BBC response to second 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.

On 18 February 2014 BBC Audience Services responded to my letter of 30 January 2014.

Below is the covering email followed by the full response. As is clear from viewing the file properties of the Word attachment referred to, the latter is authored by Saving Syria’s Children reporter Ian Pannell.

My response is here and my full correspondence with the BBC on this matter is here.

From: Liam Boyle
Sent: 18 February 2014 18:34:44
To: Robert Stuart

Dear Mr Stuart


Thank you for your further contact. I’m sorry if you felt our previous response did not sufficiently address your concerns.

I have raised your complaint with the relevant people who witnessed and recorded the events in question. I attach our response in a Word Document, please be aware that it includes graphic images. It is not normal practice for BBC Audience Services staff to send responses from their personal email address; however, the size of the attachment demands this circumvention on this one occasion. I therefore kindly ask you not to publish my email address alongside any subsequent online publications.

This now concludes Stage 1 of the BBC’s complaints process, if you would like to take your complaint further, you can contact Stage 2 of the complaints process, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, within 20 working days of receiving this reply, and they will carry out an independent investigation. You can email them at: , or alternatively write to them at the following address:

Editorial Complaints Unit

Media Centre

MC3 D3

201 Wood Lane


W12 7TP

Should you choose to escalate your complaint we would ask that you include the reference number provided above in your correspondence.


Liam Boyle

Deputy Complaints Manager

BBC Audience Services
BBC Marketing & Audiences


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
  1. The attack happened on the 26th of August at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day. 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. The BBC was not the first or the latest to report the use of such devices. We happened to be on the ground, at a hospital when the victims of one of these strikes were brought in.
  1. Dr Ahsan is right, it was a “quiet day” before the incident occurred. She, Dr Rola and the BBC have all reported that the first casualty to come in was the baby and the father. They were filmed, appear on screen, and you can see them. There is no inconsistency. Dr Ahsan is correct in her interview with ABC about the boy with a laceration and dust was one of the first but the very first was the baby as she and we have stated repeatedly.
  1. The baby had suffered severe burns. You can see this on film. The child is clearly extremely distressed. It is for medics to cite what degree of burns the victims suffered and how to treat them, whether to pick them up, what drugs to administer. It is our job to report it.
  1. We do not know what happened to all of the victims, including the baby. Some with severe burns survived, others did not. The patients were rapidly dispatched to Turkey for further treatment and it took weeks to track a few of them down. These people are not on the other end of a phone waiting for a check call. They are surviving in a country at war, where more than a hundred and thirty thousand people have died and millions have been forced from their homes. Save for border areas there are no communications or easy ways of contacting people.
  1. The father had suffered burns that you cannot detect in the blurred and fleeting images of him on film. The cameraman was focussed, rightly, on the baby and the doctors instead.
  1. What you see on some of the victims is not a normal eyebrow but the singed remains of one. They do not just “disappear” to normal looking flesh unless the entire face has been burnt off; in most of these cases the hair had been burnt down to the root. You could smell burnt hair and flesh. You could see the ashes on the hospital beds from the hair of some of the victims. On other victims their eyebrows were not burnt. Those whose bodies were burnt to a blackened crisp, beyond recognition, definitely didn’t have eyebrows.

Here is a still image from the film of one of the victims arriving, eighteen-year-old Mohammed Asi. The marks of eyebrows are certainly detectable.


Here is a photograph of him taken two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey.


Any reasonable person would not describe this as a normal eyebrow.

  1. As stated, all of these teenagers died. Burns of this nature get worst as time goes by, not only do they effect the outside but the whatever was inhaled affects the inside organs as well, causing sever internal burns. But we are not doctors, we only report what happened.

Here are some stills taken from the video footage recorded at the time:

This is Lutfi Arsi, the boy you describe as “bored” and “relatively unscathed”.


This is Anas Said Ali who you suggest “canters” into hospital as opposed to desperately and painfully struggling to get in because there was no-one to carry him in when all the stretchers were occupied (perhaps you can detect the difference in colour between his face and legs and his melted hair).


And this is Mohammed Kanas, the boy who gasps for water (as many victims did) because (as the Doctors explained to us) his airways were burnt. He is the victim you describe as ‘not badly injured’:


Finally, it is worth adding that some of the victims had suffered severe burns to their airways which of course you cannot see.

  1. Ahmed does have burns above his lip. Here is another screen-grab where you can just about detect that:


And here is a screen grab of Ahmed about a week later in hospital in Turkey


The other boy you cite is Lutfi Arsi. He, like all the victims received morphine upon arrival at the hospital. He, like all the victims was in shock. Here you describe him as casual. I would describe him as doped-up, dazed, confused and in shock. You can see the large swathes of skin on his face that had burned off. He died.


  1. At no point did we ever suggest everyone died at the school. As far as we were aware three died instantly at the scene – we were shown the crisp, blackened corpses. A further seven died either on their way to hospital or once in Turkey. It is possible more may have died subsequently. More than thirty were injured. This figure was given to us by the hospital at the time. We know some of the victims did not come to this particular hospital and so the actual figure is probably higher.
  1. Most of the victims we filmed were teenagers aged between thirteen and eighteen. Those you describe as adults are teenagers. Any queries about what others may have said should be addressed to those people or organisations.
  1. The woman in a black dress with flowers was filmed arriving at the hospital and then she was filmed a second time after she had treatment (the application of burn cream) standing outside the hospital with her family. These are not two “arrival shots”. One is arriving the other is stood outside after treatment. The use of these shots in the opposite order makes no journalistic or editorial difference to the telling of this story, it was edited this way to show how distraught the victim and her father were and then to flash back so people could remember her as she was rushed into the hospital.

She, like all the victims would have been administered morphine and fentanyl to treat the pain, which might explain why she does not appear in “physical pain”. There was a constant stream of people arriving, some received initial treatment and then wandered outside and back in again. Some were doused in water outside the hospital because of the fear of chemical weapons. It was a scene of chaos with patients arriving, wandering in and out searching for treatment or family and friends or anyone to help, being taken back inside, some then being rushed off and in come cases brought back in again. This is how it happened and how it was depicted in the editing of the film. It was impossible to follow and report events chronologically and impossible to individually focus on any patients movement throughout the entire event because that would have meant not focussing on others, the wider picture or the doctors whose work we were supposed to be filming.

  1. I would disagree that this constitutes a “distinctly different account”. We were told that Anas was at school to pick up his little sister. It is entirely possible Dr Ahsan acquired further information that he had rushed to the scene after the first attack (which occurred a couple of buildings away). Either way, he was at the school to pick up his little sister.

As for his father, perhaps he chose not to appear on camera, we do not recall him amongst the scores of distressed and shocked people crammed into the hospital working flat out to save lives or find out whether relatives were alive or dead. Many made the decision not to be identified for fear of being imprisoned and tortured by the government (something else which has been well documented).

As for your “evidence” about melted hair, you can clearly see in his image above (point 7) that Anas’ hair had partly melted; you can see this with Mohammed (point 6) and a number of others.

  1. There were two attacks. There is eyewitness footage from the first that we have seen: it was a residential apartment block. The second attack was on the school. When the first patients arrived it was unclear what had happened, so that is why we say that. It then became clear there had been an incendiary bomb attack.
  1. It wasn’t a car crash.
  1. We had a personal agreement with the headmaster not to name him or the school. We have no intention of breaking that promise.
  1. A – There is no chronological detail in the editing of the film or the news piece that misleads. The editing has been done to show the mayhem and the mood of what was happening around. This event happened in a 4 to 5 hour period and everything that was filmed happened within that time frame, but not everything was edited in exact chronological order other than the start and end of the day. At no point does this mislead or change the context of the event. What filmed is what happened. The context, scale, or events shown have not been changed or altered because the order of the edit is not in keeping with the chronological time frame.

B – We are recording the audio of the two doctors with radio microphones at all times, and at times they are referring to patients that we have previously filmed or about to film, while we are filming something else. So their audio is still being recorded even though we might be filming blood on the floor, or a cutaway that enables us to show the scene happening all around which will help us in the editing process. So we use the audio of the doctors referring to the victims over actual images of the victims. Again, this does not change the context of the actual event that we are documenting.

C – The editing is not completely sequential, we are telling the story of the event, trying to capture the mood of the consistency of victims arriving outside while being treated inside (which is what happened), to show the chaos, and true horror of what happened. It is clear there is no attempt to ‘hide or mislead’ because it is obvious who the victims are and where they are at all times.

D – That is the same room throughout. There were many victims being treated in this room so we were trying to film them all, which obviously means filming from different angles and of course at slightly different times. During these times they are moved around from bed to bed, have different treatment, all of which is chaotic but necessary as their lives were trying to be saved. We do not stay in one place at all times and as you can imagine we also had to try and stay out of the way of the doctors and nurses when they required us to so they could do their work. We also move around because as people were being treated upstairs (in this room for example), others were being treated in other rooms, some victims were still arriving and some were being rushed off for treatment elsewhere. We were moving around capturing many different things all of the time so that we could try and show the story that was unfolding around us. As you can imagine, if we let everything just run without editing the sequences the film would last about 4 hours. This is what editing is for.

  1. Siham’s father is the man on the left of the screen in a beige t-shirt who looks (unsurprisingly) emotionally and physically distressed, not the man in green (presumably a relative). We met the father in Turkey with his wife, we sat with them as they wept and we tried to console a mother and father who were devastated by what had happened to their daughter. Siham was not an “alleged” victim. She died a few weeks after we filmed her in hospital in Turkey.

Here is a picture of Siham in hospital in turkey not long before she died


  1. Anas Said Ali had graduated from the school, having studied English, hence his ability to speak English.

Both doctors had radio microphones throughout the days of filming and naturally described events and gave observations as they occurred in the hope of showing the world what the situation in Syria is really like for civilians, in particular children.

  1. When attacks happen in Syria, local journalists and media activists try to reach the scene and record events, hence the presence of more than one camera. Yes, we were at the hospital when the victims arrived. Most Syrian hospitals receive large intakes of casualties on a regular basis as a result of the war. Like most media we have been in many hospitals in Syria including one in Aleppo city, where victims of attacks arrive in waves, around the clock. Many of these hospitals do not exist any longer due to targeting by the regime (also documented).
  1. We visited the school together. There was a small amount of smouldering and a strong, acrid, chemical smell. There were many shots we took at the scene that were not used in the final film, as is often the case. There was a substance that had dried and hardened on the walls, we filmed it but for legal reasons were not allowed to collect samples (it is a breach of both British and Turkish law to transport exploded materials into the country). 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. We do remember seeing what appeared to be melted flesh on the walls.
  1. Your request for the number of complaints received is not a service we provide under the BBC’s Complaints process.Ian Pannell and Darren Conway are both still at work. Ian produced a report for Newsnight in January.
  1. Your views on the compulsory TV Licence should be addressed not to the BBC itself or to TV Licensing, but to your Member of Parliament or elected representative, and/or to the Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport as the Government’s DCMS oversees this area of law.

About Robert Stuart

Researching the 2013 BBC Panorama documentary Saving Syria's Children and associated BBC News reports.

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