The problem with Miller

The professor’s views on Zionism are only the tip of the iceberg, writes Jake Wallis Simons


G2YGFX London, UK. 4th June, 2016. David Miller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bath and co-founder of Public Interest Investigations, addresses the PREVENT, Islamophobia and Civil Liberties National Conference 2016 at Goldsmiths, University of London. Credit: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

March 04, 2021 11:36

David Miller, the provocative sociology professor from Bristol University, has repeatedly courted controversy with his remarks about Zionism and Jews. But a closer look at his career reveals that this is just part of his troubling far-left ideology.

Critics say that his research — which focuses on identifying supposed special interest networks and the influence he claims they have on society — lends itself to conspiratorial thinking.

Indeed, the sociology lecturer was an early member of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” (SPM), an academic body criticised for indulging in conspiracy theories. He has suggested that MI6 helped frame the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to falsely accuse him of using chemical weapons.

And he dismissed the government’s conclusion that Kremlin agents poisoned the Skripals in Salisbury as “British government misinformation”.

Amnesty International has described SPM members as “war-crime denialists”, adding that they are “just in the realm of conspiracy theorists”.The group has been widely criticised for spreading “pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by Russia”, though Prof Miller denies that it is biased.

Other SMP members include Vanessa Beeley, a pro-Assad blogger who shared claims that the Kristallnacht attacks were perpetrated by “Jewish-paid thugs”; Piers Robinson, who was accused of “whitewashing” Assad’s crimes and wrote a glowing review of a 9/11 truther book before leaving Sheffield University; and Professor Tim Hayward, who sparked outrage when he presented slides in a lecture at Edinburgh University that were regarded as pro-Assad propaganda.

Yet on Friday, nearly 200 academics from a range of different institutions signed an open letter in Prof Miller’s defence, presenting him as a victim of “false allegations”. The groundswell of support for the academic from across the higher education system — and the SMP members who teach in lecture theatres around the country — has left both Jewish and Syrian students feeling unwelcome in British universities.

This week, 500 academics hit back by signing a letter condemning Prof Miller, branding his comments “the latest manifestation of a long and ignoble tradition of conspiracy theories concerning Jewish individuals and institutions”. But Bristol University has yet to take firm action.

Prof Miller started his academic career in 1981, with a degree in biological science at the University of Glasgow. He became involed with the Glasgow Media Group, an organisation that analyses television news to claim bias in favour of powerful forces in society. In 2004, he changed disciplines and became professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde.

The lecturer has remained in the field ever since. He was appointed sociology professor at the University of Bath in 2012, and professor of political sociology at Bristol in 2018. There he has concentrated on identifying supposed networks of power.

In 2019, the academic co-authored an SMP paper claiming that international chemical weapons investigators had “nobbled” an inquiry to blame Assad’s forces for a chlorine gas attack in Douma, Syria. Writing on Twitter, Prof Miller suggested that Assad had been wrongly blamed for chemical attacks on his own people, alleging that some atrocities were likely “false flag” operations carried out by rebels with the aid of MI6. The victims, he said, had been “killed in a managed massacre to lay a false trail”.

Many of SMP’s claims that the Syrian regime was innocent of using chemical weapons were based on testimony from two former employees of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an independent international watchdog. Their credibility was dismissed by the organisation itself.

But Prof Miller told the JC: “Our work has thus far been fully, totally vindicated by the subsequent information released into the public domain. You should tell your readers this.”

He added: “Our work on alleged chemical weapons attacks has rested primarily upon a range of documents and primary sources.”

His contentious opinions do not stop there. After the Kremlin poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, Prof Miller insisted it was wrong to conclude that Putin was behind the attack, calling it “an extraordinary case study in the continuing relevance of understanding state propaganda in 21stcentury Britain. To support their lies, the British government employs thousands of people directly in propaganda and related activities,” he wrote in an essay on the Open Democracy website.

One of the SPM’s main targets is the White Helmets, a civilian search-and-rescue service launched by former British Army captain James Le Mesurier.

Vanessa Beeley, a prominent SMP member who branded the Charlie Hebdo attacks a “false flag”, labelled the White Helmets an “al Qaeda auxiliary” group. If the claims were true, she said, the humanitarian workers were a “legit target” for Assad’s butchers.

The blogger — who counts a meeting with the Syrian dictator as her “proudest moment” and has shared a platform with a convicted Holocaust denier — spends much time in Damascus, where she drives a pink Volkswagen Beetle with an image of the Syrian dictator on the rear window.

When questioned by the JC, Ms Beeley, who has been praised by Prof Miller, said she was victim of a “smear”. “It is frankly unimaginative and barely worth a response,” she said. “You will do what you are instructed to do regardless of my response.”

But perhaps the most toxic and high-profile part of the sociology professor’s worldview — and one that has featured prominently in his lectures on special interest groups and their supposed hold over society — is his attitude towards Zionists and Jews.

This is what made headlines when, during an online campaign event last month, Prof Miller launched a blistering attack on Jewish student groups at the university, asking how best to the “defeat the ideology of Zionism”.

His comments caused widespread fury. But in a subsequent email to the JC, he doubled down on his allegations, suggesting that the Bristol JSoc was “Israel’s pawn”.

These theories about the influence of a “Zionist movement” on British media and politics have spilled over into Prof Miller’s teaching, alarming Jewish students. In December 2020, the Community Security Trust (CST) published a report revealing Prof Miller’s PowerPoint presentation on the “Five Pillars of Islamophobia”.

The “pillars” ranged from the government and its counter-terrorism activities to the far-right, neo-conservatives and their associated think tanks. Also included were Jewish and Zionist groups, including the CST itself.

Jewish students lodged a complaint about the presentation, while the CST branded Bristol University an “utter disgrace” for failing to take any action.

In August, 2020, Professor Miller struck back, describing CST as “people who must only be faced and defeated”.

He went on to describe the group as “an organisation that exists to run point for a hostile foreign government in the UK… this is a straightforward story of influence peddling by a foreign state”.

The accusation came during a meeting organised by Labour Against the Witch Hunt, which was attended by expelled activists including Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein and former MP Chris Williamson.

Prof Miller has strong links with the Labour left. In May 2020, the academic was suspended from the Labour party after he said that Keir Starmer’s actions on antisemitism were affected by “money from the Zionist movement”. He quit a month later.

In his resignation statement, Prof Miller claimed he was the victim of “targeted harassment”, which revealed “the degree of influence that Zionist advocates and lobbyists for Israel have over disciplinary processes”.

An avowed Corbyn supporter, he is the director of the Campaign for Chris Williamson Ltd, set up to fund his legal challenge against his suspension from the party for alleged antisemitism. And the lecturer is a supporter of the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was suspended in 2016 after comments he made about Adolf Hitler supporting Zionism.

Addressing an event organised by a former UCL Student Union officer in November 2018, Prof Miller called Livingstone’s treatment “a disgrace”, adding: “I don’t think anything he said was historically inaccurate.”

He went on to brand most of the allegations of antisemitism within Labour as “false”, and criticised Jewish students who claimed that they were frightened on campus.

He said: “It’s absurd if Jews genuinely feel unsafe as a result of Palestinian rights. Well, then you’ve got to ask questions about who they are and what they’re talking about.”

He added: “[Israel] was by definition a racist endeavour, there’s no getting away from that. I say that in cognisance that to say something that I’ve just said is regarded by lots of people as being antisemitic. It isn’t.”

The professor has also been an active campaigner for the repeal of the Government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy. In 2016, he co-authored an article suggesting that “transnational neo-conservative and Zionist movements” had been shaping Britain’s counter-terror policies, which he believes are “Islamophobic”.

In January 2020, the sociology lecturer joined over 100 other academics and activists to sign a joint statement calling for the abolition of Prevent. It followed a report by the controversial pressure group Cage, which also called for Prevent’s abolition.

SPM is not the only fringe group to which the sociology lecturer belongs. He is a founder and director of Public Interest Investigations (PII), set up in 2005 to “promote greater understanding of the role of PR, propaganda and lobbying and of the power networks that they support”.

PII has received funding from alleged Islamist-linked organisations, including MEND and the Cordoba Foundation, which was branded a front for the Muslim Brotherhood by David Cameron in 2008.

PII is the umbrella organisation for the campaign group Spinwatch, which was set up to “investigate the way that the public relations industry and corporate and government propaganda distort public debate”. One 2016 report sponsored by Spinwatch, and co-authored by Prof Miller, warned that “the Israel lobby has increasingly sought to establish a firm presence in Brussels” and demanded “firm action by the EU’s governments”.



March 04, 2021 11:36

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