What you see below is a letter of complaint sent to the BBC by National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria” Ms Susan Susan Dirgham in relation to the many omissions and distortions the BBC has worked into two of its reports on Syria, Saving Syria’s Children and Homs: Journey into Hell.
The YouTube versions of these two reports have been mysteriously deleted, and the BBC iPlayer version will remain available until 17 October and only to UK residents. The “memory hole” has presumably been reserved to these two particular reports (while other Panorama programmes remain available on YouTube) as a result of the many investigative articles, op-eds and videos exposing their one-sidedness and general dishonesty toward the viewers, which must have made the defence of these two dubious works increasingly difficult and embarrassing.
Complaint to the BBC regarding Panorama’s “Saving Syria’s Children”
PO Box 1922
2 July 2014
I wish to lodge a formal complaint about breaches of BBC Editorial Guidelines in the BBC Panorama report “Saving Syria’s Children”, first broadcast on BBC One on Monday 30 September 2013. As well as being shown in Britain, many people in Australia have viewed it as it was presented on Australia’s SBS Dateline on 22 October 2013. (I will send a copy of this complaint to the managing director of SBS.)
Also note that “Saving Syria’s Children” was uploaded onto YouTube on 4 October 2013 by the ‘Fixer/Translator’ of the programme, Mughira Al Sharif. (There is evidence in articles online that Mr Al Sharif is a supporter of the armed opposition in Syria.) Unfortunately, the video Mr Al Sharif uploaded seems to have been removed early this morning (2nd July 2014, Australian time). It had had over 75,000 views and was still receiving considerable attention in the weeks I had referred to it. I am aware of one other copy of “Saving Syria’s Children” currently available on YouTube. (Please note: the times I provide for scenes in the programme are 14-15 seconds ahead of the timing in this available video.) The BBC iPlayer version remains available in the UK until 17 October, but I am unable to access that in Australia.
‘Good Reasons’ for Delay in Lodging this Complaint
I understand that normally a complaint such as this should be made “within 30 working days of the date on which the content was broadcast” and that it will only be considered if it is decided that “there was a good reason for the delay”.
The mundane reasons for the delay in making this complaint include the fact that I live in Australia, and I normally only submit comments in regards to programmes on the ABC, not the BBC. However, “Saving Syria’s Children” warrants critical attention in Australia as it has been broadcast to an Australian audience on SBS. More importantly, in recent weeks I have paid close attention to the complaint letters to the BBC from Robert Stuart in the UK regarding “Saving Syria’s Children”, and I have noted the official responses to them. I understand that Mr Stuart has recently lodged the final complaint to the BBC he is permitted to make in regards to this programme. I wish to support his complaint letters with further points.
As a peace activist and as someone with close ties to Syria, having taught at the British Council in Damascus for two years, I have been deeply disturbed by reporting on Syria which ignores the views and experiences of mainstream Syrians and which places its trust predominantly in people who support an armed insurrection and foreign support for it. From the beginning of the crisis, the fatwas of extremist clerics have inspired militants. Their radical interpretation of Islam would be abhorrent to the vast majority of people – Muslims or otherwise – in Syria, Britain and Australia. For example, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, a prominent cleric who has issued fatwas against the Syrian regime since the start of the crisis in March 2011, said on Al-Jazeera towards the end of 2011, “If it is necessary to kill one third of the Syrian population to overthrow the heretical government, it is OK”. This message is echoed on Faddy Sahloul’s Facebook page (see screenshot of it below). Mr Sahloul is the founder of the UK charity, “Hand in Hand for Syria”, which features in “Saving Syria’s Children”.
Above: Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood and who was based in Qatar until recently, declared in January 2013 on his weekly Al-Jazeera programme,
Above: At his son’s funeral in 2011, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Hassoun, refers to Qaradawi’s condoning the killing of one third of Syria’s population. Robert Fisk has reported that the grand mufti’s son was killed in October 2011 by men from Aleppo countryside, who were paid 50,000 Syrian pounds each to assassinate him.
Above: Sheik Adnan Arour, a Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia has risen ‘from obscurity to notoriety’ since the start of the conflict.” Infamously, Mr Arour once said Alawites who had helped the regime would be put in a meat grinder and their flesh then fed to the dogs”
In April 2011, after a visit to Damascus, I reported on the killings of people: some in demonstrators by unknown gunmen, perhaps provocateurs; some in an attack on a military hospital over Easter; and in one instance, on 17 April 2011, three teenage boys and an off-duty army officer were killed by armed men. Since then, to maintain the battle against the Syrian regular army over the past three years, local militias have been reliant on foreign fighters, mostly jihadists and many of them increasingly supportive of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and affiliates and an Islamic Caliphate across the region. Though many Syrians held grievances against their government and demanded change, an insignificant number was prepared to take up arms; hence the reliance on fighters from abroad. It, therefore, deeply troubles me that Mr Stuart’s final complaint, like those before it, is not likely to be upheld by the BBC. I am of the opinion that the producers of “Saving Syria’s Children” have, wittingly or unwittingly, created a programme that supports Islamist militias and foreign jihadists in Syria and, hence, a protracted war, one which has already crossed borders.
All of this would be of great concern to BBC audiences, particularly when it was reported recently that “British jihadists are the most bloodthirsty in Syria”, according to a rebel commander.
Mr Stuart focused his attention on the last section of the Panorama report and I believe many of the points he raised breach guidelines related to Production Techniques. These breaches inevitably impact on the Accuracy and Impartiality of the report.
Above: These teenagers are presented in “Saving Syria’s Children” as victims of an incendiary bomb dropped on their school; however, they look more like extras in a zombie movie than genuine burn victims. Robert Stuart’s examination of this section of the documentary is both rigorous and persuasive. A tableau of the unedited scene can be found on the site “Fabrication in BBC Panorama’s ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ ; please go here.
Unlike Mr Stuart, I have paid close attention to the first thirty minutes of “Saving Syria’s Children”. Also, my concerns are more global than Mr Stuart’s. They cover sections in the BBC Editorial Guidelines which relate to Accuracy; Impartiality; Fairness; Conflicts of Interest; and Accountability. The BBC Complaints Framework did not permit Mr Stuart to introduce any new issues in his last complaint letter. Therefore, I wish to draw your attention to the first section of “Saving Syria’s Children” and those broader concerns.
Although late, I trust your office will see that this complaint deserves attention as it concerns ‘a major matter’, a matter of political controversy that is of both national and international interest. As stated in the BBC Editorial Guidelines, the BBC ‘must take particular care and achieve due impartiality when a ‘controversial subject’ may be considered to be a major matter.’ (Editorial Guidelines: 4.4.9) I contend that those most involved in the production of “Saving Syria’s Children” did not take particular care to achieve the impartiality due this subject.
Prior to the first full broadcast of “Saving Syria’s Children” on 30 September 2013, there were strong grounds to question a key premise in it, namely that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack in Damascus on 21 August 2013. Since then distinguished US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh as well as technical experts at MIT have contended that the US administration’s case for the Syrian government’s culpability was seriously flawed. If indeed the Damascus chemical attack was committed by rebels, it indicates that careful planning went into orchestrating an incident in which children were presented as the main victims in order to implicate the government in an atrocity and to further extend the war by attracting more military support for anti-government militias.
The possibility that both the chemical attack in Damascus and the incident reported in “Saving Syria’s Children” were fabricated raises serious questions about the reporting of the entire conflict in Syria and the operations of the main parties involved in the fight against the Syrian army. There is NO chance for peace in Syria if mainstream media outlets, such as the BBC, ignore the voices of the general public in Syria and instead present the claims of a minority who work for the violent overthrow of the Syrian government and adhere to an ideology that justifies ongoing war and terror. Furthermore, the chances for peace are slim indeed if the BBC is implicated in fabricating incidents such as that presented in the second half of “Saving Syria’s Children”. Only genuine attempts to expose the truth can bring about a sustained peace and the end of terror in Syria. This is what prompts me to write this complaint letter.
Why this ‘Major Matter’ is important
In May, Dr Karima Bennoune, a professor of law from the University of California, visited Australia to promote her book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here”. Dr Bennoune, a Muslim with an Algerian background, warns about the dangers posed by ‘Islamists’. Her work is receiving attention in the UK, as well as here in Australia from the ABC. As people in the UK become more aware of the political Islam which motivates a very small number of Muslims to promote the military opposition in Syria, questions will be raised about the role of media outlets in presenting, without analysis or question, uncorroborated claims of British citizens who support the violent overthrow of a secular government.
I believe journalists and executives at the BBC will, at some point, be confronted by questions of a serious nature, such as those below.
By presenting as credible the voices of people who claimed to support humanitarian solutions to the crisis in Syria but who in actual fact supported a political Islam alien to the personal Islam of the vast majority of Syrian people -
Was the BBC complicit in war crimes ‘rebels’ committed in Syria?
Did the BBC assist the promotion of a radical stream of Islam in British society?
Did the BBC indirectly assist in the recruitment of people and the collection of funds for a violent jihad in Syria?
Did the BBC compromise to any extent the future security of British people?
In December 2013, the Prince of Wales addressed religious leaders at Clarence House in regards to his concerns for ‘the growing difficulties faced by Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East”. It will become clear in the body of this complaint letter why referencing his address is relevant.
As reported in an Australian newspaper, Prince Charles said,
It is important to note, above all, that the decline of Christians in the region represents a major blow to peace, as they are part of the fabric of society, often acting as bridge-builders between communities. This crucial role throughout the Middle Eastern society is one recognized by many Muslims (who are not extremists) both Shiite or Sunni, who attest to the fact that Christians are their friends and that their communities are needed.
He goes on to say,
For 20 years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point, though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so – and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution – including of Christian communities.
I will contend that Panorama’s “Saving Syria’s Children”, by breaching BBC Editorial Guidelines, abets that destruction of ‘bridges’ the Prince of Wales refers to. Ironically, Prince Charles awarded an OBE to Darren Conway, who filmed, directed and produced “Saving Syria’s Children”. Conway’s Order of the British Empire was “for services to British broadcast journalism”.
I trust BBC Complaints will give due consideration to my letter of complaint. The hundreds of peace-loving people of Syria of all faith backgrounds that I met in the British Council classrooms inspire me to write it. Their concerns and values would correspond to those of most people in Britain and Australia, yet they are rarely given a voice in the western mainstream media. I certainly do not see their views represented in “Saving Syria’s Children”.
Above: Images of women in Syria taken by this writer before the crisis
Accuracy; Impartiality; Fairness; Conflicts of Interest; and Accountability
- Credentials of the Significant Contributors
As stated in the Editorial Guidelines, trust is the foundation of the BBC. If an issue is controversial, the audience would expect an impartial presentation of relevant facts and opinions and claims and allegations corroborated. Audiences would expect BBC journalists and producers to have checked and established the credentials of their significant contributors, namely Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan.
Much of the information below about the two doctors was presented by Robert Stuart in his 3rd letter of complaint to the BBC, which was not upheld by the complaints department. However, I believe that any links Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan may have with militia groups in Syria must be taken more seriously by the BBC in light of recent events in Iraq and the threats to people in Britain when British jihadists in Syria return. The Free Syrian Army has been presented as a mainstream alternative to the Syrian army. However, the loyalties of the hundreds of militia groups operating in Syria are forever changing. Two results of the entrenched war in Syria seem to be the strengthening of extremist groups and the increasing gruesomeness of the atrocities they are prepared to commit.
Viewers would assume that the credentials of significant contributors are checked thoroughly by the producers in order to avoid the BBC being ‘hoaxed’. Also, according to BBC Editorial Guideline 3.4.12, the credentials of these contributors should normally be identified on-air, so ‘that audiences can judge their status’, and also, I would contend, so audiences are not ‘hoaxed’. With this in mind, I would like to draw your attention to the following.
Firstly, the claim in the Panorama report that Dr Rola Hallam ‘is an intensive care doctor in London specialising in paediatric medicine’ is not supported by the “Hand in Hand for Syria” page. According to it, Dr Hallam is a British-Syrian doctor in anaesthesia and intensive care. The suggestion that she specializes in paediatric medicine, if not true, may have been presented to assure viewers Dr Hallam is especially caring of children. This raises questions related to accuracy, trust and objectivity covered in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.
More importantly, viewers are not informed that Dr Hallam’s father is Dr Mousa al-Kurdi who, as Dr Ahsan explains in an article, “helped coordinate medical logistics from inside Syria in the early days of the uprising” and “is involved politically with the Syrian National Council”, the external opposition group which supports an armed insurrection in Syria. In April 2012, Dr al-Kurdi addressed the “Friends of Syria” summit in Istanbul on what he allegedly witnessed in Homs and Damascus. The summit condemned acts of violence by the Syrian regime but there was no direct condemnation of violent acts by other players in the conflict. The Syrian National Council has reportedly been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The vast majority of viewers would want to be assured that the BBC, through any of its ‘significant contributors’, is not presenting the case of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhoodfor an armed insurrection in Syria.
Above: Dr Mousa al-Kurdi, Dr Hallam’s father, is interviewed on Al-Jazeera soon after he addressed the “Friends of Syria” summit, April, 2012. Hillary Clinton, then the US Secretary of State, is seen arriving at the “Friends of Syria” meeting. The group recognized the Syrian National Council as “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” and it was decided that Gulf cash would be channelled to the Syrian National Council to pay the fighters of the Free Syrian Army.
Above: At a meeting organized by Save the Children and Intelligence Squared on 27 November 2013, Robert Stuart questions Dr Hallam about her father’s link to the Syrian National Council. Dr Hallam assures the audience her father is simply a gynecologist, denying that he is involved in politics.
As for Dr Ahsan, whose family originates from Pakistan and Afghanistan, viewers are informed that she ‘has volunteered in war zones before’. However, we are not informed that Dr Saleyha Ahsan, is an ex-British Army Captain, the first Muslim woman to graduate as an officer from Sandhurst. Furthermore, we are not told by the Panorama team that Dr Ahsan has travelled into rebel held territory in Libya. In 2011, on a visit to a rebel clinic in Libya, she told Bill Law, a BBC Radio 4 reporter, “I want to become another little link in that massive chain that has sprung out of the revolution”.
Above: Despite her time in the British army and in war zones, Dr Ahsan makes out she is a novice when it comes to putting on and wearing a flak jacket. “(I’m) trying to handle this flipping thing” (9:58) There is no sign that Dr Hallam is wearing a flak jacket, so the scene appears to be staged to persuade viewers Dr Ahsan is your average UK doctor.
Although it is public knowledge, we are not informed in “Saving Syria’s Children” that Dr Ahsan is media-savvy. She is a freelance film-maker and a presenter on the BBC program, “Trust Me, I’m A Doctor”, a program broadcast on ABC TV. This is pertinent because, as a freelance presenter on the BBC, the Editorial Guidelines relating to Conflicts of Interest might apply very directly to Dr Ahsan, if not to Dr Hallam. Therefore, if Dr Ahsan is personally supportive of the ‘revolutions’ in Libya and Syria, doubt is cast over her integrity and objectivity in this report. (Section 15: Conflicts of Interest)
As noted by Robert Stuart, the logo of “Hand in Hand for Syria”, the ‘charity’ which Dr Hallam represents in Syria, is very similar to the flag of the Free Syrian Army. This can be seen on the t-shirt of one of assistants working in the clinic.
Above: A man wearing a t-shirt with the logo of “Hand in Hand for Syria” which closely resembles the colours and design of the Free Syrian Army flag (34:31)
If, as this suggests, there are formal or informal links between the charity and the Free Syrian Army, viewers should be advised of this to be better able to assess the programme. “Saving Syria’s Children” presents “Hand in Hand for Syria” simply as a UK charity that has set up a refugee camp and clinics in Syria. This implies it is a benign humanitarian organization. Yet, as noted above, its founder supports an armed ‘revolution’ (“no matter what lives it takes and how much catastrophe it makes”) and the HIH logo mirrors the flag of the Free Syrian Army. At two points early in the report, we see a boy in the refugee camp set up by “Hand in Hand for Syria” waving at the camera the flag of that army, an ‘army’ with factions and shifting loyalties, as seen from an Al-Jazeera report published in October 2013.
Above: Dr Hallam in the refugee camp set up by “Hand in Hand for Syria”. A boy waves the Free Syrian Army flag behind her
‘Section 15: Conflicts of Interest’ in the BBC Editorial Guidelines states: “The outside activities and interests of on-air talent need very careful consideration, particularly in relation to … endorsements of organizations..”. The Panorama editorial team is remiss in not disclosing more fully the backgrounds of both doctors.
In addition, it might shock BBC viewers to learn that the fixer/translator, Mr Al Mughira Al Sharif is a fervent supporter of the armed opposition in Syria. Viewers should be informed of this in order to better assess his allegiances and so draw more informed conclusions about the Panorama report. As a supporter of the militarized opposition, Mr Al Sharif may be in a better position to guarantee the safety of Ian Pannell and Darren Conway; however, his loyalties as a BBC employer seriously breach Section 15 of the Editorial Guidelines related to conflict of interest. His pivotal role in the making of “Saving Syria’s Children” would jeopardise any likelihood that the report can be an impartial and accurate view of events in Syria.
Above: The team that travels with Pannell through checkpoints, including an ISIS checkpoint, while on their way to a field hospital at the front-line. (Note: The driver resembles the image of Al Mughira Al Sharif on his Facebook page – see below.)
As further outlined in Section 15, ‘there must be no doubt over the integrity and objectivity of the editorial team’. However, there is serious doubt raised over the objectivity of this report’s editorial team when it not only denies viewers full-disclosure of the relevant credentials of significant contributors and the BBC fixer/interpreter, but also presents the war in Syria solely through the eyes of contributors who support the militarized opposition and are possibly closely linked with factions of them.
- Context and Impartial Analysis
In the BBC Editorial Guidelines, “Section 11: War, Terror and Emergencies” points out that large numbers of people across the world would expect the BBC “to help them make sense of events by providing context and impartial analysis and by offering a wide range of views and opinions.”
There is little to no evidence of a wide range of views and opinions in “Saving Syria’s Children”. The loyalties of the significant contributors and the BBC fixer/translator certainly would have seriously limited the range of views presented.
As the second half of the report focuses on the doctors tending to victims of an alleged attack on a school and the action unfolds in front of the camera, there would be no expectation of a wide range of views and opinions presented in this section of the programme. (Robert Stuart’s complaint letters to the BBC challenge other aspects of that section of the Panorama programme.) However, there is an opportunity in the first half of “Saving Syria’s Children” to provide context and impartial analysis and a wide range of views and opinions’, but this is not done.
It could be argued that the makers of “Saving Syria’s Children” tell viewers clearly that its presentation of the war in Syria is limited to the experiences and opinions of the two main contributors, Dr Hallam and Dr Ahsan, in the context of medical care on the frontline. Ian Pannell states,
By travelling with the doctors, I’m hoping to see the humanitarian crisis through their eyes. But we can only film their work in rebel held areas. (5:14)
However, we are not told that the doctors have presumably crossed illegally into Syria from Turkey. Again, presumably they can work relatively safely in rebel held areas because the charity “Hand in Hand for Syria” supports the militarized opposition, or at least factions of it. Yet, this is not disclosed to viewers.
The Panorama editors could contend that impartiality is shown in the program. At one point, Pannell says they cannot provide the exact location of the “Hand in Hand for Syria” hospitals they visit “because clinics have been targeted by government forces and on occasion shot at by rebel troops” (7:25). Later on he says, “(Rebel-held northern Syria) (9:22) is a dangerous patchwork of territory that constantly changes hands. The Syrian Government says it is rooting out terrorists and foreign fighters, bombing rebel bases. But its air campaign means civilian areas are heavily pounded.” Thus Pannell has presented the government view, the ‘other’ side.
After telling us that (11:15) “Rival rebel factions now fight each other as well as the government”, Pannell and his team encounter an ISIS group checkpoint. Pannell explains (11:26), “This is an ISIS group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. Despite his minders clearly displaying their weapons, they get through the ISIS checkpoint with apparently no difficultly, indicating that Pannell’s companions, such as his fixer/translator, support the cause of the insurgents. (But which insurgents?)
While driving past the ISIS checkpoint, we see a pick-up truck pass Pannell’s vehicle. There are two teenage boys at the back of the truck, who look like members of a rebel faction because of the flak jackets they appear to be wearing and the enthusiasm of the one standing.
Above: Image of teenage rebel fighters (11:48)
In “Saving Syria’s Children” only very sharp eyed viewers may see the above visual evidence of children in a militia group’s armed pick-up truck. However, later on in the programme Pannell acknowledges that (17.40) “Children are at the forefront of this conflict. They have sung, protested and even fought in the war”. Yet, the doctors and Pannell give it no more attention than this, which is remarkable as the programme purports to focus on the humanitarian crisis in rebel-held areas, with particular attention given children.
A Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, dated 27 January 2014 and covering the period 1 March 2011 to 15 November 2013 states on page 1,
Armed opposition groups have been responsible for the recruitment and use of children both in combat and support roles, as well as for conducting military operations, including using terror tactics, in civilian-populated areas, leading to civilian casualties, including children.
In the Secretary-General’s report, there is stringent criticism of all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. What is relevant to this complaint about “Saving Syria’s Children” is particular mention on page 4 of the Free Syrian Army.
Throughout the reporting period, the United Nations received consistent reports of recruitment and use of children by FSA-affiliated groups. The FSA Code of Conduct of August 2012 did not mention or prohibit the recruitment and use of children.
On page 5 of the report, there is mention of two teenagers fighting for the FSA in Aleppo.
Two boys, aged 16 and 17 years, were reportedly treated in a makeshift hospital in February 2012 in the city of Aleppo after fighting under the command of FSA. FSA also used children as cooks, porters, cross-border smuggling of arms, lookouts, spies and messengers, as well as to clean weapons and prepare and load ammunition.
Given that there is reason to believe Dr Hallam, Al Mighira Al Sharif and “Hand in Hand for Syria” support the FSA and may have formal links with it, the above report should be of particular concern to viewers of this BBC programme.
Above: Screen shot of a news item from Syrian TV uploaded onto YouTube by Eretz Zen, October 6, 2013. The rebel group young Shaaban Abdallah belonged to, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, has a logo with the colours of the Free Syrian Army
- Controversial Subjects and Linking
Under Section 4: Impartiality – Principles of the BBC Editorial Guidelines, 4.4.2 states that “Impartiality does not necessary require the range of perspectives or opinion to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme… Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’.” It continues, “..the omission of an important perspective , in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality. Decisions over whether to include or omit perspectives should be reasonable and carefully reached, with consistently applied editorial judgement across an appropriate range of output.”
To achieve ‘due impartiality’, (4.4.3) “a ‘series of programmes’ may be considered as a whole.” This refers to “Content that deals with the same or related issues, within an appropriate period, and are clearly linked.” The direction in the Guidelines includes, “The intention to achieve due impartiality in this way should be planned in advance.”
There have been BBC reports from government controlled cities and towns in Syria. For example, Lyse Doucet, a very experienced international correspondent, has interviewed people in the streets of Damascus who oppose the militarized opposition. However, unlike “Saving Syria’s Children”, these reports are very brief and the views are rarely highlighted or promoted. There has been no BBC Panorama programme comparable to “Saving Syria’s Children” which presents a case against the rebel cause in Syria.
Above: From a BBC report presented by Lyse Doucet, Damascus. This woman is at the funeral for children killed by a rebel mortar attack on 11/11/2013 and speaks to Doucet (1:53) very briefly.
Above: Image taken from report shown on Syrian TV of the funeral of children killed in the mortar attack. The mother of one of the young girls killed is on the left.
It could be argued that one BBC programme clearly linked to “Saving Syria’s Children” is another Panorama report, “Homs: Journey into Hell”, presented by BBC reporter Paul Wood. (Please note, that the video of YouTube of “Homs: Journey into Hell” I provided the link for above has also been removed in the last 24 hours. However, I have saved screenshots of it, which I include in this letter, and another version of the video is currently available on YouTube. )
“Homs: Journey into Hell” was broadcast in March 2012 and, like “Saving Syria’s Children”, presents the point of view of Syrians who support the militarized opposition, not those who support the government or peaceful opposition. Wood is dependent on militia members to take him in and out of Homs. Like Pannell, he does not enter Syria legally.
One difference between the two programmes is that Wood’s script is more overtly political. He tells how he and his team were smuggled in and out of Syria (0:40) “to cover a life and death struggle for democracy” and presents a conundrum for viewers when he says, (1:06)“Western governments agonize. Arming the rebels could lead to civil war. But if they don’t, how else can the killing be stopped?” A reasonable viewer would assume he supports the arming of the rebels to stop the killing. Yet, BBC viewers might wonder how the continual arming of rebels (many of them foreign jihadists) to fight the regular Syrian army could bring peace and relief for Syrians. Will more arms in the hands of anonymous militiamen mean children in refugee camps will be able to return to Syria sooner rather than later, and children in Syria will once again wander their neighbourhood without fear?
Above: Images of Syrian children taken by the writer between 2004 and 2013; many in Damascus, and others in a refugee camp in Lebanon
In her concluding statement in “Saving Syria’s Children”, Dr Hallam also calls on the world for action, again without directly calling for military action, but again a reasonable viewer would assume that is what she supports.
(39.50) I feel so angry right now. I feel so, so angry. The whole world has been watching us for two and a half years. We feel like some sort of … not even a second-class citizen, like we just don’t matter. Like all of these children and all of these people who are being killed and massacred… We don’t matter. The whole world has failed our nation and it is innocent civilians who are paying the price. It’s an absolute disgrace on the United Nations and all of humanity.
As the war in Syria continues, millions of Syrians could express the same sentiments as Dr Hallam, yet the response they want from the world might differ radically.
In “Homs: Journey into Hell”, Danny Abdul Dayem, another British citizen with a Syrian background involved in the war in Syria presents his point of view toward the end of the programme. One can imagine Dr Hallam empathizing with him, though not wishing to share the fate of a rebel fighter herself.
We’d rather die under missiles, under bullet fire and we’re free. We’ll never go back to the way we lived. Never. (27:37)
Above: Screen shot of Danny Abdul Dayem as he appears in Panorama’s “Homs: Journey into Hell”
Danny may sound brave to his fellow militiamen, but the BBC Panorama team don’t encourage viewers to consider what his stand implies. What can bring an end to the killing? What is the rebel cause exactly? Who is Danny that he is able to speak on the BBC as if he represents fair-minded Syrians simply wanting ‘freedom’? After being in Syria to support the ‘revolution’, Danny spoke in October 2011 at a fund-raising event back in England. He declared to the audience, “There is no way this revolution is going to win if it wasn’t for outside help”( 6:37). The other speaker at the function is Dr Mahmoud Al-Akraa, who, like Dr Hallam, is a Syrian British doctor with links to “Hand in Hand for Syria”. Dr Al-Akraa is reportedly a trustee of the charity. He says (2:40), “Brothers and sisters, something very important. Al-ḥamdu lillāh (Thanks and praise to God), Muslim Brotherhood coming back”.
Unfortunately, neither BBC Panorama programme enlightens its viewers about the agendas, ideology or political platforms of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Free Syrian Army or other rebel groups. Nor do the programmes enquire how anti-government militias impact on the lives of ordinary Syrians. According to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a group which supports the militarized opposition), there have been many more soldiers and pro-government militia members killed than anti-government fighters, including foreign fighters. It seems that for the Syrian British contributors to both Panorama programmes, the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers and the impact their deaths can have on their families and their communities as well as on the security of millions of Syrians and the fabric of the secular Syrian society is all irrelevant. And at no stage in either programme are these questions explored by the producers. How can such a casual dismissal of the rebel killing machine in Syria and its victims help save Syria’s children, or indeed engender trust in the BBC, a quintessentially British institution?
Above: A screenshot of a YouTube video uploaded by ‘Arabi Souri’ on February 18, 2013. The video itself was made by supporters of the ‘revolution’ and apparently filmed in a rebel-held town in Idleb.
A BBC audience might expect the producers of both Panorama reports to present the views of the general public in Syria, people a BBC audience would feel some affinity with, no matter what their religious background. Yet, there is no evidence in either programme of their views being presented to counter those who support the militarized opposition in Syria. In May 2013, I joined a peace delegation to Syria and interviewed a group of young dissidents belonging to “The Third Current”. They did not support the Syrian government, but they explained that they had three guiding principles:
- They are against violence
- They are against the Islamisation of the political system
- They are against interference by outside armed forces.
They told me they believed that the collapse of the national army, despite its mistakes, would result in the collapse of the country and state, similar to (or worse than) Iraq.
(For an audio recording of the interview with the dissidents from “Third Current”, please go to the bottom of this page on the Internet: http://socratesandsyria.com/first-person/)
Such opposition voices are not heard in either Panorama programme. Supporters of the government are not heard in the programmes. Therefore, the Panorama programmes do not present ‘due impartiality’ through a ‘range of perspectives or opinion’. The only difference of any consequence between the programmes is that Wood embeds with FSA rebel fighters and Pannell embeds with British doctors who presumably support FSA rebel fighters.
When a wide range of views is not presented in the BBC programmes and the context is not presented in a sophisticated and impartial way, it severely limits what Britain and its people can contribute towards peace building in Syria. One significant initiative of civil society in Syria is the Reconciliation Movement. Rebels are either disarming and being given an amnesty, or they are joining forces with the army to fight extremists, particularly foreign jihadists.
Above: A screenshot taken from “The Babbila Reconciliation: A Light at the End of Syria’s Dark Tunnel”, uploaded onto YouTube by Eretz Zen. A former rebel supporter presents a change of heart.
After the end of Apartheid, South Africa showed that the work of reconciliation is critical if a country that has been fractured by violence, division and hatred is to move forward. Reconciliation between various sectors of Syrian society, particularly between people who support the militarized opposition and those who support peaceful change must be encouraged for the good of all Syrians.
However, “Saving Syria’s Children” and “Homs: Journey into Hell” both give uncritical attention to the stance and claims of people who support the violent overthrow of the Syrian government. Support for an armed insurrection is a radical position in any country and requires a radical ideology to fuel it. Less radical points of view which the majority of people in Syria would hold, namely support for their army and support for peaceful political change, are not aired by either Panorama programmes.
Above: Screenshot of a woman in crowd of people allegedly fleeing Baba Amr with Paul Wood
(Note: “Homs: Journey into Hell” has been uploaded onto Youtube by “jehadtube”, a Youtube account with hundreds of videos that would appeal to fundamentalists attracted to a violent jihad in Syria.)
Perspectives and Opinions ignored by the Panorama programmes
As stated above, there is not a range of opinions presented in “Saving Syria’s Children” as one would expect if the producers respected BBC Editorial Guidelines. There is evidence that a majority of the Syrian population support peaceful political change, even the president who is vilified by people in the Panorama programmes. This was demonstrated with the large turnout for the presidential election earlier this month.
Sharmine Narwani, former Senior Associate at St Antony’s College, Oxford and now an analyst and journalist based in Beirut, wrote in an article on the June election,
Karen Koning AbuZayd, UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, was one of the first officials to publically acknowledge support for Assad in early 2013, saying, “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”
The election was a genuine endorsement of the leadership of Bashar al-Assad.
A total 73% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the first ever multi-candidate direct presidential election in Syria.
Assad secured 88.7% of the votes. There were no allegations of electoral fraud or manipulation.
If it is true that 73% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the election, then people of all religious backgrounds participated, and it is particularly disturbing that the two Panorama programmes do not give ‘due weight’ to the general public in Syria, who back peaceful reform.
Above: Images taken from Syrian TV the day before and on election day; people are interviewed in the street or at the polling stations, 2 and 3 June 2014.
The Christian Perspective
Since close to 60% of British people identify as Christian and before the conflict Christians made up about 10% of the Syrian population, it does seem remiss of both Wood and Pannell to ignore the point of view of Christians in Syria. This is most surprising in Wood’s case as he entered Homs on a number of occasions when the Christian community there was under extreme pressure from Islamist rebels. In April 2012, it was reported that at least 50,000 Christians were forced by Islamists to flee Homs.
In May 2013 while in Damascus with an international peace delegation, I met Georgina, the mother of Sari Saoud, a young Christian boy killed by rebels in Homs. I believe Sari’s story illustrates the lengths some rebel factions and their supporters will go to in order to create propaganda for their cause and to terrorise a community. Video of Georgina weeping over Sari’s body after he had been shot was sent to Al-Jazeera, which reported the army had been responsible for Sari’s killing. Sari’s story is relevant in this complaint letter, not simply because he belonged to the Christian community in Syria, a community ignored by both Panorama programmes, but also because his death highlights how children can be killed and used for propaganda purposes by the rebels and their supporters in Syria. Therefore, it should be incumbent upon BBC producers to be particularly vigilant when presenting the story of Syria through the eyes of rebel supporters. There is no evidence it is in “Saving Syria’s Children”.
Above: Georgina Saoud and the writer, Damascus, May 2013.
For some years, Christian leaders have been outspoken in their condemnation of the militarised opposition. For example, there was an interview with the Archbishop of Aleppo on France 24 in January 2012 and below is a screenshot of an interview with Archbishop Jacquest Behnan Hindo in Aleppo, published on YouTube by Eretz Zen, March 1, 2014
Apart from the two British doctors and those working in the rebel field hospital, what is noteworthy about “Saving Syria’s Children” is the absence of adult Syrians expressing political opinions, either supportive of or opposed to the militias.
It is left to a child to present a crude political opinion in support of the ‘revolution’.
Above: 11-year-old Wahta: “Basha Al-Assad orphaned these kids. There’s no one to raise them. He killed them. He destroyed our houses and burnt them. There is no hope of returning”.
Yet, in “Saving Syria’s Children”, there are opportunities to present the more sophisticated views of adult civilians caught up in the war in Syria. For example, one woman presents as a witness to a ‘massacre’ when shelling led to the deaths of 15 people outside her home. The only question Dr Hallam asks her after we learn of the massacre is “Did the children see it?” Thus, we don’t learn whether the regular army or one of the myriad militia groups was responsible for the shelling which led to the deaths.
Above: Dr Hallam hears the story of the massacre from a woman displaced by the violence and living in a school with her family
Another victim of the war presented by the Panorama team is 85-year-old Yusuf, who recounts how his family “keep moving from one place to another.” He explains, “We don’t have the strength for this anymore.”
An image of Yusuf Saatoun
Like the woman who witnessed the massacre, Yusuf presents as a genuine witness. However, the Panorama team does not question him in a way which enables the audience to build a clear understanding of what people experience in the rebel-held territories. Who and what is he fleeing? Is he fleeing the regular army, perhaps bombing raids on rebel bases? Or is he fleeing the terror of ISIS, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people are currently? Or is he perhaps escaping the mayhem and violence caused by fighting between rival militia groups? For viewers to develop a deeper understanding of the conflict in Syria and how it impacts on the lives of ordinary people, the producers of the programme should have asked more questions. Adherence to BBC Editorial Guidelines related to Accuracy demand it. Section 3 on Accuracy
Accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right. If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered. When necessary, all the relevant facts and information should also be weighed to get at the truth.
Where appropriate to the output, we should:
gather material using first hand sources wherever possible
check and cross check facts
validate the authenticity of documentary evidence and digital material
corroborate claims and allegations made by contributors wherever possible.
Alex Thomson, a Channel 4 journalist who reported from Syria, did an exceptional job of gathering material from various first-hand sources to get at the facts; it shouldn’t be beyond the BBC to do the same.
The human story in war is always a complex one. If BBC Panorama programmes insist on taking a partisan stand on Syria which supports the militias fighting the regular army, they ignore much of the grief and fear experienced by millions of Syrians who want a return to stability and peace in their country.
Above: Screenshot of a YouTube video uploaded by GlobalResearchTV, October 1, 2013. It tells the story of a girl whose father allowed rebel fighters to rape her.
‘There have been alternative documentaries presented on Syria. “Manufacturing Dissent – The Truth about Syria” is one which presents lengthy interviews with several Syrians. Mohamad Rafea, an actor, was one interviewee who was forthright in his opposition to the rebels. Mohamad was assassinated after the release of the documentary, highlighting the risk local people take speaking out against the ‘revolution’.
Danny Abdul Dayem from Panorama’s “Homs: Journey into Hell” is featured in one scene in“Manufacturing Dissent”. It presents CNN footage of an interview with Danny in which he is accused of stage-managing a report alleging an army attack on a civilian area in Homs (18:14)
Above: Screen shot of Danny getting direction from a cameraman. “Manufacturing Dissent – the Truth about Syria”(18:22)
Attribution of Blame; Bias
By not probing how local people are affected by the rebel takeover of their towns and villages, the Panorama producers present a shallow and skewed view of the conflict in Syria. Although Pannell does acknowledge the presence of an extremist group such as ISIS as well as the fighting between rebel groups, throughout the programme, it is the army which is presented as the force to fear, while the militia supporters interviewed, such as the doctors in the clinic at the front-line, are presented as benevolent, even heroic. (Please see APPENDIX for the list of comments made by Pannell which implicate government forces in violence.)
The bias against the army and government sets the scene for the alleged attack on the school in the second section of the programme examined closely by Robert Stuart in his letters of complaint.
Despite the BBC Editorial Guidelines demanding ‘due impartiality’ and ‘accuracy’, the Panorama team chooses not to report on atrocities committed by militias, including extremist groups such as ISIS and the “increasing numbers of jihadis (that) have come into Syria” (11:37). Pannell informs viewers that “both foreign journalists and foreign aid workers have been targeted. Some have been killed”.
However, he doesn’t inform BBC viewers that a list of journalists killed would show that anti-government militias are responsible for the vast majority of these killings.
We in the west must be better informed about the extent of the terror in Syria and how it impacts on the lives of ordinary people. We must be informed about the horrific crimes committed by anti-government militias against civilians in Syria. Our ignorance and subsequent silence condones the most heinous of crimes and an ideology that embraces the killing of potentially millions of innocent people.
Adra is a Syrian town a long way from Aleppo, but like towns and villages in Aleppo province it has been occupied by various extremist militia groups since late 2013. People who have been able to escape have reported on the atrocities allegedy committed by Islamist militias there.
A video of interviews with survivors from Adra. The video was produced by an internal opposition group.
The Panorama programme effectively romanticizes the fight against the Syrian army by not presenting this aspect of the conflict along with the views of Syrians who oppose a bloody revolution ultimately fuelled by hate and sectarianism and dependent on fear and terror. This breaches BBC Editorial Guidelines in a myriad of ways and compromises the trust people have in the BBC.
- Questions related to fairness and analysis
Has the BBC been ‘fair’ to those civilians represented in “Saving Syria’s Children”? For example, have the adults who have fled violence been informed that this presentation of the war in Syria is biased in favour of the militarised opposition, specifically the Free Syrian Army?
- Has the BBC been ‘fair’ to those civilians represented in “Saving Syria’s Children”? For example, have the adults who have fled violence been informed that this presentation of the war in Syria is biased in favour of the militarised opposition, specifically the Free Syrian Army?
- Has it been ‘fair’ to the vast majority of peace loving Syrians who do not support the militarized opposition or the foreign jihadists?
- By presenting supporters of militias in Syria as benign and heroic and by focusing on alleged attacks by government forces, does the Panorama team indirectly encourage young Muslims in Britain to support jihad and an extremist ideology? Is it being ‘fair’ to those young Britons, who, in their ignorance, are prepared to kill strangers, many of them Muslims like themselves?
- How is “Saving Syria’s Children” being ‘fair’ to the children of Syria? How is it protecting children in refugee camps and within Syria if it eschews analysis, hard truths and impartiality? What evidence does the BBC Panorama team present that can assure us the UK charity “Hand in Hand for Syria” and the major contributors to the programme are sincerely intent on ‘saving children’ in Syria?
Above: Screen shot from a gritty report from Channel 4 News about the situation for Syrian women and girls in a refugee camp in Jordan.
The leader of ISIS (or ISIL or now simply IS) has declared the establishment of a Caliphate covering territory in Iraq and Syria but which is deemed to have no borders. The world is entering perhaps its most dangerous time in human history.
I trust this letter has demonstrated that not only have BBC Editorial Guidelines been breached by the producers of “Saving Syria’s Children”, but the general public in Syria has been let down by the BBC in a most reprehensible way. However, it is not just the BBC which has ignored mainstream Syria to place its trust in the claims of Islamist rebels and/or their supporters. There is evidence suggesting that other bodies, such as the UN, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have, as well.
While “Saving Syria’s Children” promotes the views of people who sanction a violent ‘revolution’, the vast majority of Syrian people are ignored. But in Sydney last year, the Red Cross Red Crescent General Assembly acknowledged the courageous volunteers and staff of the Syrian Red Crescent by awarding them the 2013 Peace Prize. There are millions of heroic, fair-minded people right across Syria. We in the west must be introduced to them if there is to be peace.
Above: Slideshow presents images of Syrian Red Crescent workers and volunteers, mothers who receive assistance from the SRC, and 1000 representatives at the 2013 Red Cross Red Crescent General Assembly in Sydney giving a standing ovation to the Syrian head of the SRC as he receives the 2013 Red Cross Red Crescent Peace Prize on behalf of the Syrian Red Crescent. 36 SRC volunteers and staff have lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict in Syria.
For the world to survive the 21st century, great integrity, wisdom and compassion must be shown by those who wish to lead and earn the trust of people.
I would be grateful if the BBC could give serious consideration to this complaint letter.
Ms Susan Dirgham
National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria”
Image: Children from Yarmouk, Damascus, who fled to Lebanon to escape the violence in their neighborhood. May 2013
Below are comments made by Pannell which implicate government forces in violence.
(4:38) Ahmed’s six-year-old daughter was killed, his home destroyed by government war planes.
(7:26) It’s (a hospital) in Aleppo province. We can’t say exactly where because clinics have been targeted by government forces and on occasion shot at by rebel troops.
(9:27) The Syrian government says it is rooting out terrorists and foreign fighters, bombing rebel bases. But its air campaign means civilian areas are heavily pounded.
(12:46) The route to the front line goes through Saraqeb, a town that’s been consistently targeted by government forces because rebel fighter have used it as a base.
(13:27) The barrel bomb was dropped from a helicopter. What it hit wasn’t a rebel base at all, but the local court house. Media activists have filmed similar attacks on the town.
(Questions: What is the basis of Pannell’s claim that it was a ‘barrel bomb’? Also, if rebels had taken over the town, wouldn’t the court house be in their control and so could, in fact, act as a base?)
(13:41) In the centre of the screen you can see one of these TNT barrel bombs tumbling to the ground, deadly and also indiscriminate.
Pannell comments, (14:00) It’s not surprising so many have fled their homes.
(14:08) As our convoy arrives at the front-line clinic, a fighter jet is spotted overhead. .. We’re told to take cover.
(16:09) Four days later, we see the area being pounded by the Syrian Air Force. The clinic is over-run with casualties. Rebel fighters wounded on the front line.
At this point in the programme, medics are seen donating blood for the wounded fighters. “Saving Syria’s Children” appears to be part of a recruitment drive for the militarized opposition and foreign jihadists.
(17:12) Doctor: We’re working in very tough conditions. Jets can bomb us any time.
(18:19) 11-year-old Wahta: Basha: Al-Assad orphaned these kids. There’s no one to raise them now. He killed them. He destroyed our houses and burnt them. There is no hope of returning.
(23:39) It is not clear what the shell was aimed at, but the UN has accused the government of systematically targeting hospitals and medics. The regime has denied this.
(24:14) But fear is never far from people’s minds because sometimes when the electricity goes out, it is a sign that regime forces are going to strike.