Shadow Foreign Secretary backs down over BBC Panorama links to al-Qaeda and ISIS

See also this follow up BBC cheek by jowl with ISIS: email to Emily Thornberry MP 

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has retreated from pursuing concerns that BBC licence fee revenue may have been paid to al-Qaeda and ISIS linked jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham.

On 19 August I emailed Ms Thornberry observing that BBC reporter Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway had apparently employed Ahrar al-Sham militants as security during the filming of the 2013 Panorama special Saving Syria’s Children.

As noted in my recent presentation for Frome Stop War (from 15:18 below), Ahrar al-Sham was co-founded by “one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted couriers”, Mohamed Bahaiah. Bahaiah, now deceased, is suspected by Spanish investigators of delivering surveillance tapes of the World Trade Centre to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan in 1998.

Less than three weeks before filming on Saving Syria’s Children began Ahrar al-Sham was, along with ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, among “the key fundraisers, organizers, planners, and executors” of attacks in which at least 190 civilians were killed and over 200 mostly women and children were kidnapped. The BBC’s own news reports describe Ahrar al-Sham as a “hardline Islamist” group.

On 3 October Thornberry responded stating:

Making programmes in a war-zone such as Syria is a very difficult task, but I agree that the BBC must be vigilant to ensure that licence fee payer money is never used to inadvertently fund the members of any Jihadi groups.

I hope that the Editor of Panorama will be able to shed further light on this issue and explain what action the BBC has taken to look into this matter and learn lessons for future programmes.

However, in her latest reply (reproduced below) Thornberry’s ardour to discover whether BBC license fee payer money was paid to the “hardline Islamist” Ahrar al-Sham has vanished:

I was unaware of your longstanding correspondence with the BBC when I first raised your complaint but after reading their response I am confident that they have investigated your complaint extensively and I now consider this matter to be closed.

The response referred to by Thornberry, from BBC News Senior Editorial Adviser Jeremy Hayes (also reproduced below), dwells almost entirely on the 2013/14 correspondence between myself and the corporation over the possible fabrication of scenes in the documentary. The fresh observations about Pannell and Conway’s association with the ISIS and al-Qaeda linked Ahrar al-Sham are waved away in the final paragraph:

I doubt that the detail supplied by Mr Stuart in his letter to you about the alleged presence in a convoy of a vehicle marked ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ would have a significant bearing on the accuracy of this programme but in any case the BBC is only obliged to consider complaints about its broadcast output within thirty days of transmission unless there are exceptional circumstances. Bearing in mind the considerable resources which have been expended by the BBC in considering and investigating Mr Stuart’s many other allegations about this programme , BBC News will not be examining this claim.

That at least one vehicle marked with the Ahrar al-Sham logo formed part of Pannell and Conway’s security convoy is a fact, not an allegation:

Vehicle in convoy transporting BBC reporter Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway in Saving Syria’s Children.

Further, the issues raised by Thornberry on my behalf were not in this instance in respect of the accuracy of the programme’s content. They were:

  • That BBC personnel had seemingly established a business relationship with a murderous jihadi faction which was co-founded by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s then representative in Syria and which, as noted above, had scant weeks earlier co-operated with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the mass killing and kidnap of civilians;
  • The possibility that Ahrar al-Sham may have been paid for its services with BBC licence fee revenue;
  • That Panorama had employed as Saving Syria’s Children’s Fixer/Translator an individual reported as wishing to “help bring down the Syrian regime”, who had been photographed bearing the standard of armed opposition faction the Idlib Martyrs’ Brigade and who had posted numerous gloating images of weaponry on social media. [1]

Despite having asked the Panorama office in October to respond specifically to these three points, one month later the Shadow Foreign Secretary appears mollified by a reply which avoids them all. Embracing Hayes’ obfuscatory conflation of my two separate concerns – that scenes in Saving Syria’s Children may have been staged and that BBC personnel appear to have been ensconced with the “hardline Islamist” Ahrar al-Sham – Thornberry now finds herself “confident” that the BBC has investigated my “complaint” “extensively” and considers “this matter to be closed.” [2]

Thankfully there are others who wish to promote, rather than foreclose, enquiry into both strands of concern.

In April, multi-award winning Paste magazine, whose “8 million unique monthly visitors” are “hungry for authenticity”, declared Saving Syria’s Children a “sham“.

Former UK ambassador Craig Murray has questioned the programme’s production on a number of occasions, while ex-Guardian and Observer journalist Jonathan Cook raised his head a considerable distance above the parapet to state: “It looks suspiciously like one scene in particular, of people with horrific burns, was staged”.

Film, television and radio producer Victor Lewis-Smith’s challenge that the BBC make the documentary’s raw footage available led to his tearing up his own BBC contract and pressured Panorama editor Rachel Jupp into publishing a highly disingenuous defence of Saving Syria’s Children on Facebook. [3] Lewis-Smith now plans a cinema documentary on the subject.

Another quarter which both the BBC and compliant parliamentarians would do well not to disregard is the Mumsnet community, whose members are presently discussing Saving Syria’s Children in terms including “utterly outrageous, beyond anything seen in Russia, North Korea”, “Definitely FAKE and in parts so badly acted” and “Pretty clear they’ve been caught out here”.

The hands that rock the cradle…

Mumsnet poster VivaLeBeaver, departing from topics of prior legitimate concern including “What was that banana medicine I used to have as a kid?” and “What to wear under a cassock if you’re nine !“, pronounced the case for Saving Syria’s Children being a fabrication “worryingly convincing” while Carolinesbeanies asks a question I too have had occasion to ponder:

These are damning accusations against the BBC that if untrue, any credible organisation would have obtained injunctions, financial damages and no end of legal apologies to clear their name?

So in short, in 4 years, why is Robert Stuart in the heart of London presenting his evidence in October 2017, unhindered by any form of injunction or legal redress?


[1] While the points I raised with Thornberry did not directly relate to the accuracy or authenticity of the content of Saving Syria’s Children, in light of the links which clearly existed between Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS in August 2013 the tensely-rendered scene of Pannell and Conway’s passage through an ISIS checkpoint at 10:46 in the programme perhaps acquires a different complexion.

[2] For Thornberry to be “unaware” of my “longstanding correspondence with the BBC” is a circumstance I have done my utmost to mitigate since 16 December 2015, when I personally handed both her and Jeremy Corbyn copies of a dossier on Saving Syria’s Children. Since 20 January 2016 I have included Thornberry’s parliamentary email address on my circulation list for updates on the topic and between then and 10 July this year have blind copied her into 24 such emails. The next email I sent to Thornberry, on 17 August, was in the capacity of a constituent seeking advocacy and began the exchange outlined above.

[3] For instance, Jupp’s statement in part reads:

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.”

Ofcom’s finding clearly states that it “has not undertaken an assessment of the accuracy and/or impartiality of the BBC Programmes in reaching this Decision” and that “it was not possible or appropriate for Ofcom to attempt to prove or disprove the allegations made [by RT] about the BBC in the Programme”. I had pointed this out in an email to Jupp prior to the publication of her statement.

Commenting on Jupp’s statement, Patrick Henningsen of 21st Century Wire observes:

“A handful of people have raised questions…” so is that meant to downplay any wrong doing? How many unruly plebs would be a significant number for the BBC to take an inquiry seriously?

My previous related correspondence with Emily Thornberry is here, here and here

The appended images referred to by the ECU below can be viewed here.  My full correspondence with the BBC over Saving Syria’s Children is here.

About Robert Stuart

Researching the 2013 BBC Panorama documentary Saving Syria's Children and associated BBC News reports.

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