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Comments 11

In the age of media manipulation how much can we afford to take on trust?

by BlackCatte

OfCom’s recent Broadcast Bulletin carries details of its rulings in favour of the BBC in its claim for unfair treatment by the Russian broadcaster RT about this program aired by RT in 2014.

The BBC complained to OfCom (page 30 of the above linked document) that “the Programme presented information in an inaccurate and misleading way”. In finding for the BBC, OFCom has now upheld that complaint. This has been trumpeted by the Beeb itself and other mainstream outlets as a ringing vindication of BBC editorial standards, so it’s worth reminding ourselves at the outset that the Bulletin carries these rather important caveats:

..Ofcom does not regulate BBC licence fee funded services in respect of accuracy and impartiality and Ofcom has not undertaken an assessment of the accuracy and/or impartiality of the BBC Programmes in reaching this Decision….” OfCom’s Broadcast Bulletin p. 33 fn.11

…Ofcom is not a fact finding tribunal and is not able or empowered, therefore, to establish the truth or otherwise of such allegations and to make findings of fact. Accordingly, it was not possible or appropriate for Ofcom to attempt to prove or disprove the allegations made [by RT] about the BBC in the Programme. Similarly, Ofcom had no statutory jurisdiction to assess the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC Programmes. Rather, our concern in this case was solely whether, taking account of Section Seven of the Code, the Programme had resulted in unfairness to the BBC. op. cit p. 115

To be clear, according to OfCom’s own description of its remit, in the dispute between RT and the BBC, OfCom did not look into the BBC’s accuracy or credibility. Nor did OfCom investigate whether RT’s allegations of fakery were true or false. In fact the Broadcast Bulletin makes it clear OfCom ruled in favour of the BBC based solely on two things:

  1. a finding that RT had broken “Rule 7 of the Code”, which requires a broadcaster to allow sufficient right of reply to anyone accused.
  2. a finding that RT had infringed “Rule 2.2 of the Code” which requires a broadcaster not to present facts in a way likely to “mislead the viewer” – based on the fact RT had referred to Robert Stuart’s ongoing investigation into the BBC’s Panorama program as a “massive public investigation”, when OfCom thought the size of his investigation did not merit such an epithet.

Anyone can visit Robert Stuart’s website and decide for themselves if his investigation can fairly be described as “massive”, but the extent to which OfCom’s findings are themselves factual inaccuracies I’ll leave for others to explore. The most significant point here is that OfCom has specifically not cleared the BBC of suspicion of wrongdoing, and is not claiming to have done so.

That being so, this looks like a good moment to take another look at the case that provoked RT’s accusations and the BBC’s complaint.

“chemical weapon” or “napalm”?

On August 29 2013, as the UK Parliament was about to vote on possible military action against the Assad government in Syria, the BBC’s 10 o’clock news aired a segment titled Syria crisis: Incendiary bomb victims ‘like the walking dead’ in which it was claimed a Syrian fighter jet had dropped an incendiary bomb containing a “napalm-type” substance on the playground of an Aleppo school. The BBC claimed its own team “inside Syria filming for [the documentary series]Panorama” had been witnesses to the victims arriving at a nearby hospital, and it aired a segment of footage showing an unnamed female alleged to be a doctor surveying incoming casualties. At this time the alleged doctor could be heard saying:

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 01.23.49

“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 napalm, something similar to that, but obviously within the chaos of the situation it’s very difficult to know exactly what’s going on…”.

A month later, on September 30, the BBC aired the same footage again, this time as part of a Panorama documentary entitled “Saving Syria’s Children“, but this time the female doctor, now identified semi-pseudonymously as “Dr Rola”, can be heard saying…

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 01.23.23

“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…”

Here’s a comparison of the audio and video of the two clips side by side:

When challenged by blogger Robert Stuart, the BBC claimed this disparity was due to the snipping and overlaying of the raw audio in different ways. Commentators differ on how plausible this is, and we won’t get into that here. But even if true this “explanation” does not in any way clear the BBC of the charge of manipulation. Here is the reason they gave for removing the words “chemical weapons” from their original broadcast of the footage on August 29 (our emphasis):

“…The phrase “chemical weapon” was taken out of the news piece because by the time it was broadcast it was known that this was an incendiary bomb that had been used in the attack. Ian Pannell mentions this on two occasions in his script prior to the clip of Dr. Rola. To have included her speculation that this could have been a “chemical weapon” ran a considerable risk of being incredibly misleading and confusing to the audience, not least because the incident happened within days of an alleged chemical attack in Damascus….”

This is reasonable up to a point no doubt. But it raises the obvious question of why, a month later, these “incredibly misleading and confusing” words were back in the clip and being aired in a flagship BBC documentary series. Surely if the words “chemical weapon” were “incredibly misleading” in August, they were “incredibly misleading” in September? So, what could possibly justify the BBC re-editing its footage to re-include them?

The only explanation the BBC offered for this bizarre behaviour was that inside the context of the Panorama documentary, the doctor’s remark was “followed up, explained and elaborated upon” to make it clear that “a napalm-type substance had been used.”

So, the BBC is basically saying they re-edited the material to include the “incredibly misleading and confusing” comment about a chemical weapon – because they were going to follow up with other remarks that showed it was not true!

I don’t easily believe any conscientious film-maker could possibly defend that kind of tortured reasoning.

The question of why the BBC did this becomes doubly important when we remember the footage was being edited and re-edited at a time when the US and the UK governments were striving to make a case for Assad using chemical weapons against his own people in Ghouta on August 21. And we especially need to recall this case was considered so weak it allegedly triggered a near revolt among US intelligence analysts, who did not want their names associated with some of the questionable allegations being made. According to the source cited, many of these analysts did not believe they had sufficient evidence Assad had been responsible for the sarin attacks, and they feared the evidence they did have had been cooked to some extent by Mossad.

In these anxious circumstances, the BBC broadcasting an emotionally laden piece of apparently raw undoctored footage in which a female doctor talked about “chemical weapons” becomes loaded with potential propaganda impact. People might easily believe they were watching proof that Assad did possess and use chemical weapons, and that in turn might help to turn the tide in favour of military action against him.

It was this potential for confusion the BBC gave as a specific reason for editing out the words “chemical weapon” from its August 29 news footage. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion they put those words back on September 30, because they were now willing to create that confusion in people’s minds.

Whatever anyone might think of RT’s wider claims of fakery, these points are valid and significant, and if OfCom’s analysis had been prepared to consider them, it’s hard to imagine it could have failed to agree the BBC was guilty of – at best – irresponsible manipulation of its footage.

how far is too far?

Issues like this make it important we have clear specifics of where the BBC – and the media in general – sees its boundaries lying. We need to know how common such editing and re-editing of news items is. We need to know how much a piece of footage can be snipped, realigned or maybe even overdubbed while still being presented to the public as genuine. We need to know how far would be deemed too far.

After all we live in an age of easy and glib fakery, where hoaxes proliferate quickly through social media, gaining speedy credibility through simple repetition. We can all remember the “hero Syrian boy”…

…who turned out to be a young actor in a movie filmed by Norwegians in Malta.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 23.00.22

Still more liminal in its intent is the footage that went viral on Youtube a few years ago, showing a staged pro-Morsi rally, presumably in Egypt, in which the protesters, including injured victims and attending physicians, freeze in dramatic poses and are snapped by photographers milling about.

Whether these are hoaxes, meta movie projects, or something else is less important than the difficulty we experience as onlookers in being able to tell the difference. What these fictions show us is that even among the more enlightened consumers of current events there is inevitably a certain amount of faith required of us. We trust that even the most overtly agenda-driven outlets will not – ever – try to sell us pure fabrications such as the above. And that act of trust inevitably makes us vulnerable.

It may be hard for some to believe the BBC was guilty of the degree of blatant fakery suggested by RT, but at the same time we have to admit the separation between “edited reality” as portrayed by the BBC and wholesale fabrication as portrayed by the fictions shown here, is not clear or specific. Robert Stuart’s detailed breakdown of the Panorama documentary at the center of this controversy, has thrown up many concerning anomalies and puzzles, and really does beg the question – can we be sure where precisely any one piece of “news” is located along the truth/fiction axis?

11 Comments

  1. None of Ian Pannell’s excuses add up. He’s simply trying to scrape up what he can to cover for deliberate deceit. No one can stop a documentary maker from using only footage that supports their bias but when you’re changing what someone says by inserting words you’re now making a drama, not a report.

    Whatever this ‘witness’ said at the time is obviously understandable given what the viewer believes they know. She even says “I’m not really sure…but…maybe……”. If the viewer needs to be informed of what Pannell claims they later found out, then he simply narrates this after her scene.

    I believe the original response from the BBC was sent to Robert in a Word Document. Surprise, surprise – when checking the file’s details it turns out it was written on a copy of Microsoft Word registered to Ian Pannell!

    Like

  2. Pingback: More Puzzles about BBC’s “Saving Syria’s Children” Documentary | NewZSentinel

  3. Pingback: In the light of the recent False Flags and Fake News – this deserve another outing. | Philosophers Stone

  4. Pingback: More puzzles about BBC’s “Saving Syria’s Children” documentary | Philosophers Stone

  5. This morning I happened to run across this very well documented discussion of media manipulation in the US. It covers every aspect of media manipulation by corporate and governmental entities, including but not limited to: ownership of all US Media by six corporate conglomerates; a full discussion of the major objections by corporate media defenders to criticisms from the left and the logical rebuttals thereto; and a history of US Media Manipulation from print news to the Internet.

    Although the author, Paul Street, has made a few editorial errors that are at times confusing, this article is very well documented and is the most thorough contemporary discussion of media manipulation in the US that I have seen.

    https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-nature-and-mission-of-u-s-corporate-mass-media/

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  6. Given the fact that on September 11th, 2001, a BBC reporter reported that Building 7, the Salomon Bros. Building had collapsed, and then turned to the area of the plane crashes, and –lo and behold, –Building 7 was still standing! More than 15 minutes before it actually collapsed!!–shows that BBC was clearly complicit in that psychological operation against the public. BBC mixes truth to draw people in, so they will believe the most outrageously false reporting BBC does, to further nefarious agendas of the people who tell the BBC what to report. Operation Mockingbird tells you all you need to know about the ‘objectivity’ of MSM.

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  7. A very good article deserving much wider exposure, as does Robert Stuart’s original excellent investigation.

    Whereas the mainstream media’s reporting on Robert Stuart’s important and extensive investigation has been non-existent, its coverage of the Offcom judgement against RT is widespread. Yet the actual substance of that judgement isn’t analysed at all, probably because there is no substance.

    To tamper with, or ‘re-edit’ reports, without clearly mentioning one or other of the versions has to be wrong, makes a mockery of the idea of news, as the re-edit itself would qualify as news story in the eyes of many viewers, were they given the opportunity to judge.

    If anything, it is the BBC and the mainstream media that should’ve been in the dock for showing extreme partiality. The fact that so much is being made of the Offcom report, while the serious transgression by the BBC Stuart exposed is being ignored, is nothing short of duplicitous and shameful.

    The pettiness of the judgement is astounding, especially the meal being made of the breadcrumb “massive public investigation”. Robert Stuart’s finely detailed investigation is nothing if not massive, certainly compared with Offcom’s miserable effort. Meanwhile, Offocm’s report on RT’s report on Stuart’s report is disingenuous to say the least.

    It all comes down to a petty quibble over the definition of ‘public’, as far as I can see. In this, it is Offcom itself that is being misleading. Offcom may consider itself a public body, insofar it has a public role, but it does not necessarily fit the definition of a body representing the public, elected by the public and working in the interests of the public. On the other hand, Robert Stuart’s blog is on open view to the public, and provides a public service. So what is public?

    Once again, we have government mouthpieces electing themselves as judges of what we should be allowed to read and view. The mainstream media is a disgrace to democracy.

    Thank you for an excellent piece, Black Catte.

    Liked by 3 people

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