03/07/2014 06:18 BST | Updated 03/07/2014 07:00 BST

BBC Panorama 'Loses Data' About Secretive Northern Ireland Army Unit

The BBC has been accused of losing sensitive data about a secretive army unit, potentially compromising the identity of one of the ex-soldiers who took part in a documentary.

The investigative Panorama programme lost files that related to the Military Reaction Force (MRF), a secretive British Army unit in Northern Ireland that is alleged to have shot unarmed civilians during the Troubles in the early 1970s, it has been reported.

The unit was exposed in a Panorama episode called "Britain's Secret Terror Force" in November last year.

bbc panorama

The data loss has compromised the identity of at least one ex-soldier

The claims have prompted the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to investigate, which could lead to a criminal prosecution.

The data was downloaded to a memory stick and handed by an inexperienced researcher to a third party, in protest at the way the programme was handling a documentary about questionable practices in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, according to The Independent.

The material was initially understood to only relate to people who had contributed to that Panorama piece.

But the Independent claims that it also contained confidential and sensitive information relating to the previous Panorama programme about the MRF, broadcast in November.

Application forms for undercover filming, filled out during the making of the Tower Hamlets documentary, had been duplicated from ones used to authorise undercover filming while making the MRF documentary. Because of an error, details from the earlier application had not been deleted, it was said.

The documentary featured seven people who served with the MRF anonymously describing its activities. The identity of at least one of them, and the names of senior military figures, were compromised by the data loss, The Independent reported.

One of those who took part told Panorama: "If you had a player who was a well-known shooter who carried out quite a lot of assassinations it would have been very simple – he had to be taken out.”

Another said: “We were not there to act like an army unit. We were there to act like a terror group. We had our own rules, but I don’t recall being involved in the shooting of an innocent person.”


An ICO spokesman told HuffPost UK: "We will be making inquiries into the circumstances of the alleged breach of the Data Protection Act before deciding what action, if any, needs to be taken."

A BBC spokesman said: "There has been a lot of baseless speculation on the circumstances surrounding this programme.

"It's not appropriate for us to comment further while there is an investigation by the ICO under way."

“Protection of sources is paramount and the BBC and its researcher have behaved utterly disgracefully. I cannot believe that anyone could be so lax," military author Hugh McManners told The Independent.

"If the media is going to misbehave like that, the Ministry of Defence would be justified in refusing all media requests, which isn’t in anybody’s interests.”

Panorama's reputation was damaged by the data leak over the Tower Hamlets documentary earlier this year.

The woman who leaked it was a broadcast journalism student who worked with the production company for a short period.

The episode focused on mayor Lutfur Rahman, claiming he had favoured Bengali charities with his grant allocations.

"The approaches they took were just unethical," the unnamed student said at the time. "There was manipulation, there was racism involved. I see them as Islamophobic bullies."

It is understood the file the researcher leaked has since been destroyed.

The documentary series' reputation also took a hit over a 2013 documentary in which presenter John Sweeney travelled to North Korea on the same trip as a group of LSE students but failed to inform them what they were doing, potentially endangering them.

The university said the decision to air the episode was "extremely regrettable".