Outbreak of journalism at the Frontline Club?

See also this discussion on the website OffGuardian.

Last Thursday marked one year since I asked Saving Syria’s Children cameraman, director and producer Darren Conway, OBE, to clarify precisely when the incendiary bomb attack on a school playground in Urm al-Kubra, Aleppo on Monday 26 August 2013 – scenes from the aftermath of which had formed the climax of his BBC Panorama documentary – had occurred.

The exchange, during Q&A at the end of an evening’s retrospective of Conway’s career hosted by London’s Frontline Club, was captured on mobile phone footage and went as follows:

RS: Just one small point of fact about the Panorama programme, because there’s been some variation in what time it actually happened, this playground bomb, the BBC say 5.30 at the end of the school day, Human Rights Watch in their report say it was midday and Violations Documentation Centre in Syria say 2pm and one of their correspondents said they heard about it at 3pm, so what time of day did this actually happen?

DC: It was the end of the day, yeah, I mean I don’t remember the exact time but we were there, we only arrived in the afternoon, we were at that hospital on our way out of the country for about I don’t know, 20, 30 minutes before it happened and then it became dark not long after, so I would say it was around, I don’t know, between three and five, something like that.

RS: But you can’t… give any reason why there’s so much discrepancy in the various…

DC:  I don’t… there’s lots of discrepancy about that I mean, ah, you know I, you, it, er we could get into that for hours, I mean it kind of makes me sick to my stomach to [think?] people would even believe that, er, that happens, but that do not happen, but I mean there’s a, there’s a, there’s a big machine that works, erm, that works for the sort of regime as well that tries to sort of er, you know, discredit this sort of stuff so you know I don’t want to really talk about that. [1]

As the increasingly acerbic tone made plain, this was – as anticipated – another spacesuit moment, differing from that I’d experienced a year previously when questioning another key Saving Syria’s Children player only in the degree of polish of the response.

The Frontline event, part of its Reflections strand which has included interviews with Jon Snow, John Simpson, Alex Thomson, Nick Robinson and John Pilger, was a mix of video clips and respectful questioning on the craft and life of a documentary filmmaker, taking in Conway’s work for the BBC in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently with reporter Ian Pannell in Syria.

Conway spoke about learning his trade, his early assignments and expressed his aspiration to a Spielbergian style of storytelling, consciously structured for dramatic impact. [2]

The dramatic culmination of the interview itself was a montage of images from 2013’s Saving Syria’s Children, Conway’s most recent BBC project and quite clearly his baby. The segment ended in a scene of a distinctively-clad female incendiary bomb victim, her face smeared with burns cream, vehemently railing against Assad accompanied by her father and chorus of relatives, all overlaid with a melancholy Spanish guitar soundtrack. [3]

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Female alleged incendiary bomb victim and her “father” (they appear of similar age). Many questions surround this scene, not least the apparent recycling of the woman’s highly distinctive dress and scarf in scenes shot later the same day. 

This prompted a solemn question from host Vin Ray, Director of the BBC College of Journalism, on the decision to use music at such an emotionally charged point. Conway’s answer, along the lines of allowing the images to speak for themselves, didn’t divert into the questions of authenticity surrounding this scene or the alternate account of it that Ian Pannell had previously provided for BBC World Service audiences.

I’d prepared a list of questions to put to Conway but as the evening wore on it became clear that the event’s billing as “a cross between Desert Island Discs and This Is Your Life” was no understatement and that the proceedings were in no way congenial to journalistic challenge. It would have been poor form to attempt to solicit Conway’s views on:

  • The connections between the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, which featured centrally in Saving Syria’s Children, and the Syrian opposition [4]
  • The fact that a former commander in the Al-Tahwid Brigade, based in Aleppo in August 2013, and whom one might expect to enthusiastically exploit any crime committed by Assad’s forces, is adamant that the events depicted in Saving Syria’s Children did not occur
  • The observations that some of the hospital scenes – in particular the tableau of young males who begin writhing and groaning apparently on cue – seem highly unnatural, to the point of resembling – at best – a re-enactment of genuine events
  • The evidence that a 52 year old female Netherlands resident of Armenian heritage had participated in scenes shot at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on 26 August 2013 in the guise of an incendiary bomb victim, alongside alleged victims filmed by Conway
  • Why it should be that BBC Worldwide has been assiduously and selectively blocking all YouTube copies of Saving Syria’s Children while leaving many more recent editions of Panorama undisturbed
  • The identity of a western male who pops up in Conway’s footage, equipped with a camera and giving every appearance of stage managing events. (When questioned some months later, the programme’s editor Tom Giles confessed he had “no idea” who the man may be).

However the single question that remained after several sweaty crossings out and the involuntary nervous propulsion of a glass of diet coke between the feet of the rapt preceding row was perhaps key: exactly when did the “napalm bomb” attack of Monday 26 August 2013 happen?

Because as things stand there’s quite a choice.

If we believe a Human Rights Watch report (p12) it was “Around midday”. The same HRW report links to a Violations Documentation Center in Syria report (p4) which puts the time of the attack at 2pm, quoting activist Mustapha Haid who “heard rumours about a ‘chemical attack’” at 3pm.

Next in the six hour range on offer is Conway’s sole BBC colleague on ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, reporter Ian Pannell, who in BBC complaints correspondence has categorically stated that “The attack happened on the 26th of August at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day”.

Stretching the data set a further thirty minutes is alleged eyewitness Abu Yousef, mustering an impressive display of facial pyrotechnics in order to wrench from recollection his assessment that the alleged attack occurred sometime between 5.30pm and 6.00pm, “more or less”.

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Alleged eyewitness Abu Yousef: “5:30 to 6 in the evening… …more or less”

It’s unclear from Conway’s answer whether “between three and five” represents his assessment of when the alleged incendiary bomb attack on the school in Urm al-Kubra took place or refers to the point at which he became aware of events from his own perspective at Atareb Hospital, where alleged victims were transported and where Conway filmed them [5]. Atareb (Al Atarib) is several miles from Urm al-Kubra (Urem Al-Kubra).

If the former interpretation is assumed then Conway’s account appears somewhat out of step with Pannell’s firm “around 5.30pm, at the end of the school day””; if the latter, it would appear irreconcilable. [6]

As well as livestreaming its events on the internet, the Frontline’s practice is to upload the video to its website and YouTube channel shortly afterwards. Thus it was I waited to see if my awkward encounter with Conway would make the cut.

A year later I’m still waiting.

Just over a month after the event, on 20 November 2014, and again on 8 December, I emailed the Frontline’s then Programme Editor & Manager, Millicent Teasdale, asking when the video might be available. On 17 December Teasdale replied:

“A few edits have had to be made to the video for security reasons and I hope to have it online early next year.”

The explanation seemed odd. To my mind the discussion had had no bearing whatsoever on any security matters. Those who had attended with me agreed.

On 3 November I had also emailed the Frontline’s founder, Vaughan Smith, who I had recognised at the Conway event, informing him of some of my concerns regarding Saving Syria’s Children and pointing out the seeming discrepancy between Conway’s answer and the testimony of his colleague, Ian Pannell. Smith didn’t reply.

Then in March 2015, when it appeared clear that the video was never going to surface, the Frontline put this notice up on Conway’s Reflections event page:

The video from Darren Conway’s Reflections has not been put on the Frontline Club site to protect those colleagues whose names were mentioned that work in extremely dangerous locations. Everyone is aware of the extreme risk that journalists are facing today in places such as Syria and DC wants to do everything possible to prevent them from being put at further risk, something that we at the Frontline Club of course support. This is the only reason why DC’s Frontline Club session is being held back and, as soon as it is deemed safe for the individuals concerned, it will be made available on our site.

To the best of my recollection, and that of others present, the only colleagues Conway mentioned in respect of his Syria work were Ian Pannell and Saving Syria’s Children’s credited “Fixer/Translator” Mughira Al Sharif, whom Conway very briefly referred to, calling him only “Mughi”. As detailed here, Al Sharif openly proclaims vehement pro-opposition sentiments on his Instagram account (see images below) and elsewhere.

Furthermore, as noted, the event was livestreamed on the internet. As Conway was undoubtedly aware of this, and of the expectation that the video would subsequently be published on the Frontline Club’s website, is it likely that he would he have risked putting colleagues “at further risk” by naming them?

Has an outbreak of journalism at the Frontline Club been quelled?

Picture1

Statement published on the Frontline Club website, March 2015

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The shy and retiring Mughira Al Sharif, Saving Syria’s Children’s “Fixer/Translator”, is seen driving Ian Pannell’s car in Darren Conway’s Panorama documentary. Images on Al Sharif’s Instagram account depict him bearing the standard of the Idlib Martyrs Brigade, relaxing with “some friends” in the armed opposition (uploaded 26 August 2013, the day of the alleged incendiary bomb attack) and jocosely celebrating the involvement of children in the Syrian conflict with captions such as “the youngest revolutionary” and “the formation of the special battalions” (the latter uploaded 27 August 2013, the day after Al Sharif had supposedly witnessed dozens of injured and dying children and teenagers at Atareb Hospital). Is this who the Frontline Club aims to protect by withholding video of Conway’s interview? 

Notes

[1] Improvements to this transcript gratefully received.

[2] One wonders whose decision it was to bestow upon Conway the odd credit of “director” of Saving Syria’s Children, a documentary.

[3] At 36:10 in Saving Syria’s Children. The music appears to be a piece of BBC stock, turning up again just two weeks prior to the Frontline Club event in BBC2’s Rwanda’s Untold Story (03:50 and 28:30).

[4] In December 2014 the Frontline Club hosted a fundraiser for Hand in Hand for Syria. Concerns regarding the organisation have been formally lodged with the Charity Commission.

[5] The relevant section of Saving Syria’s Children commences at 30:38 here.

[6] The suggestion that the metadata from Conway’s footage could resolve the question of precisely when the alleged attack took place was put to the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee in an appeal review request of 29 December 2014 (search for “metadata”). The question was dismissed (indeed, not even individually noted) towards the end of the ESC’s lengthy decision, as were nine other fresh points, on the grounds that they “had not been raised in her [the complainant’s] appeal, nor at Stages 1 and 2”.

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3 responses to “Outbreak of journalism at the Frontline Club?

  1. Pingback: Challenging the Main Stream Media | Philosophers Stone

  2. Pingback: More puzzles about BBC’s “Saving Syria’s Children” documentary | OffGuardian

  3. Pingback: How the FSA/ISIS Fake Chemical Attacks to Force Regime Change | Friends of Syria

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