UPDATE 1: In July 2014 BBC Worldwide began blocking You Tube copies of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’. Other editions of Panorama remain unaffected. On 1 August 2014 BBC Worldwide provided this explanation. The BBC iPlayer version of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ is available in the UK only until 30 September 2014. After that date please refer to this copy (downloadable here) which adheres to the timings given below.
On 29 August 2013, as the UK House of Commons vote on possible military intervention in Syria was closing, BBC News at Ten broadcast a report by Panorama reporter Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway which claimed that a Syrian fighter jet had dropped an incendiary bomb containing a “napalm-like” substance – possibly thermite – on the playground of an Aleppo school.
The report contained harrowing scenes of teenage boys and young men, their skin apparently in tatters, racing into what the report describes as “a basic hospital funded by handouts” to be treated for burns. In one particularly disturbing scene a tableau of young men writhe, drool and groan, seemingly in great distress.
On further viewings, however, this scene in particular is strikingly odd. The young men are quiet and mostly static until spotting the camera upon them, at which point the central figure (Mohammed Asi) raises his arm and the group instantly becomes animated and begins groaning in unison.
Mohammed Asi begins to sway and lurch, the boy in the black vest suddenly pitches onto his side, the boy in red raises his head and peers quizzically around, while the boy in the white shirt rises effortlessly to his feet. As the camera pulls back a boy in a yellow ‘Super 9′ t-shirt rises from the floor, flailing his head and torso and rolling his eyes as a team of medics sweeps dramatically in.
This and other questionable elements in this brief report prompted my first letter to the BBC on 4 October 2013.
While I was completing this letter the BBC broadcast a follow-up news report on 30 September 2013, shortly prior to the transmission of the full Panorama programme Saving Syria’s Children the same evening.
Comparing the 29 August and 30 September reports a discrepancy in the soundtrack was apparent. In the first, “Dr Rola” (her face covered by a mask) had referred to “napalm”, in the second she said “chemical weapon”. I commented on this in the PS to my letter. The audio editing was subsequently discussed by former UK ambassador and political blogger Craig Murray here and here. Speculation on this point has since been widespread (see for example this RT report). My own concern remains on the evidence of wider fabrication in the hospital scenes.
The BBC’s initial response of 2 December 2013 dealt largely with the editing of Dr Rola Hallam’s words. My correspondence with the BBC continues (see here and below). Some of the points that have arisen are as follows.
Date of the alleged incident
The BBC and most other reports state the events occurred on Monday 26 August 2013.
In an article for Foreign Policy Dr Saleyha Ahsan, one of the British doctors featured in Saving Syria’s Children, gave the date of the alleged attack as 27 August, a highly surprising error for a journalist to make, especially considering her statement that “out of all the war zones I have ever been to, today has been by far the worst”.
In a 3 October article Dr Ahsan wrote “This month, Dr. Hallam and I found ourselves in a school that had been hit by a napalm-like bomb”. This seems intended to suggest that Drs Ahsan and Hallam were present at the school as it was allegedly being attacked, rather than at the hospital treating the alleged victims; “this month” is also odd as Dr Ahsan claims elsewhere to have visited the school two days after the attack, i.e. on Wednesday 28 August .
A series of eighteen photographs showing two of the alleged victims originally appeared on the website Demotix dated 25 August. Demotix has since altered the date of the photographs to 26 August. When the images were dated 25 August, Ian Pannell denied that they featured victims seen in Panorama; after the date was changed, the BBC acknowledged that they did.
Other discrepancies abound. For instance this report of the Violations Documentation Center in Syria states that the attack on the school took place at 2.00 pm; Ian Pannell has stated the attack happened “at around 5.30 pm at the end of the school day”.
Conflicting accounts of the first victims
At 31 minutes in Saving Syria’s Children Dr Ahsan is shown attending to the first alleged victim – a baby, accompanied by his father. Ian Pannell’s narration at this point states “no-one’s quite sure what’s happened.” Only subsequently do the “dozens” of other alleged victims begin to arrive. This sequence of events is portrayed in several other accounts, including others given by Dr Ahsan.
Interviewer: “Those scenes are hard to listen to but even harder to watch. Can you tell us what you saw that day?”
Dr Ahsan: “It was quite a quiet day and I was beginning to think ‘ooh gosh I’ve really got my timing wrong ‘cause what’s the point in me being here if I’m not going to be helping out?’ and then suddenly, standing to my left I just saw this rather strange vision I ju… I I felt as if I was having an out of body experience because I couldn’t quite work out what I was seeing, there was a boy, covered in this strange white dust, had wide staring eyes, his clothes were hanging off him, and he had this huge laceration on the side of his face, and his skin looked like it had areas of burn, and he was saying in a very calm voice ‘where shall I go okhty?’ which means sister in Arabic…”
The baby and his father do not feature at all in this account. Instead Dr Ahsan states “it was quite a quiet day” prior to the arrival of the person she now claims was the first victim – a boy covered in “strange white dust”, who had a “huge laceration on the side of his face” and who spoke to her, asking her where he should go. This clear and vivid account is entirely irreconcilable with what viewers saw in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.
Alleged injuries of the baby and his father
The baby featured from 31 minutes in Panorama does not appear to have suffered “severe burns” as claimed in the narration, and certainly not the 80% burns that were later claimed by Dr Hallam which, as the high percentage indicates, would cover the majority of the infant’s body. Rather, he appears unscathed and in no unusual degree of distress (click images below to enlarge).
At 31:18 Dr Ahsan’s advises “this baby needs to be picked up” and the child is robustly handled by Dr Ahan and the supposed father. If the baby had truly suffered severe burns of up to 80% this would seem extremely inappropriate and reckless.
Ian Pannell’s BBC News article states that the baby’s father “was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son”. Dr Hallam states (from 22:17) he “also had a burnt face”. However the child’s supposed father (seen over Dr Ahsan’s left shoulder at 31:16 and again holding the baby at 31:31) appears animated, vocal and entirely unscathed.
Plausibility of injuries and demeanour of other alleged victims
Most of the alleged victims presented in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ are notably calm and quiet. Some mill around in the hospital and its yard.
- From 33:05 – 33:46 Lutfi Arsi (in the yellow ‘Super 9′ t-shirt) calmly inspects his fellow alleged victims, helpfully directs a member of staff towards them, ambles to the back of the room, pulls up a chair and takes a seat.*
- In the same sequence note the bizarre “zombie” swaying and lurching of the man in the white t-shirt at the back of the room; identifiable by the three black marks on his t-shirt, this is the supposed teacher who some time later (judging by the addition of bandages to his arm) provides this perfectly relaxed and cogent interview.
- At 36:52 Anas Said Ali speaks in English (“I’m so bad, so bad”) .
- At 38:13, allegedly suffering 86% burns, Lutfi Arsi sits up to peer inquisitively at the camera
The implausibility of this behaviour is indicated in the comments provided by a practising doctor in the section immediately below.
All alleged victims in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ seem to have retained their eyebrows, despite white cream suggesting treatment for facial burns. Note in particular the pristine eyebrows of the alleged teacher and those of Siham Kanbari “a few weeks after the attacks in hospital”.
The appearance of supposedly peeling skin on Ahmed Darwish‘s and Lutfi Arsi’s hands and arms is unconvincing. In particular, Ahmed’s hands appear exaggeratedly large, as if sheathed in prosthetics. As a practising doctor states below “Some are shown with skin hanging off but the flesh beneath is not that convincing it actually looks like more skin”.
* On 18 July 2014 BBC News published a short “retrospective” on the “napalm bomb” incident. From 32 – 40 seconds the background figures in the hospital, including Lutfi Arsi and the “teacher”, are heavily blurred.
A doctor’s view of the alleged injuries
A practicing doctor has offered a medical opinion of the alleged injuries in ‘Saving Syria’s Children':
I have watched the panorama BBC documentary. Makes for interesting viewing but I think the scene of the school children coming in with the burns was an act.
I worked on trauma and orthopaedics last year for four months, so I have worked with burns victims first hand. These victims displayed what appeared to be “less painful” burns. They were able to sit down, be touched by others even talk. This is not how a severe burn victim would present. Most victims:
- would be screaming the place down in agony. Even after treatment and with all sorts of pain drugs they still hurt and still scream.
- Many burns victims cannot even focus enough to follow instructions such as sit down and wait because of pain. This young boy, I found very odd (I don’t think it is cultural thing as pain is pain and it can drive a person mad).
- would have difficulties with their airways, almost immidiatley, hence in the UK many are intubated and treated in ITU. This shows them able to speak and breathing very well no obvious signs of respiratory distress like coughing, shallow breathing etc. In such an attack the poisons are inhaled.
- They say they douse them in water (wouldn’t the high spray of the hose cause more problems to burnt skin).
- when they came to the hospital they have evidence of this white powder on their skin but not evident burn blisters which fill with fluid with in minutes. Some are shown with skin hanging off but the flesh beneath is not that convincing it actually looks like more skin.
- The walk is very odd. why??
- The other concern in burns is their fluid status as they will be losing large amounts of fluid through their burns. The cannula is essential to resuscitate them. Im not sure what A and E that doctor worked in but I have not worked in A and e this year and I have placed I think almost 6 cannulas in peoples feet.* Any access is essential in burns, a standard training skill!
- If the poison was dropped from above (a plane) their hair would have been lost and patches would be evident. Many still had a full heads.
* The reference is to is to 37:37 in Saving Syria’s Children (see image below) where Dr Saleyha Ahsan attempts to insert a cannula into Mohammed Kenas‘ foot, stating “As you can see there’s nothing coming up for me to put a cannula in”.
The doctor’s opinion is congruent with that of former UK ambassador Craig Murray who, in a 31 March 2014 email regarding the nomination of Ian Pannell and the “Chemical School Attack” report for One World Media awards, wrote: “having personally been in my career in rather similar conflict situations, I was struck by the strange absence of panic and screaming both by patients and surrounding family – I have seen people in that sort of pain and situation and they are not that quiet and stoic, in any culture.”
Two women wearing identical clothes
A woman wearing a distinctive black dress with a gold flower design rushes through the hospital gate at around 36 minutes in Panorama with a man claiming to be her father (they appear of similar age). In other footage from the hospital a younger woman is seen wearing an identical dress and blue headscarf. Why would clothing apparently be recycled between victims in this way?
Misleading and manipulative editing
‘Saving Syria’s Children’ is extensively edited, arguably in order to mislead and manipulate. Some examples are as follows:
- At 02:08 in the 29 August BBC News report Mohammed Asi is shown climbing down from a truck, accompanied by Dr Ahsan’s words “more coming? More? More?” However Asi had already been shown walking into the hospital from 01:44.
- At 34:08 in Panorama the narration states “within minutes the hospital is overwhelmed” over footage of Lutfi Arsi being carried into the hospital. However this is Arsi’s third appearance in the programme, having previously been seen at 32:26 and from 33:05 – 33:44.
- Victim X is shown arriving in the hospital yard at 35:35 in Panorama, heralded by Dr Ahsan’s words “I think there’s more coming, I think there’s more coming”, despite his having previously seen being “treated” inside the hospital from 34:36 – 34:55.
- A woman exclaims “yama yama yama” as she enters the hospital at 34:02; the same audio clip is also used over footage of Victim Y entering the hospital at 31:44.
‘Saving Syria’s Children’ blocked by BBC Worldwide
At the start of July 2014 BBC Worldwide began blocking You Tube copies of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, including the copy I had been referencing in my correspondence from 30 January 2014 and the copy referenced by Australian peace campaigner Susan Dirgham in her letter of complaint to the BBC.
I began substituting links in my blog to correspond with an alternative You Tube copy of the programme. On 20 July this too was blocked by BBC Worldwide. (On 23 July it was removed by the channel owner). A version originally shown on Australian television featuring the hospital scenes in excerpt was blocked at some point after 20 July. The final existing full You Tube copy of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ was deleted by BBC Worldwide between 25 and 28 July.
Dozens of other Panorama programmes posted by non-BBC entities remain on You Tube.
The BBC iPlayer version is available in the UK only until 30 September 2014.
On 1 August 2014 BBC Worldwide provided this response to questions about the You Tube blockings.
Who were the alleged victims in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’?
This report by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria links to this list of 41 alleged victims of the attack. Several of the names are identifiable as those ascribed to individuals featured in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, however their date of death in all cases is given as 26 August.
While this reflects the Panorama account in respect of Lutfi Arsi (Loutfee Asee on the list), whom the BBC claims “died on his way to hospital in Turkey”, it contradicts it in respect of Anas Sayyed Ali (Anas al-Sayed Ali), whom the BBC claims “died a few days later in hospital in Turkey”; Ahmed Darwish (Ahmad Darwish), who was filmed by Panorama “a few weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”; Siham Kanbari (Siham Qandaree), also filmed later in hospital and whom Dr Ahsan has stated died on 20 October; and Mohammed Asi (Muhammad Assi) who is pictured in an image provided by BBC Audience Services “two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”.
The list omits Mohammed Kenas who according to Panorama “died on the way to hospital in Turkey”.
The list includes a Muhammad Abdullatif, age 15. Mohammed Abdullatif is the name of the adult eyewitness who appears in the 29 August BBC News report (02:54) and in this non-BBC footage of the same “interview”.
The Violations Documentation Center is regularly cited as a source in BBC reports and analysis.
Dr Rola Hallam and Hand in Hand for Syria
Dr Rola Hallam is described as “a British doctor visiting for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria”.
Dr Hallam’s father is Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi. According to Dr Hallam’s colleague Dr Ahsan, Dr al-Kurdi is “ involved politically with the Syrian National Council”. In this Al Jazeera interview Dr al-Kurdi advocates for the Syrian National Council’s recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people (from 1:22) and relates how, following his address to the Friends of Syria summit in Istanbul in 2012, attended by Hillary Clinton, he personally told Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu “You’re not doing enough” and demanded of Professor Davutoğlu and several other foreign ministers, including Victoria Nuland of the US State Department, “either you defend us or you arm the Syrian Free Army to defend us – you have the choice” (from 5:15).
When questioned at a Save the Children event Dr Hallam stated of her father “he is certainly not a member of the Syrian National Council; he is a gynaecologist, who like most Syrians has taken an interest in what’s happening in his country”.
Dr Hallam is a member of the charity Hand in Hand for Syria’s executive team. Hand in Hand’s original three-star logo is plainly based on the flag adopted by the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council. In 2014 the charity removed the stars from its logo.
Until July 2014 the Facebook banner of Hand in Hand’s founder, Faddy Sahloul, read WE WILL BRING ASSAD TO JUSTICE; NO MATTER WHAT LIVES IT TAKES, NO MATTER HOW MUCH CATASTROPHE IT MAKES. The image was removed shortly after this comment was posted under a Guardian article.
Further questions about the financial affairs and political affiliations of Hand in Hand for Syria have been raised by Dr Declan Hayes of the University of Southampton.
Atareb: “a basic hospital funded by handouts”?
On 29 August 2013 Ian Pannell described Atareb as “a basic hospital funded by handouts” (03:17) and on 30 September 2013 as a “field hospital”. Dr Hallam also refers to Atareb as a “field hospital” at 38:04 in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.
This Hand in Hand campaign page for Atareb (now deleted) states that the hospital opened in May 2013 as a small A&E unit and now “offers 68 beds and a wide range of services – from maternity and neo-natal facilities to many outpatient departments, three excellent operating theatres and a laboratory”. Atareb is described as “One of the country’s most sophisticated remaining hospitals” with operating costs of “between $60,000 and $70,000 a month”. Atareb’s current facilities are further indicated in the campaign materials.
The campaign page, dated 10 June 2014, also states that “The hospital’s funding comes from a European donor which supports global emergency response. This funding reaches Hand in Hand for Syria via an INGO partner. Although that funding is still very much in place, after one year our agreement with our INGO partner has come to an end – and the funding has to come through a partner.”
This makes clear that major funding for Atareb was in place prior to Ian Pannell’s description of it as “a basic hospital funded by handouts”. Indeed, images on the Atareb Facebook page posted prior to 26 August 2013 depict a relatively well-equipped facility, including a kidney dialysis machine and surgical and x-ray facilities. (Please note there are some highly distressing images on the Atareb Facebook page).
Regular Atareb Hospital staff absent on day of alleged attack
This post on Atareb Hospital’s Facebook page shows that on 26 August 2013, the date of the alleged attack, hospital staff were “attending a battle first aid training course in Antakia, Turkey”. This may indicate that some of the medics filmed by the Panorama team were not regular Atareb staff members. If not, who were they?
Bias and lack of analysis in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’
Susan Dirgham, National Coordinator of Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria, has lodged an official complaint about ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ invoking sections of the BBC Editorial Guidelines which relate to Accuracy, Impartiality, Fairness, Conflicts of Interest and Accountability.
Complaints correspondence with BBC
First letter of complaint to the BBC 4 October 2013
BBC response to first letter of complaint 2 December 2013
Second letter of complaint to BBC 30 January 2014
BBC response to second letter of complaint 18 February 2014
Third letter of complaint to the BBC 17 March 2014
BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding 23 April 2014
BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Final Report 19 May 2014
BBC Editorial Strategy Adviser’s decision 8 August 2014
Further submission to BBC Trust 14 September 2014