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SYRIA: Are BBC Guilty of Withholding Contextual Evidence to Serve Regime Change Propaganda?

By Tim Hayward

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

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

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

Whatever overlap there may be in practice between these two kinds of activity, the categorical distinction itself seems perfectly clear.

Does the BBC have a clear and operative understanding of the distinction? Yes, and demonstrated it in a report from 6 June 2011 on the ‘Dark Arts of Propaganda’ in Libya. The report shows a press event set in a hospital featuring a victim of an alleged missile strike. The BBC reporter, however, takes the camera behind the scenes and puts questions to some witnesses who reveal the whole event to have been staged, with the victim having been otherwise injured and the missile strike being a fabrication. Moving freely on the ground, the BBC thereby engaged in journalism and exposed a piece of propaganda.

Consider now the Panorama programme at the centre of a controversy which does not look like going away.[2] Saving Syria’s Children – a documentary broadcast in 2013 – features a scenario very similar to the Libya report, namely, a hospital in a conflict zone featuring victims of an alleged airstrike. It contains scenes that are reminiscent of the Libya hospital scene. In fact, something that has struck a number of viewers is that some of the scenes do not seem very realistic.[3] Could they have been staged?

In the BBC’s Libya report, the staging and fakery involved in setting up the hospital scene is called out by the reporter on the ground because he is able to mill about in the crowd and put questions to witnesses there. Engaged in journalism, he has exposed an attempt at propaganda. In the Panorama documentary, by contrast, we get no glimpse like that behind the scenes. In fact, a request by another TV producer recently to view the rushes of the Panorama film was denied by the BBC. In other words, not only did we not see behind the scenes, we have not even been allowed to see the scene itself in its unadorned context.

A fact beyond dispute is that a piece of the BBC Panorama film has been manipulated. A scene where a doctor describes a crucial fact of an alleged airstrike has been broadcast in two different versions, each with a different audio track. We hear different words in the two versions of the same video. The doctor is wearing a facemask, so we cannot see her lips, but we know for a fact that in at least one version she was not saying what the BBC broadcast. This alone requires explanation. She is talking about a matter of critical importance – whether or not chemical weapons had been deployed – which was a ‘red line’ drawn by the president of the USA for triggering an escalation of warfare.

I do not speculate as to what the doctor actually said, or why she may have said different things; I do not claim to know whether or not that scene or any other part of the Panorama film was staged or misleadingly constructed. But I do think these are questions that are reasonably asked.

I think the BBC can reasonably be asked to apply the same journalistic standards to the Panorama scenes as it applied in its Libya report. It is not possible retrospectively to have a reporter roam around the set and interview witnesses. It is possible, however, to see the raw footage, the ‘rushes’, of the scenes broadcast. By making these available, the BBC could reassure the growing number of concerned viewers that what was broadcast was a good faith representation of what was happening on the ground.

Yet the BBC has not been anxious to show good faith in this matter. Repeated requests for further information about the making of the programme have been batted back. A request under the Freedom of Information Act by Robert Stuart failed, both at first hearing and at appeal.[4] But I think the concluding words of the appeal judge are worth pondering:

The law is very clear. The BBC’s status under FOIA recognises the importance of the freedom to communicate and express and receive ideas and information which is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and FOIA excludes such material from its regime in order to protect journalism and art from state control.’

I think if you ask the average man or woman on the proverbial Clapham Omnibus they might say that revealing the unedited footage is what journalism involves, as the BBC showed us in the Libya report; withholding contextual evidence serves only a propaganda interest. Therefore concealing the unedited footage is not journalism and so cannot be excluded from the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.[5]  So Jo Public could be forgiven for thinking that a request to see the rushes of the programme would not be covered by an exemption to Freedom of Information. Journalism would be distinguished from propaganda in striving to make them public.

Meanwhile, it may strike people as somewhat ironic to see the BBC’s right to withhold evidence being defended on the grounds of an exemption intended to protect journalism from state control.

[1] In fact, some say that good propaganda, functionally speaking, is undetectable as such. Furthermore, propaganda might be regarded as unobjectionable or even good, evaluatively speaking, if it is used, for instance, in public service statements about eating healthily or driving safely.

[2] A particularly tenacious critic is Robert Stuart, whose case against Panorama is set out in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wtt4LbWl84. A number of others have publicly shared his concerns, including, most recently, TV producer Victor Lewis-Smith, who, having his request to view rushes of the documentary refused by the BBC, publicly tore up a contract he was about to sign with the corporation, indicating the possibility of producing a documentary on the case against the bona fides of the BBC documentary.

[3] One sceptical viewer has posted a very brief clip from the documentary with the simple litmus test question for other viewers: Is this FAKE or REAL?

[4] Robert Stuart notes: ‘Following a hearing on 24 November 2016 the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) has dismissed my appeal against the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to uphold the BBC’s rejection of my Freedom of Information request for material relating to the September 2013 BBC One Panorama programme ‘Saving Syria’s Children’.’ The text of the Tribunal’s decision is reproduced at https://bbcpanoramasavingsyriaschildren.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/saving-syrias-children-tribunal-upholds-bbcs-rejection-of-foi-request/

The initial approach to the tribunal failed on the grounds that ‘the request is for information held for the purposes of journalism and that the BBC was not obliged to comply with Parts I to V of the Act”. The appeal failed because the appellant had not shown those grounds to be mistaken. The appeal judgement spelled out that ‘he had not provided grounds for appeal which explained why he considered the ICO was “wrong in law i.e. the ICO was wrong to conclude that the information was held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature.” She directed that he provide “any reasons that he says the information he sought was/is not held by the BBC for purposes of journalism, art or literature”.’

The judgement refers to this as a ‘clear instruction’ that the Appellant had failed to comply with. It seems to me that the instruction could be followed by developing the point I suggested above. The only reason to exclude the rushes from FOI availability have to do with the antithesis of journalism; journalism, as the Libya example illustrates, involves revealing and interrogating sources, including rooting about in the context and talking to witnesses.

[5] The Tribunal mentioned that the whole of BBC output could be regarded as protected, according to a precedent, but I think that has to be hard to maintain in light of all that has already come to light about the corporation.

This article was originally published at Tim Hayward’s blog.


READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files




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