BBC Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser’s decision 26 September 2014

Our Ref: 2751936

26 September 2014

Dear Mr Stuart

  • BBC One, Panorama: Saving Syria’s Children, 30 September 2013
  • BBC One, Ten O’clock News, 29 August 2013
  • BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 30 September 2013

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust in response to my decision not to proceed with your appeal. I have now reviewed my decision in the context of your challenge of 2 September and further submission of 15 September and I remain of the view that your appeal should not be put in front of Trustees. I have attached with this letter a summary of my reasoning.

If you disagree with my decision, you can ask the Trustees to review it by contacting the Complaints Advisor, at or at the above address, by 13 October 2014. You should state your reasons, which will need to demonstrate clearly to Trustees why, contrary to my decision, your complaint stands a reasonable prospect of success. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your original letter of appeal, my original decision and your responses to that decision, and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their November meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your complaint will be passed to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser


Second Annex

BBC One Panorama: Saving Syria’s Children, 30 September 2013

BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 29 August 2013

BBC One, Ten O’clock News, 30 September 2013

The complainant wrote to the BBC Trust on 2 September 2014 following the decision by the Adviser that none of the issues he had raised qualified to be heard on appeal and that his complaint would not therefore be put in front of trustees.


The complainant said there were strong grounds for reassessing the Adviser’s decision. He summarised his challenge thus:

In the first instance, I believe that a major procedural error and a number of other serious oversights and mistakes have been made by the Adviser. Furthermore, there is compelling new evidence strongly supporting my complaint, including the likely identification of a participant in the fabricated sequences of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ as well as further evidence supporting my previous observations and suggestions. I am therefore confident that my complaint stands an excellent chance of success should it be put before Trustees.

This is a summary of the key points made by the complainant in his response to the Adviser’s decision:

  • His appeal had been misinterpreted; he had asked for a review of the ECU’s decision but instead the Adviser had considered only the subsidiary points he had raised in his letter of appeal; the Adviser had disregarded a supplementary submission to the complainant’s original appeal
  • The complainant had new evidence “identifying a possible participant in the napalm bomb event”; the complainant asserted that she appeared to be Dutch and he could find no explanation as to why she would have been in Aleppo
  • A team of local investigators in and around Urm Al-Kubra couldn’t find anyone who was aware of a “napalm bomb” in the town last August.
  • The list of victims of the alleged event compiled by the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria was not accurate
  • A doctor who had worked in trauma and orthopaedics for four months and said he had worked with burns victims first hand is quoted by the complainant as saying the images in Panorama did not depict how a burns victim would present. According to the complainant, the doctor observed that they would have been in more pain, would have been unable to talk or to sit down and would have had trouble breathing; the flesh beneath the burnt skin was not convincing and looked like more skin
  • The complainant did not accept the Adviser’s view regarding the inconsistencies he had identified in the sequences featuring the woman in the black dress
  • It’s clear that the “alleged eyewitness” Mohammed Abdullatif who is shown appealing to the UN is reading from a cue card;
  • The “Iqraa Institute” had been identified elsewhere in the media as the location for the “alleged” bomb and from the complainants inquiries Iqra schools were generally prosletysing Islamic educational centre. But the images of the “school” and the demeanour and dress of the headmaster interviewed by the BBC, along with the fact that girls appeared to be being taught alongside boys was not consistent with how such a school would be set up. Also from his investigation there were no Iqra schools in Aleppo province.
  • There was abundant evidence documenting formal links between the Hand in Hand for Syria charity and the Syrian opposition
  • BBC Worldwide had been blocking YouTube copies of the Panorama programme
  • There was fresh uncertainty Demotix images of “Victim X”
  • There was still no consensus over the number of casualties
  • Nobody from the Trust Unit had viewed the rushes, but had relied on the ECU’s interpretation; its claims regarding the rushes were “notably weak”
  • A reference to summer 2012 in the Adviser’s report should have been 2013
  • The complainant did not assert the Panorama team had been deceived, rather he believed they had been complicit (in fabricating the event)
  • Questions remained as to the chronology and location of events
  • A number of retrospectives broadcast on the BBC in August 2014 contained factual inaccuracies which cast doubt on the BBC’s editorial standards

On 15 September, the complainant sent a further submission. He sought additional information about the interview conducted with Mohammed Abdullatif and raised further questions about the footage of an injured baby and the burns apparently sustained by another child in the footage. He stated that some of those identified in the report were, according to the “Digital Registry of the Syrian Civilian Status Service” in Damascus still alive. He considered that there were discrepancies in the responses he had been sent by the BBC at Stage 1 and Stage 2.

The Adviser’s Decision

The Adviser reviewed and fully considered the points raised in the complainant’s challenge of 2 September 2014 and the complainant’s further submission of 15 September 2014. In particular, the Adviser considered first the assertion that she had misinterpreted the complainant’s appeal and as a consequence had based her decision only on a number of supplementary points he had raised in his appeal and had not conducted a review of the ECU’S decision as he had requested. She confirmed that her decision had considered the range of issues also considered by the ECU at Stage 2. In particular she noted the nine substantive points highlighted in her decision relating to the Accuracy guideline, each of which included a detailed discussion of both the allegation and of her reasoning why on each occasion the allegation did not qualify to proceed to appeal:

The Adviser noted that she was not normally able to consider new evidence or new allegations subsequent to her decision, such as the “identification” of a new participant”, the alleged blocking by the BBC of YouTube content, and allegations concerning content which had not previously been included in the complaint and which post-dated Stages 1 and 2 of the complaint. The Adviser did not agree with the complainant that he had demonstrated why exceptionally on this occasion, this new material required to be considered. By way of guidance the Adviser noted however that even had the new material been admissible she did not consider any of the new points raised would have had a bearing on her decision.

The Adviser noted also the complainant’s clarification, in his challenge to her decision not to proceed, alleging that the Panorama team had not been duped, but had in fact been a party to the fabrication of the event, She considered this was among the most serious allegations a programme maker could face.

The Adviser therefore commissioned an independent editorial adviser (IEA) to conduct a proportionate investigation. In undertaking her investigation the IEA:

  • viewed the rushes
  • posed a series of questions to the Panorama team who had been to Syria and to Turkey
  • asked a consultant plastic surgeon with training and experience in the presentation, prognosis and outcome of traumatic burns injuries to review the footage
  • interviewed and corresponded with an independent journalist who had met with the father of one of the victims and had spoken with a number of other eye witnesses
  • read the report on the Urm al-Kubra incident published by Human Rights Watch following their independent investigation
  • interviewed and corresponded with a representative from Human Rights watch

The IEA’s conclusion, taking into account this evidence, was that the incident depicted in Panorama took place as described and that the presentation of the victims’ injuries and the outcome were wholly consistent with what would be expected following an incendiary bomb attack of this nature.

This was a summary of her key findings.

1             The Rushes

The IEA appointed to review the rushes has had considerable previous experience operating as a television producer in war zones (not for the BBC), including in the Middle East. She had never previously met or known any of the BBC team who were in Syria. She concluded that the unedited rushes of events that August afternoon appeared entirely consistent with what a crew would be likely to film when it was observing an unfolding event rather than directing events itself. It was chaotic: many scenes just petered out with the camera still running, there was great deal of refocussing and repositioning whilst the camera was rolling to avoid missing any potential “action”. She considered that it was clear that the cameraman had no control over what was happening in the scenes he was filming, but was attempting to capture events as they happened around him. There were not any extra “takes” for interviews or pieces to camera. She took the view that the cameraman and the correspondent grabbed what they could when they could and then removed themselves to leave space for the first responders to do their work. She concluded that there was no evidence that any of the scenes were directed in any way, nor that the events unfolded in a materially different way from how they were subsequently portrayed in the programme.

The IEA considered the credibility of the programme’s explanation for what the complainant had alleged were chronological inconsistencies in some of the scenes which were broadcast. On viewing the rushes, the IEA concluded that in the final edit Panorama had been deploying a standard montage device to give the viewer a flavour of what they were about to see. She did not consider that the use of the device which on occasion depicted scenes out of strict chronological sequence and was very common in documentary film making, would have misled the audience in any way or misrepresented any of the material facts.

The IEA noted the rushes contained some unbroadcast amateur footage which appeared to have been shot at the school in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The swing was in precisely the same place as it was in the Panorama film. All around it was rubble, there was smouldering debris and the bodies of some victims were observable who appeared to have died where they lay, one was obviously a child.

The rushes also gave wider context which helped explain some of the sequences which the complainant had highlighted as problematic. It was clear for example from viewing the rushes that the man who it was alleged had been reading from a cue card in his plea to the UN, was responding to a direct question from the reporter who asked him “What is your message to the outside world?”. Throughout the three minute interview he frequently looked down, as if thinking. Watching the interview in its entirety the IEA noted that he appeared traumatised by what he had witnessed. At times his responses were disjointed and he included seemingly irrelevant detail. He had held some of the dying victims, a relative lay injured in a room upstairs in the hospital. He appeared to be angry and upset, but there was no indication that his responses were either staged or rehearsed.

The rushes also gave an insight into the confusion amongst the first responders as they tried to determine the nature of the attack and therefore how to treat the victims. There was a good deal of discussion as to whether it was chemical, thermite, phosphorous.

The request by the doctor that the baby with burns should be picked up, which the complainant highlighted as nonsensical, made sense to the IEA, having seen the rushes. The doctors were trying without success to hold the distressed baby still so they could treat the burns on his forehead. The baby was the first arrival, apparently having been injured at the scene of the first incendiary bomb, not the one at the school. Having seen no other victims yet they described the baby as badly burned; in the context of the presentation of the later victims that might sit uncomfortably, but would have appeared a reasonable observation at the time.

The IEA could not add anything useful to the commentary in the ECU’S finding regarding the allegations about the scenes inside the hospital which the complainant had characterised as “amateur dramatics”. Her view was the same as that of the ECU, that there was no evidence in the rushes that the patients were acting for the camera or that their injuries were fabricated.

2              The Panorama team

The correspondent, Ian Pannell and the cameraman/director Darren Conway advised the IEA that they were assigned to the project in August 2013, sometime after it had been commissioned as a Panorama, and after the original reporter had pulled out because he had been offered a job elsewhere.

The IEA asked how the team had come to be at the hospital when the casualties started arriving and who knew they might be there. Ian Pannell said:

“We had been filming some two hours away at a frontline clinic but it was proving unproductive. Dr Hallam had outstanding work at the hospital in Atarib and so the group as a whole agreed to stop there on the way back to Atmeh. It was not a prearranged visit nor part of a scheduled itinerary.”

Darren Conway said:

“No one knew we were heading to that hospital but us and we had only made the decision about 2 hours before making the 2 hour drive there. There were no communications on the front line where we made that decision and we had been at or near that location for a few days. So no one could have been alerted to any part of our journey or plans, they were changing so fast that we didn’t even know until we made the call on the ground. Once we arrived at the hospital in question we were not planning to stay very long at all, and were in fact preparing to leave when the first baby was rushed in. The chaos that unfolded was one of confusion, pain, suffering and the desperate need for medical attention, something that was and is still happening daily in Northern Syria.”

The IEA asked about the circumstances surrounding the follow-up visit to the hospital in Turkey a few weeks later, sequences from which were shown in the subsequent Panorama. Both men went to Turkey and the IEA was supplied with the name of the doctor who treated the victims and who could attest to their injuries and the facts of Siham Qanbari’s death. Ian Pannell said:

“The hospital was the Diskapi Yildirim Beyazit Training and Research Hospital in Antakya – home to one of the country’s specialist burns units. It may be worth adding here that we spent two days in meetings trying to secure permission to film inside the unit as the Turkish government has a policy of refusing media access. It was an eleventh hour decision by the head of the burns unit to approve our request just four hours before we were due to board a plane back to Istanbul.

“We arranged the visit ourselves. (Our fixer) had been in contact with the head of the burns unit and the BBC’s Istanbul Producer was in contact with Turkish health officials.

“To be clear, neither Hand in Hand nor the two doctors were involved with this part of our story (in fact the charity does not maintain contact with patients once they cross into Turkey).

“Ahmed is alive and living back in Syria. We have had sporadic contact with his father.”

The correspondent was made aware of the complainant’s claims that records held by the Syrian Government in Damascus cast doubt on the veracity of the list of victims from Urm al-Kubra:

“It is unrealistic to imagine that the Syrian government is capable of maintaining such a database. It is not just that the country is in the midst of a violent civil war in which two hundred thousand people are said to have been killed and half the population has been displaced but that the Syrian government has not had any representatives in the areas where the victims lived for at least two years.

“We were not contacted about the death of the three teenagers; we actively sought information as to their condition. The hospitals in Turkey where they were being treated as well as the school authorities informed us that they had died of injuries sustained in the attack.”

3              The burns victims

The IEA showed the footage from the Panorama programme to a consultant plastic surgeon in his rooms at a leading London teaching hospital. She asked the doctor if he could talk her through what the images showed, what in his opinion might have caused the injuries and what his prognosis would be from what he saw regarding the severity of the injuries and the likely outcome.

The doctor remarked on this image of Ahmed Darwish:


He said the blister on the boy’s right cheek was a first degree burn which would heal without the need for any skin graft. His hands were entirely different. He said it was a classic presentation of a severe burn where the skin detaches itself from dermis beneath and slides off as it dies. He said it would need extensive grafts. The IEA put it to the doctor that there had been an allegation that they weren’t real hands but were prostheses. The doctor said it was the perspective which made them appear larger, and that he saw nothing to suggest that the burns weren’t genuine.

He then commented on this image (which the complainant had alleged was unconvincing because it appeared to show more skin underneath):


The doctor considered that the victim would be unlikely to survive, he said the telltale sign was the skin pattern on the boy’s back: the white patches were not new skin but areas of full thickness burn, where the skin had literally been cooked through by the intense heat. He had trained with a doctor who had treated napalm victims in Vietnam. He said the presentation was consistent with the victim having been burnt by a napalm type substance which produced deep burns which kept on burning, the fuel for which was difficult to remove. It explained the random areas of burns on the victims, only affecting where the substance had stuck.

The doctor was asked to comment on why the victims appeared to be in relatively little pain given the supposed severity of their injuries. He said that the worse (i.e. the deeper) the burn the less it tended to hurt, because the nerves had all died. The most painful burns were often the most superficial. With serious burns such as these a doctor could predict a patient would not survive although the patient might be walking and talking at the time. The doctor had himself seen a woman walk into a burns unit, chat to him about what had caused the burns on her legs, and subsequently die as a direct result of the burns she had received.

The doctor advised that skin is what keeps the fluid in our bodies and once the skin has been burnt off the fluid leaks out and victims can die within 24 hours, but can nevertheless still function in the early stages.

The doctor concluded that he was wholly convinced that the footage was genuine. The doctor took the view, from a review of the footage, that most of the severely burnt patients he saw in the Panorama footage would have died due to their injuries even if they had been taken to a leading European burns unit. He considered that the doctors shown in the Panorama had done everything correctly within the context of what was available and he saw nothing that suggested to him that anything was staged or exaggerated.

4              Human Rights Watch

The New York based organisation describes itself as independent of governments and apolitical. It has more than 400 people working for it across the world. In November 2013 it published a report on Syria’s use of incendiary weapons which included a section on the attack at Urm al-Kubra[1]. The IEA read the report and corresponded with and spoke to the Advocacy Director of their Arms Division.

The IEA learnt from speaking with Human Rights Watch (HRW) that they were contacted by a BBC News producer on August 29. She was trying to establish precisely what had been dropped on the school near Aleppo three days earlier having received the images from the team on the ground. The IEA has now seen the chain of emails which subsequently passed between the BBC and HRW; HRW’s in-house weapons experts conducted the analysis. HRW told the IEA they have documented 56 incendiary attacks in Syria between 2012 and 2013. The Advocacy Director said that, unfortunately; the only unusual thing about this particular attack was that the BBC were there and had filmed the immediate aftermath. HRW had no doubts as to the authenticity of the images — either relating to the bomb fragments and debris or of the victims’ injuries. HRW said images of the tail fin from photographs supplied by the BBC’s security officer in Syria were distinctive and pointed to a Soviet era weapon, the ZAB-500. HRW said there was still no consensus as to what substance it contained, but that experts agreed the initiating charge was white phosphorous and it delivered a substance which caused napalm- type injuries. HRW advised that the actual ingredients of napalm are copyrighted and therefore its precise composition is unknown.

HRW decided to document the incident independently as part of their ongoing investigation ahead of their report. They verified the facts on the ground using their own resources and contacting their own witnesses, coordinated by HRW from their Beirut office.

5              Freelance journalist, Paul Adrian Raymond

The IEA spoke with Paul Raymond, a British freelance journalist who speaks fluent Arabic. He happened to be staying in a Turkish village, Reyhanli, close to the Syrian border in October 2013. It was the day after Siham Qambari[2], the 18 year old girl who had featured in the Panorama programme, had died of her injuries in a hospital in Ankara. Her father, Ridwan, was making the journey back in an ambulance with his daughter’s body and was waiting for daybreak so he could return to Urm al-Kubra to bury her.

Paul Raymond published an article following his meeting with Mr Qambari. He informed the IEA that he got hold of the story for the article in the following way::

“I was staying with a guy who has been ferrying people to and from hospitals across the border throughout the war. He knows everyone. He mentioned that a guy whose daughter was injured in the attack in August had just died and he was returning in an ambulance to his village to bury her. It was 3am. He didn’t know l was going to be here and l went out and spoke to Ridwan while he waited to cross back into Syria.

“I spoke to him at length about his daughter, got his testimony about what had happened. It was very consistent with lot of the other things that have been reported in the area, using air power in a systematic and brutal way.

“The idea of an air attack on any group of people is not out of the ordinary. All the while his daughter’s body was sitting in the ambulance outside.

“The thing is, there’s no need to make stuff up in Syria. It’s very clear it came from the air, it came from the regime. The rebels don’t have the airpower.”

In view of the IEA’s key findings, the Adviser considered further consideration of the nature of the school or the motivations of either the doctors or of the charity which was featured were irrelevant to the substantive allegation and saw no purpose in revisiting her reasoning in relation to those allegations.

The Adviser noted that the complainant considered there had been inconsistencies between the responses he had been sent by the BBC at Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the complaints process. She considered that any possible inconsistency could be explained by the structure of the complaints process. The Adviser noted that the BBC had a three-stage complaints process. Complaints were answered in the first instance by BBC Audience Services. Where complaints proceeded to Stage 2, they were considered either by the Editorial Complaints Unit or by a senior figure in the relevant division. The BBC Trust acted as the third and final appeal stage where complainants were dissatisfied with the responses they had previously been sent.

She noted that the vast majority of complaints received by the BBC did not proceed beyond Stage 1. Stage 1 responses often included comments from programme makers but they did not involve independent investigation and were less detailed than the responses sent out at Stage 2 or Stage 3. She noted that the complaints process was structured in a way that allowed the most significant complaints to be given appropriately detailed answers and that it would not be proportionate or cost- effective for Stage 1 responses to include the degree of detail that the complainant wished to obtain. She did not consider she had seen any evidence that the complaints process had not been followed appropriately.

Having again satisfied herself that there was no evidence to support the allegations made by the complainant and having reviewed the authoritative body of evidence substantiating the Panorama programme, the Adviser concluded that were this complaint to proceed to appeal, Trustees would not be likely to uphold the allegation. She therefore did not consider the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success and did not propose to put it before Trustees.



About Robert Stuart

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

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