BBC response to first letter of complaint

Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims ‘like the walking dead’ – Ten O’Clock News, BBC One, 29 August 2013 (03:02 – 03:19). Alleged casualties appear to begin writhing and moaning on cue of central figure.

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

About cerumol

Working with @TVOFFAL on feature documentary exposé of the 2013 BBC Panorama special Saving Syria's Children

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