Robert Stuart, a tenacious blogger, has been picking away at a scab the BBC would rather leave firmly in place.
His forensic research concerns an edition of the BBC’s flagship investigative current affairs show Panorama called Saving Syria’s Children. It was broadcast more than three years ago, as many in the media were trying to push the British government into intervening in Syria with bombing raids against the Syrian government – in a move that would effectively have bolstered ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
The Panorama programme was one important piece of evidence advanced for such intervention. The footage it included was broadcast in several different formats, and purported to show the victims of a chemical weapon, or possibly incendiary, attack by the Syrian military on a school. The BBC reporter for Panorama was Ian Pannell.
From the outset, there were concerns about the authenticity of the footage, as I noted in a piece on my own blog in October 2013.
But Stuart’s sustained research and questioning of the BBC, and the state broadcaster’s increasing evasions, have given rise to ever greater concerns about the footage. It looks suspiciously like one scene in particular, of people with horrific burns, was staged.
Rather than confront these concerns and dispel them, the BBC and Pannell have tried a mixture of going to ground, stonewalling and misdirection. That has included trying to remove the footage from social media sites where it had been available.
Even by the BBC’s current dismal standards, its behaviour has been, on the best view, outrageously arrogant. Remember that the BBC is a publicly funded broadcaster. And yet the corporation appears to think it is not even minimally accountable to the British taxpayers who fund it.
In a fascinating new development, a leading freelance TV and radio producer Victor Lewis Smith – and one with a rare conscience and backbone – has intervened after viewing the footage.
He raised troubling questions with the BBC about the Panorama programme and threatened to tear up his contract for a forthcoming radio comedy pilot unless the corporation provided satisfactory answers.
For the first time, the state broadcaster was flushed out of its hiding hole. First, it tried more misdirection, telling him that Ofcom had reviewed the programme and sided with the BBC. But the Ofcom decision was about an RT investigation into the Panorama programme – note that Ofcom has hardly been impartial in its treatment of RT – and not a ruling on the veracity of the BBC footage, which Ofcom admitted it was not in a position to assess.
When Lewis Smith didn’t roll over, as the BBC clearly expected, the corporation offered up Panorama’s editor, Rachel Jupp. She would talk to Lewis Smith to placate him. But she had second thoughts and cried off. Lewis Smith then upped the stakes by asking for Panorama’s rushes and again threatened to terminate his contract.
Finally Jupp issued a feeble statement that did nothing to address the concerns Stuart and others have raised.
The BBC has made clear it isn’t willing to be transparent, open or accountable. British taxpayers wondering whether their money was used by the BBC to support a deception – one designed to bolster the case for a decisive political intervention in an extremely volatile conflict – still have no answers.
Lewis Smith has torn up his contract and announced his intention to make a crowd-funded feature documentary investigating the Panorama programme. Let’s hope he does so. This could prove to be a vital case study to help the British public and others judge whether the BBC is really there to serve them or to serve the British political elite.
Robert Stuart says this 55-min video examining in detail his research was what got Lewis Smith involved. The cumulative effect of Stuart’s work leaves one troubled by the BBC’s role, to say the very least. The issue of whether this was a genuine or staged event could be settled by the BBC, if it so desired – not least, by releasing the rushes.