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Australian '60 Minutes' Investigation of MH-17 Lacked One Important Element - Actual Investigation

60 Minutes piece was known as a 'stand-upper', which is the TV practice of rushing a correspondent to a scene to read from a prepared script in support of a pre-ordained conclusion


This article originally appeared at Consortium News


Exclusive: Australia’s “60 Minutes” claimed to do an investigative report proving the anti-aircraft battery that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last July fled into Russia and pinning the atrocity on Russian President Putin. But the news show did a meaningless “stand-upper,” not an investigation, writes Robert Parry.

In TV journalism, there’s a difference between doing a “stand-upper” and doing an investigative report, although apparently Australia’s “60 Minutes” doesn’t understand the distinction. A “stand-upper” is the TV practice of rushing a correspondent to a scene to read some prepared script or state some preordained conclusion. An investigation calls for checking out facts and testing out assumptions.

That investigative component is especially important if you’re preparing to accuse someone of a heinous crime, say, mass murder, even if the accused is a demonized figure like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such charges should not be cast about casually. Indeed, it is the job of journalists to show skepticism in the face of these sorts of accusations. In the case of Russia, there’s the other possible complication that biased journalism and over-the-top propaganda could contribute to a nuclear showdown.

We are still living with the catastrophe of the mainstream media going with the flow of false claims about Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Now many of the same media outlets are parroting similar propaganda aimed at Russia without demonstrating independence and asking tough questions – although the consequences now could be even more catastrophic.

That is the context of my criticism of Australia’s “60 Minutes” handling of the key video evidence supposedly implicating Russia and Putin in the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. It is apparent from the show’s original, much-hyped presentation and a three-minute-plus follow-up that the show and its correspondent Michael Usher failed to check out the facts surrounding an amateur video allegedly showing a BUK anti-aircraft missile battery – missing one missile – after the MH-17 shoot-down.

In the days following that tragedy, killing 298 people, Ukrainian government officials promoted the video on social media as supposedly showing the BUK battery making its getaway past a billboard in Krasnodon, a town southeast of Luhansk, allegedly en route toward Russia. That claim primarily came from Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, considered one of the regime’s most right-wing figures who rose to power after a U.S.-back coup in February 2014.

From a journalistic standpoint, Avakov and the other Kiev authorities should have been considered biased observers. Indeed, they were among the possible suspects for the shoot-down. Moreover, the Russian government placed the video’s billboard in the town of Krasnoarmiis’k, northwest of Donetsk and then under Ukrainian government control. To support that claim, the Russians cited a local address on the billboard.

Further, the German intelligence agency, the BND, has challenged some of the images provided by the Ukrainian government as “manipulated,” according to a report in Der Spiegel, which added that the BND had concluded that the eastern Ukrainian rebels had obtained the BUK missile battery not from Russia but by capturing it from Ukrainian government stockpiles. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Germans Clear Russia in MH-17 Case.”]

While it’s not clear which images the BND had debunked, this reference to the Kiev regime’s alleged manipulation of photos should have added another layer of doubt for the sleuths from Australia’s “60 Minutes.”

Yet, based on what “60 Minutes” has revealed about its recent “investigation,” Usher displayed little skepticism. He consulted with British blogger Eliot Higgins to get a traffic-camera shot and coordinates of an intersection in the Luhansk area showing several billboards, which Higgins suspected was the location of the “getaway” video.

So, by traveling to Luhansk, Usher and his crew could have performed an important function by matching up the shot from the video with the scene of the intersection, either confirming or dismissing the hypothesis.

In the initial program, you see the “60 Minutes” team doing exactly that on some videos of lesser significance by superimposing some of its own shots over amateur footage. However, when it came to the key piece of evidence – the “getaway” video – the program deviated from that pattern. Instead of matching anything up, Usher just did a “stand-upper” in front of one of the billboards.

Usher boldly accused the Russians of lying about the location of the billboard and asserted that he and his team had found the real location. Usher gestured to the billboards on the intersection in rebel-controlled Luhansk. He then accused Putin of responsibility for the 298 deaths.

But none of Usher’s images matched up with the “getaway” video. The scene in the video was clearly different from the scene shown by Usher. After several people sent me the segment on Australia’s “60 Minutes,” I watched it and wrote an article noting the obvious problems in the scene as presented.

Image icon Screen-shot-2015-05-18-at-4.47.08-PM.png
A screen shot of the roadway where the suspected BUK missile battery passes after the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. (Image from Australian “60 Minutes” program)
Image icon Screen-shot-2015-05-18-at-4.48.26-PM.png
Correspondent Michael Usher of Australia’s “60 Minutes” claims to have found the billboard visible in a video of a BUK missile launcher after the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. (Screen shot from Australia’s “60 Minutes”)

My point was not to say where the video was shot. As far as I know, it might even have been shot in Luhansk. My point was that Usher and his team had failed to do their investigative duty to verify the location as precisely as possible. Under principles of English-based law — and of Western journalism — there is a presumption of innocence until sufficiently corroborated evidence is presented. The burden of proof rests on the prosecutors or, in this case, the journalists. It’s not enough to guess at these things.

But Usher and his team treated their job like they were just doing a “stand-upper” – putting Usher in front of some billboards in Luhansk to deliver his conclusions (or those of Higgins) – not as an investigative assignment, which would have skeptically examined the assumptions behind citing that location as the scene in the video.

Usher offered no details about how he and his team had reached their conclusion on where the video was shot beyond referencing their meetings with blogger Higgins, who operates out of a house in Leicester, England.

Though there was no dispute that the images of the “getaway” video and Usher’s “stand-upper” didn’t match, an irate “60 Minutes” producer released a statement denouncing me and defending the show. The statement did, however, acknowledge that the team had not tried to replicate the scene in the “getaway” video, saying:

“We opted to do our piece to camera as a wide shot showing the whole road system so the audience could get the layout and see which way the Buk was heading. The background in our piece to camera looks different to the original Buk video simply because it was shot from a different angle. The original video was obviously shot from one of the apartments behind, through the trees — which in in summer were in full leaf.”

Those claims, however, were more excuses than real arguments. The wide shot did nothing to help Australian viewers get a meaningful sense of the “layout” in Luhansk. There was also no map or other graphic that could have shown where the apartments were and how that would have explained the dramatic discrepancies between the “getaway” video and the “wide shot.”

After the public statement, there were other rumblings that I would be further put down in a follow-up that “60 Minutes” was preparing. I thought the update might present out-takes of the crew seeking access to the apartments or at least lining up a shot from that angle as best they could – you know, investigative stuff.

Instead, when the update aired, it consisted of more insults – references to “Kremlin stooges” and “Russian puppets” – and a reprise of earlier parts of the program that I had not disputed. When the update finally got to the key “getaway” scene, Usher went into full bluster mode but again failed to present any serious evidence that his crew had matched up anything from the original video to what was found in Luhansk.

First, Usher pulled a sleight of hand by showing a traffic-camera shot of the intersection apparently supplied by Higgins and then matching up those landmarks to show that the crew had found the same intersection. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether the “getaway” video was taken in that intersection. In other words, Usher was trying to fool his audience by mixing together two different issues.

Image icon Screen-shot-2015-05-26-at-2.44.35-PM.png
Screen shot from Australia’s “60 Minutes” update on its story about the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. According to host Michael Usher, the image was taken from a traffic camera shortly before the MH-17 shoot-down on July 17, 2014.

Sure, Usher and his team had found the intersection picked out by Higgins as the possible scene, but so what? The challenge was to match up landmarks from the “getaway” video to that intersection. On that point, Usher cited only one item, a non-descript utility pole that Usher claimed looked like a utility pole in the “getaway” video.

However, the problems with that claim were multiple. First, utility poles tend to look alike and these two appear to have some differences though it’s hard to tell from the grainy “getaway” video. But what’s not hard to tell is that the surroundings are almost entirely different. The pole in the “getaway” video has a great deal of vegetation to its right while Usher’s pole doesn’t.

And then there’s the case of the missing house. The one notable landmark in that section of the “getaway” video is a house to the pole’s left. That house does not appear in Usher’s video, although “60 Minutes” partially obscured the spot where the house should be by inserting an inset, thus adding to a viewer’s confusion.

Image icon Screen-shot-2015-05-26-at-2.43.38-PM.png
A screen shot from the so-called “getaway” video supposedly taken shortly after MH-17 was shot down showing the road that the suspected BUK anti-aircraft missile battery was taking.
Image icon Screen-shot-2015-05-26-at-2.42.46-PM.png
A screen shot from Australia’s “60 Minutes” update supposedly showing a utility pole in the “getaway” video and matching it up with a poll in an intersection of Luhansk. Note that the inset obscures the spot where a house appeared on the original video.

Yet, one has to think that if Usher’s crew had found the house – or for that matter, anything besides a utility pole that looked like something from the video – they would have highlighted it.

Some of the show’s defenders are now saying that the pole was shot from a different angle, too, so it’s not fair for me to say it doesn’t line up. But, again, that’s not the point. It’s “60 Minutes” that is making an accusation of mass murder, so it has the responsibility to present meaningful evidence to support that charge. It can’t start whining because someone notes that its evidence is faulty or non-existent.

So, here’s the problem: As angry as “60 Minutes” is with me for noting the flaws in its report, it was Usher’s job to check out whether the “getaway” video matched with the intersection identified by Higgins as the possible scene in Luhansk. Based on what was shown in the first show and then in the update, Usher’s team failed miserably.

That, however, doesn’t mean that the video wasn’t shot someplace nearby or somewhere completely different. It just means that Usher and his producers performed irresponsibly.

I recall once when I was a young Associated Press reporter in Providence, Rhode Island, I did a routine police story by calling authorities in a town elsewhere in the state. My dispatch then was sent out to AP member newspapers and broadcast outlets in Rhode Island. That night, when I got home, I turned on the 11 o’clock news and noticed a local TV correspondent reporting from the town on the same story.

I paid close attention in case he had found something that I had missed. But the correspondent simply read the AP dispatch, exactly as I had written it. He had done a “stand-upper,” using the town as simply a visual backdrop. There was nothing wrong with that; he had every right to read the AP copy.

The difference in the case of Usher and “60 Minutes” is that they were presenting their work as an original investigation, not simply a “stand-upper” of a report done by an English blogger. As an investigative report, they should have done all they could to check out and, either, verify or disprove the blogger’s findings.

Instead, on the most important point in dispute – one that could push the world closer to a nuclear confrontation and conceivably annihilation – Usher and his show traveled halfway around the world to do a “stand-upper.”

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.


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