BBC admits to flawed Syria documentary

6 Sep

  • BBC said a documentary on alleged chemical weapon attack had inaccuracies 
  • The programme dealt with an alleged chemical attack at Douma, Syria, in 2018
  • It included an account of ‘Alex’, a former inspector with the poison gas watchdog
  • BBC said it had no evidence that ‘Alex’ believed the attack in Douma was staged Adjudicators agreed it had failed to meet ECU’s editorial standards for accuracy

The BBC has admitted that a Radio 4 documentary on an alleged chemical weapon attack in Syria contained serious inaccuracies.

The Corporation’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) upheld a protest from Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens following last November’s broadcast of Mayday: The Canister On The Bed.

Adjudicators agreed the programme by BBC investigative journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou failed to meet the Corporation’s accuracy standards by reporting false claims.

The programme, part of a series on the conflict in Syria, dealt with an attack at Douma in 2018 and included an account of the role later played by ‘Alex’, a former inspector with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The BBC has admitted that a Radio 4 documentary on an alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma (pictured in 2018), Syria, contained serious inaccuracies.

Adjudicators ruled that the programme by investigative journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou failed to meet the Corporation’s editorial standards for accuracy by reporting false claims.

Right:  Chloe Hadjimatheou


Last week – nearly ten months after the broadcast – the ECU delivered its finding that the BBC was wrong to insinuate that ‘Alex’ was motivated to go public about his doubts over the attack by the prospect of a $100,000 (£72,000) reward from the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

No such reward was ever paid, according to WikiLeaks.

The BBC also accepted it had no evidence to back up its claim that ‘Alex’, a highly qualified and apolitical scientist, believed the attack in Douma, which prompted retaliatory missile strikes by Britain, the US and France, had been staged. 1

In its ruling, the Corporation withdrew the imputation that Mr Hitchens, who has reported on despotic regimes for more than 40 years, shared ‘the Russian and Syrian state views on the war’.  2 3 

The programme (pictured) dealt with an attack at Douma in 2018 and included an account of the role later played by ‘Alex’, a former inspector with the poison gas watchdog

The ECU ruled the BBC was wrong to insinuate that ‘Alex’ was motivated to go public about his doubts over the attack by the prospect of a reward from WikiLeaks.

Upholding his complaint, the adjudicators said: ‘The ECU found that, although they were limited to one aspect of an investigation into a complex and hotly contested subject, these points represented a failure to meet the standard of accuracy appropriate to a programme of this kind.’

Welcoming the ruling, Mr Hitchens said: ‘This is a major victory for the truth. The whistle-blowers inside the OPCW were always motivated by a strict regard for scientific truth.

‘Far from seeking rewards, they realised that their actions would damage their careers but went ahead anyway. 

‘I do not serve any government, least of all those in Moscow and Damascus. I am glad the BBC has now made clear that it grasps that my reporting was motivated solely by the search for truth.’

He added: ‘It is astonishingly rare for the BBC to rule against itself. This is a huge development. I hope it represents a wider change of heart in the Corporation.’ 

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  1. Some do say the Douma attack was staged, and they are not easily dismissed. (See this review by Eva Bartlett in OffGuardian earlier this year. Ms Bartlett does visit Syria: making her, in the eyes of corporate media, an “Assad apologist”. Meanwhile accounts by deskbound columnists using sources at best limited – like the one man Syrian Observatory on Human Rights – and at worst tainted – like the jihadi-friendly White Helmets, and DC funded Bellingcat – are cited as unbiased truth.) But Chloe Hadjimatheou’s documentary alleged that ‘Alex’ shares the belief that Douma was staged. Which speaks to me less of deliberate misrepresentation; more of a decade old demonising, of all things Assad, too intense to leave room for discrimination. All who challenge the official line on Syria – former ambassadors like Peter Ford and Craig Murray, ex CIA men like Philip Giraldi and women like Elizabeth Murray, former US Senators like Dick Black, Assad loathing but truth loving journalists like Hitchens, or OPCW whistleblowers aghast at this UN body’s manipulation of factual evidence and capitulation to DC bullying – are tarred with the same brush. (My list of dissenters is far from exhaustive though you wouldn’t know this from corporate media whose most frequent lies are of omission.) This failure to distinguish differently motivated challengers of the official narrative serves as a measure of the extent to which a “Get Assad” agenda has been lazily internalised – I dare say Ms Hadjimatheou believes all she says – and trumps every other factor.
  2. See footnote 1. Take me for instance. I do not share Peter Hitchens’ assessment, which the Mail clearly implies here, of Putin’s Russia and Assad’s Syria as ‘despotic regimes’. For current purposes, however, that is beside the point.
  3. See my post, Monbiot, Syria and Universalism. Though written close to four years ago, nothing that has since happened alters my view that we have been massively lied to on Syria, while much that has since happened reaffirms it. (I do, however, retract an aside in which I refer to Russia and China as imperialisms. I no longer believe that.) See also two of my 2019 posts, The Kurds in Syria, and Syria – how Trotskyism got it so wrong. Finally, for a broader take on virally propagated dominant narratives, see my 2018 review of the Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz.

2 Replies to “BBC admits to flawed Syria documentary

  1. The problem though is that the propaganda has succeeded – as far as it could. The apologies and retractions are always far less ‘newsworthy’ – i.e. publicised, than the initial smear. However, better late than never. There is a small cumulative effect with all these retractions, and they can be used as evidence for future refutations. We need a billionaire-funded ‘Canary’ to counteract the MSM at the initiation of each propaganda move. Unfortunately there seem to be very few extreme-left billionaires.

  2. Can’t help wondering if this is a kind of limited hangout from the BBC. Chloe Hadjimatheou produced a whole series of documentries on Syria under the BBC radio 4 Intrigue strand, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/series/p04sj2pt, after the death of James Le Mesurier. It seems to come under the western Syria propaganda,oh sorry, narrative campaign. I have not listened to much of the series, life is too short to listen to and deconstruct BBC propaganda(thanks for doing some of it for me by the way) but it does whitewash the White helmets and smear those who look more critically at western meddling. It is as well that a fairly well know columnist like Hitchens has highlighted some of the BBc shenanigans.

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