Investigative journalism collective Bellingcat has launched a new documentary-style podcast, delving into their investigation of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) which was shot down in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
The weekly podcast looks in depth at the claims made by the Russian government in the aftermath of the disaster, Bellingcat’s work to uncover the truth about the crash, as well as including interviews with journalists and experts.
Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat and presenter of the podcast, said that the fifth anniversary of the disaster last month prompted him to do something different from their normal content.
"I wanted a fresh way to present it, so I thought a podcast documentary series would be a really successful way, and with the interest in podcast communities like true crime, it could help take this story to a brand new audience," he said.
Higgins explained that, upon hearing the news of the crash in 2014 and the Russian’s immediate denial of wrongdoing, he felt compelled to investigate further and challenge the narrative coming from the Russian government.
"I had previously done work with chemical attacks in Syria and a big one was on 21 August 2013 in Damascus, and what you saw there very quickly was Russia basically taking stuff they’d found on the Internet and repeating them," he said.
"I thought ‘I’ve seen this playbook before’, but we have all this evidence now. We have a very different situation in the east of Ukraine, with the way people were sharing information, so I thought this is going to be a big resource we can use to have an understanding of what was happening."
Over the following five years, Bellingcat has produced hundreds of reports and articles investigating and debunking claims and conspiracies to find out who was behind the disaster.
He said that open-source tools and collaboration with citizen journalists through social media, both on the ground in Ukraine and elsewhere, were essential in helping separate fact from fiction.
"There’s always been a big involvement of the online community, crowdsourcing and asking people to help with geolocation. I think that’s often one of the most powerful tools we have," he said.
While Bellingcat can afford to focus their efforts and resources on one subject for an extended period of time, it means working the mountains of material into a podcast series has proved a key challenge.
"One of the tricky parts has been the timeline of the narrative isn't often reflected by the timeline of events that unfolded," he explained.
"Something that was discovered in 2018 had an impact on our understanding of what we found in 2014, so getting a careful balance, without confusing the listener by jumping back and forth in time is very important.
"We try and keep this very solid narrative track, just moving in one direction without jumping back and forth too much in the timeline."
Bellingcat has also produced a guide to accompany each episode on their website, which features videos, images and links to their numerous reports for those who want to find out more about the individual points raised in the podcast.
Only 3 episodes in, and the Bellingcat Podcast on MH17 is already in the top ten UK podcasts. The new episode was just released, and you can catch up here: https://t.co/zV32hKQlaN pic.twitter.com/TA941zbnNL— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) July 31, 2019
But what else is there to say about MH17? Higgins indicated there is little left to be discovered through public investigation right now but there are still unanswered questions around what the chain of command was on the day of the disaster, why the MH17 was shot down, and who gave the order to fire.
The MH17 investigation has, however, not come without its risks. As recently as last week, Bellingcat was again targeted by a sophisticated phishing campaign directed at their secure ProtonMail accounts, linked to Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. This has made staff conscious about the threat they are up against.
"In a way, it’s nice to know they care because if they weren’t talking about you, then you probably won’t have that much impact," he said.
Looking forward, Higgins suggested that Bellingcat may produce podcasts about its other investigations, including the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
"We’ve also been contacted by a number of production companies who have been interested in creating a documentary series about our investigations, so it might be that Series two is actually on television, rather than a podcast."
We are discussing how to grow your audience beyond subscribers at Newsrewired on 27 November 2019 at Reuters in London. Head over to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets