Good luck with that

‘What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade?’ asks Christina Ruiz in the Art Newspaper, reporting that ‘Experts at London symposium warn against misinformation and lack of evidence’. About time too. Together with a small number of like-minded colleagues (they know who they are), I have spent the past 18 months trying to argue that same point, though to little avail. As I have written elsewhere, editors want to hear about Daesh making millions of dollars from the trade, they do not want to hear that its financial accounting is difficult to know, or that other combatant groups might be profiting too. It has been hard to secure a hearing for more evidence-based and less sensationalist accounts of the problem.

The inflated claims of the importance of the antiquities trade to Daesh financing seem to have originated in a July 2014 Guardian article, which was widely understood to have reported that Daesh had made $36 million from antiquities trading in one area of Syria. That particular reading of the article has never been confirmed, but it triggered a series of sensationalising claims about the importance of the trade to Daesh. Egged on by some professional experts who should have known better, the media was quick to pick up and run with the story. By February 2015, one headline was reporting somewhat improbably on ‘The ISIS smugglers making up to $1million per item selling ancient antiquities looted from the rubble of Syria’, and in May 2015 it was unreliably reported to the UN that Daesh was earning ‘as much as $100 million annually from antiquities trading’.

But the real news is not misinformation about Daesh’s role in the illicit antiquities trade. That is old if unpopular news. The real news is that – hopefully – a new sense of reality is grabbing hold of news reporting. Perhaps in time it will prompt us to reflect upon what went before, and ask if the sensationalised claims made about Daesh and the antiquities trade played some part in encouraging the violent and declarative destructions of archaeological heritage that followed. Back in late 2013, before most people outside of Iraq had heard of Daesh, or ISIS for that matter, a forward-thinking member of the Iraqi culture ministry warned me of what was happening in western Iraq, and that the situation there was spinning out of control. How right he was. He also spoke of the threat Daesh posed to cultural heritage and believed that loud but ineffective denunciations would only encourage them to commit further acts of plunder and destruction. He counselled cool heads and calm response. ‘Good luck with that’, I might have replied. What we got instead was a cacophony of moral outrage, sometimes verging on hysteria, but very little constructive action.

Public policy and the media

On his blog Gates of Nineveh, Christopher Jones has asked critically whether media coverage is encouraging archaeological looting in Syria. He concludes not. He argues convincingly that looting was well entrenched before increased media reporting through 2013 and particularly 2014.

Another question might involve the relationship between media coverage and the implementation of policy initiatives. To look at that question, I have adopted and extended Christopher’s methodology, collecting a dataset of articles from the first 60 pages of search results on Google News for keywords ‘archaeology looting Syria’ through to the end of 2015. The results are shown on the histogram. I have also indicated by means of red markers the dates of major policy actions. The actions are:

UntitledSeptember 2013: ICOM Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

December 2013: EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013.

March 2014: UNESCO/EU Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project.

August 2014: ASOR/US DoS Syria Cultural Heritage Initiative.

February 2015: United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199.

September 2015: ASOR/US DoS Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

It is clear that policy actions have become more frequent as media coverage has increased. To some extent, this must be because media reporting of policy actions increases the overall coverage. But there is also the possibility that policy is responding to media concerns rather than to what is actually happening on the ground. This is worrying because media reporting is known to be unreliable – biased by the commercial and political interests of proprietors, editors and other opinion formers. Fact checking is in short supply and there is a lot of secondhand reporting. Sam Hardy on his blog Conflict Antiquities has also spoken critically of this debilitating ‘churnalism’. If policy is reacting to the unreliable perspective of media reporting instead of to actual facts on the ground, we should not be surprised when it struggles to make any kind of impact. This short study cannot definitively prove that policy is media-driven, but it does suggest the possibility deserves more rigorous consideration.