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

Catte Black

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 a program aired by RT in 2014, which accused the BBC of faking all or part of their Panorama episode “Saving Syria’s Children”, aired in September 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:

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…”

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…

“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…not really sure…maybe napalm, something like that…”

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.

[We’re leaving this here, even though the video is gone, as a way of highlighting the video was memory-holed – ed.]

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?



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