In 2013, a news report by Russia Today asserted that the BBC had staged a fake chemical weapons attack via deceptively editing previously recorded footage of a reporter outside a Syrian hospital to claim that there was a chemical weapons attack, instead of a napalm attack, as was originally reported.
Russia Today then urged the government of the United Kingdom to launch a full-scale investigation into these allegations. These claims have subsequently been widely reported through a number of outlets.
The claims made by Russia Today relate to an August 2013 special edition of the BBC’s Panorama program called “Saving Syria’s Children.” In the documentary, at the 32-minute mark, is the clip that Russia Today identified as being altered.
In the clip, the presenter can clearly be heard saying: “It must be some sort of chemical weapon”; however, in another version of the footage available on YouTube, the same individual stated that the weapon could be napalm. This mismatch in editing was the basis for Russia Today’s report.
In October of 2013, the BBC responded to the accusations. In actuality, there were three version of the audio. The original quote with no editing was as follows:
“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon, I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that.”
Yet, according, to the BBC, in order to cut for length in a news report, on August 29, 2013, the quote was edited to the following:
“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of [EDIT] I’m not really sure, maybe napalm, something similar to that.”
The BBC justified their removal of the phrase “chemical weapon” on the grounds of it being known that the attack was an incendiary device, and that it would be inaccurate and misleading to keep the speculation in the report.
On September 30, 2013, the BBC aired another version of the quote, this time unedited:
“I need a pause because it is just absolute chaos and carnage here… Umm, we have had a massive influx of what look like serious burns, it seems like it must be some sort of chemical weapon.”
The difference between this and the previous quote formed the basis of Russia Today’s accusations. In this version of the footage, the quote was unaltered, but according to the BBC, there was voice-over commentary which clarified that, despite the fears there was a chemical weapon involved, the weapon later turned out to be an incendiary device.
This matter was subsequently brought before Ofcom, the UK media watchdog. After an investigation into Russia Today’s claims, they found that the Russia Today piece was misleading in its claims that the BBC faked a chemical weapons attack and ordered Russia Today to broadcast two on-air statements to clarify their earlier accusations.
In summary, while the quote was altered several times by the BBC in the course of their programs, the BBC has provided detailed responses as to why they edited the quote, and an independent investigation by Ofcom found that Russia Today’s report was misleading, and that there was little basis for their claims of a staged chemical attack.
***NOTE: This was a collaborative effort by Dangerous Analysis and Krista L. Milburn.