The BBC Editorial Complaints Unit’s finding upholding the substance of this complaint is here. A decision by the BBC Trust on the wider issues of BBC editorial policy is here.
Background to the complaint
- BBC Newsnight 29 August 2014 – substituted footage
- BBC switches Syria footage on grounds of “taste and decency”
- BBC: “no reason why” audience should be told footage was changed; BBC News “under no obligation” to reveal source of substituted images
- BBC: “no formal policy which obliges BBC News to inform viewers that footage has been changed or to confirm when asked the source of material used”
The wider context
- Fabrication in BBC Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’
- BBC Propaganda – Craig Murray, 16 October 2014
- The Truthseeker – Media ‘staged’ Syria Chem Attack – RT, 23 March 2014
- Panorama – Saving Syria’s Children – BBC One, 30 September 2013 (relevant section commences 30:38; alternative copy here).
16 June 2015
Dear Mr Tregear
I am writing to request that the Editorial Complaints Unit review BBC Complaints’ 11 May 2015 decision that the substitution of Syria footage between the 29 August 2014 edition of Newsnight and the 30 August 2014 BBC News Channel broadcast Syria Vote: One Year On did not breach BBC editorial standards for Accuracy.
Section 3.2 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines states:
We must do all we can to ensure due accuracy in all our output.
The BBC must not knowingly and materially mislead its audiences. We should not distort known facts, present invented material as fact or otherwise undermine our audiences’ trust in our content.
Basis of the complaint
As noted here:
The 29 August 2014 edition of BBC2’s Newsnight was devoted to the consequences of the UK Commons vote on intervention in Syria exactly one year previously. Footage of alleged victims of the “playground napalm bomb” from the BBC’s 29 August 2013 report was featured at 03:00 – 03:20 and 04:49 – 05:08. Over the latter scenes, date stamped “August 2013″, presenter Laura Kuenssberg stated “by chance, just as MPs voted, these images of a chemical [sic] attack were shown for the first time”.
In its response to my initial complaint about the August 2013 report, BBC Audience Services had written:
“The phrase “chemical weapon” was taken out of the [29 August 2013] 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.”
“To have included her [Dr Hallam’s] 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.”
Consequently I alerted Laura Kuenssberg on Twitter to her use of the term “chemical” in her Newsnight report (and indeed in her Tweet).
At 4.30am on 30 August 2014, a few hours after my Tweet to Ms Kuenssberg, a re-edited version of the same edition of Newsnight entitled “Syria Vote: One Year On” was transmitted on the BBC News Channel in which from 04:44 the “napalm bomb” sequences had been replaced by footage from an alleged chemical attack on Saraqeb, Northern Syria on 29 April 2013, originally broadcast in a BBC News report of 16 May 2013.
The substituted footage was not date stamped and its source was unidentified. Laura Kuenssberg’s narration remained unchanged and thus continued to inform audiences that the Saraqeb footage had been “shown for the first time” “by chance, just as MPs voted” – i.e. on the evening of Thursday 29 August 2013 – when it had in fact been “shown for the first time” over three months prior to that date.
Screengrabs of the relevant sections from both programmes are below. The subtitles demonstrate that the narration was identical in both instances.
Screengrabs from Newsnight (BBC2, 29 August 2014, 10:30pm)
Section commencing 04:49. Footage is from Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims ‘like the walking dead, BBC 10 O’Clock News, 29 August 2013.
Screengrabs from Syria Vote: One Year On (BBC News Channel, 30 August 2014, 4:30am & 2.30pm)
Section commencing 04:44. Footage is from Syrians describe effects of alleged chemical attack, BBC News, 16 May 2013.
Complaints correspondence to date
On 10 September 2014 I lodged this complaint via the BBC Complaints webform:
In the 10.30pm BBC2 broadcast from 04:48 – 05:08 footage from the BBC Panorama special ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ (broadcast 30 September 2013) was shown accompanied by the on-screen date “August 2013″ and presenter Laura Kuenssberg’s narration “by chance, just as MPs voted, these images of a chemical attack were shown for the first time”.
At 4.30am on 30 August the same edition of Newsnight was transmitted on the BBC News Channel, however from 04:44 the sequences from ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ had been substituted with footage from a different event or events, without a date stamp or any other identifying information but with the identical narration by Laura Kuenssberg.
Please can you explain precisely why this change was made, why it was unacknowledged, what the source or sources of the substituted images were , whether Laura Kuenssberg’s narration which continued to inform audiences that the substituted film was “shown for the first time” “just as MPs voted” – i.e. on the evening of Thursday 29 August 2013 – was accurate and how the re-editing of the programme in this manner accords with BBC Editorial Standards?
On 21 October 2014 BBC Complaints replied:
We appreciate your concerns. However, 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.
I challenged this terse decision in a letter of 5 November 2014, noting of the lack of any on screen information identifying the date or origin of the substituted Saraqeb images:
This alone would appear to be a specific breach of section 3.4.12 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines on Accuracy which states “We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”
Of the fact that the substituted images retained the same narration by Laura Kuenssberg, thereby misinforming BBC audiences that the Saraqeb footage had been “shown for the first time” “by chance, just as MPs voted” – i.e. at 10:17 pm on Thursday 29 August 2013 – I wrote:
If the unidentified images substituted in the 30 August 2014 broadcast were not in fact “shown for the first time” “by chance, just as MPs voted” on the evening of Thursday 29 August 2013 this would represent a self-evident breach of the BBC’s commitment to “achieving due accuracy” as set out in Section 3.1 of the Editorial Guidelines. It should be needless to say that the requirement of due accuracy must surely apply most stringently to news and current affairs programmes, where audience expectation of accuracy is at the very highest level, and most stringently of all to the BBC’s flagship current affairs television programme, Newsnight.
In a letter dated 3 December 2014 BBC Complaints responded:
We had referred your complaint to the relevant staff and are normally able to investigate and reply to most complaints at this stage (which is stage 1b of the complaints process) within 20 working days of receipt, or around four weeks. However this is to inform you that we believe it may now take longer than 20 working days before you receive our reply…
…We appreciate your continuing patience in waiting for a response and will reply as soon as possible.
One hundred and eleven working days later, after numerous follow-up communications, on 17 May 2015 BBC Complaints replied:
The pictures used on Newsnight on BBC TWO were more graphic and as the programme is shown after the watershed to UK audiences that is within audience expectations.
However as the version going out on the BBC News Channel is also broadcast around the world on BBC World News we have to be more careful in terms of taste and decency to our audience elsewhere in different time zones.
We would also re-iterate the point we made in our first response that the change of pictures did not change the journalistic integrity of the piece so we feel it is editorially justified and in line with BBC editorial guidelines.
Assessment of the BBC Complaints response
The explanation provided by BBC Complaints on 17 May 2015 would appear to give the BBC News Channel carte blanche to replace images contained in any domestic BBC report originally broadcast post-watershed and deemed to have breached unspecified standards of “taste and decency”, without providing any acknowledgement to audiences that substitution has taken place.
I would request that the Editorial Complaints Unit please explain:
- What criteria are applied to determine “taste and decency” in these circumstances? Are there written guidelines? Certainly neither term appears at all in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines. Who determines when standards of “taste and decency” have been breached?
- What criteria must apply to images which are substituted for reasons of “taste and decency”? For example, must they be from an event which occurred in the same region as the original incident? The same country? Within two years of the original event? Five? Ten? Who decides? Would the criteria permit the BBC News Channel to show a Tom and Jerry cartoon in place of graphic images?
I would also request that the Editorial Complaints Unit please consider that:
- As demonstrated by the screengrab below, the 29 August 2014 edition of Newsnight would appear to have been deemed decent and tasteful enough to be have been made available on BBC iPlayer for seven days following its transmission without a parental guidance flag to warn those later accessing it pre-watershed of its graphic content.
- Scenes from Ian Pannell’s “playground napalm bomb” report were in fact seen “elsewhere in different time zones” by viewers of Syria Vote: One Year On: they featured as part of a collage of footage from 3:00 – 3:20 minutes in the programme, precisely as they had in the original Newsnight broadcast (see screengrabs below). This collage includes the sequence of alleged victim Mohammed Asi arriving at Atareb Hospital “like the walking dead”, which can scarcely be considered any less graphic than the scenes which were removed for the BBC News Channel broadcast.
Further points for consideration of Editorial Complaints Unit
In response to a request for further time in which to escalate my complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit, on 26 May 2015 you wrote:
You have been given an explanation as to why the footage was changed; there is no reason why the audience should be made aware that any such editing has taken place; and BBC News is under no obligation to tell you the source of the substituted images which were broadcast.
After expressing my astonishment at these remarks you replied again, on 1 June 2015:
In response to your comment about the paragraph in my email which you found “astonishing”, I can only say the point I was making was that there is no formal policy which obliges BBC News to inform viewers that footage has been changed or to confirm when asked the source of material used. It is a matter for BBC News to decide whether to provide that information. I will however consider in my forthcoming investigation whether the material which was inserted into the BBC News Channel report met the requirements of the Editorial Guidelines on Accuracy, bearing in mind the script line.
I would request that the Editorial Complaints Unit please consider:
- How your remarks of 26 May 2015 sit with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster, funded by British license fee payers.
- How the BBC’s lack of a formal policy obliging it to inform viewers a) that news footage has been changed and b) when requested, of the source of substituted material sits with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster, funded by British license fee payers.
Due accuracy and audiences’ trust in BBC content
In a letter of 13 October 2014 to the BBC Trust Unit I noted (sections 19 – 25 ) that any reasonable person who recalled Dr Rola Hallam’s words in the BBC 10 O’Clock News report of 29 August 2013, in which she had said “napalm”, and who was then able to compare them with a report transmitted on 30 September 2013, in which Dr Hallam was made to say “chemical weapon”, would conclude that the contribution had been tampered with and that their trust in the content would thereby be fundamentally undermined.
I believe this argument eminently applies in the present case.
The Wider Context – Fabrication in BBC Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’
Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims ‘like the walking dead’ – Ten O’Clock News, BBC One, 29 August 2013 (03:02 – 03:19)
Despite their supposed injuries all the young men in this tableau of alleged victims from ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ appear fixated on the camera, most strikingly at this point. Following the “V” sign from the man in the centre the boy in the black vest on the far right pitches dramatically over onto his side, rising again to sneak a peek in the same direction as his comrades before ultimately slumping onto his front. The boy in the white short-sleeved shirt next to him – whom the BBC concedes “appears relatively unscathed” – nimbly rises to his feet, swaps from loosely clutching his chest to nursing his right elbow before casually pulling up a seat. The boy in the yellow “Super 9” t-shirt rises from an unlikely kneeling position and proceeds to roll his eyes and gurn at the camera as a team of medics sweeps in cinematically. The full tableau scene is here. It is notable that the curtain has been pulled back from its earlier position, effecting better lighting conditions as this key scene is filmed.
Alleged victim Ahmed Darwish appears to await instruction before turning to address the camera
The above complaint relating to substitution of Syria footage in Newsnight stems from broader concerns of fabrication in the September 2013 BBC Panorama special Saving Syria’s Children (in particular the hospital sequence commencing at 30:38). These concerns have been endorsed by former British ambassador Craig Murray and the case was featured in a March 2014 edition of RT’s Truthseeker series. 
I have pursued these concerns through the BBC complaints process, concluding in November 2014 with the rejection of my request for a review of the BBC Trust Unit’s decision not to put my complaint before BBC Trustees. A related complaint by another individual was similarly rejected in January 2015.
A number of points remain unaddressed in the BBC’s decisions. Of the ten listed here I would highlight:
- The conflicting accounts of the time of the alleged attack, including disagreement between reporter Ian Pannell and his sole BBC colleague on Saving Syria’s Children, the programme’s producer, director and cameraman Darren Conway. Video of the interview where this contradiction arose remains unpublished, on the flimsiest of pretexts.
- The testimony of a former Free Syrian Army commander, stationed in the vicinity at the time, who has sworn on oath that the attack alleged by the BBC did not take place. The BBC has ignored offers to be provided with further information about this key witness.
- The identification of a Dutch-Armenian woman who appears to feature in the guise of a victim in video footage shot at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on the day of the alleged attack, alongside individuals who also feature in the BBC’s reports. This woman contacted me on Facebook. I know her name and approximate location in Amsterdam. Dutch investigators are currently attempting to trace her. The BBC has ignored offers to be provided with further information about this key witness.
- An image from the BBC’s footage which appears to show an alleged victim grinning broadly into the camera shortly after having supposedly been burned by a “napalm-type substance”.
- Evidence that two alleged victims appear to have shared the same highly distinctive clothing at different times of the day on 26 August 2013.
- The BBC’s refusal to answer a direct question as to the identity or role of a western male who appears in Ian Pannell’s BBC News report of 30 September 2013. In the midst of a “mass casualty event” this individual is concerned only with taking photographs and ensuring that the BBC’s interview with Dr Rola Hallam is recorded without interruption.
I would also note:
- The existence of HOSPEX medical simulation techniques, which would appear to be more than sophisticated enough to account for the hospital scenes in Saving Syria’s Children, and the personal connection between the army officer seen running a HOSPEX exercise in a 2014 edition of BBC’s Newsnight and Dr Saleyha Ahsan, one of the “stars” of Saving Syria’s Children.
- The selective blocking by BBC Worldwide of all You Tube copies of Saving Syria’s Children, over and above other editions of Panorama.
- A further complaint relating to a clear breach of the Geneva Convention by Dr Saleyha Ahsan. This information has also been submitted to Amnesty International.
Further analysis of BBC Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ is here.
 I was at this point unaware of the source of the substituted footage.
 The following argument formed part of my request for a review of the BBC Trust Unit’s decision in respect of a previous complaint alleging fabrication in the 2013 BBC Panorama special Saving Syria’s Children and associated BBC News reports. The points relate to the unacknowledged editing of an interview with Dr Rola Hallam between two BBC 10 O’Clock News reports and the Panorama programme.
- It goes without saying that trust is the foundation of the BBC. As explained in Section 3 of the Editorial Guidelines, the BBC’s commitment to achieving due accuracy is fundamental to its reputation and the trust of audiences. ‘Due’ means adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.
- In considering my complaint, the ECU very properly explained that its remit is to consider whether there has been a serious breach of the BBC’s editorial standards and that it had paid particular attention to Section 3 (Accuracy) of the Guidelines. To explain its decision that the manner in which Dr Hallam’s contribution was used “in each of the three items” met the requirements of due accuracy, it said:
“… it is acceptable for programme-makers to edit the words of a contributor so long as that editing does not materially alter or change the meaning of what they said or any understanding that the audience might take away. … the editing of Dr Hallam’s contribution did not create a misleading impression.”
Having considered how the contribution was used in each of the three programmes, it did not go on to consider how it might be perceived when the three programmes were considered together and did not therefore consider whether altering the words would be at least misleading and at worst a fabrication. This is bad enough, but there is no indication that the ECU took account of the factors that it should have taken into account in deciding whether “due” accuracy had been achieved.
- As the ECU itself said, ‘due’ means: “adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation”, as to which:
(a) the subject and nature of the content: the subject was the terrible events in Syria. It was first broadcast at the time when Parliament was deciding what to do about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It was broadcast a second time when the UN Security Council had adopted a Resolution backing a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and calling for those responsible for their use to be held accountable. The nature of the content was therefore a contribution to the most momentous decisions and policies of the day;
(b) the likely audience expectation: as the Editorial Guidelines make clear, the due accuracy requirement varies so that what is required of, for example, drama, entertainment and comedy will not usually be the same as for factual content. And with regard to factual content, it may differ depending on whether it is factual entertainment, historical documentary, current affairs or news. The Guidelines do not say in terms but it must surely be that, among the various categories of factual content, the requirement of due accuracy applies most stringently to news, with current affairs a close second. In the present case, where two of the three broadcasts were news bulletins, the likely audience expectation of accuracy will have been at the very highest level; and
(c) any signposting that may influence that expectation: the ECU accepted, in relation to the first broadcast, that the editing of the contribution was not visible because Dr Hallam’s face was covered by a mask and that the audience would have been unaware that her words had been edited. In the context of that broadcast it regarded the edit as acceptable. It did not go on to consider the other broadcasts either separately or together and in particular whether there was any signposting to influence the audience’s expectation that what it was watching on the news was authentic.
- Notwithstanding that the ECU had rehearsed the meaning of “due”, there is little or no evidence in the decision of the ECU that it took account of these matters.
- Because it had been edited, the BBC broadcast was not an accurate version of what Dr Hallam said. Under the Guidelines, that does not matter so long as “due” accuracy was preserved. It will have been preserved if what was broadcast was “adequate and appropriate to the output”, taking account of the above matters. I say that, for the reasons given above, it was not adequate and appropriate to the output. The three items touched on events of global significance. Two of them were news programmes in relation to which audience expectation of accuracy would have been at its very highest level. And the audience was not given any indication or other signposting that the changed wording was the result of editing.
- I submit that editing an interview in one news programme to make a witness say “chemical weapon” when in the same interview in another news programme she had said “napalm”, without any signposting, does not come anywhere near fulfilling the requirement of due accuracy, particularly at a time when the events to which she was a witness were affecting the fate of nations.
- It is relevant also to consider the broad principle set out in section 3.2 of the Guidelines that:
“The BBC must not knowingly and materially mislead its audiences. We should not distort known facts, present invented material as fact or otherwise undermine our audiences’ trust in our content.”
The BBC failed to observe this principle. It broadcast in a news bulletin, and in a current affairs programme, a version of Dr Hallam’s contribution in which she was made to say “chemical weapon” instead of “napalm”. Anyone who remembered the original interview, or had a recording of it, would see that the words had been changed. Taken on their own, the wording might be harmless for the reasons given by the ECU. But any reasonable person able to recall or compare what was said on the news on 30 September with what was said on the news on 29 August would conclude that the contribution had been tampered with. The facts had been altered. The contribution presented as fact was to some extent invented. That would fundamentally undermine trust in the content. It does not help that there is an explanation and that there may be a distinction between internal editing and other sorts of editing. The damage would have been done by broadcasting as fact two versions of the same thing.
 While I endorse the broader claims of fabrication against Saving Syria’s Children made by The Truthseeker programme I do not necessarily accept its speculation over the reasons for the editing of Dr Rola Hallam’s words from “napalm” to “chemical weapon” between the two BBC reports of 29 August and 30 September 2013.
Dr Hallam’s notorious “interview” is, however, notable for another reason. The relevant section of her words, prior to editing, is:
“I need a pause because it’s just absolute chaos and carnage here…umm… we’ve had a massive influx of what look like serious burns… Er… it seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon, I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that. Um so we are trying to do a bit of triage and stabilisation. We’ve got a lot of walking wounded who are managing to manage OK but obviously within the chaos of the situation it’s very difficult to know exactly what’s going on…”
Immediately after these words (at around 36 minutes in Saving Syria’s Children) a woman rushes through the hospital gate behind Dr Hallam, her face smeared with white cream; she and her supposed father (they both appear to be around the same age) begin to angrily declaim Assad to the camera.
The BBC has categorically stated that these scenes show the woman “after she had treatment (the application of burn cream)”. Further, the narration of Saving Syria’s Children makes it clear that Dr Hallam was managing the crisis from the outset (“With their emergency experience, Rola and Saleyha take charge – dealing with the most serious cases”).
However, as is plain from her words cited above, Dr Hallam claims – at a point after victims have evidently been treated with burns cream, under her own supervision – to be uncertain whether the munition used in the attack was chemical or incendiary.
As Dr Declan Hayes observes in a detailed investigation into the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, of which Dr Hallam is Medical Director:
If Dr Hallam cannot tell the difference between symptoms of nerve gas attacks from other, burns-related attacks, her medical competence and that of her collaborators has to be called into question in a most serious way. (p142)
All medical doctors are trained ab ovo to recognise, diagnose and treat, as best they can, the symptoms of every different type of life threatening injury. In the case in question, those injuries are either extensive burns, which affect the flesh and/or gas inhalation, which affects the internal airways and which is treated very differently from flesh burns. Just as the competency of a cook, who could not tell the difference between water boiling and fat frying, would be called into question, so also would the competency of any doctor, Dr Hallam included, be called into question if they could not differentiate one from the other. (p143)
The point is that Dr Hallam, in the oddest of ways, first claimed nerve gas was used before claiming, almost in the same breath, it was a napalm-like device. As nerve gas and napalm-like bombs would give very different symptoms to the victims and would cause a competent doctor to treat them very differently, Dr Hallam should explain how she can reconcile those two successive but conflicting claims with her professional expertise. This is all the more so as the symptoms from burns would be very obvious, very audible and very easily distinguishable from those of nerve gas. No competent doctor should be confused on this point. (p144)
Further information about Dr Rola Hallam and Hand in Hand for Syria is here.
Questions regarding the type of munition claimed by the BBC to have been used in the alleged attack are raised by Byzantium1453 in the comments below this contemporary Telegraph report.