newsnight is a highly reputable organization, far more reputable if I may say so than The Electronic Intifada.” Later on he said: “why should Newsnight or anyone else be concerned about what you think about my opinion?”

Martin tried to turn it into his interview, and made several such dismissive remarks: “your operation is a propagandist operation.” He later described The Electronic Intifada as “a puny organization.” He also claimed he was going to do a story about The Electronic Intifada and its “highly dubious operation.”

Why the focus on “this Palestine that you’re referring to: what about Syria? … Why are you focusing on this little tiny state [sic] called Palestine when there are people dying all over the place around the Middle East? What is this obsession you’ve got?”

“My extensive research … on how EI operates”

That Martin wanted to avoid the spotlight being cast on him was also clear from threats he made minutes before The Electronic Intifada’s initial exposé on him was published.

In an email sent to co-founder Ali Abunimah, Martin demanded The Electronic Intifada publish a forthcoming article he claimed would “rebut all the criticisms that Asa Winstanley apparently has made.” The email was sent at precisely 20:27 UTC on Thursday, 26 July.

Martin threatened to begin a smear campaign against The Electronic Intifada in retaliation: “It would be a great pity should my reputation be in any way attacked on a website controlled by you. Naturally, in order to reduce the effect of this libel [sic] some of my extensive research, already begun (protectively) would focus inter alia on how EI operates and the companies to which it is linked.”

At precisely 20:35 UTC the article was published.

Abunimah later replied to the email: “We have full confidence in Asa’s reporting. He contacted you directly to offer you the opportunity to speak on record, and you declined to do that. Your attempt to blackmail us into publishing your response will not succeed, and because you have attempted to use blackmail we will naturally not consider publishing any piece from you now or in the future.”

Later, during the interview, Martin claimed: “you did not mention in your article, I had offered to write a full article rebutting your claims well before you wrote it” (emphasis added).

Martin may be referring to a mysterious email sent to Abunimah two days before, with the subject line “Please call.” It read: “Dear Ali, Please could you call [number redacted] urgently to discuss potentially an excellent story? Best wishes, Andrew Jackson of Worldnf.” World News and Films is the brand Martin uses for his documentaries (although it has been dissolved as a limited company).

Martin did not reply to an email for the purposes of this article asking if an Andrew Jackson worked for him.

Threatening to sue other journalists

One pattern that emerges when looking at Martin’s past is a pretense of litigiousness. However, since the facts have simply not been on his side, he never seems to follow through with actual lawsuits.

In 2002, Martin threatened to sue the Canadian journalists who discredited his story about Nasrallah. But Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star confirmed to The Electronic Intifada over email that Martin never got as far as suing. She said Martin merely issued a notice of libel, which ultimately went nowhere.

Martin now claims this was because although “they tried to libel me in my opinion” he was advised that “we would probably win, but it would take a huge amount of time, energy and money … I considered that my reputation wasn’t seriously affected, because nobody really believed that this issue was a serious one.”

At various points in the interview, he also hinted at legal action against The Electronic Intifada: “lawsuits: yes. You might be interested in lawsuits … you’re basing your hope that I’m not going to sue you [on his previous failure to sue].” Towards the end of the interview he said: “don’t write anything more that’s gonna get you into even deeper trouble.”

Complaints to the BBC

Meanwhile, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has asked the BBC to reopen a previous complaint about a 2010 Newsnight segment produced by Martin in light of the new facts brought to the fore by The Electronic Intifada’s investigation, the PSC’s Amena Saleem said.

In the Newsnight report, former British army officer Tim Collins claimed without proof that a mosque in Gaza had been used to store munitions. The aim was to cast doubt on the Goldstone report, the landmark investigation into Israel’s 2008-09 assault on the Gaza Strip.

Activist Diane Langford wrote to the BBC’s head of editorial standards at the end of July, asking them to reopen the previously-dismissed complaint in light of the new evidence. Langford says she has yet to hear back from the public broadcaster. Langford has also published the original complaint on her blog (“Newsnight complaint update,” 27 May 2010). This is typical of the BBC’s complaints procedure, which can sometimes take months to process.

Desmond Travers, the retired Irish colonel who co-authored the Goldstone report, responded to to the initial The Electronic Intifada exposé: “We must I believe revisit Lt. Col. Collins’ motives for making such provocative and unproven statements. In tandem with such a revisit, we must also reexamine the BBC’s bias on issues from the Middle East.”

Martin’s change of heart regarding The Electronic Intifada

Asked why The Electronic Intifada made him so angry, Martin stated: “The problem with the Internet is that even an organization such as yourself — which is a propaganda organization — has an Internet presence. It then gets picked up … very soon some people might even start to believe the rubbish that you write.”

But back at the rough-cut screening, Martin said of the The Electronic Intifada: “By the way I think it’s an excellent website.”

What changed?

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and worked in occupied Palestine. His website is: www.winstanleys.org.