Urgent submission to BBC Editorial Standards Committee

Ref: CT/1400114

Dear Christina Roski

Further to my appeal request of 11 June regarding Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ I wish to urgently submit the following material.

1) The charity Hand in Hand for Syria has launched this fundraising appeal which identifies the hospital featured in Panorama as Atareb Hospital, Aleppo. That this is so is clear from images on Atareb Hospital’s Facebook page (please note there are some highly distressing images on this page).

This post on Atareb’s Facebook page states that on 26 August 2013, the date of the alleged “playground napalm bomb” attack, the 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 at the Atareb Hospital for ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ were not regular Atareb staff members. If not, who were they?

2) On 29 August Ian Pannell described Atareb as “a basic hospital funded by handouts” (03:17); Atareb is described as a “field hospital” by Mr Pannell in his text article of 30 September and also by Dr Hallam at 38:04 in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.

However images on the Atareb Facebook page posted prior to August 26 depict a relatively well-equipped facility, including a kidney dialysis machine and surgical and x-ray facilities (both images 8 July 2013). [1]

Indeed, was the “high-tech incubation unit funded by Rola’s charity” seen from 29:00 in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ also located at Atareb “field” Hospital?

2) This report produced by opposition activist organisation Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria contains an account of the alleged events of 26 August by Mustafa Haid [2] in which he states:

At 3 in the afternoon, On 26 Aug 2013, I was in Al Atareb City and I heard rumours about a ‘chemical attack’ on Orm Al Kubra and that tens of casualties were brought to Al Atareb Hospital

However on 18 February Ian Pannell wrote:

The attack happened on the 26th of August at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day

One or other of these claims must be false.

3) The report links to this list [3] of 41 alleged victims of the attack, several of whom are identifiable as individuals featured in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.

While the list corroborates Panorama’s claim that Loutfee Asee (Lutfi Arsi in Panorama) and Anas al-Sayed Ali (Anas Said/Sayyed Ali) died on 26 August (albeit citing both their ages as 15, rather than 14 and 18 respectively as in BBC accounts) it also claims that Ahmad Darwish (15), Siham Qandaree (17), Muhammad Assi (18) and Muhammad Abdullatif (15) all died on 26 August.

However according to Panorama Ahmed Darwish survived and was indeed filmed “a few weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey” along with Siham Kanbari who, according to Dr Ahsan, died on 20 October. The image of Mohammed Asi provided by BBC Audience Services on 18 February purports to show him “two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”. In the 29 August BBC News report Mohammed Abdullatif is the name of the adult eyewitness who (at 02:54) makes his formal address to the United Nations.

21/7/14 – the list omits Mohammed Kenas who according to Panorama died “on the way to hospital” (presumably on 26 August)  

11/7/14 – Correction: BBC Audience Services claim that  Anas Sayyed Ali “died a few days later in hospital in Turkey”. The dates of death cited on the list and those of similarly named Panorama victims therefore coincide only in respect of Loutfe Asee/Lutfi Arsi.   

4) This video features an extended sequence of the younger woman who seemingly shared clothes with another “playground napalm bomb” victim featured in Panorama. The woman excitedly relates (as I understand from a private translation) the alleged sequence of the events of 26 August before personally denouncing Assad and, from 02:02, remaining silent. Another young woman appears for few moments at 02:30 appearing entirely bored. The YouTube channel (‘atareb city‘) which hosts these unpersuasive performances also hosts videos of what are presumably Atareb Hospital volunteer staff posing with weapons (here and here). The partisan nature of Atareb “volunteers” is also evident from some of the hospital’s Facebook images.

I trust you will give consideration to the above points in your deliberations over whether to review the Editorial Complaints Unit’s decision.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

Notes 

[1] Images dating from only a short time after 26 August show a “radioscopy machine in use” (31 August 2013) and other hi-tech medical equipment (23 September 2013).

[2] An exchange with Haid is detailed in my letter of 30 January.

[3] This is a cached version, as since making this post the original link has become intermittently unavailable. (This note  added 30 June 2014) 

Request to BBC Trust for review of Editorial Complaint Unit’s report

11 June 2014

Ref: CT/1400114

Dear Christina Roski

I am writing to request that the BBC Editorial Standards Committee review the decision of the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit re: Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children‘. [1]

In addition to the points in my previous correspondence I add the following:

Demotix photographs  

Mr Tregear invites me to supply evidence that the Demotix photographs were published before 26 August, the date of the alleged attack. I have already provided evidence that they were originally published dated 25 August; it is incumbent upon the BBC to provide proof this was not the date of their publication on Demotix. Clearly this matter can only be settled by accessing the metadata of Amer Alfaj’s original photographs. Demotix refuses to respond to me; a request from the BBC may be received differently.

Mr Pannell’s supposed inability to recognise the two victims in the Demotix images, with whom he had been in close proximity for several hours, is not plausible, especially considering the images’ subsequent use in the media to illustrate the “playground napalm bomb” incident. [2]

Timeline of events presented in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ 

  1. Mr Tregear states:

The visit to the frontline clinic occurred on the morning of 26 August

The doctors’ movements from 05:47 to 15:53 [3] are clearly presented as a chronological sequence, suggesting they made a round trip starting at the Hand in Hand hospital, discussing and then embarking upon what appears a lengthy and highly eventful trip to the frontline clinic, before returning the same day (26 August) to the Hand in Hand hospital, as seen later in the programme from 30:38, prior to the arrival of the “napalm bomb” “victims”. Is this what is claimed?

Only on close scrutiny is it evident the doctors are dressed differently across these scenes, and that the rooftop shown from 08:22 – 08:56 is not the same as that seen from 38:37 at the Hand in Hand hospital (the latter has no railings or red leaves). Where is the ‘first’ rooftop located? When was that footage made? Where and when were the scenes of the doctors setting off by car (09:29 – 10.10) shot? The location also does not appear to be the Hand in Hand hospital.

  1. At 15:56 Mr Pannell states:

Four days later we see the area being pounded by the Syrian air force; the clinic’s overrun with casualties, rebel fighters wounded on the frontline

The use of “we” scant seconds after Drs Ahsan and Hallam are seen speaking with clinic staff strongly suggests the doctors were also present “four days later” when the casualties arrive, even though they do not feature in this sequence.

  1. Mr Tregear writes:

When he said at 17.48 “The next morning, we moved to a village…” the footage showed children at the refugee camp and Mr Pannell was referring back to the previous sequence from the camp which was featured at the start of the programme (filmed on 23 August). The “next morning” was therefore 24 August.

This is incorrect. The section from 17:35 to 18:22 does not show “children at the refugee camp”, it plainly shows children at the village well [4]. There is therefore no reference whatsoever to the “camp which was featured at the start of the programme”, either in the narration or the visuals, and therefore no indication that the “next morning” does not follow on from the immediately preceding footage of rebel casualties arriving at the frontline clinic. Indeed Mr Pannell describes the village (17:48) as being “a few miles west of the front line”, strongly suggesting proximity to the clinic.

  1. Judging by the varying levels of darkness, the scenes from 38:21 to 40:52, from the point where the “first two” ambulances set off for Bab al-Hawa to the shot of Dr Hallam against the setting sun, are out of sequence. In the first two scenes in this section (38:21 – 38:25 and 38:26 – 38:36) the ambulances are being loaded and Dr Hallam is crying, both in pitch darkness. In the next scene (38:37) Dr Hallam is on the rooftop in twilight, where she gives an interview. A shot from the rooftop at 40:07 also shows the ambulances below in twilight. This mixture of twilight and fully dark shots continues until 40:52.

How could Dr Hallam find time to give her twilight interview while ambulances were still being loaded below, a process which evidently went on until night completely fell?

Breaches of BBC Editorial Guidelines and Ofcom Broadcasting Code 

Right of reply and fairness

The BBC has made the supremely serious allegation that the Syrian government has deliberately targeted schoolchildren with an incendiary device, yet has at no point requested or published a response from the Syrian government as required by section 6.4.25 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines and section 7.11 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

Misleading audiences

‘Saving Syria’s Children’ breaches section 3.4.16 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines in the misleading chronology presented in its first half (see 1 – 4 above), the editing out of all chronology of the scenes of the “napalm bomb” “victims” from 30:38 onwards [5] and, above all, in the staging of an atrocity.

Women wearing identical black dress

Mr Tregear mistakenly believes my position has changed between 17 March and 7 May from claiming there was one woman in the black dress to two. In fact I had mentioned the second, younger woman, on 30 January (section 11). My point, which Mr Tregear professes not to understand, is not whether they are the same person – they are not – but why it should be that they are wearing not merely similar, but identical dresses and headscarves. My suggestion, which I had plainly stated, is that this was a costume recycled among the amateur actors used in the fabricated episode. [6]

This programme is the subject of worldwide scepticism as to its authenticity. The credibility of the BBC’s news service therefore depends on not merely a review of the ECU’s decision, but on an independent investigation, incorporating medical and munitions expertise, of the material presented in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Stuart

Notes 

[1]  The ECU’s report is in two parts, its provisional finding of 23 April and its final report of 19 May.

[2]  On the matter of the date of the alleged incident, recall too the conflicting date (27 August) provided by Dr Ahsan – an astonishing error for a journalist to make, especially considering her statement “out of all the war zones I have ever been to, today has been by far the worst”.

[3]  Sequences from 05:47 - 15:53, presented as chronological (and hence implicitly all taking place on 26 August):

  • (05:47 – 08:21) Assessing facilities at the Hand in Hand hospital Dr Ahsan wearing plain dark scarf, Dr Hallam wearing green scarf
  • (08:22 – 8:56) On a rooftop discussing the prospect of going further into Syria Dr Ahsan wearing gold scarf, Dr Hallam wearing multicoloured scarf
  • (From 09:29, following a brief montage of combat scenes and explosions) Setting off by car to the frontline clinic where their convoy arrives at 13:54 Dr Ahsan wearing patterned dark scarf, Dr Hallam wearing green scarf 
  • (14:00 – 14:37) Supposedly sheltering from a fighter jet before entering the frontline clinic
  • (14:37 – 15:53) Assessing medical supplies at the clinic, speaking with staff and listening to an eight year old boy recite from the Koran

[4]  Including “11 year old Wahta” and her obviously coached personal denunciation of Assad.

[5]  See section 16 of my 30 January letter. I here further note:

At 34:08 Mr Pannell’s narration states “within minutes the hospital is overwhelmed” over footage of Lutfi Arsi’s third appearance in the programme (being carried into the hospital), having previously been seen at 32:26 and from 33:05 – 33:44.

Despite his having previously been seen being “treated” indoors from 34:36 – 34:55 Victim X is then shown arriving in the hospital yard at 35:35, heralded by Dr Ahsan with the words “I think there’s more coming; I think there’s more coming”.

The identical audio clip of someone exclaiming “yama yama yama” occurs at both 31:44 and 34:02. What justification can there be for this repetition other than to heighten drama in order to manipulate the Panorama audience?

[6]  In addition, a Syrian observer has noted privately that the clothing of all the participants in the “playground napalm bomb” footage is not typical of the supposed local area.

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Final Report, 19 May 2014

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Final Report, 19 May 2014 – click here to view

Comments on BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding

7 May 2014

Ref: CT/1400114 

Dear Mr Tregear

Thank you for your provisional report of 23 April into Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ and associated BBC News coverage, as requested by my letter of 17 March.

In its earlier response of 18 February, in support of its description of the alleged injuries of one of the alleged Panorama victims, BBC Audience Services appealed to the notion of a “reasonable person”.

I would equally suggest that no reasonable person watching the section of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ from 34:27 to 34:36 more than once can have any doubt whatsoever that the sequence is staged and that the tableau of young males, taking their cue from the distinctive gesture of the central figure in the tattered white t-shirt (Mohammed Asi), is acting.

Upon Asi’s gesture and groans (more clearly audible in the 29 August BBC News report at 3:02), and as he executes a standing swoon, the boy in the black vest, previously quite still, immediately pitches over onto his side, the boy in the white shirt rises effortlessly to his feet and the boy in the red shirt (Anas Said Ali) quizzically raises his head to peer at his comrades before craning to look into the camera. In the BBC News version the camera continues to pull back as Lutfi Arsi rises from the floor to a kneeling position and proceeds to flail his head and torso and roll his eyes theatrically as a team of medics dramatically sweeps in on cue. [1]

Screen shots of the full sequence are here.

Equally as implausible as the tableau boys is the bizarre swaying and lurching “zombie” acting of the man in the white t-shirt at the back of the room from 33:38 to 33:46 in Panorama. Identifiable by the pattern of black marks on his t-shirt, this person is the supposed teacher who some time later (judging by the addition of bandages to his arm) provides this perfectly relaxed and cogent interview.

The individuals in the tableau sequence are, at other points in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, in shot with many of the other supposed victims. If the tableau scene is staged, all the rest is irretrievably damned.

More disgracefully still, we are informed at 42:19 by BBC reporter Ian Pannell that “with appalling injuries” two members of the farcical tableau, Anas Said Ali and Lutfi Arsi, “didn’t survive”. In its 18 February response BBC Audience Services provided an image of Mohammed Asi “taken two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”. This picture is clearly of a piece with the Panorama footage of alleged victims Ahmed Darwish and Siham Kanbari allegedly taken “a few weeks after the attack”, further undermining the credibility of those sequences, with their plainly coached propaganda messages and implausible and inconsistent alleged injuries.

As iterated in my previous correspondence there are numerous other instances of implausible behaviour by these alleged victims of an alleged “napalm-like substance”, none of whom display any alleged injury which is inconsistent with makeup effects and/or prostheses.

I am far from alone in my conviction that these events are, at very best, highly dubious. As you will be aware, the matter has received widespread broadcast and social media attention [2] and has been addressed by, among others, George Galloway MP and on more than one occasion by former UK Ambassador Craig Murray. Many thousands of people around the world have now had the opportunity to judge the allegation of fabrication for themselves. I know that I am also far from alone in having contacted the BBC to demand an explanation for what appears to be an historic breach of trust between the corporation and its audience.

Date of the alleged attack and the Demotix photographs 

A series of eighteen photographs by Amer Alfaj purporting to show two victims of the alleged incident featured in Panorama being received and treated at Bab al-Hawa hospital on the Turkish border originally appeared on the website Demotix dated 25 August 2013, as evidenced by these screen shots (made on 16 December 2013). The photographs’ original date plainly undermines the BBC’s claim that the “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” occurred one day later, on 26 August.

At some point since the screen shots were made, the date of the photographs was altered from 25 to 26 August. [3]

In February – when the Demotix photographs were presumably still dated 25 August – BBC Audience Services (in fact, Ian Pannell personally, as you now make clear) dismissed the idea that they showed alleged victims of the Panorama event, writing:

The pictures that appear on the Demotix website were taken at a different hospital (Bab al Hawa, not Hand in Hand’s hospital). None of the victims pictured are the same individuals as those who appear in the BBC’s reporting. It would seem to add evidence to allegations by Human Rights Watch and others about the repeated use of incendiary type bombs by the Syrian government. The similarities in the appalling injuries sustained would also appear to be consistent with this. (BBC Audience Services response, 18 February 2014)

However, now that the date of the photographs has been altered to fall into line with the Panorama narrative, you are happy to accept them as evidence for the BBC’s account:

The evidence would therefore appear to suggest that the victims were photographed by Amer Alfaj at Bab al-Hawa, having been transported from the hospital in Aleppo bound for larger hospitals in Turkey. I regard that as consistent with the account given by BBC News and Panorama.  (BBC Editorial Complaints Unit provisional report, 23 April 2014)

In fact, contrary to Ian Pannell’s claim above that “None of the victims pictured are the same individuals as those who appear in the BBC’s reporting” both of the alleged victims in the Demotix photographs are indeed present throughout ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ as is plainly demonstrated here. [4]

Would a “reasonable person” find it plausible that the BBC reporter who was present throughout the entire “4 to 5 hour period” during which the alleged events of 26 August occurred, and whose colleague Darren Conway had filmed them numerous times, could fail to recognise two of the victims – one in particular of whose alleged injuries are shockingly distinctive – in a series of eighteen clear and detailed photographs?

What is clear is that the presence of the same two alleged victims in each inextricably weds ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ to the Demotix photographs. At the moment there is no evidence that the Demotix photographs were taken on 26 August, the date the BBC claims the “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” took place. There is, however, evidence that these photographs were originally published on Demotix with a date of 25 August.

Furthermore, even if it were the case that the Demotix photographs were taken on the 26 August they would still contradict the Panorama narrative.

According to BBC Audience Services/Ian Pannell “The attack happened on the 26th of August at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day”. In Panorama at 38:20 Dr Hallam says “so fine, so first two ambulances are going” (to Bab al-Hawa hospital) and the ambulances are seen being loaded in the dark.

However several of the Demotix photos are outdoors in daylight. There can be little doubt that these photographs were taken at Bab al-Hawa, rather than earlier in the day at the “makeshift hospital” featured in Panorama: apart from the fact that Ian Pannell states above “The pictures that appear on the Demotix website were taken at a different hospital (Bab al Hawa, not Hand in Hand’s hospital)” – and indeed would surely have recognised the environs of the “makeshift hospital” where he had “reported” from – the photographer, Amer Alfaj, is an employee of Bab al-Hawa.

Discrepancies in the date of the alleged attack within ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ 

The date of the alleged attack does not appear to be presented consistently within ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ itself.  

At 32:17 Ian Pannell states: “It’s only five days since the chemical attack in Damascus and everyone’s terrified that there’s just been another one”. As the Ghouta, Damascus attack is alleged to have taken place on Wednesday 21 August this statement would be consistent with the “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” having occurred on Monday 26 August, as the BBC claims.

However:

  • At 5:11 Ian Pannell states “our journey begins just two days after the chemical attack in Damascus”. With the Ghouta attack having allegedly occurred on 21 August, this means their journey began on Friday 23 August (Day 1).  
  • At 15:56, following an interview with doctors in a field clinic, Ian Pannell states: “Four days later, we see the area being pounded by the Syrian air force. The clinic’s overrun with casualties…” Four days after Friday 23 August would make the date of these sequences Tuesday 27 August (Day 5).
  • At 17:48 Ian Pannell states: “The next morning, we move to a village a few miles west of the front line”. That would mean it is now Wednesday 28 August (Day 6).
  • At 24:24 Day 6 seems to be coming to an end. Ian Pannell states: “At another school in the village, food parcels are handed out in the dark.” This suggests that the documentary team is now moving into Day 7, Thursday 29 August. The “napalm bomb” attack has still not occurred. 
  • At 30:40 Ian Pannell prefaces the sequences of the aftermath of the alleged attack, stating: “The doctors return to the Aleppo hospital where their journey into Syria started. No one could have imagined how this day would end, or the terrible events that would unfold”.

According to the timeline presented by Ian Pannell throughout ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, therefore, the alleged “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” took place in the afternoon of Day 7 of the team’s filming, i.e. on Thursday 29 August, not Monday 26 August. 

This is of course an impossibility, as the first BBC report of the “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” was transmitted on Thursday 29 August (also the day of the Commons vote on potential military intervention in Syria). Please can you explain the discrepancy?

Discrepancies in the accounts of the first victim/s to arrive at the hospital

I have pointed out that in an interview with Australian broadcaster ABC on 27 November 2013 Dr Saleyha Ahsan gives an entirely contradictory account of the first victim she encountered on the day of the alleged attack.

At around 31 minutes in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ Dr Ahsan is seen attending to the very first alleged victim to arrive – a baby, accompanied by his father. At this point, as Ian Pannell’s narration states, “No-one’s quite sure what’s happened.” It is only subsequently that 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.

However in the version of events in Dr Ahsan’s ABC interview the baby and his father do not feature at all, and Dr Ahsan instead 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.

You write:

The BBC cannot be held responsible for a version of events recounted by Dr Ahsan some months later and I have no way of knowing whether or not her interview was edited in any way to change or alter what she said.

This is the relevant section from the ABC interview, which can be heard from 02:38 here:

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…”

Dr Ahsan’s words are fluid and there are no substantial alterations in pace or tone. There has been no editing. She was having “quite a quiet day” at the hospital – i.e. no burned baby, no “also burnt” father – prior to the shocking arrival of the first, speaking, adolescent male casualty. This clear and vivid account is utterly irreconcilable with what viewers saw in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.

This is hardly an isolated inconsistency. Be it the sequence of events on “attack day”, the number of casualties admitted, the number of fatalities, the physical appearance of the “victims”, the extent and severity of their burns, the presence or otherwise of their family members, the description of the alleged school after the “attack” – even the very date of the “attack” itself – there is hardly any aspect of the alleged “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack” for which Dr Saleyha Ahsan, Dr Rola Hallam and Ian Pannell do not provide widely varying – sometimes wholly irreconcilable – accounts. To put it crudely, no-one involved in the manufacture of this episode can get their story straight, and I would suggest for a very good reason: it did not happen.

At several points throughout your report you protest, for example, that you “do not regard any apparent inconsistencies with other third party reports as evidence that the BBC reports were materially inaccurate or misleading”.

However there comes a point at which the overwhelming accumulation of contradictions from other sources must surely prompt Mr Pannell’s “reasonable person” to seriously question the veracity of the BBC’s account of the “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack”.

To my knowledge no independent accounts whatsoever of this alleged incident exist. Contemporary media reports around the world cited either the BBC and/or Syrian opposition groups as their sources. In its 30 August report of the alleged event Human Rights Watch was careful to state that it had “not investigated this incident”.

The two You Tube videos you cite at footnote 13 of your current report are clearly produced and/or distributed by opposition groups or sympathisers. The first and longer ‘Documenting the massacre Great Orme 08/26/2013’ is posted by a channel entitled ShahbaMedia which hosts over 70 videos, largely celebrating Islamic jihadist fighters in Syria; the second, briefer film, contains some of the same footage and other scenes of unverified origin and bears the telling title ‘Killed 7 people and injured 50 others in Aleppo, according to official said the General Authority of the Syrian revolutionary in the city’.

In citing these videos you reveal the BBC’s standards of evidence to be lower than those of other broadcasters and journalistic organisations, including ITN, which when it broadcast similar scenes treated the material with far more caution (my emphasis):

“The result of what’s said to be a napalm-like bomb dropped by a plane on college students in Syria, the man’s body covered in what appears to be severe burns in an attack that injured dozens and killed at least seven people. The video, purportedly filmed in the town of Urum Al-Kubra close to Aleppo was posted on the internet via an account connected to an opposition group. It can’t be independently verified.”

Discrepancies in the accounts of the baby’s and the father’s injuries 

You state:

I have explained in my response to Point 2 why I do not believe that accounts reported by other media can be relied upon to call into question the reports by the BBC. They are second hand reports which rely on the recollections of those who were there and an accurate reporting of such recollections.I have seen the rushes which were filmed at the time and can confirm that Dr Ahsan clearly refers to the baby having burns on its face; the footage appears to confirm this. I am therefore satisfied that the account given by Panorama (“A seven month old baby boy has been brought in with severe burns”) was duly accurate.

Firstly I am sure you will be able, on reflection, to appreciate the irony of the sentiments of your first two sentences here in view of your own use of “other media”, in the form of the two dubious You Tube videos referenced above, to support reports by the BBC.

Secondly, once more you insult Mr Pannell’s “reasonable person” by entirely discounting as evidence the mass of wildly inconsistent accounts of the infant’s injuries – which range all the way from “nasty scolds [sic] on his legs” to “80% burns” – provided by those present at the alleged event. However, the evidence of one’s senses is all that is needed to see that the child is entirely unscathed and in no unusual degree of distress.

Thirdly, I note you have entirely ignored my point about the reckless and inappropriate nature of Dr Ahsan’s advice that “this baby needs to be picked up”, and the subsequent robust handling of an infant which was allegedly suffering “severe burns”.

Of the baby’s father, who according to Ian Pannell “was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son”, you write:

I have viewed the rushes and the material appears to confirm that the individual described by Panorama as the baby’s father (seen wearing a beige top) had sustained some burns. Shots of him patting the child in a somewhat vacant and distressed manner could reasonably be described in the terms used by Mr Pannell in the online article.

It takes an effort of will of which I am incapable to see the burly and animated man at Dr Ahsan’s left shoulder and chatting animatedly while holding the baby – with a body language suggesting a lack of familiarity or even interest in the child, whom he certainly cannot be seen “patting” – as either “vacant” or “distressed”. If I may once more adopt the position of Mr Pannell’s “reasonable person” and presume that a doctor who was in close proximity to a casualty may well recall the nature of his injuries three months later, it should also be noted that there is no sign whatsoever of the “burnt face” remarked upon by Dr Rola Hallam.

Screenshots of the baby and his alleged father are here.

Anas Said Ali 

I have posted a number of images of alleged victim Anas Said Ali here. The first seven show him at various points during his alleged treatment at the Hand in Hand hospital. In them his skin tone is relatively light and his forehead smooth (see especially the image with the green bottle).

The eighth image was supplied by BBC Audience Services in its 18 February response; in it the skin tone and texture of the boy’s face and forehead appear markedly different.

Woman in the Black Dress

As noted here two different women at the Hand in Hand hospital are filmed wearing the same black dress with the distinctive gold flower pattern, and seemingly also the same blue headscarf.

The older woman is seen rushing through the hospital gate at around 36 minutes in Panorama with a man claiming to be her father (they in fact appear of similar age) and proceeds to engage in a bizarre combination of mournfulness and angry ranting. In the very next scene, in what the BBC has stated is chronologically earlier footage, she is seen being transported by stretcher from an ambulance into the hospital.

The younger woman is featured from 0:17 in this Al Jazeera video where her words are translated “…all I saw was people on fire, I was on fire, my friends were on fire”, presumably indicating that she is intended to represent a student at the alleged school. The younger woman also appears in the longer of the two You Tube videos you cite, from 01:35 to 01:52, 02:16 to 2:20 and 04:35 to 04:40.

Why would two different alleged victims share the same clothes? Was the Hand in Hand hospital operating a “wardrobe department”?

Political affiliations of Dr Rola Hallam and her charity Hand in Hand for Syria 

You accurately summarise my contention that:

…the audience should have been informed that Dr Hallam and the Hand in Hand for Syria charity are supporters of the Syrian opposition and the failure to explain this meant the viewers were misled.

You further state:

I have to say that I did not share your impression. Firstly, I think it was implicit that the charity was working in an area of Syria controlled by the opposition and would therefore be likely to share its aims and objectives (as opposed to supporting the Syrian government). Secondly, there were various comments from Dr Hallam which would have left the viewers in little doubt as to where her sympathies lay.

I once more invoke Mr Pannell’s “reasonable person” in asking whether Panorama viewers should be expected to guess that the “British doctor”, as Dr Hallam is presented, is politically linked to the Syrian opposition, rather than working independently with the sole concern of easing some of the appalling suffering in Syria.

Regarding Dr Hallam’s father, Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi, you state:

I do not believe you have presented any persuasive evidence to support your claim about Dr Hallam’s father and I would regard any such evidence as circumstantial at best and of no relevance to any assessment of your complaint.

In fact, as I previously noted, the claim that Dr Hallam’s father is “involved politically with the Syrian National Council” is made not by me but rather by Dr Hallam’s colleague Dr Saleyha Ahsan in this article. [5]

If you require further evidence of Dr al-Kurdi’s links to the Syrian opposition, please see this Al Jazeera interview in which, from 1:22, he can be heard strongly advocating for the Syrian National Council’s recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and in the section commencing at 5:15 relating how, following his address to the Friends of Syria summit in Istanbul in 2012, 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”.

However, as you make plain, you do not believe background information of this nature is the concern of BBC audiences.

Damage visible in the “playground” 

You state: 

I fail to see the relevance of your citation from Wikipedia. The potential range of an incendiary bomb is likely to bear little or no relation to the actual range of a particular bomb

While the 2,500 yards figure given in the Wikipedia article is a maximum, it nonetheless makes the point that the very limited damage seen in the “playground” seems minimal for the type of munition supposedly used. A former army officer and counter terrorism intelligence officer has commented privately that, in his view, the damage appears consistent with a small projectile, such as a mortar or rocket round.

I am not an expert in these matters which is why have I requested the BBC solicit independent investigation on this point, among many others. An independent party may wish to investigate the claim apparently made by Human Rights Watch in a report “seen by The Sunday Times” that the bomb concerned weighed 1,100lbs, i.e. approximately half a ton.

Editing of Dr Hallam’s words 

You have entirely misunderstood my question.

I have at no point suggested that Dr Hallam’s famous speech was recorded twice, or re-recorded. As I noted in my very first letter to the BBC on this matter, it is clear that the audio in the two BBC News reports of 29 August and 30 September 2013 is from the same source, but edited.

My question, which I here ask for the third time, is this: why is it the case that, at the precise point of the audio edit (i.e. as Dr Hallam finishes saying “…some sort of”), the images in the two reports are different?

That this is the case is clearly captured at 24 seconds in the You Tube video ‘Media Fail – BBC Faking News Soundtrack’ (see screenshot below).

1

You Tube video ‘Media Fail – BBC Faking News Soundtrack’ (00:24) comparing the two BBC News reports of 29 August & 30 September 2013 at the point Dr Rola Hallam finishes saying “some sort of”, i.e. immediately prior to variations in the audio soundtrack.

Referring to the screengrabs you have provided it appears that the point in the ‘Media Fail’ video at which the soundtrack begins to vary most closely corresponds in the 29 August report with your Appendix 4g, while in the 30 September report this point most closely corresponds with your Appendix 4e (where there is a figure visible behind Dr Hallam).

Picture1

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Appendix 4g

Picture2

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Appendix 4e

It remains unanswered which (if either) of the two reports provides an accurate audio and visual record of Dr Hallam’s interview up to the point of the audio edit.

I trust you will advise me once the Editorial Complaints Unit’s final report has been completed.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

Notes 

[1] Compare these self-conscious amateur dramatics with footage of genuine napalm victims.

[2] It should not be necessary for me to add that I do not subscribe to all the interpretations that have been presented in every such report; however I am in agreement with all in respect of the fundamental accusation of fabrication. A detailed critique of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ is in the process of being compiled here.

[3] In your provisional report of 23 April, you write:

“I note you have referred to pictures on the Demotix website which you say were uploaded on 25 August. As you now acknowledge, the website appears to be date-stamped 26 August (see Appendix 1). If you do obtain any evidence which shows the photos were published before 26 August I would be grateful if you would draw it to my attention.”

This is rather disingenuous: three days prior to the date of your report, on 20 April, I had CCd you and the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit into an email to Ossie Ikeogu of Demotix, including a link to the screengrabs showing Amer Alfaj’s images bearing their original date of 25 August. As you are also well aware from being CCd into our further correspondence, Mr Ikeogu absolutely refuses to respond to my request for an explanation as to why the dates of these photographs have been altered.

[4] Amer Alfaj’s photographs had in fact been widely used many months previously to accompany media coverage of the alleged “playground” “napalm bomb” “attack”.

[5] When questioned over her personal and organisational connections to the Syrian opposition at a Save the Children event last November (at around 9 minutes in this You Tube video) Dr Hallam, with a high degree of disingenuity, 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”. 

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding, 23 April 2014

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding, 23 April 2014 - click here to view.

Appendices 1 – 4K (see images below)  

1400114 Appendix 1

Appendix 1

1400114 Appendix 2

Appendix 2

1400114 Appendix 3

Appendix 3

1400114 Appendix 4a

Appendix 4a

1400114 Appendix 4b

Appendix 4b

1400114 Appendix 4c

Appendix 4c

1400114 Appendix 4d

Appendix 4d

1400114 Appendix 4e

Appendix 4e

1400114 Appendix 4f

Appendix 4f

1400114 Appendix 4g

Appendix 4g

1400114 Appendix 4h

Appendix 4h

1400114 Appendix 4i

Appendix 4i

1400114 Appendix 4j

Appendix 4j

1400114 Appendix 4k

Appendix 4k

 

Third letter of complaint to the BBC

For the attention of the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit

Reference: CAS-2541997-BLGF64

I have received this response from BBC Audience Services to my letter of January 30 regarding Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children‘ and related BBC News coverage. However, it does not satisfactorily address my concerns and so I wish to take my complaint further.

The primary point of my initial letter on this matter remains. It is self-evident that the section of the BBC News report of 29 August from 03:02 to 03:19, in which the tableau of male alleged victims are static and quiet until spotting that the camera is on them, at which point (03:05) they begin to groan and writhe in unison, is fabricated. (See sequence below and in full here).

0302

Picture17

0303

0304 alt - use

0305

0306

boyrising

last tableau

In its first reply to me BBC Audience Services indeed conceded that the boy in white (second from right above) who effortlessly stands up and then calmly reaches for a chair (and who is further seen pulling it towards himself and casually taking a seat from 34:19 to 34:27 in Panorama) “appears relatively unscathed”.

It is self-evident that this scene is acted. If one of the hospital scenes is staged, presumably they all are. [1]

Similarly, while I expect the Editorial Complaints Unit to review all the questions raised in both my previous letters, the main points of my 30 January letter remain. Following the section numbers and titles used in my letter and in BBC Audience Services’ reply, in particular these are:

Section 1 – Date of the alleged attack

The references in the captions of the Demotix photos to “napalm” and “students in the Orme countryside of Western Aleppo” (consistent with other accounts of the Panorama incident, which refer to “Orum Alkubra in Aleppo province”, “Awram al-Koubra, outside Aleppo” and “Urm Al Kubra, a village in the Aleppo countryside”) make it clear that they are intended to represent victims of the same alleged napalm bomb attack on the same alleged school [2]. However, the Demotix photos were uploaded on 25 August, the day before the incident featured in Panorama supposedly took place.

Surely another “napalm bomb” on another school or college, in the same area, a day or two before the one featured in Panorama, would have been reported by the BBC and other mainstream media. I can find no such report. I have written to the photographer, Amer Alfaj, via Demotix, to request clarification, but have not to date received a response. The BBC must provide clear evidence for its claim that these photographs represent a separate incident to that featured in ‘Saving Syria’ Children’. Without such evidence, the existence of the Demotix photo set entirely undermines the Panorama narrative.

Note, 20 April 2014: at some point since 16 December 2013 when these screengrabs were made the dates on the Demotix photoset have been altered from 25 August to 26 August

Section 2 – Discrepancies in the accounts of the first victims to arrive at the hospital

Dr Ahsan is absolutely clear in her ABC interview of 27 November (from 02:44) that the very first victim she encountered was a boy covered in “this strange white dust”, with “a huge laceration on the side of his face”, and who spoke to her, asking her where he should go. Your reply claims that she says that this boy was “one of the first” casualties, but she does not say that at all. Her account is clear – the boy with the laceration was the very first. There is no other possible way of interpreting what she says. This remains entirely irreconcilable with the scenes in Panorama and with all other accounts, including others of Dr Ahsan, in which the first victims Dr Ahsan (or indeed anyone at all) encounters at the hospital are the baby and his father.

Section 3  Discrepancies in the accounts of the baby’s injuries

The baby, who is featured from around 31 minutes in Panorama, does not appear to have suffered “severe burns”, and certainly not the 80% burns that Dr Hallam claims, which, as the high percentage indicates, would cover the vast majority of the baby’s body and would hence be unmistakeable. (See images below, click to enlarge).

baby1

baby2

Furthermore, if it were indeed the case that the baby had suffered 80% burns, Dr Ahsan’s advice (at 31:18) that “this baby needs to be picked up” and the child’s subsequent robust handling by both Dr Ahan and the father would seem to be extremely reckless and to pose a grave risk to the infant.

Section 5 – Discrepancies in the accounts of the father’s injuries

The baby’s father (seen with perfect clarity over Dr Ahsan’s left shoulder at 31:16 and then again holding the baby at 31:31) is vigourous, animated and vocal, and seems entirely unscathed. This remains in stark contradiction to Ian Pannell’s BBC News description of the father who “was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son” and to Dr Hallam’s description (from 22:17), in which he “also had a burnt face”.

father1

The baby’s father (right), who according to Dr Hallam “also had a burnt face”

father2

The baby’s father, who according to Ian Pannell “was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son”

Section 6 – All alleged victims retained their eyebrows

This alleged teacher interviewed in ITN-screened footage of the same incident is typical of other alleged victims seen in Panorama in that his eyebrows are pristine, despite the white cream suggesting treatment for facial burns. This person would seem to be the man in the white t-shirt referenced in note [1] below. (Note added 5 April 2014)

eyebrow lad

Picture61

With regard to the questions I have raised about the alleged injuries depicted in Panorama (specifically in sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 12), it is now clearly absolutely incumbent upon the BBC to solicit independent medical opinion as to:

a) The plausibility or otherwise of the alleged injuries as having resulted from the “napalm-type substance” that you assert was their cause, bearing in mind that “Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius (1,500-2,200°F)” and that “it sticks to human skin, with no practical method for removal of the burning substance”. [3]

b) The plausibility or otherwise of the demeanour of the alleged victims seen in Panorama, bearing in mind that Kim Phúc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph, has stated that “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine”.

c) The plausibility or otherwise of the deterioration of the alleged injuries in each individual case, and particularly in those of Mohammed Kanas, Anas Said Ali and Lutfi Arsi, as depicted as having occurred during the “four to five hour period” in which the Panorama crew filmed in the Aleppo hospital.

d) The plausibility or otherwise of the deterioration of the alleged injuries of Siham Kanbari and Ahmed Darwish as depicted as having occurred between the day of the alleged attack and the scenes filmed “a few weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”; and of the plausibility or otherwise of the deterioration of the alleged injuries of Mohammed Asi as depicted as having occurred between the day of the alleged attack and the photograph provided in your latest reply which purports to show him “two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”.

e) The plausibility or otherwise of the demeanour of those whom you allege to have been administered with morphine and/or fentanyl, in particular Lutfi Arsi during his many appearances (including at 32:26 ambling in the yard; at 34:19 bobbing and weaving his head; at 37:51 walking, attached to a drip; and at 38:13 where he is alert and inquisitive, and sits up to peer at the camera) and the woman in the black dress during her energetic display of emotion from 36:01 to 36:24, who may or may not be the same person giving a cogent and animated interview from 0:17 in this Al Jazeera footage.

I will make some further brief comments on BBC Audience Services’ latest response. Please note that omission of sections does not in any way indicate that I am satisfied with the BBC’s responses in those instances, only that I have no further observations to add to those I have already made. As noted above, I expect the Editorial Complaints Unit to review in full all the questions and issues raised in both my previous letters.

Section 7 – Teenagers who allegedly died appear among the least injured

Your response here clarifies that the shirtless boy in the yard at 32:26, also seen later at 37:25, at 37:51 (attached to a drip), and at 38:13 (where his alleged injuries are discussed by Dr Ahsan and Dr Hallam), is Lutfi Arsi, identifiable elsewhere by his yellow ‘Super 9’ t-shirt.

This further demonstrates the point I make in section 16 regarding the extreme extent to which sequences in Panorama are shown non-chronologically: it is now clear that Arsi’s earliest appearance in Panorama, in the yard at 32:26, shows him at an even later stage in his alleged treatment at the hospital than I had previously understood.

Your clarification regarding Lutfi Arsi also demonstrates the extent to which the same alleged victims are “recycled” in the footage. As far as I have been able, I have counted around 20 individual alleged victims featured in the hospital sequences; it possible that, as demonstrated by my confusion over Arsi, there are fewer than this. This does not bear out your assertion (in your response to section 9) that “more than thirty were injured”, particularly bearing in mind (as you state in your response to section 16) that the Panorama crew were present for the entire four to five hour duration of the alleged event at the hospital.

With regard to the plausibility of the alleged injuries depicted, their deterioration, and the demeanour of those allegedly administered morphine and/or fentanyl, as stated above it is incumbent upon the BBC to solicit independent medical opinion.

Section 8 – Other discrepancies relating to the injuries of alleged victims

With regard to the plausibility of the alleged injuries depicted, their deterioration, and the demeanour of those allegedly administered morphine and/or fentanyl, it is incumbent upon the BBC to solicit independent medical opinion.

I would further draw attention to Ahmed Darwish’s hands, as visible from 33:47 to 34:00, and those of Lutfi Arsi, as visible at 32:26 (in the yard) and 37:25 (rocking on the bed). Dr Ahsan says of Ahmed Darwish’s hands “the skin was falling off as if he had been peeled”. I would suggest the appearance in both cases is rather of prosthesis.

ahmed

Ahmed Darwish (click to enlarge)

Picture4

Ahmed Darwish (click to enlarge)

lutfi

Lutfi Arsi (click to enlarge)

Section 9 – Discrepancies in the accounts of numbers of alleged dead and injured

You say you were shown “blackened corpses”. Can you confirm that these were the corpses of children? As stated in my first letter, it would seem far more plausible that the “school” is in fact a residential building which may well have been the scene of a shelling or explosion of some kind (although, from the limited damage depicted, certainly not of the magnitude of an aerial bombardment), and where there may well have been fatalities, although not necessarily children.

Section 11 – Same woman depicted arriving twice at the hospital

With regard to the plausibility of the alleged injuries of the woman in the black and gold dress, and the plausibility or otherwise of her demeanour with regard to your claim that she “would have been administered morphine and fentanyl”, it is incumbent upon the BBC to solicit independent medical opinion.

You give the reason for showing the two shots of the woman (bizarrely ranting at the gate in the first, being transported into the hospital by stretcher in the second) “in the opposite order” as being so that “people could remember her as she was being rushed into the hospital”. This makes scant sense, as it is only upon very close scrutiny that it is clear that these shots feature the same individual. (After several viewings, I had mistakenly identified the woman as two separate individuals in paragraph 12 of my first letter).

Section 12 – Discrepancies relating to Anas Said Ali

With regard to the plausibility of the alleged injuries depicted and their deterioration, it is incumbent upon the BBC to solicit independent medical opinion.

Section 13 – Number of bombs

With reference to the alleged earlier bombing of a residential dwelling, your reply states “When the first patients arrived it was unclear what had happened”. This is untrue. As I have pointed out, Dr Hallam makes it plain (from 22:17) that, upon his arrival at the hospital, the baby’s father “was telling us about how a plane had flown over their house and suddenly his house caught fire”. Bearing in mind the close relationship between the Panorama crew and Drs Hallam and Ahsan, and their continuing association after the alleged events of 26 August (including travelling to the “school” together, as you state in your reply to section 20), it is entirely implausible that this information should not have been available to Ian Pannell and Darren Conway, and incomprehensible that it should be omitted from ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ and all BBC News coverage of this alleged incident.

Section 20 – Dr Ahsan’s visit to the school

Of the subsequent visit to the school by the Panorama team (which included Dr Ahsan and Dr Hallam) you state “There was a substance that had dried and hardened on the walls… It is possible that this was the after effect of the gel hardening, but we are not experts and can only report what we saw.” However in her account of the visit Dr Ahsan is clear that “We saw a white gel, clinging to the walls”, i.e. specifically not a “dried and hardened” substance which was possibly the “after effect of the gel hardening”.

Finally, to be absolutely clear, I must insist that the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit addresses the several points and questions in both of my previous letters which BBC Audience Services has entirely ignored in its two replies. These are the points numbered 1 – 6 in the first part of my letter of 30 January along with my request for a full explanation of the editing of Dr Hallam’s words between the BBC News reports of 29 August and 30 September. I repeat these points here:

1) Why has the BBC at no point in its coverage – which has included providing Dr Rola Hallam with a platform on Newsnight to espouse pro-intervention sentiments – felt it necessary to inform its viewers of the pro-Syrian opposition affiliations of Dr Hallam and of her charity Hand in Hand for Syria?

In reply to a question about her father, Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi, at a Save the Children event on 27 November 2013 Dr Hallam stated (at just after 51 minutes) “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”. [4]

However an article written by Dr Ahsan in February 2013 states that Dr Hallam’s father is “involved politically with the Syrian National Council”.

The same article states that Hand in Hand for Syria was “formed by members of the Syrian diaspora”. As I noted in my first letter, the fact that the Hand in Hand for Syria logo is based on the adopted flag of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army is abundantly plain, and was not disputed by Dr Hallam at the Save the Children event. [5]

For the BBC to conceal these political affiliations is fraudulent.

2) Is it plausible to describe the scene of the alleged “incendiary bomb” attack as a school? Is it not far more likely a private residence (a villa, according to this Arab language site) - note the swimming pool – which has been stage-dressed with an undamaged toddlers’ swing, a child’s shoe (neither of which match the age of the “students” seen in Panorama) and charred scraps of schoolbooks? (See from 40:52 and images below). Independent investigation is clearly called for.

Scene of the alleged aerial incendiary bomb attack. Note swimming pool.

Scene of the alleged aerial incendiary bomb attack. Note swimming pool.

Undamaged toddlers' swing which does not match age of any of the alleged victims featured

Undamaged toddlers’ swing which does not match the age of any of the alleged victims featured in Panorama

Child's shoe which does not match age of any of the alleged victims featured

Child’s shoe which does not match the age of any of the alleged victims featured in Panorama

3) Can the very limited damage on view in the “playground” (see above) be plausibly be ascribed to an incendiary bomb which, as Wikipedia notes, is capable of damaging an area of 2,500 square yards? Independent investigation is clearly called for.

4) Does 26 August, the date of the alleged attack, fall inside the Syrian school calendar? If it does not, why was this particular “school” open during the summer holidays? Is the same Arab language site cited above correct in stating (in September 2013) that there are “no schools now in operation in Syria, whether public or private”? 

5) Can the alleged injuries depicted in Panorama be plausibly ascribed to a “napalm-type substance”? As noted above, independent medical opinion is clearly called for.

6) Was BBC presenterfilmmaker and journalist Dr Saleyha Ahsan involved in the production or editing of any of the Panorama footage?

7) BBC Audience Services’ account (from paragraph 9) of the editing of Dr Hallam’s words between the BBC News reports of 29 August and 30 September does not explain why the images do not match even prior to the point where the variation in the soundtrack occurs. In this comparison of the two reports, at 24 seconds, as Dr Hallam finishes saying “..some sort of” – i.e. before any editing of her words has occurred – the images on screen are different. Most notably, there is a figure in the background in the 30 September version. Please can you explain why there is this difference in the visuals? Was more than one take of Dr Hallam’s interview made? Was more than one camera person involved in this section, and if so, who were they?

Please answer these points 1 – 7 in full, and solicit independent investigation or medical opinion where noted.

I shall be contacting the police to request they investigate this matter.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

Notes

[1] Equally as implausible as the behaviour of the males in the “tableau” scene is that of the man in the white t-shirt (second from left below) in the segment of Panorama from 33:38 to 33:46. This person would appear to be the alleged teacher pictured above (Section 6) and who is interviewed in this ITN-screened footage.  (Note added 5 April 2014)

whitetshirt

The demeanour of the person with the exposed back (centre, above) seems remarkably placid as he walks behind Ian Pannell at 33:22 and stands stock still for at least 20 seconds, bearing out former UK ambassador Craig Murray’s observation on the Panorama report: “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.” (Note added 9 April 2014)

[2] I did not, as you suggest, claim that these photos were taken at Hand in Hand’s hospital, nor that they show the same alleged victims featured in Panorama. You indeed state in your response to section 9, “We know some of the victims did not come to this particular hospital”.

[3] Video of burning napalm from 01:44 here.

[4] In 2012, as Chairman of the Arab Institute for Clinical Excellence, Dr al-Kurdi addressed the Friends of Syria summit, as reported by Aljazeera. Dr Hallam’s father is therefore clearly someone who does far more than merely take “an interest in” events in Syria.

[5] Hand in Hand for Syria has recently removed the three red stars from its logo, however the previous version can readily be found using Google image search. (this note added 19 March 2014)

BBC response to second letter of complaint

On 18 February 2014 BBC Audience Services provided this response to my letter of 30 January 2014.

Note 

This latest response is authored personally by Ian Pannell. This is clear from viewing the file properties of the Word document. Further, there are marked stylistic similarities between it and BBC Audience Services’s first reply of 2 December 2013, indicating that this too was very likely written by Ian Pannell.

It cannot be correct that complaints to the BBC should be answered by the person who is in large part their subject; there is then no oversight, which is surely the essence of the complaints process.

Second letter of complaint to BBC

Dear Gemma

Reference CAS-2348765-00RRYX

Thank you for your reply of 2 December 2013 to my letter of complaint of 4 October 2013. However it does not satisfactorily address my concerns.

You have responded to only some of the points I raised. Notably, you have not addressed:

  1. The BBC’s failure to investigate and inform its viewers of the political affiliations of Dr Rola Hallam and her charity Hand in Hand for Syria, and Dr Hallam’s putative family connections, through her father Dr Mousa  Al-Kurdi, to the Syrian National Council [1];
  2. The serious doubts over whether the scene of the “incendiary bomb” attack is in fact a school, rather than, as seems abundantly plain, a private residence with a swimming pool which has been clumsily stage-dressed with a single toddlers’ swing and a little girl’s shoe (which do not match the age range of the teenage “students” presented as victims);
  3. Whether the limited damage on view in the “playground”/courtyard  can plausibly be ascribed to an incendiary bomb which, as Wikipedia notes, is capable of damaging an area of 2,500 square yards;
  4. Whether 26 August, the date of the alleged attack, falls inside the Syrian school calendar, and if it does not, why this particular “school” would be populated by students during the summer holidays;
  5. Whether the nature of the alleged injuries on display can plausibly be ascribed to a “napalm-type substance”, such as you assert was used;
  6. Whether the BBC presenterfilmmakerjournalist and doctor Saleyha Ahsan, who features in the reports, had any involvement in the production or editing any of the footage.

Please address each of the above points specifically in your reply to this letter.

You also answer questions I did not ask and address points I did not make:

  • You state “we are entirely satisfied that Dr Rola is a medical doctor and was, as we described, working at the time in Syria for the registered charity hand in Hand for Syria, again as we described”, none of which I disputed.
  • Regarding Dr Ahsan’s words “more coming? More? More?” over the sequence of the man (whom you describe as a “boy”) in the tattered blue shirt climbing down from the back of the truck, you state “this is the exact point at which she said this. This is what she said, this is what happened”. Again, this was not at issue, my point was that the sequencing of this chronologically earlier footage, prominently featuring  the words “more coming”, after chronologically later footage of the same man entering the hospital seems quite clearly designed to misleadingly create the impression of a larger number of alleged casualties than was in fact present.
  • Your statement that Dr Hallam’s charity Hand in Hand for Syria “confirm that both reports [of 29 August and 30 September] were authentic fair, and absolutely accurate” either misunderstands or ignores the fact that it is the independence and honesty of this charity and its representatives that is at issue.

Your account of the editing of Dr Hallam’s words between the reports of 29 August and 30 September does not explain why the images do not match even prior to the point where the variation in the soundtrack occurs. In this side by side comparison of the two reports, at 24 seconds, as Dr Hallam finishes saying “..some sort of” – i.e. before any editing of her words has occurred – the images on screen are different. Most notably, there is a figure in the background in the 30 September version. Please can you explain why there is this difference in the visuals? I repeat the questions from my earlier complaint: was more than one take of Dr Hallam’s interview made? Was more than one camera person involved in this section, and if so, who were they? Please answer these questions.

Since my first letter I have watched the full Panorama programme Saving Syria’s Children (You Tube version here) which, in conjunction with reference to related sources, provides further clear indications that the alleged “incendiary bomb” incident and its aftermath are fabrications. I am sure you will appreciate that a full clarification of this matter is of vital importance to the credibility of the BBC’s news service.

Please respond using the numbered section headings to ensure that all points are addressed:

  1. Date of the alleged attack
  2. Discrepancies in the accounts of the first victims to arrive at the hospital
  3. Discrepancies in the accounts of the baby’s injuries
  4. No suggestion that the baby with “80% burns” died
  5. Discrepancies in the accounts of the father’s injuries
  6. All alleged victims retained their eyebrows
  7. Teenagers who allegedly died appear among the least injured
  8. Other discrepancies relating to the injuries of alleged victims
  9. Discrepancies in the accounts of numbers of alleged dead and injured
  10. Adult and young child fatalities identified in one account only
  11. Same woman depicted arriving twice at the hospital
  12. Discrepancies relating to Anas Said Ali
  13. Number of bombs
  14. Rumours of car crash in two accounts only
  15. Identification of the school and headmaster
  16. Sequencing of events in Panorama
  17. Siham Kanbari and her father
  18. English spoken extensively throughout hospital scenes
  19. Non-BBC footage of scenes at the hospital
  20. Dr Ahsan’s visit to the school
  21. Request for complaints information
  22. Notification of further action

All the timings below relate to the BBC Panorama programme Saving Syria’s Children, broadcast on 30 September 2013, unless indicated otherwise. (You Tube version here).

1. Date of the alleged attack

The date of the alleged incendiary bomb attack on the school is stated by several sources, including Ian Pannell’s Twitter account and the website of the charity Hand in Hand for Syria to be Monday 26 August.

However, in an article for the Foreign Policy website Dr Ahsan gives the date of the incident as 27 August.

A series of photographs clearly purporting to depict victims from the same incident was uploaded to the London-based website Demotix on August 25, the day prior to the alleged attack.

The captions in the Demotix photos describe victims suffering from “suspected Napalm or White Phosphorous burns” and state that they “were students in the Orme countryside of Western Aleppo.” There can be little doubt that the images purport to be of victims of the incident featured in Panorama.

The discrepancy between the dates cannot be the result of a difference between time zones, as (a) Syria is just two hours ahead of the UK and (b) we are told in Ian Pannell’s 29 August BBC News report that the attack took place “at the end of the school day”. Further, the Demotix photos purport to represent victims being treated at or rushed to Bab al-Hawa border hospital, the destination of victims following their initial treatment at the field hospital, as clearly stated by Dr Rola Hallam in Panorama at 38:05; as can be seen a few moments later the first two ambulances do not set out for this destination until nightfall.

Posts on the Facebook accounts of both the photographer Amer Alfaj [2] and Bab al-Hawa hospital for 26 August feature photograph number 17 from Alfaj’s Demotix set accompanied by Arabic text which, according to different translation websites, describes the alleged attack on the school as having happened either “yesterday” (i.e. 25 August) or “the day before yesterday” (i.e. 24 August).

Correction, 20 April 2014: the relevant Facebook posts of Amer Alfaj and Bab al-Hawa hospital are dated 28 August. 

I contacted Demotix to confirm the date and time of the upload of Alfaj’s photo set but have not received a reply.

2. Discrepancies in the accounts of the first victims to arrive at the hospital

In Panorama the first victims seen to arrive at the hospital are the baby and his father. Ian Pannells’s narration states (31:01):

“A seven month old baby boy has been brought in with severe burns. No-one’s quite sure what’s happened.”

The baby is seen being treated by the British BBC presenter, filmmaker, journalist and doctor Saleyha Ahsan, shortly before a stream of other casualties begins arriving.

This same sequence of the baby and father arriving first, followed by other victims, is clearly stated in several accounts; by Ian Pannell in his BBC News article of 30 September:

“Within an hour of being there we received the first sign of what was to come. A seven-month old baby boy arrived, his pink face was blistered and raw. His father was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son as the staff rushed to help. The British doctors were hearing rumours that there were more cases on the way. Soon, dozens of people, mostly teenagers, were being rushed in on stretchers with napalm-like burns.”

by Dr Rola Hallam, the other British doctor present, at this debate (from 22:17):

“We were working in the emergency department when a baby, a seven month old, came in with 80% burns, with his dad who also had a burnt face, and we thought it was an isolated case, he was telling us about how a plane had flown over their house and suddenly his house caught fire. So were dealing with the baby thinking it’s a case in isolation and suddenly within literally a few minutes we were inundated with many severely burnt teenagers who had come in saying that their school had just been attacked by the same aeroplane, by the same incendiary weapon as the father and his baby, and so we ended up in a kind of a mass casualty event where a very small team of doctors and nurses working in a makeshift hospital were trying to deal with about 40 injured teenagers and family members that arrived all within about half an hour.”

by this CNN report:

“It started with a baby. Within minutes, dozens of teenagers and children staggered in”.

and by Dr Ahsan, in an interview in the Romford Recorder:

“The day of the bombing was actually quite quiet. Then an eight-month-old baby came in with nasty scolds [sic] on his legs. My Arabic is limited so I wasn’t able to communicate with the parents about what happened. Then within two or three minutes everything went crazy, it was absolute mayhem. Children were coming in left, right and centre and there was a lot of panic. About 40 people were injured and 10 were killed.”

However in an interview with Australian broadcaster ABC on 27 November Dr Ahsan’s story has entirely changed. There is no mention whatsoever of the baby and his father, instead Dr Ahsan now claims that it was “quite a quiet day” prior to the arrival of 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 (from 02:44):

“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 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 ukhti’ which means ‘sister’ in Arabic. So I grabbed him and started to walk him out and as I was walking I realised that ‘hold on, that bed’s taken by another patient and the two beds in the other room are taken’ and then I sort of disengaged from the boy for a second and just looked up, and in front  of my eyes the place was heaving and it had happened in moments as, as I’m describing it, it happened like that, suddenly we were overflowing with patients, we didn’t know what we were dealing with initially and then 40 badly-burnt, majority  kids, ranging from the ages of 14 to 18 started to descend upon us en masse, and my initial thought in those first few seconds, because you can imagine my mind’s racing is ‘we’re under attack’.”

In earlier accounts for Foreign Policy and The Independent Dr Ahsan had combined the narrative of the baby (although notably without any mention of his father) with that of the “ghostly” boy with the laceration, who in these versions appears at her side while she is attending to the infant.

It is also noteworthy that in the Romford Recorder Dr Ahsan speaks about being unable to communicate with the baby’s “parents”, clearly indicating that both the father and mother were present, however none of the many other accounts of the incident makes any mention of the child’s mother and she is not in evidence in the Panorama footage.

The BBC has a duty to investigate such deeply troubling discrepancies.

3. Discrepancies in the accounts of the baby’s injuries

The accounts given of the baby’s injuries by those present at the hospital vary considerably.

Dr Hallam states at the Save the Children event in November (22:20):

“…a baby, a seven month old, came in with 80% burns, with his dad who also had a burnt face…”

In his 30 September BBC News article Ian Pannell writes:

“A seven-month old baby boy arrived, his pink face was blistered and raw. His father was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son as the staff rushed to help.”

Dr Ahsan gives varying accounts. For Foreign Policy she writes:

“An eight-month-old baby lay on one of the trolleys, crying in pain. He had a reddened face, and some minor evidence of early blistering on his forehead. The skin had slightly peeled on his right foot, and his left leg was red and hot to touch. It looked like he had been scalded.”

In The Independent:

“I ran down the stairs to the sparse ‘re-sus’ room – the patient was an eight-month-old baby. His face looked scalded and the left leg was red”.

And in the Romford Recorder:

“Then an eight-month-old baby came in with nasty scolds [sic] on his legs. My Arabic is limited so I wasn’t able to communicate with the parents about what happened.”

Dr Hallam’s reference to “80% burns” precisely denotes that the burns covered virtually all of the child’s body area.

However Pannell’s article and Dr Ahsan’s accounts equally clearly indicate that the child’s burns were restricted to specific parts of his body, and between even these accounts there are contradictions as to which part or parts of the baby were burned. Pannell’s article mentions only the face, whereas in two of her three accounts above Dr Ahsan also mentions the child’s left leg. In the Romford Recorder account Dr Ahsan speaks about “nasty scolds [sic]” on the child’s “legs”, whereas both of her other accounts had referred specifically just to the left leg, and does not mention the face at all. In her Foreign Policy piece she also refers to the child’s forehead and right foot, unmentioned elsewhere.

In fact, the baby seen in Panorama from around 30:52 appears to be entirely unscathed. There is, perhaps, some very slight discolouration to the right side of his face visible at 31:19 and a brown mark, resembling a stain, visible on his left shoulder at 31:21.

Moreover, if it were the case that the baby was indeed suffering “severe burns” of up to 80%, Dr Ahsan’s recommendation at 31:19 that “this baby needs to be picked up” would seem to be wholly inappropriate.

4. No suggestion that the baby with “80% burns” died

The term “80% burns” used by Dr Hallam in reference to the baby’s injuries  invokes the rule of nines which is applied only to more serious second and third degree burns.

Dr Hallam states in this video report (03:13):

“…to be honest, and it breaks my heart to even say this, but I.. there’ll be very few of them who will survive this, even who are alive now, they had such extensive burns and as soon as it becomes a burn over 50%, it’s, it’s, even in the best burns centres in the world, they’ve got a very high chance of , of death”.

The accompanying article states:

“Both Hallam and Ahsan said they would expect very few of their patients to survive for any amount of time”.

In her ABC interview Dr Ahsan states (09:00):

“What I dealt with in Syria were up to 40 very severely burned people with up to 70 to 80 percent burns, second to third degree, and the younger you are the worse chances you have of surviving.”

However despite the severity of a diagnosis of “80% burns” and the grim prognoses offered above by Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan for victims with burns of lesser degree than 80%, including Dr Ahsan’s statement that “the younger you are the worse chances you have of surviving”, no account that I am aware of alleges that the baby was among those who died from their injuries.

5. Discrepancies in the accounts of the father’s injuries

A man who would appear to be identified as the baby’s father appears over Dr Ahsan’s left shoulder at 31:16, and then again from 31:31, seated on the pallet upon which his son previously lay, holding the child and conversing animatedly but normally with someone off-screen. This person is quite clearly entirely unscathed.

The discrepancy between these scenes and Ian Pannell’s description of the father who “was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son” and Dr Hallam’s account of the child’s “dad who also had a burnt face” is stark and demands explanation.

6. All alleged victims retained their eyebrows

At 37:53 Dr Hallam states “Most of the people have got 70 to 90% burns”. Ian Pannell writes  “Their clothes were burnt, their bodies charred and in some cases their hair had melted”.

However all of the alleged incendiary bomb victims featured in Saving Syria’s Children appear to have retained their eyebrows, despite in many cases having white cream applied to their faces, presumably representing treatment for facial burns.

Alleged victim Siham Kanbari’s eyebrows are pristine, both in the sequences of her on the day of the alleged attack from 37:08 and in those commencing at 43:00 in which the Panorama team revisits her and Ahmed Darwish “a few weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”.

The alleged teacher interviewed at 00:42 in this ITN-screened footage shot at the hospital on the day of the alleged attack also has completely undamaged eyebrows.

All three teenage alleged fatalities listed at 42:19 (Mohammed Kenas, Anas Said Ali and Lutfi Arsi) have entirely unburned eyebrows.

7. Teenagers who allegedly died appear among the least injured

At 42:19 Ian Pannell’s Panorama narration states:

“With appalling injuries and limited medical care some of the teenagers didn’t survive. Mohammed Kenas 14 years old, he died on the way to hospital in Turkey. Anas Said Ali, 18, he’d been waiting to pick up his little sister from school; and 14 year old Lutfi Arsi who was in the playground when the bomb landed. Three of the ten children who died.”

It is striking that these boys appear to be among the most unscathed alleged victims present at the hospital. As noted in 16. below, in the chronologically latest sequence to feature Lutfi Arsi, from 33:05 – 33:44, the boy appears to be in no distress as he calmly inspects some of his fellow alleged victims, helpfully directs a member of staff towards them, and then ambles across the room, pulls up a chair and takes a seat.

Arsi’s relaxed, even bored, behaviour very much recalls that of the boy in the white shirt referenced in my original letter of complaint (paragraph 6), and who you concede in your reply (paragraph 5) “appears relatively unscathed”.

Anas Said Ali is incapacitated so little upon his arrival as to be able to step down from the back of a truck (2:08) and to then walk briskly towards, and then canter into, the hospital (Panorama, 31:58 and 32:15).

Mohammed Kenas, who Ian Pannell hyperbolically describes (3:26) as “gasping for water”, appears alert and for the most part placid in all his Panorama appearances, for example at 37:42, and by no means as seemingly badly injured as many other of the alleged casualties featured.

8. Other discrepancies relating to the injuries of alleged victims

In relation to the changing injuries of Ahmed Darwish you state in your reply (paragraph 6) that “burns of this kind continue to deteriorate for hours and days after the incident”.

However, while in the sequences filmed “a few weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey” Ahmed has prominent black scabs on his lips, it is abundantly clear that in the sequences filmed on the day of the alleged attack (33:50 in Panorama, 02:45 in the 29 August BBC report and 00:27 in this CNN report) he has no burns whatsoever to his mouth – a view presumably shared by the medics present at the scene, who covered much of the boy’s torso and arms in white cream but left his mouth and lips free of it.

At 38:17, in relation to the severity of the alleged casualties’ burns, Dr Ahsan states “they’re all 50 and above – he’s 86”. The adolescent indicated is demonstrating no distress, either here or during his other appearances, including at 32:26, where his ambling gait seems markedly casual, and at 37:52 where he is seen walking down a corridor attached to a drip.

9. Discrepancies in the accounts of numbers of alleged dead and injured

In most accounts, the number of alleged fatalities resulting from the alleged incendiary bomb attack is between eight and ten, with it generally being stated that these figures relate to “students” or “children”. However there is frequently a lack of clarity as to whether the numbers claimed dead perished at the scene of the alleged attack or later as a result of their injuries.

The charity Hand in Hand for Syria states on 31 August: “Seven students are thought to have died on the day, the youngest just six years old, along with their 28 year old teacher”. Ian Pannell states on 30 September “Ten children died in the attack”. Both accounts suggest that the fatalities occurred at the school. [3]

However in Panorama (42:19) Pannell describes Mohammed Kenas, Anas Said Ali and Lutfi Arsi, all of whom survived the alleged bombing to be treated at the hospital, and allegedly dying subsequently of their injuries, as “Three of the ten children who died”.

Dr Ahsan’s accounts vary between three and twelve student deaths resulting from the alleged incident. An account by IB Times UK states that “a half-tonne bomb.. …killed 37 people at a school in the northern province of Aleppo.”

Accounts of the numbers allegedly injured also vary. The lowest number is provided by Dr Ahsan on 29 September: “We now know 19 students suffered severe burns that day”, qualifying that these were casualties “requiring transfer to Turkey”. Ian Pannell writes a day later “the hospital admitted 30 patients that day”. Hand in Hand for Syria on 31 August and CNN on 12 October report “approximately fifty of the victims were brought to the nearest hospital” and “50 other people suffered burns” [4] respectively.

In relation to the injured, Dr Ahsan’s own accounts once more vary (my italics):

  1. Thirty students were severely burned, three of them fatally on the spot.” Why doctors in Syria have become high-value targets, 28 September 2013
  2. 19 students suffered severe burns that day, requiring transfer to Turkey” An English doctor in Syria: Pity the children – the horror I saw, 29 September 2013
  3. “Thirty students were severely burned and three of them died later from their wounds.” In Syria, Doctors Beware, 3 October 2013
  4. “Thirty students arrived severely burned, 3 killed instantly. A further 8 have died from their injuries.” Saving Syria’s children, 6 November 2013
  5. “Three pupils were killed instantly and of the 30 who arrived severely burned eight have since died from their injuries.” Syria’s children need an end to this conflict, 25 November 2013
  6. “..and then 40 badly-burnt, majority  kids, ranging from the ages of 14 to 18 started to descend upon us en masse” A doctor’s testimony from the war in Syria , 27 November 2013

In addition to the inconsistencies over the number alleged injured, in 1) above Dr Ahsan claims that three of a group of thirty severely burned students died “on the spot”, implying that 27 students arrived at the hospital for treatment, whereas in 3), 4) and 5) she states or implies that a group of thirty severely burned students arrived at the hospital, with either three or eight subsequently dying of their injuries.

In 1), 4) and 5) Dr Ahsan states that three students were killed “on the spot” or “instantly”, contradicting Hand in Hand’s report that “Seven students are thought to have died on the day” and Ian Pannell’s statement that “Ten children died in the attack” (where “on the day”  and “in the attack” are taken to mean at the scene of the alleged bombing, rather than later of their injuries).

If it were indeed the case that either “seven students” or “ten children” died at the scene of the alleged bombing, and that Dr Ahsan is correct in 4) and 5) in stating that a further eight subsequently died from their injuries, then by 25 November when Dr Ahsan wrote 5) (which included news of Siham’s death on 20 October) the tally of student deaths alone should have been known to have been at least either 16 or 19, rather than the twelve Dr Ahsan reports.

Furthermore, assuming it were indeed the case that Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan dealt with “up to 40 very severely burned people with up to 70 to 80 percent burns, second to third degree” [5] and that their judgement was sound in stating that “they would expect very few of their patients to survive for any amount of time” (among the other dire prognoses cited in 4. above), it is extremely striking that by 25 November the tally of dead is as low as the 12 reported by Dr Ahsan in 5). [6]

10. Adult and young child fatalities identified in one account only

The account provided by the charity Hand in Hand for Syria cited in 9. above is the only one I am aware of to specifically identify an adult and a young child fatality:

“Seven students are thought to have died on the day, the youngest just six years old, along with their 28 year old teacher”.

When one considers the high number of adult alleged victims depicted in Panorama, many of whom appear far more seriously injured than the teenagers, it is striking that neither the BBC nor any other account I am aware of identifies any adult fatalities.

It is also striking that none of the alleged casualties featured in “Saving Syria’s Children” are close in age to the six year old mentioned in this report.

Correction, 8 February 2014: Dr Hallam indicates another adult fatality at 38:57 in ‘Saving Syria’s Children‘ and in the BBC News report of 30 September, a “gentleman” who allegedly died “on transfer to Bab al-Hawa” and of whom Dr Hallam states “I think his face is going to actually stay with me for quite a long time”.

11. Same woman depicted arriving twice at the hospital

The same woman is depicted arriving at the hospital twice under two entirely different sets of circumstances.

The woman, wearing a black dress with a distinctive gold flower pattern, is shown making an urgent and dramatic arrival at the hospital at 36:00. Her face is covered in white cream, and she is accompanied by a man claiming to be her father. At 36:06 Dr Hallam beckons the pair, presumably representing an invitation to enter the hospital for treatment, but they remain at the gate in order to address the camera. At first the woman’s demeanour resembles that of a grief-stricken mourner, then from 36:19 she begins to demonstrate violent anger, shouting towards the camera and stamping her foot. None of this behaviour seems congruent with physical pain.

In the very next shot, at 36:42, the same woman, now without any cream on her face, is seen arriving at the same hospital gates, this time in an ambulance, from which she is transported by stretcher.

Please can you explain how this is possible?

A similarly dressed person who would appear to be the same woman is also featured from 00:17 in this uncredited footage from Al Jazeera, again appearing emotionally upset rather than in physical pain, and evidently not in so much discomfort that she is unable to give a cogent interview.

12. Discrepancies relating to Anas Said Ali

Anas Said Ali (“Anas Sayyed Ali” in your reply) is a teenage alleged victim of the alleged attack who Dr Ahsan is seen allegedly treating at the hospital in Panorama, and who you state in your reply (paragraph 6) “died a few days later in hospital in Turkey”.

In The Independent Dr Ahsan writes:

“The first bomb had hit a nearby building penetrating three floors and injuring my first patient, the baby. Everyone ran to help. Parents had rushed to the school on the first hit to take their children home. Anas had come for his 14-year-old sister – a student.  She was saved but he was so terribly burnt.”

The clear implication is that Anas was among the group who rushed to the school after the first bomb had struck. This sense is corroborated by a Human Rights Watch report:

“One 15-year-old boy had gone to pick up his sister from school after a bomb fell on an apartment building nearby.”

However a distinctly different account is provided by the Panorama narration at 42:48, which states that Anas had “been waiting to pick up his little sister from school”. This implies that Anas was at the school prior to any bombing having occurred, as part of the routine task of collecting his sister.

In the same Independent article Dr Ahsan mentions Anas’ father:

“One of my patients, Anas Said Ali, 18, was so badly burnt his hair had melted, his body still emanating heat.  ‘I want to sleep,’ he kept saying. His father stood by, patient and quiet – himself in shock. Anas was tall, just like his father and the only boy in his family with three younger sisters.”

Dr Ahsan also mentions Anas’ father in her ABC interview (05:53):

“There was a boy, there was a boy, 18 years old, his name was Anas, and he was the only son of his family, he was quite tall, I couldn’t make out his face because his eyes were swollen and almost closed, his hair was almost melted and he had this black tarry stuff stuck to his head and his face and he just kept saying ‘I want to sleep, I want to sleep’, his dad was standing near him, his dad was so quiet and keeping himself together for his son and we managed to give him pain killers, got fluids into him as soon as possible, was trying to cool him down, and he’s the only son, the eldest kid and he died in Turkey.”

Anas appears many times in Panorama [7], however no-one who could plausibly be said to be Anas’ father is present in any of the sequences in which he features. In particular, one would most certainly expect his concerned father to be present as Anas is being transported by stretcher out of the hospital (38:06 – 38:11).

In addition to the reference in her ABC interview to Anas’ hair, in her Independent article Dr Ahsan states:

“One of my patients, Anas Said Ali, 18, was so badly burnt his hair had melted”

However writing for Foreign Policy she clearly states that the only boy with melted hair that she treated was named Mohammed:

“I treated five teenage boys: One of them, Mohammed, was so badly burned that his hair had melted.”

13. Number of bombs

Several accounts, including ones given by Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan, state that prior to the alleged bombing of the school there was an initial attack on a residential dwelling.

Dr Ahsan writes in The Independent:

“The first bomb had hit a nearby building penetrating three floors and injuring my first patient, the baby.”

An alleged teacher at the school (here described as a “college”) states in this interview (00:47):

“We had a college where we were teaching students. An aircraft bombed a house close to the college and we tried to leave quickly, so we wouldn’t be injured but it seems this was our fate. We gathered with the students because naturally we wanted to leave the area, then the aircraft attacked us.”

Dr Hallam states at the Save The Children event (22:17):

“We were working in the emergency department when a baby, a seven month old, came in with 80% burns, with his dad who also had a burnt face, and we thought it was an isolated case, he was telling us about how a plane had flown over their house and suddenly his house caught fire.”

Paul Adrian Raymond, writing for The Daily Beast, states:

“The first bomb fell a hundred meters down the road, hitting the residential building where Siham’s uncle lived and setting it on fire.”

Dr Hallam explicitly states that the baby’s father “was telling us about how a plane had flown over their house and suddenly his house caught fire”, clearly indicating that information about the prior bombing of a residential dwelling was in currency in the hospital on the day of the alleged incident. Yet the Panorama narration at the point that the baby is being treated specifically states “no-one’s quite sure what’s happened” and there is no reference to an earlier bomb anywhere in the programme or in either of the BBC News reports of 29 August or 30 September.

The above accounts are ambiguous as to whether the initial alleged target was a house occupied by a single family or a larger residential building, with at least three floors according to Dr Ahsan. If the former is the case, then Raymond’s statement that the initial target was the home of Siham’s uncle could suggest the coincidence that Siham’s uncle and the baby’s father are the same person; if the latter, that Siham’s uncle and the baby’s father lived in the same residential building.

Further, if local residents were alerted by an earlier bomb on a residential building, it is very surprising that no still or video images of the alleged bombing of the school, or the aircraft that allegedly carried it out, exist.

14. Rumours of car crash in two accounts only

In her Foreign Policy article Dr Ahsan writes:

“The initial explanation of what had caused the [baby’s] injuries was confusing – I heard something about a car crash.”

Similarly, in The Independent she writes:

“The exact cause of injury was unclear, the initial translations mentioned a car crash.”

Neither Panorama nor any other account of the day that I am aware of, including others by Dr Ahsan herself, mention that the initial talk at the hospital was of a car accident.

15. Identification of the school and headmaster 

Writing on 30 September Ian Pannell states “The headmaster said he felt helpless. He was too afraid to give his name.” Presumably it is out of consideration for such fears that the BBC has also not to date revealed the name or the precise location of the school.

However in a number of articles and interviews [8] from 28 September onwards Dr Ahsan openly names the school as the private Iqraa Institute and in her Independent article of 29 September, the day before Pannell’s piece above, names the head teacher as Mohammed Abu Omar.

The location of the school is reported variously as “Orum Alkubra in Aleppo province”, “the Orme countryside of Western Aleppo”, “Awram al-Koubra, outside Aleppo” and “Urm Al Kubra, a village in the Aleppo countryside”. Please can you confirm the location of the school?

16. Sequencing of events in Panorama

As noted in my first letter, the sequences of the man in the tattered blue shirt arriving at and then entering the hospital in Ian Pannell’s 29 August BBC News report are inverted, in my view misleadingly.

In the full Panorama programme the footage of alleged victims arriving at and being treated at the makeshift hospital is edited so extensively as to cast doubt as to whether any of the events seen in this section in fact occurred in the sequence in which they are shown. Some examples are as follows:

a) In the sequence featuring the tableau of alleged male victims inside the hospital (34:19 – 34:36), from 34:19 to 34:27 the boy in white reaches for a chair, pulls it towards him and sits on it. At 34:27 there is an edit, following which a chronologically earlier sequence, starting with the man in the tattered blue shirt making his distinctive arm gesture [9] runs up until 34:36, cutting off just as the boy in white rises to his feet and several seconds before he reaches for the chair. The audio soundtrack overlaps the edit at 34:27 so it is not perhaps immediately evident that this inversion has occurred, however the chair very clearly “jumps” back to its original position at this point.

The true chronological sequence can be seen in the BBC News report of 29 August from 3:02 to 3:19 (although here cutting just before the boy in white pulls the chair towards him and sits on it). [10]

b) The audio soundtrack accompanying the tableau sequence in Panorama has also been edited. From 34: 19 to 34:24, over the image of Lutfi Arsi bobbing and weaving his head, Dr Ahsan narrates “He looks like he’s about thirteen, fourteen or fifteen – just a kid”; then from 34: 25 to 34:28 audio of Dr Ahsan stating “How will you treat him, how will you treat him? Nothing?” – quite clearly taken from a point either chronologically earlier or later than her immediately preceding words – is overlaid onto the final moments of the same shot of Lutfi Arsi and bridges the video edit at 34:27.

c) The sequence of shots featuring 14 year old Lutfi Arsi, identifiable by his yellow “Super 9” t-shirt, has also been inverted. He is seen in the following sections:

  1. 33:05 – 33:44 – milling around among other alleged casualties inside the hospital, directing a member of staff towards other alleged casualties, and then walking towards the window where he casually pulls up a chair and sits on it. In this sequence he is wearing only underpants on the lower part of his body.
  2. 34:06 – 34:13 – being carried  into the hospital, jeans lowered somewhat
  3. 34:20 – 34:27 – among the main tableau, jeans lowered somewhat
  4. 35:01 – in the process of having his jeans removed
  5. 35:12 – 35:14 – water being poured over him, jeans lowered somewhat

It is evident that the earliest scene in which Arsi appears in Panorama (33:05 – 33:44, after his jeans have been removed) was the last of all of the sequences featuring him to be filmed.

d) In a single thirteen second sequence (36:44 – 36:57) alleged victim Anas Said Ali is seen in three distinct and non-consecutive stages of his alleged treatment: prostrate on a hospital bed, heavily bandaged (36:44 – 36:47); sitting up on a different bed in a different room, unbandaged (36:47 – 36:50, in the background of the shot); and lying face down being treated by Dr Ahsan, exclaiming “I’m so bad, so bad” (36:51 – 36:57).

In every case, what is the purpose of placing these images and/or soundtrack segments in a non-chronological sequence?

17. Siham Kanbari and her father

The sequence featuring the alleged casualty, the teenage girl Siham Kanbari, on the day of the alleged attack commences at around 37 minutes. The man in the green polo shirt who is allegedly her father offers a very unimpassioned demonstration of concern for his daughter.

Despite Dr Hallam’s plea at 37:19 for Siham’s “father” to stand aside so she can work, there is plenty of time for a wide, lingering shot of Siham to be filmed by the Panorama team from 37:08 to 37:14, unencumbered either by her father attempting to comfort his daughter or by any medics attempting to treat her. (Dr Hallam’s injunction at 34:57 to “get anyone who isn’t a patient out of here” clearly does not apply to film crews).

Paul Adrian Raymond describes meeting Siham’s father, Ridwan Qambari (presumably an alternative transliteration of ‘Kanbari’), in Reyhanli, Turkey, close to the Syrian border, on the night following his daughter’s death and “drinking endless cups of coffee” with him “as the hours passed”.

contacted Raymond on December 26 to clarify whether the Mr Qambari he claims to have met is the man in the green shirt at Siham’s bedside in Panorama, and to confirm the date of the meeting in order verify the date of Siham’s death [11] but have not received a reply.

As noted in 6. above, Siham’s eyebrows are undamaged, both here and in the sequences of her commencing at 43:00.

18. English spoken extensively throughout hospital scenes

During the scenes between the arrival of the baby at the hospital at 30:54 and the departure of the first two ambulances transporting alleged casualties to Bab al-Hawa, Dr Ahsan speaks in English extensively, conversing with other medics at the hospital over matters of treatment, with an alleged casualty (Anas Said Ali, 36:52) and with an alleged casualty’s family member (the baby’s father, 31:18) [12]. Anas Said Ali, highly incongruously, also speaks in English (“I’m so bad, so bad!”, 36:51).

Both Dr Ahan and Dr Hallam also provide frequent, perfectly enunciated narration and expository pieces to camera on the unfolding events, for example from 32:04 – 32:15 Dr Ahsan stands still and narrates to camera “there’s dozens of people that have just been rushed in covered in burns and some white powder, dust, their clothes are hanging off them” rather than, as one might expect, rushing to begin treating the arrivals.

The implausibility of Dr Hallam’s taking time out from an alleged emergency situation to provide a lengthy piece to camera [13] is even more striking.

Dr Ahsan clearly acknowledges her “limited” Arabic in more than one account. However, the extent to which she is able to communicate in English to Syrian medics who possess only “some broken English”, her exchanges in English with the baby’s father and Anas Said Ali, the latter’s own incongruous use of English, and the priority given by both Dr Ahsan and Dr Hallam to providing clear narration for the benefit of the Panorama team amidst the chaos of an alleged mass casualty situation, seems extremely implausible.

19. Non-BBC footage of scenes at the hospital

The Panorama audience is led to understand that a BBC film crew happened fortuitously to be at the hospital when the victims of the attack began arriving and so were uniquely positioned to record the scenario. However a considerable amount of what is presumably non-BBC footage from the event exists, including interior and exterior shots of the hospital and interviews with alleged victims, some of which is included in these reports:

Paul Adrian Raymond states that “Mustafa Haid, 34, a local human rights activist [14], went to film the scene.”

Haid has clarified in correspondence with me that he has not published any of the footage he claims to have shot. This suggests that there were at least three individuals or groups filming independently at the hospital – Haid, the BBC Panorama crew, plus the individual/s or group/s which took the film which appears in the above reports. The presence of so many camera people and teams adds strongly to the suggestion that the event was anticipated.

Haid has not responded to my request of 7 January to see the footage he claims to have shot.

20. Dr Ahsan’s visit to the school

In Raymond’s article it is stated that Dr Ahsan visited the school two days after the attack [15]. She is quoted:

“The ground directly hit by the bomb was still smoking and the area hot, two days after the event. The same acidic, acrid smell hung over the school and in the rubble where the bomb had hit.”

Ian Pannell also states “Two days after the attack we went to the school”. However there is no smoke visible in his report from the scene (from 00:30), filmed on the same day as Dr Ahsan’s visit .

In another account of her visit to the school Dr Ahsan writes:

“We saw a white gel, clinging to the walls. This same jellied fuel stuck to the students’ skin, increasing the level of injury.”

There is no white gel visible on the walls in Pannell’s film of the same day.

21. Request for complaints information

Can you please say whether the BBC has received any other complaints specifically over the authenticity of footage contained in “Saving Syria’s Children” and/or related BBC News reports, and if so how many?

I note that to date, according to the BBC News website, Ian Pannell has not produced any reports for the BBC since 31 October and cameraman Darren Conway since “Saving Syria’s Children” on 30 September. What are the reasons for this, please?

22. Notification of further action

As before, I shall be sharing the above observations widely.

I am lodging formal complaints with the General Medical Council against Dr Rola Hallam and Dr Saleyha Ahsan under the rubric of fraud or dishonesty for their participation in the fabrication of an atrocity.

I also wish to inform you that I do not own a television license and that, as the BBC has clearly broadcast a fabricated atrocity in a self-evident contravention of its most basic editorial guidelines, I do not intend to purchase one.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

NOTES

[1] In response to questions at 52:15 at this event on 27 November 2013, Dr Hallam explicitly states of her father that “he is certainly not a member of the Syrian National Council”. However in this February 2013 article Dr Saleyha Ahsan writes:

“The crisis has had a very personal impact on Rola’s family. Her father, also a doctor, helped coordinate medical logistics from inside Syria in the early days of the uprising. He is now involved politically with the Syrian National Council”.

The article makes it clear that the charity Hand in Hand for Syria was “formed by members of the Syrian disapora”. (This note added 8 February 2014)  

[2] The You Tube channel and Facebook account of Amer Alfaj, who works at Bab al-Hawa hospital, suggest sympathy with Syrian opposition forces.

[3] Ian Pannell’s 29 August BBC news report is clear in alleging that deaths occurred at the scene, translating the school’s alleged headmaster as saying (01:03) “There were dead people, people burning and people running away”.

Paul Adrian Raymond similarly reports a teacher’s account of four people having “already burned to death” at the school. Raymond quotes the teacher directly: “Some of the corpses, it was not clear if they were adult or child, boy or girl.”

The soundtrack of the 2 October 2013 CNN report Fire fell ‘like’ rain in Syria cited in this section explicitly states (02:09) “eight children died immediately”. (Final paragraph of this note added 8 February 2014)

[4] This report states that it obtained its figures of eight student deaths and 50 others injured from “the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry, which investigates alleged violations of human rights law in Syria. It will issue a report next month.” I emailed the commission on 31 December to request the source of their figures and a copy of their report but have not received a response.

[5] Or as many as 50 according to the Hand in Hand and CNN accounts.

[6] As of 2 February 2014, Dr Ahsan claims that 14 children have died of their injuries in Turkey. Only four victims have been named to date: Mohammed Kenas, Anas Said Ali, Lutfi Arsi and Siham Kanbari. Presumably Dr Ahsan’s revised figure excludes Mohammed Kenas, whom Ian Pannell states in Panorama (42:19) “died on the way to hospital in Turkey”, rather than in Turkey, implying that 11 of the 14 children she refers to are yet to be identified. (This note added 8 February 2014) 

[7] Appearances of Anas Said Ali in “Saving Syria’s Children”, all without his father present:

  • 31:58 – walking towards the hospital, wearing a red shirt
  • 32:15 – running into the hospital, wearing a red shirt
  • 33:07 - 33:46 – prostrate on the hospital floor, then sitting up, wearing a red shirt
  • 34:19 - 34:36 – prostrate on the hospital floor, wearing a red shirt, edit at 34:27
  • 35:01 – sitting up on the hospital floor, wearing a red shirt
  • 35:12 - 35:14 – prostrate on the hospital floor, wearing a red shirt
  • 36:44 – 36:47 – prostrate on a hospital bed, heavily bandaged
  • 36:47 - 36:50 – sitting up on a different bed in a different room, unbandaged, in the background of the shot
  • 36:51 - 36:57 – lying face down being treated by Dr Ahsan and exclaiming “I’m so bad, so bad”
  • 38:06 - 38:11 – being carried out of the hospital on a stretcher to be transported to Bab al-Hawa border hospital
  • 42:32 - 42:40 – sipping water and lying face down on a hospital bed, heavily bandaged

[8] Dr Ahsan’s references to the scene of the alleged incendiary bombing as the Iqraa Institute:

[9] This blog post suggests that this gesture could be interpreted as a half-formed peace sign, as demonstrated in this footage of alleged Syrian opposition supporters apparently staging an atrocity video.

[10] My observations on the implausibility of the behaviour displayed by the alleged victims in these scenes are contained in my first letter of complaint (paragraph 6).

[11] Raymond states that Siham died seven weeks after the alleged incendiary bombing, which read strictly would indicate Monday 14 October. Dr Ahsan states that Siham died on 20 October “nearly two months after she was injured.”

[12] Instances of Dr Ahsan and Dr Hallam speaking English to medics, alleged victims and their relatives:

  • 30:54 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) Careful with the face, don’t hold the face so hard, he’s burnt, you irrigate, hold this, just hold, hold (continues in English under narration)
  •  31:08 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) Have you got a cannula, small cannula for a baby?  This is too big, the baby cannula, this is too big
  •  31:18 (DR AHSAN, TO BABY’S FATHER) OK, OK, this baby needs to be picked up. Are you the dad? Are you the father? Yeah, OK, you sit down, you hold the baby 
  • 34: 25 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) How will you treat him, how will you treat him? Nothing? 
  • 34:38 [DR HALLAM, TO MEDIC - POSSIBLY DR AHSAN] Let me do that, get an IV line in him if you can
  • 34:49 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) So we know we’re in ‘cause the chest wall is rising  so that’s fine OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK 
  • 35:02 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) Has he had any painkillers? Painkiller? Morphine? 
  • 35:07 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) OK, that’s better than nothing, OK 
  • 35:16 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) OK, OK, how, how are we doing with the painkillers?
  • 35:45 (DR AHSAN, TO MEDIC) No, he’s already tubed, he’s already tubed, he’s fine, he needs someone to be supporting his airway 
  • 36:52 (DR AHSAN, TO ALLEGED CASUALTY ANAS SAID ALI) I know you are, I know you are, but you’re in the right place, you’re in the right place OK?

[13] Dr Hallam’s lengthy piece to camera in the midst of an alleged emergency situation (32:26):

“(I need a pause because) it’s just absolute chaos and carnage here, um we’ve had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon, I’m not really sure, (maybe napalm, something similar to that)” bracketed text from other broadcast versions

What appears to be another, presumably subsequent, section of the same piece to camera by Dr Hallam is shown from 35:52 to 36:02:

“Erm we can erm do first aid, we can provide analgesia, erm and any resuscitation required, but no specific treatment”

[14] Haid is in fact a “Beirut-based human rights activist and founder of ‘Dawlaty’, an innovative Syrian organisation” which is “preparing for ‘the day after’ the Civil War”. Haid’s Twitter and Facebook accounts and the Dawlaty Facebook account suggest sympathy with the Syrian opposition.

[15] In an op ed piece of 3 October Dr Ahsan writes:

“This month, Dr. Hallam and I found ourselves in a school that had been hit by a napalm-like bomb. Thirty students were severely burned and three of them died later from their wounds.”

Oddly, there is no mention here of the far more dramatic narrative of Dr Ahsan’s and Dr Hallam’s presence at the hospital, treating the alleged casualties. Read in isolation this piece could seem to be intended to suggest that Dr Ahsan and Dr Hallam were present at the school as it was allegedly being attacked.

BBC response to first letter of complaint

2 December 2013

Dear Mr Stuart

Reference CAS-2348765-90RRYX

Please firstly accept our apologies for the delay in replying. Your letter was detailed and we have done our best to address the range of points made in your complaint. In doing so, we have raised your concerns with the relevant staff at BBC News who were first hand witnesses to most if the incidents in question.

With regard to your allegation that a corpse could not be seen during amateur footage of the attack in the school, you can see a blanket and what appear to be the feet of a corpse sticking out the bottom from the amateur footage we used. We have and can share far more graphic and gruesome footage. For reasons of taste and decency we decided not to show it.

Turning to your next point, Dr Saleyha says “more coming” over the shot of the man wearing the gas mask in front of the ambulance at 2:00. She had a radio microphone on her and this is the exact point at which she said this. This is what she said, this is what happened. She can and will testify to that. The shot then changes to show people getting out of a truck. We did use a shot of the same injured boy earlier in the piece as the opening shot for the hospital sequence but we did not repeat shots and we do not believe that this is in any way misleading. People were arriving at the hospital all the time, some stayed in the hospital, others were given initial treatment and then sent outside to be doused in water (for fear of chemicals) and then re-entered the building. To say it was chaotic and confusing is an understatement and it was our intention to illustrate that. Ian Pannell’s voice over at this point was… “Among the medics here was a British doctor visiting for the charity Hand in Hand”. These were shots used to get into the British doctor because she too was at the entrance of the hospital.

The team met and interviewed Abdullatif in the corridor of the hospital. He was not reading a statement, he did not have paper or card in his hands. He was visiting some of his relatives who were injured in the attack and was considerably upset. He was speaking a language he is unfamiliar with (English) while being interviewed on TV (something he is also unfamiliar with) and attempted to be formal when he started talking, apparently feeling he should “address” the UN and the world about what is happening around him. What perhaps sounds like a “statement” at the start of this section, (when he looks into the camera) quickly lapses into regular speech and he looks to the right of the camera, at the cameraman.

The “seemingly prostrate young man in red, third from the right, [who] had previously had no difficulty climbing down from the back of the truck” is Anas Sayyed Ali. He was eighteen years old and had been waiting in the school playground to pick up his younger sister. He died a few days later in hospital in Turkey. The boy in the white shirt, second from the right appears relatively unscathed. The other adolescent who kneels up and looks into the camera wearing a t-shirt that reads “Super-9” is fourteen-year-old Luffi Arsi who was in the playground when the bomb landed. He died on his way to hospital in Turkey.

Most of the victims walked or staggered into the hospital because there were not enough ambulances, stretchers or staff to assist them. They were in shock, in agony, confused and panicking. Their responses are not for us to judge. And as the doctors and medics will tell you, burns of this kind continue to deteriorate for hours and days after the incident.

More than thirty patients arrived at the hospital in a short period of time. It would be unrealistic to expect the team to be able to identify and log each one given the circumstances and environment.

We are entirely satisfied that Dr Rola is a medical doctor and was, as we described, working at the time in Syria for the registered charity Hand in Hand for Syria, again as we described.

With regard to the points made by you postscript, we believe it is important to clarify the text of what Dr. Rola Hallam said at the time:

“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon, I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that.”

It is common in broadcasting to edit spoken contributions to ensure maximum clarity, especially where there might be pauses or digression. This is also a practice in print, although in all cases, accuracy and meaning should be retained, as it was on this occasion. In both the News report and the Panorama a month later, it was made clear that this was an attack using an incendiary device, rather than a chemical weapon.

In this instance, in the news report from August 29th, the audio of Dr Rola was edited for exactly these reasons. This is what was used:

“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of [EDIT] I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that.”

The phrase “chemical weapon” was taken out of the news piece because by the time it was broadcast it was known that this was an incendiary bomb that had been used in the attack. Ian Pannell mentions this on two occasions in his script prior to the clip of Dr. Rola. To have included her speculation that this could have been a “chemical weapon” ran a considerable risk of being incredibly misleading and confusing to the audience, not least because the incident happened within days of an alleged chemical attack in Damascus.

The other issues the team had to consider were the physical structure of the news piece (starting in the school, explaining what happened and then moving on to the hospital where we see the aftermath — i.e. moving from cause to effect) and the time constraints in a news piece that necessitate a more direct approach.

Normally with editing of this kind, a cutaway shot – such as a “noddy” of the interviewer – might be used, but as she was wearing a mask this was not considered necessary. No extra words were inserted, nor was the meaning changed. Dr Rola states clearly that she is not sure what has happened and that is fairly reflected in all instances.

In Panorama on September 30th, the team chose to use a short section of Dr RoIa’s footage unedited, with her saying:

“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon.”

On this occasion the team ended her clip in vision at this point. Her remark is then followed up, explained and elaborated upon effectively in Ian Pannell’s commentary; that the initial fear at the hospital was of a chemical attack (coming days after the Damascus incident), that it later became clear that a napalm-type substance had been used. As the structure of the Panorama piece was different and the time to explain events and the context more generous, it allowed the team to present this argument and then fully expand upon it.

In both cases, it is clear that at the time of the incident, Dr Rola was expressing her uncertainty about what had caused the injuries. Her charity, Hand in Hand for Syria, also confirm that both reports were authentic, fair, and absolutely accurate.

We hope this goes some way in addressing your concerns.

Kind Regards

Gemma McAleer

BBC Complaints

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

First letter of complaint to the BBC

BBC Complaints
PO Box 1922
Darlington
DL3 0UR

4 October 2013

To Whom It May Concern

I wish to complain that the report purporting to show the aftermath of an alleged incendiary bomb attack in Aleppo, transmitted by the BBC on 29 August and published on the BBC news website here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-23892594 contains a large degree of fabrication.

I understand that the first thirty seconds of the report were filmed by an unnamed non-BBC party, and so presume that, as Panorama reporter Ian Pannell is visible between 1:44 and 1:46 (walking, at the left of the picture) and again at 2:18 beside Dr Rola, that the remainder of the report, from 0:30 onwards, was filmed by BBC cameraman Darren Conway.  Please correct me if I am wrong and if any part of the footage beyond 0:30 was filmed by other BBC employees or non-BBC third parties.

The piece begins with Ian Pannell’s narration over a short piece of the non-BBC footage stating “an old blanket to cover a corpse”.  However what is shown from 00:16 to 00:23 is a blanket being draped over a ledge.

At 2:08 in the report a man with a naked back and tattered blue shirt on his left shoulder is seen climbing down from a truck, as the voice of the British doctor (Dr Rola) is heard asking “more coming? More? More?”.  The suggestion is that these are fresh casualties arriving at the “basic hospital”; however the same man with the tattered blue shirt had already been shown walking into the hospital, from 1:44 onwards.  It is clear that the footage has been edited and the words of Dr Rola crafted to create the impression of a larger number of alleged victims than were in fact present.

The supposed eyewitness Mohammed Abdullatif, who speaks from 2:55, is plainly reading out a letter, drafted by a person or persons unknown, from a cue card; he commences with the words “Dear United Nations” and proceeds to stumble over unfamiliar text (“…you’re recalling peace – you’re calling for peace”).  The obvious conclusion is that the spontaneity and passion are artificial.

In the section commencing immediately after Mr Abdullatif’s recitation, at 3:02, a number of alleged victims are shown, including the man seen twice earlier in the tattered blue shirt.  This group is initially fairly static and quiet; then at 3.03 the man in the tattered blue shirt looks into the camera, and at 3.04, as he raises his left arm, the entire group suddenly begins to writhe and moan in unison.  The adolescent in the white shirt, second from the right in the shot, rises to his feet with perfect ease and equanimity, and is clearly not in the least distress.  The seemingly prostrate young man in red, third from the right, had previously had no difficulty climbing down from the back of the truck at 2:08.  Viewed several times over, this obviously stage-managed sequence quickly becomes risible, and because the white cream on the skin of the alleged victims seen here is of a piece with that seen on other alleged victims throughout the report, the inescapable conclusion is that all of them are equally fake.

The text under the BBC online piece talks of “napalm-like burns”; Ian Pannell states “the injuries and debris suggests something like napalm or thermite” (1:52) and Dr Rola suggests (2:30) that the supposed injuries are the result of “maybe napalm, something similar to that”.

These statements betray at best a basic lack of journalistic acumen, and, in the case of Dr Rola, medical knowledge.  The most cursory web research reveals the vast difference in severity between burns caused by napalm – which sticks to the skin and generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius – and the supposed injuries of the alleged victims in the Panorama footage.

Kim Phuc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph has said “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napalm#Effects_on_people.  It is entirely implausible to suggest that the relatively composed woman featured from 2:38 to 2:44, the shaking child Ahmed featured from 2:45 to 2:54 (who appears to nod as if in communication to someone off-screen at 2:46 before turning to speak to the camera), and the adolescent featured from 3:20 to 3:27 – who repeats, rather than “gasps” as your reporter would have it, the word for “water” – are suffering “the most terrible pain you can imagine”.  Footage of genuine napalm victims would likely be far too horrific and distressing to broadcast and to describe the alleged injuries depicted in these scenes as “napalm-like” is an insult to those who have suffered the reality.

Other aspects of this story are extremely dubious.

Wikipedia states that “One firebomb released from a low-flying plane can damage an area of 2,500 square yards” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napalm#Effects_on_people.  In the footage of the Panorama crew’s visit to the site of the alleged incendiary bomb attack, commencing at around 00:30, a modestly sized crater surrounded by some charring to the immediate vicinity only is visible.  The infant’s swing seen from 1:00 onwards, just yards away from the alleged impact crater, would surely have been incinerated in a firebombing attack, suggesting that it may have been placed at the scene after the event as “window dressing”.

The ages of many of the alleged victims in the footage seems at odds with the description of the site of the attack as a “playground”.  The man in the tattered blue shirt featured heavily in the footage, the man on the stretcher from 2:00, the woman being carried on a stretcher at 2:27 and the woman featured from 2:38 are all adults.  Nowhere in the report are any victims that would seem to fit the age range suggested by the infant’s swing and the small girl’s shoe shown seen at 1:11.

The Panorama team might also have speculated as to what kind of a “playground” possesses a swimming pool, visible from 0:33 onwards.  “Courtyard” would perhaps be a more accurate and less emotive term to describe the scene of the incident.

The background and affiliations of the charity Hand in Hand for Syria and of Dr Rola are also worthy of scrutiny.

I can fully understand that a medic working in a violent and politically fraught situation may wish to conceal her identity altogether, however as Dr Rola is willing to appear on camera it seems oddly reticent for her to conceal her last name.  Moreover, Dr Rola appeared on Newsnight on 30 August http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23909554, as well as on other BBC output, expressing her disappointment at the UK parliament’s decision to reject possible military action against the Syrian government.

In addition to the very startling scenario of a medical doctor implicitly calling for military strikes which would inevitably lead to deaths and injuries, as this website puts it http://wikispooks.com/wiki/Dr_Rola “You do not volunteer to appear on the flag-ship BBC Politics TV program advocating for a military bombing campaign with any realistic expectation – let alone right – to remain anonymous”.

I do not accept all the assertions and suggestions of the Wikispooks page, for instance, while it seems clear that Dr Rola uses more than one surname (“Hallem” here http://atfal.co.uk/the-team.html and “Alkurdi” here http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anaesthesia/people/Alkurdi) I do not agree that the Dr Rola who appeared on Newsnight on 30 August is not the same woman who appears in the Panorama footage I am complaining about [1].  I have also been unable to verify the site’s claims that the incident took place during Syrian school holidays, when there is no clear reason why children would be in a school playground, or that the Arabic language website that is linked to hosts a comment from a contributor, said to be from the vicinity of the attack, stating that the building in the report is in fact “a fairly standard construction villa with a swimming pool on the other side of the buttressed wall”.

However the site does make the indisputable point that the Hand in Hand for Syria logo http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/index.php is clearly based on the flag of the Syrian opposition, specifically the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_opposition.  It is entirely negligent of the BBC to fail to inform its viewers of the crucial fact of this affiliation.

In sum, I am shocked and astonished that the BBC should present as genuine such self-evidently falsified and stage-managed scenes, which would appear to have almost certainly been manufactured by parties with an interest in seeing western intervention in Syria on the side of opposition forces.

I trust you will seek a full explanation from Ian Pannell, Darren Conway and the Panorama editorial department as to how this patently fraudulent footage came to be presented as authentic.

I await your response to all the points I have raised above, which I shall be sharing widely, with great interest.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

PS I have just seen the follow up piece by Ian Pannell “Syria: Agony of victims of ‘napalm-like’ school bombing” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-24288698.

Some further points arise which I would ask you to please clarify:

  • The words spoken by Dr Rola have been altered between the two reports.

In the original item http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-23892594 (from 2:18 to 2:32) Dr Rola’s words are:

“..It’s just absolute chaos and carnage here, erm we’ve had a massive influx of what looks like serious burns, er seems like it must be some sort of, I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that..

In the newer item, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-24288698 (from 2:00 to 2:13) these have been changed to:

“..It’s just absolute chaos and carnage here, erm we’ve had a massive influx of what looks like serious burns, er seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon, I’m not really sure..

The audio in both of these segments is identical, with all the same inflections, up to the point “…must be some sort of..” after which the soundtrack in one or the other has been overdubbed.  Please can you provide the name of the individual who carried this out, when it was done and to what purpose?

The two segments are shot from slightly different angles, and it is not immediately clear to me whether it is the same scene filmed from two different angles or whether they are two different “takes” filmed moments apart.  If the former is the case, please can you provide the names of both camera people involved, and say whether they are both BBC employees; if the latter, please can you explain why a large part of the audio from one has been dubbed onto the other, and in at least one case subsequently interfered with?

  • Ahmed Darwish (previously reported as being 15 years old, now 13, an understandable error), seems to have developed burns to his upper and lower lips (2:46) which were not in evidence in the original footage.
  • The plea of the young girl Siham, featured in the text of the piece (“Please let it be over now”, she said. “We need to find a way out. We’ve had all we can take.”) seems remarkably politicised and reflective for someone of her age, alleged to be “suffering with 70% burns”.
  • Dr Saleyha Ahsan, featured from 2:15 to 2:24, is a filmmaker with a military background:

http://oneworldaction.wordpress.com/100-unseen-powerful-women/arts-and-media/saleyha-ahsan/

http://knightayton.co.uk/female-presenters/saleyha-ahsan

Please can you confirm whether Dr Ahsan had any involvement in the making or editing of any of the footage in the two reports?

NOTES

[1] The Wikispooks page has since been revised and no longer makes this claim. (This note added 15 February 2014) 

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