I) The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee has rejected an appeal review request made separately by another complainant. Following the ESC’s rejection of my own review request in November 2014, this would appear to represent the BBC’s final word on Saving Syria’s Children. The new decision entirely ignores a number of potentially significant points raised by the complainant, including a direct question as to the identity of a “third man” in the BBC’s footage from Atareb hospital (see point 7 below).
Points dismissed in the Editorial Standards Committee decision
- An image of one of the alleged thermite victims smiling cheerfully shortly after the attack.
- Discrepancies of up to six hours between accounts of when the attack allegedly took place, including a contradiction between accounts given by reporter Ian Pannell and his colleague, ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ cameraman, producer and director Darren Conway (which is seemingly being suppressed). See II) below and this article by the website OffGuardian
- The apparent self-identification of an amateur actor or volunteer who participated in the role of a thermite victim. The BBC rejected the opportunity to be provided with this person’s name so that her seeming involvement could be investigated.
- The audio testimony of a commander in the Free Syrian Army, stationed in the area at the time, stating that a field investigation conducted in partnership with the “Free Syrian Red Crescent” (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) has confirmed that the alleged attack did not take place. The BBC rejected the commander’s offer to provide a full statement. See section ‘FSA commander attests “napalm bombing” did not occur’ here.
- The potential breach of BBC guidelines represented by the editorial decision to employ Mughira Al Sharif as the programme’s “fixer” and translator. A 2012 photograph on Al Sharif’s Instagram account pictures him bearing the standard of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade, amid an array of other images graphically demonstrating opposition affiliations and sentiments. Some of Al Sharif’s images celebrate the arming of children – notably, one such image was posted the day after Al Sharif had supposedly witnessed dozens of injured and dying children and teenagers during the “napalm bomb” incident.
- Concerns over the integrity and objectivity of Dr Saleyha Ahsan, one of the two doctors featured in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’. A number of Dr Ahsan’s Facebook photographs from Libya in 2011 depict her support for the Libyan opposition; several feature Dr Ahsan posing with armed groups which include children. Others featuring an apparent prisoner may contravene provisions of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. Despite unambiguously stating “I want to be part of this Arab Spring” Dr Ahsan has been employed by the BBC to report on the Libyan conflict. NB shortly prior to 10 September 2015 Dr Ahsan’s Facebook images were removed – see discussion here.
- The complainant’s direct question about the identity of the western male who appears at 2:06 in the BBC News report of 30 September 2013 has been ignored. The presence of this person – carrying a camera and demonstrating evident concern that the BBC’s footage is recorded without interruption – is perplexing, as Ian Pannell and Darren Conway are alleged to constitute the entire Panorama crew in Syria at that time.
- Renewed evidence that BBC Worldwide has selectively blocked You Tube copies of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.
- The complainant’s request for clarification as to whether a collection of non-BBC videos of the alleged event posted online correspond with the BBC’s account has been ignored.
- Conclusive evidence that, contrary to the BBC’s assessment, two alleged female victims filmed at separate times on the day of the alleged attack, and who appear to have shared the same highly distinctive clothes, are quite clearly separate individuals.
II) The Frontline Club has yet to publish video from the 15 October 2014 event at which Saving Syria’s Children cameraman, producer and director Darren Conway contradicted his colleague Ian Pannell over the time of the alleged events of 26 August 2013. On 17 December 2014, the Frontline cited “security reasons” for the delay. No further response has been forthcoming. A privately made recording of the relevant section is here. The Frontline Club has now commented on the video’s absence – see update to this post. These issues are discussed by the website OffGuardian here.
III) The BBC continues to drag its heels outrageously over the matter of the substitution of “napalm bomb” footage across two transmissions of an August 2014 edition of Newsnight. On 21 September 2014 BBC Complaints replied to my initial complaint of 10 September, stating “we do not believe that the replacement of the footage altered the nature of the report, so we do not believe this breached our editorial guidelines.” The BBC acknowledged my challenge to this decision on 3 December 2014, stating it may “take longer than 20 working days before you receive our reply”. After 50 or so working days, I contacted the BBC again on 16 February 2015, reminding them of the BBC’s Complaints Framework stipulation that “the complaints process should be quick and simple.” On 27 February 2015, after making a follow up call, I received an email informing me a reminder had been sent to “the relevant people”.
IV) On 27 February 2015 Radio 4 broadcast The Road to Bani Walid, a drama by Dr Saleyha Ahsan. Billed as “the story of her journey to confront the reality of revolution – and of her own reasons for being there”, some choice quotes include:
- 23:00 – “every time we stop more vehicles join the convoy, revolutionary songs playing from stereos – it’s more like going to a party than going to a war!”
- 24:00 – “a woman in hijab driving herself to war singing Andrew Lloyd Webber – how cool is that!” [Dr Ahsan is referring to herself]
- 24:30 – “a seventeen year old boy who’s been separated from his brigade and is desperate to get back to them. You can tell he’s seen action, the way he holds himself, his eyes always focussing somewhere else – he needs his unit” [NB – not his parents or a trauma therapist]
- 26:50 – “it looks like an arms fair out here – armoured vehicles, artillery, tanks, all lined up like a showroom – instant adrenaline surge! This war’s for real!”
- 38:37 – “I’ve come to appreciate so much the freedoms I was born with – to walk barefoot in the sand with your head free to think, with a choice about your path, it’s a privilege for some of us on this planet but not for all – these young men are prepared to die for it”
- 42:36 – “I’m covered in blood, my headscarf has somehow disappeared leaving just a small black bandana, but I know this is why I had to come; this time, in this place, I am 100% whole, complete and alive. Life is simple – I know who I am and exactly what I need to do, just me and what I can offer here and now, and my team”
In her review request of 29 December 2014 (search “Libya”) my fellow complainant noted possible breaches of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions by Dr Ahsan in Libya in 2011 and queried whether her employment as a BBC reporter during that conflict breached editorial guidelines on impartiality (see point 6 in list above). Dr Ahsan is a presenter on the BBC Two series Trust Me I’m a Doctor.
V) This contemporary World Service report on the “napalm bomb” by Ian Pannell contains familiar material but raises some fresh points:
- 1:20 – After the baby and father are admitted Dr Rola Hallam states “apparently there’s more cases coming on the way so I’m gonna stand back and wait for other injuries to arrive”. In Saving Syria’s Children the arrival of the subsequent victims (at 31:35) seems more immediate. Arguably this impression is attributable to editing. However on Australian radio (from 02:45) Dr Saleyha Ahsan related how the hospital was “overflowing” with patients “in moments” following the arrival of the first victim (here not a baby but a young boy); in her most recent account, Dr Ahsan suggests that the screams of “young girls” (not seen in Panorama) follow swiftly on from the baby’s arrival.
- 3.06 – Ian Pannell states “Fathers and mothers, desperate for help, fought to be allowed into the hospital, cursing their president Bashar al-Assad”. However, the screams and rants in this section are those of the alleged father and mother of the “black dress woman” seen at 2:37 here (compare the audio). The BBC has explained (pp 6 & 7) that at this point the woman in the black dress had already been treated inside the hospital with white cream and had gone back outside (to be evacuated to Turkey, as Dr Saleyha Ahsan claims), prior to rushing back through the hospital gate (at 36 minutes in Panorama) with her family to address the BBC camera. The claim that the family was at this point fighting “to be allowed into the hospital” is therefore patently false. Moreover, none of the alleged victims in Saving Syria’s Children are seen fighting “to be allowed into the hospital” – they are carried or walk inside, entirely unimpeded.
Ian Pannell’s BBC web article of 30 September 2013 repeats the claim, but substitutes the phrase “desperate for help” with “desperate for news“.
- 3:25 – Ian Pannell states “Mohammed Abdullatif took the video at the scene before racing to the hospital where one of his relatives was being treated”. The BBC has also stated Abdullatif “was visiting some of his relatives who were injured in the attack”. This is the only account I am aware of which identifies Abdullatif as responsible for filming the footage “at the scene”, shown at the start of the BBC News report of 29 August 2013.
VI) An image of the nurse seen at 31:17 in Saving Syria’s Children has surfaced in which she appears to be treating a child soldier. The nurse is wearing a Hand in Hand for Syria tunic, potentially raising further questions for this UK registered charity.