Request for review of Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser’s decision of 26 September 2014

Dear Sir/Madam

Further to my appeal request of 2 September I have now received the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser’s decision of 26 September.

I am writing to once more request that my complaint regarding Saving Syria’s Children be heard by the BBC Trust.

I believe my complaint stands a “reasonable prospect of success” for the following reasons.

Commander in Free Syrian Army attests the “napalm bomb” story to be false

The team of Syrian investigators which has been researching the alleged “napalm bomb” incident has been in contact with a former commander of the Al-Tawhid Brigade, a substantial faction in the Free Syrian Army, who was based in Aleppo province in August 2013 and was in close contact with events in Urm Al-Kubra.

The commander attests that the “napalm bomb” story is untrue and that none of the events depicted by the BBC occurred. He has provided this brief declaration (his voice is disguised) which the lead investigator has transcribed as follows:

In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful

We the fighters of the Free Syrian Army in the North West areas of the City of Aleppo we declare that we were present in this region in August 2013 and we did not meet any air strike with the substance of Napalm on Urum al Kubra or on any other region in the North West Aleppo  countryside and we deny the cheap fabrication of the BBC and of the stations that imitate her because it undermine the credibility of the Free Syrian Army. Saying this we do not hesitate to criminalize the criminal acts of the Assad regime and its murderous extermination of its people. And we have done a field investigation with the help of the delegate of the Free Syrian Red Crescent and this has conducted us to confirm what we are saying : no victims, no traces and no memory with anybody of the alleged air strikes with the substance of Napalm. And may peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings

The commander is willing to provide a full statement to the BBC providing that his identity will be protected. He is also willing to testify publicly under appropriate international protections.

The commander, who is now attached to another faction allied to the Free Syrian Army, invites BBC journalists to meet him in Antakya, Turkey. He will provide safe transit to Urm Al-Kubra where the BBC can conduct an investigation and speak to witnesses assembled by the Syrian team. I would be willing to join Ian Pannell and Darren Conway should they be prepared to accept this invitation.

The Syrian team has also provided this transcript of a July 2014 telephone conversation between the lead investigator and an emissary who has interviewed a resident of Urm Al-Kubra who has particular reason to be at the heart of events in the town. The man with whom the emissary has spoken is astonished to hear allegations of a “napalm bomb”, about which he would assuredly have heard had it truly occurred. The man also clarifies that the Iqraa Institute in Urm Al-Kubra is not a formal college, rather it is a religious gathering inaugurated by the rebels and led by a sheikh and to which local families send their older children out of fear of being perceived as disloyal to the opposition. [1]

The Adviser has dismissed evidence of Dutch participant in “napalm bomb” footage

On 2 September I provided clear evidence that a resident of the Netherlands had fraudulently performed in the role of a victim in scenes of the “napalm bomb” event, casting the gravest of doubts on the authenticity of similar scenes filmed by the BBC. I offered to provide the Adviser with this individual’s name and other details in order that her involvement could be fully investigated. The Adviser has dismissed this evidence, saying I had not demonstrated why “exceptionally on this occasion” it ought to be considered. I contend that this evidence clearly meets the benchmark of exceptionality and as such warrants consideration by the Trust.

The editing of Dr Rola Hallam’s words: due accuracy and compliance

  • BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 29 August 2013
  • BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 30 September 2013
  • BBC One, Panorama: Saving Syria’s Children, 30 September 2013

Introduction

  1. I have raised a serious issue concerning the editing of the above programmes that has not been considered fully or at all by the BBC Executive in its assessment at Stages 1 and 2 of the complaints procedure. As such the Trust should accept my appeal.
  1. The issue arises out of the reporting of events in Syria by the BBC in the two news bulletins and the Panorama programme cited above. Among other things, the reports included a contribution from a witness (Dr Hallam) that had been edited in such a way as to make a witness say something different on different occasions.  I drew attention to this in my original letter of complaint of 4 October 2013.
  1. The BBC Editorial Complaints Unit nevertheless decided that the programmes met the requirements of “due” accuracy. It explained that it was open to me to ask the Trust to review the decision, which I did, on 11 June 2014 (raising some additional points at the same time).  The Trust’s Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser wrote to me on 8 August 2014 to the effect that she does not believe my appeal should be put in front of the Trustees because my complaint does not stand a reasonable chance of success and must therefore be treated as not raising a matter of substance.
  1. I do not agree. I believe that the due accuracy requirement was not met and that my complaint raised a matter of substance.  My view is based on a number of grounds but for present purposes I rely in particular on the following:

(a) Due accuracy: broadcasting different versions of Dr Hallam’s contribution in different news reports fundamentally undermines the necessary trust that audiences should be able to repose in BBC news reports.  The due accuracy requirement was not met.  The ECU failed to consider this issue notwithstanding that the alteration of the words spoken by Dr Hallam had been raised in my original complaint.

(b) Compliance: using the complaints procedure to prevent the Trust from considering compliance issues would be inconsistent with Article 53 of the Charter.

  1. In short, there is a serious issue for the Trust to consider. What is the use of the Trust if it will not consider a complaint of this kind?
  1. I am sure that I do not need to labour the point that the BBC exists to serve the public interest. The BBC Trust is the guardian of the public interest in the BBC.  The Trust holds the Executive Board to account for compliance with the BBC’s commitment to what the Editorial Guidelines call the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality.
  1. If my complaint is well founded, it would be of the utmost importance to the BBC that the Executive should be called to account. I believe that my complaint is well founded and that I have advanced cogent reasons for doubting the authenticity of some of the events depicted.  The ECU and the Adviser do not agree.  But quite apart from the points canvassed extensively in correspondence between the BBC and myself, changing the evidence of a witness raises a serious issue concerning the editing of the programmes which was not considered by either the ECU or the Adviser and it ought to be considered by the Trust.

The Hallam issue in the complaints procedure

  1. The issue arises out of one incident in particular. It is the interview with Dr Rola Hallam.  The interview was broadcast by the BBC in two versions, the first on 29 August and the second on 30 September last year.  I pointed this out in my original letter of complaint of 4 October 2013, saying that the “words spoken by Dr [Hallam] have been altered between the two reports” and asking for an explanation.
  1. It appears from explanations given by the BBC that the interview was shot as a single sequence. I have not seen the footage but understand from those explanations (which I have posted on the internet) that, as originally shot and before editing, it included Dr Hallam saying the following:

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…

  1. This contribution was edited for the 29 August News broadcast as follows:

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…

  1. The contribution was subsequently edited for broadcast on 30 September, in a News bulletin and for a Panorama programme, as follows:

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…

  1. In its original response to my complaint, the BBC said the 29 August version was edited for a number of reasons, including avoiding confusion with the incident in Damascus a few days earlier involving chemical weapons. It also said that the 30 September version was used “unedited” in the Panorama programme and that the context in which it was used was such that there would be no confusion with the incident in Damascus.
  1. The ECU said it had little to add to this explanation. It described the first version of the contribution as having been subject to “internal” edits and the second version as having been used “without any internal audio editing”.  It did not think the audience would have been misled and said it was satisfied that “each of the three items met the requirements for due accuracy.”
  1. The Adviser, in her reasons for her decision, indicated that: “… there was no evidence that the editorial decision to edit the audio of Dr Hallam in the way it had was likely to have resulted in viewers being misled …” and that this allegation (sic) would not have a reasonable prospect of success in the appeal.
  1. What is missing from the assessments made by both the ECU and the Adviser is any consideration of the editing of the interview in the round. Neither the ECU nor the Adviser consider the likely effect on the audience of being presented with the same interview on different occasions but with the words “chemical weapon” substituted for “napalm”.  Any reasonable person seeing this would conclude that someone had tampered with the evidence.  That conclusion, which I and others drew at the time, would fundamentally undermine trust in the BBC’s reporting.  It would have confirmed other doubts about the authenticity of the programmes.  That is why, in respect of the Hallam issue alone, I believe the Trust should consider my appeal.
  1. It is no good arguing, as the ECU did, that one version was subject to internal editing and the other was not. In fact, it seems to me that on any reasonable view of the evidence that both versions had been subject to internal editing, as demonstrated above, but that is not the point.  Viewers were presented on each occasion with the same interview but some of the words the witness used on one occasion were different from those used on another occasion.  They had plainly been changed by the BBC.  Nor is it any answer to say that the sense of the words would have been clear in the context of the programme.  That is not the point either.  The audience was confronted with a witness whose words had been changed.  There were none of the usual indications by which a broadcaster usually signals to the audience that the material has been edited.  The only conclusion that could reasonably be drawn by the audience from what was broadcast in these programmes was that the witness had been made by the BBC to appear to say something different.
  1. To illustrate the mischief to which this kind of editing may lead, a hypothetical scenario is set out in Appendix 2. It imagines a contribution of a witness to a news report about hypothetical events which, to facilitate analysis, are neutral and lack the emotional charge of the terrible events taking place in Syria.  It is based on the Cluedo board game and, for the purposes of analysis, I invite the Trust to assume that the country or indeed the world is following the outcome of those hypothetical events via the BBC’s news bulletins with the same kind of intense interest as was the case with the actual events in Syria.  The scenario is intended to illustrate the way in which a contribution from a witness, if edited in the same way as the Syrian footage, might be used to give quite different accounts of the events.  It also is intended to illustrate how the edited footage might be justified on the occasion of each broadcast whilst being wholly unjustified when considered in comparison with each other because they would be manifestly inauthentic and would therefore wholly undermine audience trust in the BBC’s reporting of the events.  I cannot believe that editing practices of this kind could be regarded by the Trust as compatible with the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, the achievement of its public purpose of seeking to ensure the BBC gives information about the world through accurate and impartial news or the maintenance of audience trust.
  1. As a general comment, it seems to me that this case exposes a weakness in the Guidelines. I suggest that the Guidelines ought to deal expressly with circumstances of this kind, perhaps by requiring that, once the BBC has broadcast a statement by a witness, the statement should be regarded as fixed and that it should not be edited again in such a way as to make the witness appear to say something different, lest it undermine audience confidence in the authenticity of what they are seeing or hearing.

I therefore invite the Trust to consider whether the editing of the Hallam interview and its broadcast in two different versions was appropriate in the circumstances of this case.

Due accuracy

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

The impact on the perception of authenticity in the rest of the programmes

  1. Once it is recognised that, taken together, the audience’s trust in the factual accuracy of the programmes had been compromised, the rest of the ECU’s assessment begins to unravel. The ECU accepted that a careful viewing of the programme indicated that some of the footage was not shown in chronological order. It said that it would share my concern if it had been evidence that the events had been choreographed or fabricated in some way to create a misleading impression or deceive the audience. As it was, the ECU took the view that showing the sequences out of chronological order did not significantly alter the impression viewers would have been given about what happened. But to any member of the audience whose confidence in what they were seeing had been undermined by the presentation of the altered version of the Hallam interview, the inconsistencies in the chronology would further undermine confidence in the authenticity of what had been shown.
  1. As to whether there was any evidence as such of the events having been choreographed, I have addressed the BBC in some detail on the matter but I draw the Trust’s attention to one point which I made in my original letter of complaint about an eye witness reading covertly from a prepared script. The BBC denied it and I did not pursue the matter again until my appeal letter of 2 September 2014 in which I explained why there is no other plausible explanation than that which I originally advanced. I will explain the point again:

(a)   In my original letter of complaint of 4 October I said the spontaneity and passion of the alleged eyewitness, Mohammed Abdullatif, were artificial and that he was in fact reading from a prepared text.

(b)   In its response, the BBC denied that he was reading from a prepared text. It said he was attempting to be formal. [2]

(c)   The words of the witness were: “Dear United Nations, you’re recalling peace – you’re calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for …”. He corrects himself because “recalling peace” obviously makes no sense.

(d)   The only plausible explanation for his having said “recalling” is that he misread a prepared text by making the link underlined here: “you’re calling”. No other explanation is conceivable.

  1. Even without the extensive material that I have deployed to cast doubt on the authenticity of the material that was broadcast, I suggest that the points made above, which are all present on the face of the complaint, are sufficient to call for the matter to be reviewed by the Trust.

The Trust, the complaints procedure and the Charter

  1. My understanding of the complaints procedure is that it implements the requirements in the Charter for a framework for the handling of complaints in accordance with Articles 24 and 38. But I also understand that complaints to the BBC have an important role to play in securing compliance with the Charter and the Framework Agreement.  That is what Article 52 says.  I am therefore concerned that the procedure as implemented should not inhibit the BBC’s ability to secure compliance with the editorial standards that lie at the heart of my appeal.
  1. Note, for example, that I appealed to the Trust on 11 June. On 19 June, I wrote again to “urgently submit” some additional material. [3] It appears that that additional material has been ignored by the Trust. [4] If that is right, it may have been ignored because, strictly speaking, it did not comply with the published procedures, which do not say anything about the provision of supplemental material.  If so, and if the additional material was relevant to the appeal, I am not sure that it would be consistent with the meaning and intent of Article 52 of the Charter for the Trust to ignore it.
  1. Another possible instance of the complaints procedure inhibiting or preventing consideration of compliance issues is a complaint to the BBC from Ms Susan Dirgham about the Panorama programme and its broadcast in Australia. It is dated 2 July 2014 and was addressed to BBC Complaints at an address in Darlington.  Ms Dirgham writes that she wishes to support my complaint letters with further points as well as to make her own complaint about other aspects of the programme.  She raises a number of serious compliance issues in relation to the programme which are separate and different from those I raised.  If they are well founded they would be relevant to any consideration of the issues I have raised.
  1. I understand that the complaint has been rejected by the BBC. I am very concerned that the rejection, in the present circumstances where the Trust is being asked to consider other compliance issues raised in a variety of different quarters in relation to the same programme, is not consistent with the meaning and intent of Article 52 of the Charter.
  1. I submit, in short, that in following the procedures laid down in the complaints handling framework, those concerned should not be so inflexible in their application of the rules as to defeat or inhibit the processes by which the BBC secures compliance with programme standards. As Article 52 makes clear, complaints have an important role to play in securing compliance.  The Trust should not be denied relevant knowledge of compliance issues.

Conclusion 

  1. For all the above reasons, and in the light of all my other representations on this matter, the Trust should accept my appeal.

Human Rights Watch report

The Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser’s decision refers to this Human Rights Watch report which (from p12) discusses the “napalm bomb” event. This report, which the Adviser clearly sees as corroboration of the BBC’s account, in fact raises a number of points which run counter to the BBC narrative and further challenge the credibility of the entire “napalm bomb” episode:

  • P12 – The report states the attack happened “around midday on August 26, 2013”; the Violations Documentations Center in Syria report cited at footnote 27 on the same page states on page 4 that the attack happened “at 2:00pm”; Ian Pannell has stated categorically that “The attack happened on the 26th of August at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day”. [5]
  • P13 – The report states “When the attack occurred students were preparing for their secondary exams and some teachers were present”.

The lead Syrian investigator cited in my 2 September submission notes (p8):

Following our careful investigation, since the beginning of the uprising it was forbidden to the children and to the students to go to school because it was linked to the Syrian Government. The rebels could never install an educational system. Some NGO’s helped occasionally to secure some elements of education in some places. But it was very rare. Instead the revolutionaries enhanced the “religious courses” to “change” the mentality of the Syrian people from secular to “religious”.

The “Iqra”school system is further discussed in my 2 September submission.

  • P13 – The report describes how Dr Ahsan emailed Human Rights Watch explaining how a MiG had first dropped a bomb onto a residential building 50 metres up the road before circling and dropping a second bomb outside the window of one of the classrooms. A female student who witnessed the attack had had confirmed that the plane had dropped two bombs and had told NBC News:

“As we were going inside the classroom, it hit again. I didn’t hear anything. We just saw people burning,” said the student, who was not identified. “My classmates were burning. It felt like Judgment Day.”

The NBC article containing this quote in fact states that the female witness “told NBC News’ Richard Engel that the plane attacked the school twice” (i.e. not a residential building then the school).

Moreover, aside from the inherent implausibility of a witness of an attack in rural Aleppo speaking to a (presumably) US-based news reporter, the words quoted in the NBC article are in fact those spoken by the younger of the two black dress women in this You Tube video (note especially the reference to “judgment day”):

… while escaping they called us to return to the school as the war-plane has not finished bombing yet .. they were sure that it will bomb again .. and then the war-plane bombed us .. I did not hear any sound but all what I saw is people burning .. I got burnt and so my friends .. we did not know what happened and why .. a war-plane bombed us and bodies in flames all over the place .. I felt like it is the judgement day.  (Excerpt from private translation – fuller text below) [6]

As I have previously noted, the credibility of these video sequences is challenged by the fact that the “witness” is wearing  the same distinctive dress and headscarf as another alleged witness/victim featured in Panorama, indicating a scenario of amateur actors with access to a makeshift wardrobe, and by the appearance at 02:30 of an entirely unscathed female, scarcely persuasive as an alleged napalm/thermite victim.

The NBC article also cites “Dr Roula” (Dr Rola Hallam):

The first case she received was a 7-month-old brought in by his father. The infant was covered in full-body burns, and his dad had head burns.

Dr Hallam has elsewhere referred to the father’s “burnt face”. The BBC has never specified that the father had head or face burns, stating more vaguely:

His father was also burnt and sat helplessly on a stretcher clutching his son as the staff rushed to help. (Ian Pannell, 30 September 2013)

The father had suffered burns that you cannot detect in the blurred and fleeting images of him on film. (Ian Pannell, 18 Feb 2014)

I have viewed the rushes and the material appears to confirm that the individual described by Panorama as the baby’s father (seen wearing a beige top) had sustained some burns. (Colin Tregear, 23 April 2014)

The father’s head and face are quite plainly visible in Saving Syria’s Children and do not appear burnt. Certainly he is in no distress.

Similarly Dr Hallam’s claim that the baby had “full body burns” (elsewhere claiming “80% burns”) is belied by the images in Saving Syria’s Children. The BBC’s claims regarding the baby’s burns have run the gamut from “severe burns” (Panorama narration) to “his pink face was blistered and raw” (Ian Pannell, 30 September 2013) to the extremely weak “I have seen the rushes and can confirm that Dr Ahsan clearly refers to the baby having burns on its face; the footage appears to confirm this.” (Colin Tregear, 23 April 2014).

  • P13 – Footnote 31 links to this video which from 0:40 – 0:58 allegedly shows damage caused to the apartment building that was supposedly the scene of the first “napalm bomb” strike. This short video contains (at 1:06) the shot of the Dutch-Armenian woman previously noted. Further noteworthy points are the incongruously chic attire of the woman standing behind the older of the “black dress women” (1:16) and the cutting away of the shot just before a hypodermic needle would seem to be about to be inserted into Siham Kanbari’s neck at (1:43). [7]
  • P14 – Dr Ahsan is quoted:

Patients were then being hosed down in the courtyard before being allowed into the hospital – as per the cleaning process had this been a chemical attack – but this was also of benefit to their burns anyway

A water truck to which hoses are attached is briefly visible at 32:40 in Saving Syria’s Children. Is this standard equipment for a “field hospital”? If not, is its very swift arrival at the scene in any way remarkable? How do Dr Ahsan’s words square with the doctor I have cited who asks “wouldn’t the high spray of the hose cause more problems to burnt skin”?

He died two weeks later from complications caused by the severe burns

The BBC claims that Anas “died a few days later in hospital in Turkey”.

  • P20 – Footnote 47 claims that the victim named by the Violations Documentation Center as Mohammad Abdulnaser Hakhouri  has been identified by a local activist as a 15 year old boy. It is a curious point that Hakhouri’s entry in the VDC list of 41 “martyrs” is alone in containing a thumbnail image and that this image is of the adult Victim X.

I have noted other contradictions between the VDC list and the Panorama account here.

Freelance journalist, Paul Adrian Raymond

The Adviser states that the independent editorial adviser spoke to freelance journalist Paul Adrian Raymond, who wrote an article describing an alleged meeting with the father of the alleged victim Siham Kanbari (Qambari).

In my letter of 30 January 2014 I note that Raymond’s article states that Siham died “seven weeks” after the “napalm bomb” event, which read strictly would indicate Monday 14 October. Dr Ahsan has claimed on at least two occasions that Siham died on 20 October [8]. An update to the end credits of Saving Syria’s Children now claims that Siham died on 19 October.

As I noted in January, Raymond did not respond to my request, made via his website’s contact form, for clarification about the date of Siham’s death and on other points.

Discrepancies between the BBC’s account and “Free Halab” videos of the alleged event

The collection of videos assembled by the “Free Halab” blog continues to pose further serious questions as to the veracity of the BBC’s account.

For example, in the account provided by the opposition fighter speaking in this film, shot at Atareb hospital on the day of the alleged incident, reference is made to “seven martyrs and about 50 wounded from the religious college for women and girls“. This of course flatly contradicts the BBC’s account in which the majority of student victims are seen to be adolescent males. I understand from a correspondent that other videos in the collection contain similar references to a religious teaching centre specifically for females. [9] Note 12 April 2015: at some point prior to 8 April 2015 the You Tube channel (“Aleppo and Idleb”) which hosted this video was terminated. Please refer to this copy.

In relation to the medic who claims to have attended victims at Atareb and who is interviewed here from 12 minutes my correspondent states:

The so called MD with his neat and clean overhaul [sic] 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).

I am sure the BBC’s Arabic Department could be tasked with fully translating all the videos on the Free Halab blog for the benefit of the BBC Trustees.

Yours sincerely

Robert Stuart

Notes

[1] A recording of this conversation and an account of the man’s particular connection to events in Urm Al-Kubra are available for any appropriate enquiry. As a general comment, the lead investigator notes:

In the Orient everybody knows everybody and any single event is commented and disseminated better than with the medias. Moreover any death is registered on the collective memory of the local community where all are parent to all. A tragedy like a Napalm aggression that has allegedly provoked so many death and injury cannot be ignored.

[2] In a further submission of 14 September I noted a discrepancy between this explanation, which attributed the initiative for addressing the UN to Abdullatif (“..apparently feeling he should “address” the UN and the world about what is happening around him”) and that provided to another complainant, who was told that Abdullatif was specifically “asked what his message was to the UN”.

In her 26 September decision the Adviser attributes the discrepancy to the earlier response being “less detailed”. However a further contradiction emerges between the second more “detailed” explanation provided to my fellow complainant, which said Abdullatif was asked by the reporter what his message was “to the UN”, and the Adviser’s latest explanation which quotes the Panorama reporter as asking him “What is your message to the outside world?”

[3] The substantial points in my 11 June submission were:

  • The conflict between Ian Pannell’s description of Atareb as “a basic hospital funded by handouts” and the revelation that funding from a “European donor” via an “INGO partner” had been secured prior to Mr Pannell’s reports, this conflict accentuated by pictures from before 26 August 2013 which show the hospital to be extremely well-equipped by regional standards.
  • Facebook images show regular Atareb staff attending battle first aid training in Turkey on the day of the alleged attack, raising questions over the identities of the alleged medics featured in Panorama
  • A report by the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Syria gives the time of the alleged attack as 2pm whereas Ian Pannell claimed it happened “at around 5.30pm
  • Discrepancies between the Panorama account and the list of casualties from the alleged event compiled by the VDC, with the latter claiming giving all deaths occurred on 26 August, as opposed to the BBC’s claims that Anas Sayyed Ali (Anas al-Sayed Ali on the VDC list), Ahmed Darwish (Ahmad Darwish), Siham Kanbari (Siham Qandaree) and Mohammed Asi (Muhammad Assi) all survived beyond this date, the latter three being either filmed or photographed allegedly “weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey”.
  • The credibility of another video of the younger of the two “black dress women” is further undermined by the appearance at 02:30 of an entirely unscathed female intended to represent a “napalm” victim.

[4] A similar fate has now befallen several critical new points raised in my appeal request of 2 September 2014 with none of the following matters having been addressed in the Adviser’s latest decision:

  • The likely identification of one of the amateur actors in footage of the “napalm bomb” footage and my offer to provide the BBC with fuller information so that this person’s seeming involvement could be investigated.
  • The Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser’s startling misidentification of two women of clearly very different ages as the same individual, thereby avoiding responding to my suggestion that, as amateur actors in the “napalm bomb” fabrication, they had evidently shared the same costume (the distinctive dress with gold flower design and blue headscarf ).
  • BBC’s Worldwide’s targeted blocking of You Tube copies of ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ over and above other editions of Panorama – see here and here.
  • The fresh questions raised about the journey of Victim X between Atareb and Bab al-Hawa hospitals, with two videos depicting him as deceased in an ambulance presumably en route between the two and the Demotix photos portraying him as alive upon arrival at Bab al-Hawa.
  • The highly questionable editing of a recent edition of Newsnight which cited the “napalm bomb” event (this matter is now the subject of a fresh complaint to the BBC).

The Adviser states that she does not agree that I had “demonstrated why exceptionally on this occasion, this new material required to be considered” but does not give any indication of her reasoning.

[5] Dr Hallam reflects Ian Pannell’s account in the NBC news article cited in the Human Rights Watch report:

The attack happened late in the afternoon, she said, when the children were finishing up their school day.

[6]  Private translation/summary of this video of the younger of the two “black dress women”:

We are students in Orm Alkubra academy .. we were at Ikra’ school in a mathematical lesson .. suddenly a war-plane bombed a nearby building .. as we panicked we rushed out and saw the building in flames .. teachers encouraged us to escape .. while escaping they called us to return to the school as the war-plane has not finished bombing yet .. they were sure that it will bomb again .. and then the war-plane bombed us .. I did not hear any sound but all what I saw is people burning .. I got burnt and so my friends .. we did not know what happened and why .. a war-plane bombed us and bodies in flames all over the place .. I felt like it is the judgement day .. everybody is trying to put out themselves .. corpses all over the place .. people scrubbing their bodies to the ground .. why this happened ? .. we got up and ran .. we hid at the neighbourhood, they soaked us in cold water .. once we came it is an indescribable scene .. all bodies on the floors .. all students are burnt .. we are education seekers .. what is our guilt? .. are we carrying weapons? .. we are carrying pens and notebooks writing in maths lessons .. what is our guilt? .. teachers are not guilty .. watching teachers burning in front of us and cannot do anything .. we were in flames and no one there to put us out .. suddenly people gathered and begun aiding us .. we came here to find people all over the place .. students are innocent .. many of the corpses cannot be identified … we all kids haven’t turned 18 of age yet” ……….. (the rest of what she said is wailing and also blaming and threatening Bashar Alasad and appealing to god to curse him and burn his children).

A portion of the same “interview” was also translated in this Al Jazeera report:

All I saw was people on fire, I was on fire, my friends were on fire, a plane hit us there were unidentifiable bodies on the floor.

[7] Another version of the same video (entitled “is humanity dead?”) contains English translations of the Arabic captions, which state “This is not a masquerade” (1:12), “These are not performing actors” (1:21) and  “This is not a theater stage” (1.30).

[8] In this blog on the BMA website Dr Ahsan explicitly states that Siham died on 20 October; at around 1 minute 30 in this Australian TV interview aired on 22 October and speaking from London Dr Ahsan says “tragically two days ago she died” (same section is at 2 minutes in this You Tube copy).

[9] My correspondent further notes the claims of female students being taught mathematics and the presence of male staff as presented both in the videos and in the BBC’s own reports and neither of which, he states, would be  permitted in a “religious college for women and girls”.

Appendix 1

Summary of grounds of appeal

  • BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 29 August 2013
  • BBC One, Ten O’Clock News, 30 September 2013
  • BBC One, Panorama: Saving Syria’s Children, 30 September 2013

Complaint by Robert Stuart: BBC Trust ref: 2751936

I submit that the Trust ought to consider my complaint about the above programmes on the merits of all the representations contained in this and in my previous correspondence on the matter and because the Trust has a general responsibility for compliance under the Charter.

FSA commander attests “napalm bomb” event did not occur

A former commander of the opposition Al-Tawhid Brigade who was at the heart of events in Aleppo last August attests that the “napalm bomb” attack in Urm Al-Kubra depicted in the BBC’s reports did not occur and is prepared to provide full testimony to the BBC and to relevant international bodies. He offers to securely escort BBC journalists to the scene in order that fresh investigations can be made. A local resident with particular reason to be at the heart of events in Urm Al-Kubra also verifies that the alleged event did not occur.

Adviser has dismissed evidence of Dutch participant in “napalm bomb” footage

The Adviser has entirely dismissed clear evidence of the illicit involvement of a Netherlands resident in filmed scenes of the “napalm bomb” event and ignored my offer to provide information identifying this person. This evidence clearly meets the benchmark of exceptionality and ought to be considered by the Trust.

The editing of Dr Rola Hallam’s words: due accuracy and compliance

My complaint has raised serious issues of compliance with which the Editorial Complaints Unit has not dealt fully or at all.  The decision of the ECU should be reviewed not only for the other reasons I have advanced in support of my complaint but also because:

(a) Due accuracy: broadcasting different versions of the same contribution (by Dr Hallam) in different news reports fundamentally undermines the necessary trust that audiences should have in the authenticity of BBC news reports.  It is no answer for the BBC to say that it is required only to achieve “due” accuracy, a lesser standard than complete accuracy, and that it achieved that lesser standard.  In any event, the due accuracy requirement was not met, having regard to the subject and nature of the content, including the terrible events occurring in Syria, the momentous nature of the political context and the fact that the contribution was presented as news, to which the highest standards of accuracy should apply.  The ECU failed to consider this issue notwithstanding that I had raised the BBC’s alteration of the words spoken by Dr Hallam in my original complaint.

(b) Compliance:  the Trust has compliance functions in relation to which Article 52 of the Charter expressly states that complaints have an important role to play.  Far from allowing my complaint to play that role, the Adviser is proposing in effect to use the complaints procedure itself to prevent the Trust from considering a complaint about a serious compliance issue.  Such a use of the procedure in the circumstances of this case would be wholly inappropriate.  It would be inconsistent with Article 52 of the Charter and would frustrate the purpose of the Article which is to ensure compliance.

Quite apart from any of the other issues raised by my complaint, the broadcast of the different versions of the Hallam interview as items of news or current affairs amounted to a very serious breach of the Editorial Guidelines.  I therefore submit that the Trust ought to review my complaint and the decision of the ECU in relation to it and at the very least to consider whether the editing of the Hallam interview and its broadcast in two different versions was appropriate in the circumstances of this case.

Human Rights Watch report

The Adviser cites a Human Rights Watch report as corroboration of the BBC narrative but the report contains or points to serious contradictions with the BBC account.

Freelance journalist, Paul Adrian Raymond

The Adviser cites a statement by freelance journalist Paul Adrian Raymond who allegedly met with the father of the alleged victim Siham Kanbari. An article written by Raymond suggests a date of death for Siham Kanbari which is different to those provided by Dr Saleyha Ahsan and by the BBC (which themselves also vary).

Discrepancies between the BBC account and other videos of the alleged event

A  collection of online videos of the “napalm bomb” event contain a number of discrepancies with the BBC’s account. For instance, in at least one video the scene of the alleged “napalm bomb” is described as “a religious college for women and girls”; in another a witness makes a technically contentious claim to have overheard Syrian air force communications over a hand-held walky-talky. These videos clearly warrant close scrutiny by the BBC Trust.

Appendix 2

Suppose a murder had been committed in a country house and a BBC production team interviewed a witness, who said: “Absolute chaos and carnage here.  We’ve had a murder.  It seems like it must have been Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the revolver, I’m not really sure, maybe it was Professor Plum in the kitchen with the lead pipe.

Suppose then that the BBC, in broadcasting its report on the murder, and for one reason or another not wishing to implicate Colonel Mustard, edited the interview so that, at the end, the witness said: “… It seems like it must have been, I’m not really sure, maybe it was Professor Plum in the kitchen with the lead pipe.

And suppose then that a month later, when other events made it relevant to implicate Colonel Mustard, the BBC broadcast another report of the murder but this time edited the interview so that, at the end, the witness said “… It seems like it must have been Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the revolver, I’m not really sure.”

In those hypothetical circumstances, which of course parallel the relevant broadcasts by the BBC about the events in Syria, it might be said (as the ECU did in relation to those events) that:

  • the audience was not misled on either occasion because the witness said was mere speculation about the identity of the murderer, the location and the means used and accurately represented what the witness had said
  • both interviews as broadcast met the requirements for “due” accuracy
  • 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.

But that is true only when the versions of the interview as broadcast are considered separately.  When they are shown one after another, the audience would at first be baffled.  They would have seen the witness, however uncertainly, blaming Professor Plum.  Then in the subsequent broadcast of the same interview, they would have seen her, equally uncertainly, blaming Colonel Mustard.  Bafflement would quickly be replaced by the only plausible explanation which would be that the BBC had changed the words.

For the BBC then to concede that the interview was not an accurate account of the interview but that it was compliant with the Editorial Guidelines because the level of accuracy that it was required to achieve was only “due” accuracy would invite a consideration of what “due” meant.  That, of course, would depend on the circumstances and in particular the kind of programme in which the contribution was included.  If it were drama, the requirement would be less stringent than for news, to which the highest standards must apply.  If the event were of national or international significance, the scope for editorial latitude in the presentation of news must be at its lowest.

If then, the identity or circumstances of the murder was of global significance, I cannot believe that the Trust would accept that editorial freedom would extend to presenting different versions of the same interview in which a key witness is made to blame Professor Plum in August and Colonel Mustard in September.  That would be an outrage in the BBC’s news reporting of the murder.  The contributions by the witness would be manifestly inauthentic.  The alteration would fundamentally undermine the BBC’s reputation for reliability in its news reporting of the great events of the day.

I hope that this example is sufficient to make the point.  But in case it should be said that my example is not comparable with the reporting of the events in Syria since the latter was concerned only with the means used and not the location or identity of the murderer, the same result follows if a more limited set of facts is considered as follows.

Suppose the witness had said: “Absolute chaos and carnage here.  We’ve had a murder.  It seems like it must have been committed with a revolver, I’m not really sure, maybe it was a lead pipe.

Suppose then that the BBC, in broadcasting its report on the murder, and for one reason or another not wishing to implicate Colonel Mustard who was suspected of making undue use of his revolver elsewhere, edited the interview so that, at the end, the witness said: “… It seems like it must have been, I’m not really sure, maybe it was a lead pipe.

And suppose then that a month later, when a bullet hole had been discovered, the BBC broadcast another report of the murder but this time edited the interview so that, at the end, the witness said “… It seems like it must have been with a revolver, I’m not really sure.”

If the fate of nations hung in the balance according to whether or not Colonel Mustard was the culprit, the editing of the interview in this way would have been outrageous in the circumstances.  Once more, I cannot believe that the Trust would accept that editorial freedom would extend to presenting different versions of the same interview in which a key witness is made to point to a lead pipe in August and to a revolver in September.  But that is what happened in the BBC’s reports of the events in Syria.

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