Comments on BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding

Full correspondence with BBC listed here.

The You Tube copy of Saving Syria’s Children linked to in this letter has subsequently been blocked by BBC Worldwide, along with all other You Tube copies – see here for more details. A copy of the programme has now been uploaded to Vimeo – relevant section commences 30:38.

7 May 2014

Ref: CT/1400114 

Dear Mr Tregear

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

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

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

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

Screen shots of the full sequence are here.

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

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

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

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

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

Date of the alleged attack and the Demotix photographs 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

At around 31 minutes in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ Dr Ahsan is seen attending to the very first alleged victim to arrive – a baby, accompanied by his father. At this point, as Ian Pannell’s narration states, “No-one’s quite sure what’s happened.” It is only subsequently that the “dozens” of other alleged victims begin to arrive. This sequence of events is portrayed in several other accounts, including others given by Dr Ahsan.

However in the version of events in Dr Ahsan’s ABC interview the baby and his father do not feature at all, and Dr Ahsan instead states “it was quite a quiet day” prior to the arrival of the person she now claims was the first victim, a boy covered in “strange white dust”, who had a “huge laceration on the side of his face” and who spoke to her, asking her where he should go.

You write:

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

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

Interviewer: “Those scenes are hard to listen to but even harder to watch. Can you tell us what you saw that day?”

Dr Ahsan: “It was quite a quiet day and I was beginning to think ‘ooh gosh I’ve really got my timing wrong ‘cause what’s the point in me being here if I’m not going to be helping out?’ and then suddenly, standing to my left I just saw this rather strange vision I ju…  I I felt as if I was having an out of body experience because I couldn’t quite work out what I was seeing, there was a boy, covered in this strange white dust, had wide staring eyes, his clothes were hanging off him, and he had this huge laceration on the side of his face, and his skin looked like it had areas of burn, and he was saying in a very calm voice ‘where shall I go okhty?’ which means sister in Arabic…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You state:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshots of the baby and his alleged father are here.

Anas Said Ali 

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

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

Woman in the Black Dress

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

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

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

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

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

You accurately summarise my contention that:

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

You further state:

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

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

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

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

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

If you require further evidence of Dr al-Kurdi’s links to the Syrian opposition, please see this Al Jazeera interview in which, from 1:22, he can be heard strongly advocating for the Syrian National Council’s recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and in the section commencing at 5:15 relating how, following his address to the Friends of Syria summit in Istanbul in 2012, he personally told Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu “You’re not doing enough” and demanded of Professor Davutoğlu and several other foreign ministers, including Victoria Nuland of the US State Department, “either you defend us or you arm the Syrian Free Army to defend us – you have the choice”.

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

Damage visible in the “playground” 

You state: 

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

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

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

Editing of Dr Hallam’s words 

You have entirely misunderstood my question.

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

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

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


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

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


BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Appendix 4g


BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Appendix 4e

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

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

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart


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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] When questioned over her personal and organisational connections to the Syrian opposition at a Save the Children event last November (at around 9 minutes in this You Tube video) Dr Hallam, with a high degree of disingenuity, stated of her father “he is certainly not a member of the Syrian National Council; he is a gynaecologist, who like most Syrians has taken an interest in what’s happening in his country”. 

BBC Editorial Complaints Unit Provisional Finding, 23 April 2014

Full correspondence with BBC listed here.

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

Appendices 1 – 4K (see images below)  

1400114 Appendix 1

Appendix 1

1400114 Appendix 2

Appendix 2

1400114 Appendix 3

Appendix 3

1400114 Appendix 4a

Appendix 4a

1400114 Appendix 4b

Appendix 4b

1400114 Appendix 4c

Appendix 4c

1400114 Appendix 4d

Appendix 4d

1400114 Appendix 4e

Appendix 4e

1400114 Appendix 4f

Appendix 4f

1400114 Appendix 4g

Appendix 4g

1400114 Appendix 4h

Appendix 4h

1400114 Appendix 4i

Appendix 4i

1400114 Appendix 4j

Appendix 4j

1400114 Appendix 4k

Appendix 4k