BBC Panorama As Propaganda? Controversy over Saving Syria’s Children

Good piece from Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, Edinburgh University.

I would note only that the BBC addressed the issue of the editing of Dr Hallam’s words in this response in December 2013 (paragraph 9 onwards):

My opinion on the matter is here:

Tim Hayward

Propaganda is not easy to define. Nor can we always straightforwardly identify cases of it.[1] But we can distinguish propaganda as a category of activity from that of journalism.

There is some functional overlap, of course, since both activities involve communicating topical material as compellingly as possible. Similarities can be bracketed, though, as they can when distinguishing, say, an ambulance from a tank.

In principle the difference is clear. A journalist starts the day with a blank notepad and goes out to investigate what has been going on; she comes back with a report that she could not have anticipated producing at daybreak. A propagandist, by contrast, starts the day with a message that has to be conveyed and his task is to produce a report that most persuasively conveys that message.

Whatever overlap there may be in practice between these two kinds of activity, the categorical distinction itself…

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Panorama issues statement on Saving Syria’s Children

BBC Panorama has issued a statement regarding its 2013 documentary ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.

The statement is in response to challenges made by film, television and radio producer Victor Lewis-Smith.

On February 21 Lewis-Smith was alerted by political blogger Daniel Margrain to the recent UK Column Insight programme Saving Syria’s Children – The Worst Case Of Fake News? (since deleted from YouTube – alternate copy here).

Lewis-Smith subsequently tweeted Panorama requesting a discussion about Saving Syria’s Children, placing his contract for a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 comedy pilot at stake.

After several hours of “omerta”, as Lewis-Smith described it, a reply eventually was forthcoming from the BBC News Press Team.

As I tweeted in reply, the Ofcom report cited by the BBC News Press Team was in no way a defence of the BBC’s material. Lewis-Smith was also unimpressed:

Shortly afterwards Panorama editor Rachel Jupp replied to Lewis-Smith promising a conversation:

However by Monday Jupp’s position had shifted, prompting Lewis-Smith to up his demand to the release of the Saving Syria’s Children rushes:

While waiting for Jupp to fulfil her second promise, Lewis-Smith and I spoke and shortly afterwards a proposal was mooted:

Monday came and went with no statement from Jupp.

At 15:08 on Wednesday 1 March, two days later than promised, Jupp’s statement finally appeared on Panorama’s Facebook page. Four hours later Lewis-Smith posted a video of his tearing up his BBC contract.

On 3 March Lewis-Smith announced that:

I have added my responses to Jupp’s statement (reproduced below) in the comments below the Panorama Facebook post

For Victor Lewis-Smith’s observations on Saving Syria’s Children see his Tweets & replies from 21 February onward.

Robert Stuart

Saving Syria’s Children – Panorama Statement

On 20th September, 2013, [1] Panorama broadcast “Saving Syria’s Children.” Travelling with British doctors, it sought to illustrate the devastating impact of the war on children. Filmed in the north of the country, the doctors witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of a school by a suspected incendiary device and experienced medical facilities constantly under attack – both war crimes under international law. Eleven people died in the incident and more than twenty were injured. The BBC subsequently returned to meet some of the children affected, who were still being treated for severe burns. Unicef now estimates that in total tens of thousands of children have been killed in the war in Syria. Human Rights Watch have documented the use of incendiary bombs by pro-government forces in Syria.

It remains an incredibly important piece of journalism, fearlessly reported by Ian Pannell and Darren Conway. It represents the very best of the BBC – reporting the facts, always with due impartiality. A handful of people have raised questions about the programme’s authenticity, including RT in 2014. The BBC complained to Ofcom about the RT report, and Ofcom found that RT had indeed breached rule 2.2 of the Ofcom code – which states that “Factual programmes of items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience.”

There were also exhaustive investigations by the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit and another by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, which included evidence from burns specialists, witnesses and lawyers. They concluded the BBC had not been misled in any way and found no grounds in the complaint.

There remains absolutely no evidence that any part of the programme was fabricated and any such suggestion is offensive to the victims, medics and reporters. The programme illustrates all the best journalistic values which make us one of the world’s most trusted broadcasters.

Rachel Jupp,
Editor, Panorama


[1] Saving Syria’s Children was in fact first broadcast on 30 September 2013.