Inside The Telegraph’s ‘discredited’ Beirut airport Hezbollah weapons allegations

The Daily Telegraph, a prominent newspaper in the UK, recently released a report alleging that the Iran-backed Lebanese movement, Hezbollah, was storing advanced weaponry at the Beirut international airport.

The report immediately caused outrage in Lebanon, with the country’s transport minister staunchly denying the claims and inviting journalists and diplomats to tour the airport the next morning to see for themselves.

Subsequent consequences of the report were dire—many analysts said the claim that Hezbollah was storing weapons in civilian infrastructure could provide a justification for Israel to bomb the civilian facility in the event of a more expansive war.

Israel has repeatedly bombed Beirut’s airport during times of war, the last of which was in 2006 during heavy fighting with Hezbollah, as part of its siege strategy on Lebanon.

The article featured a quote by the Israeli military saying: “Hezbollah’s strategy to hide weapons and operate from civilian neighbourhoods stems from its intentions to draw the IDF to target these civilian areas in times of escalation.”

The claims come at a precarious time for Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah are inching closer to a full-scale war, as nine months of cross-border clashes seemingly coming ever-closer to a climax.

What started as Hezbollah lobbing rockets in support of Gaza and Israel firing indiscriminately has gradually inched closer into a major conflict, so far displacing around 100,000 people on either side and killing hundreds, the vast majority being Lebanese citizens.

Israel in recent weeks has said if diplomacy does not resolve the cross-border conflict, it will launch a wider military operation in Lebanon with observers and journalists pouring over every instance of news, looking for a sign that a full-blown war is coming.

In the midst of this came The Telegraph report, printed without a byline and without a single named source to back its claims.

The Lebanese government was quick to respond to The Telegraph article, calling the claims “ridiculous” and announcing it would sue the paper. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which was quoted in the original version of the article, issued a statement claiming that it was not contacted for a quote.

In response to the criticisms, The Telegraph pulled the article off the front page, changed its headline, changed the introductory paragraphs of the article to reflect the denials, and removed mention of the IATA. It did not give notice of a retraction—the common practice when newspapers issue a correction, notifying readers of the reason behind the change.

Journalists familiar with The Telegraph indicated that Sunday’s story was indicative of a greater decline in the quality of its coverage and commitment to adhere to traditional news standards especially on international affairs and the Middle East.

The Telegraph did not respond to a request for comment by The New Arab.

The Telegraph: No longer ‘a paper of record’?

The Telegraph was once considered a “paper of record” in the United Kingdom, alongside The Times. Though it was known to have conservative leanings, the paper’s coverage was respected for its journalistic standards and relatively balanced coverage. Its reporters were backed by the newspaper’s impressive brand and history, 168 years old to date.

The gravity with which the Lebanese government took the article reflects some weight taken to the historical British broadsheet’s claims.

However, The Telegraph is not what it once was, according to many of its critics. 

“Lebanon thinks that this story was written by the same paper from 30 or 40 years ago … serious foreign news doesn’t really get a look any more; it’s mostly scaremongering,” a British journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East claimed to TNA, asking not to be named.

The paper’s Middle East coverage has suffered due to an alleged lack of focus on foreign news, and today, does not have a single full-time correspondent in the region.

A former correspondent at the paper said that the lack of news staff is compounded by an editorial desk that have little hard news experience, particularly on the Middle East.

“You have editors without the media literacy to be able to interrogate a story to see if it’s plausible. You don’t need to be a regional expert to read that story and see that is fishy,” Campbell MacDiarmid, the former Beirut correspondent for The Telegraph who reported from the Middle East for 12 years for various outlets, told TNA.

The lack of a byline hampered journalists’ efforts to uncover how the story was reported and assess the veracity of its claims.

Bylines are not only designed to give authors of an article credit, but also to ensure accountability for claims within, and are typically only forsaken for major stories when there is a security risk to the author.

After numerous requests by journalists and the Lebanese government for the newspaper to name its sources for the claims, the article’s author nor The Telegraph clarified.

“Getting it wrong doesn’t really matter in this environment, as you see, they just write over the old story. There’s no accountability for publishing something with so many shortcomings,” MacDiarmid said.