Second letter of complaint to BBC

Full correspondence with BBC listed here.

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

Full correspondence with BBC listed here.

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

Full correspondence with BBC listed here.

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)