The programme, part of a series on aspects of the conflict in Syria, dealt with the chemical weapons attack at Douma, which it described as “one of the most contested events in the war”, and included an account of the role subsequently played by a former inspector with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), known pseudonymously as Alex, who had expressed concerns about the OPCW’s conclusions on the matter. The journalist Peter Hitchens complained that the programme had been inaccurate in insinuating that Alex’s disclosures had been motivated by a reward of $100,000 offered by WikiLeaks, that he believed the attack had been staged, and that he had made his views known only through “a select few journalists who share the Russian and Syrian state views on the war”. The ECU considered the complaint in the light of the BBC’s editorial standards of due accuracy.
The programme, having referred to Alex’s disclosures in the winter of 2019, said it was “interesting” that they “came at a time when WikiLeaks was offering a $100,000 reward for any leaked material relating to the Douma incident”. The ECU agreed that this amounted to an insinuation about Alex’s motives. It considered the evidence, some of it from confidential sources, which had led the programme-makers to believe the insinuation justified, but judged that, although it was such as to warrant reporting (on an attributed basis) that Alex’s motives had been questioned, it was not strong enough to warrant the programme itself calling them into question. Similarly, the programme’s statement that Alex “believed the attack was staged” seemed to the ECU to rest on evidence which, although strongly suggestive, was not so conclusive as to justify stating as a fact that he believed the attack to have been staged. As to Alex’s dealings with journalists, although he had collaborated with journalists who held broadly the same views on the war as the Russian and Syrian governments, he had also collaborated with journalists of whom that could not be said (Mr Hitchens among them).
The ECU found that, although they were limited to one aspect of a 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. The ECU noted that a posting about one point of the complaint had been made on the Corrections and Clarifications page of bbc.co.uk but, as it was not reflected in the extended version of the programme which continued to available on BBC Sounds and the website of the series, it did not suffice to resolve the issue in question.
The finding was reported to the Board of BBC News and discussed with the programme-makers in question.