Have journos (and filmmakers) passed up the Beatles of all scoops?

Background to this post: Identification of participant in Atareb Hospital footage

A recent exchange with a British journalist and filmmaker who, in the wake of Ofcom’s ruling against RT, took to Twitter to laud Ian Pannell and Darren Conway’s 29 August 2013 Aleppo “playground napalm bomb” report went in part like this:

Journalist: RT accused of staging this heartbreaking report. Today, Ofcom ruled against the programme that did so.

RS: Have you examined evidence for claims [alleging fabrication in Pannell’s report], incl. identification of alleged victim?

RS: There are also widely varying accounts of when the alleged attack occurred

Journalist: I’m sorry but I don’t really want to entertain your conspiracy theories about this excellent but heartbreaking journalism.

RS: I have this woman’s name & approx location in the NL [Netherlands] – as a journalist, does this info interest u?

Journalist: Not particularly. It can’t be proven that it’s the same women.

Journalist: or to rephrase that, how do we know it’s the same women? (and I’ve seen your blog)

RS: we don’t, but coincidence of odd contact on FB, then finding woman who looks very alike. U could get to the bottom of it

I’d attached three photos to my Tweet about the Dutch woman. Here are the first two:

In June 2014, entirely out of the blue, this woman had messaged me on Facebook, seemingly anxious at being identified in a post I’d made on a (now defunct) Syria discussion group page in which I had included a frame from the bizarre “tableau” scene in Pannell and Conway’s BBC News report.

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The woman’s Facebook message to me of 14 June 2014 (her name and Facebook profile image are deleted). The Dutch translates as “Hi Robert, I see that I am in this photo, but I do not want others to see this photo. Would you want to delete the photo please? Thank You!”


Although the woman’s Facebook account didn’t display any identifying images, a Google search of her distinctive tripartite name [1] immediately turned up the first photo above, and the second some days later, both associated with her Facebook account. [2] Subsequent searches located both images, posted in the same name, on other sites, including Wishdates.

As detailed here, the woman was at that time 51 years old and resident in the Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. Her home town was given as Qamishli, Syria and, amid a welter of horoscope and Candy Crush Saga posts, her timeline revealed she had travelled between the Netherlands and Syria in 2012 [3]. There was a gap in her posts between 9 August and 10 September 2013 (the Aleppo incendiary attack is alleged to have taken place on 26 August 2013).

However, as the woman didn’t appear in the frame to which she apparently objected, and as I didn’t recognise her from any of the footage I’d so far seen of the alleged events of that day (in which I was by this time thoroughly steeped) – and moreover, as she didn’t reply to my requests, both in English and (auto-translated) Dutch for clarification, I had little choice but to dismiss her as a crank, a view shared by the head of the Syrian investigation team which was then researching the “napalm bomb” case on the ground:

A woman of 50 wanting to date a man from 18 to 50…. May be it is a trick to be found interesting? If she does not say where she is claiming to appear we have to forget this story. (Email, 15 June 2014)

But then a few weeks later I spotted a referral to my blog from a web page [4] which linked to a pro-opposition blog [5] where a number of You Tube videos of the “Napalm Playground Massacre”, several of which were new to me, were aggregated.

The second video on the blog was a fairly lengthy report by the Aleppo News Network published on 28 August 2013, two days after the alleged attack. It included interior shots of the school where most of the alleged victims in Pannell and Conway’s reports had supposedly been students [6] plus interviews with a teenage alleged witness to the attack [7] and a medic who had supposedly attended the casualties [8].

The last few minutes of this video consists of footage of the alleged events, firstly supposedly of the scene at the residential apartment block claimed to be the first target of the attack [9], followed by footage from Atareb Hospital where the alleged victims had been taken for treatment and where they had been filmed by BBC cameraman Darren Conway. In this final section, amid a myriad of familiar faces from the BBC’s footage [10], a woman briefly appears who I hadn’t seen in any other videos from the day:

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The resemblance to the woman who had contacted me on Facebook was striking. Taking into account the otherwise inexplicable concern which the latter had expressed at being recognised in imagery from the alleged events of 26 August 2013, along with her Syrian roots, recent history of travel to Damascus and absence from Facebook in the weeks surrounding the alleged attack, the case for making the connection seemed sound. It was an image of this woman, her face smeared with white burns cream [11], that made up the third picture in my Tweet to my journalist and filmmaker correspondent above.

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So, how had a resident of an Amsterdam suburb apparently come to be – or to portray – a victim of an incendiary attack, either on a residential apartment block or a school populated by teenagers, in rural Aleppo?

Had she been burned by napalm, as the white cream applied to her face would seem to indicate? Did she know the identities and fates of any of the other alleged victims who had been treated alongside her? Could she account for their bizarre behaviour? And why had she been so anxious to conceal her part in these events – events upon the veracity of which, without any hyperbole, hangs the BBC’s global reputation as a news broadcaster?

Thrilling questions, one might imagine, especially for any UK-based journalist (and/or filmmaker)! And all that’s required to begin investigating are the identifying details I’m able to provide followed by a short hop over the channel. In the face of what could be the biggest media scoop in history – the collusion of BBC personnel in the fabrication of an atrocity – surely any display of journalistic apathy would seem to incur a severe risk of induction into a highly elite cadre of eternal self-flagellants, to date still headed by the unknown Decca executive who turned down the Beatles.

But it has been, to the best of my knowledge, just such a torpor that the publication of the above evidence on my blog has been met with. I’ve flagged (some may say flogged) the matter, along with other concerns about Pannell and Conway’s material, with any number of corporate and independent journalists and bloggers, in detail by email and more succinctly via Twitter. With a few exceptions, the response has been silence.

The greatest inertia however has undoubtedly been demonstrated by the BBC. In the course of two separate strands of formal complaints correspondence, the BBC Trust has been directly provided with this information on three separate occasions between September and December 2014, each time accompanied by or referencing my offer to divulge the woman’s name in order that a proper investigation of her apparent involvement in the “napalm bomb” affair may be conducted. [12]

For my own part, in July 2014 I made contact with a Netherlands-based investigator who agreed to do some digging. A month or so later, the investigator responded:

One of the reasons that it took me so long to contact you again is the fact that I´m having contradicting information about [woman’s first name]. My sources assure me that it is not the same person. The [woman’s first name] living in NL ( not in Amsterdam) is the third daughter of an Armenian pro-Assad Family. [13]

I came in touch with somebody who knows her personally. He said that the person in the video is not [woman’s first name]. He was quite sure that it was someone else. I did ask him to look for any particular interesting things he might find out about her friends and contacts. Still waiting for news from hem. (Email, 5 August 2014)

Perhaps the personal contact of the woman who failed to recognise her in the You Tube video was mistaken, or covering for her: as a member of a “pro-Assad” family, she could have much to lose in being discovered to have participated in pro-opposition propaganda. As far as I’m aware, she has yet to be directly interviewed.

Or perhaps this is all a chimera – the woman’s Facebook message is inconsequential, a meaningless glint in the vortex of social media, and there’s no connection whatsoever between its author and the Flamazine-caked woman in the You Tube film.

But if there are any journalists – or filmmakers – who wish to pursue the possibility that the BBC’s Aleppo “playground napalm bomb” reports of August and September 2013 represent the worst betrayal of trust in broadcasting history, the path to my door is pretty overgrown, but not impassible.

Update: May 2016 – Further images of the woman who contacted me are currently viewable on the Facebook account of one of her relatives. Two are reproduced below. The first is dated 10 January 2015 and tagged “in Netherlands”. The second is dated 22 October 2014 but appears to have been taken some years earlier. I have cropped the woman’s relative out of both images.  

new1 new2

Compare these two newly discovered images with the woman from the You Tube video: 

cropp1bbcbs

Notes

[1] Which I’m advised may denote mixed Armenian and Kurdish heritage. Kurds are a predominant ethnic group and Armenians a minority in the woman’s home town of Qamishli.

[2] Possibly these images remained in Google’s cache after having been deleted from the woman’s Facebook account.

[3] A post dated 12 February 2012 gives her location as being “near Damascus”; she returns to the Netherlands prior to or on 5 June 2012, the date of her next post.

[4] On the site A Closer Look on Syria – an estimable resource, as I have since discovered.

[5] Further questions arising from videos on this blog are noted here.

[6] Apparently demonstrating that the premises had – at some point, at least – been in use as an educational centre.

[7] At 9 minutes 23 seconds, wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “Nato Cash”. The head of the Syrian investigation team writes of this section:

In his interview this young boy is saying that he is a fighter. He was on his post. He heard the jet and later was informed that his proper sister was burnt and taken to Turkey. He did not see her until today. Etc…

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[8] At just after 12 minutes. From 12:58 to 13.00 and, more markedly, from 17:22 to 17:29 (see sequence below) the medic’s light-hearted demeanour seems highly incongruous for someone who has allegedly spent the previous day tending to severely burned and dying children and teenagers.

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This man appears at various points in the BBC’s footage, for example at the gates of Atareb Hospital at the left of this image:

mustachioedmedic

An Arabic speaker has further observed of the medic’s interview:

The so called MD with his neat and clean overhaul said that they were listening through a walky talky to the pilot conversation with the command center (ask any army veteran to tell you how impossible this was).

[9] As noted in section 13 of the BBC Complaints response (authored by Ian Pannell) of 18 February 2014:

There were two attacks. There is eyewitness footage from the first that we have seen: it was a residential apartment block. The second attack was on the school.

A longer sequence allegedly showing the aftermath of the strike on the “residential apartment block” in Urm al-Kubra is on You Tube here.

[10] As itemised in this footnote. Notable old acquaintances include:

  • (20:38) The woman in the distinctive black dress who, masked in Flamazine and accompanied by her “father” (they both appears around the same age), alternates between lamentation and angry denunciation at the gates of Atareb Hospital in Pannell and Conway’s reports and who here similarly seems to affect an oddly mournful demeanour, resembling an icon of martyrdom, as she is apparently treated for napalm burns.

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  • (21:30Ahmed Darwish, the boy whose uncontrollable shaking – resulting from “cold water therapy” (p14) – contrasts with the icy discipline he demonstrates in waiting for his cue before turning to address the BBC camera. Happily, Ian Pannell informs us in ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ that Ahmed “did survive”, albeit the Violations Documentation Center in Syria lists “Ahmad Darwish” as having perished in the Aleppo “Warplane shelling” of 26 August 2013.

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  • (21:48) The supposed “school teacher” who, while initially bridling at the approach of the cameraman, nevertheless goes on to speak “of heroism”, the peculiar Mona Lisa smirk playing across his features as he briskly recounts the day’s events perhaps a side effect of trauma or opiates. Note that this individual (identifiable by the pattern of black marks on his t-shirt) appears in shot with Ian Pannell in the BBC’s reports.

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Whatever suspicions may be aroused by the oddity of these scenes, an English captioned version of the same sequence assures us that this “is not a masquerade” and that the alleged victims “are not performing actors” upon a “theater stage”.

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[11] According to Dr Saleyha Ahsan on p14 of this Human Rights Watch report.

[12] The BBC’s responses to these three submissions were as follows:

  • 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. (BBC Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser’s decision, 26 September 2014)
  • The Committee noted that the complainant had raised a number of additional matters that could not have been fully assessed without substantial further investigation. It had in mind in particular the suggestions that an unnamed former Commander from the Free Syrian Army had denied the incident took place, that a Dutch woman had “participated” in the “scenes” as an actress; and that metadata from the Panorama team’s footage should be analysed to resolve discrepancies in the reported time of the bombing. The Committee also noted that the Commander from the Free Syrian Army was claimed to have invited BBC journalists to Turkey, where he would be willing to provide “safe transit to Urm Al-Kubra where the BBC [could] conduct an investigation and speak to witnesses assembled by the Syrian team”. In light of the Committee’s view that there was compelling evidence that the incident happened broadly as depicted in Panorama and the associated Ten O’clock News reports, the Committee decided that it would not be appropriate, proportionate or cost effective to conduct an investigation into these additional matters. (Final decision of BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee, published 20 January 2015)
  • The complainant then submitted ten new allegations which had not been raised in her appeal, nor at Stages 1 and 2….

…The new points raised by the complainant did not persuade Trustees to change their initial conclusion that Panorama and associated BBC content had depicted events broadly as they occurred. (Rejection of final appeal to BBC Trust re: Panorama ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, published 26 February 2015)

In the last of these responses the evidence relating to the Dutch woman is merely lumped in among the complainant’s “ten new allegations” (detailed here), to be summarily dismissed en masse.

[13] The reference to two women of the same name relates to the odd fact that in 2014 a web search had turned up what appeared to be another individual with exactly the same name as the woman who had contacted me through Facebook. This “new” individual’s date of birth, address and telephone number were all available online: she was eight years younger than the woman who had messaged me and resident in Thorbeckeplein in central Amsterdam, rather than the suburb of Amstelveen, the home of “my” Dutch woman.

I thus take the investigator’s comments in this paragraph to mean that the Thorbeckeplein woman is “not the same person” as the Amstelveen woman and that it is the latter who is “the third daughter of an Armenian pro-Assad Family”,

The coincidence of two individuals possessing the same highly unusual name, resident in different parts of Amsterdam and with different dates of birth (year, month and date) is a perplexing facet of this matter.

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