A war journalist who narrowly escaped being blown up in Syria is now suing the BBC for up to £150,000, claiming she was bullied into risking her life for no good reason.
News producer Natalie Morton, 44, was with the new outlet’s chief war correspondent Lyse Doucet in Homs, Syria, in April 2014 when a bomb landed close to her vehicle and showered it with shrapnel.
A cameraman who was with them suffered 35 shrapnel injuries and even though Ms Morton escaped with minor injuries, she claims the incident destroyed her mental health.
She was struck down by ‘severe’ PTSD and anxiety, which she says ended her career, saw her turn to alcohol and left her so traumatised that she now can’t watch the news.
News producer Natalie Morton (pictured with cameraman Phil Goodwin), 44, who narrowly escaped being blown up in Syria is now suing the BBC for up to £150,000, claiming she was bullied into risking her life for no good reason
Ms Morton says she was bullied by Ms Doucet, who has an OBE and was part of the BBC’s Emmy-winning Syrian war reporting team, into going along on the ‘unnecessary’ trip.
Her barrister, Simon Anderson, claims BAFTA-nominee Ms Doucet was ‘angry’ at her for refusing another dangerous assignment and ‘intimidated and pressurised’ her into taking a pointless journey into Homs.
However, the BBC denies Ms Morton, of Highgate, north London, was pressurised into going, says it was her own decision to travel and that all precautions were taken to prevent injury to its staff.
According to papers filed at Central London County Court, Ms Morton travelled to Syria with Ms Doucet, BBC cameraman Phil Goodwin, and documentary maker Robin Barnwell.
Her job was to provide news coverage of the conflict as Ms Doucet’s producer, while Ms Doucet and Mr Barnwell also filmed the BAFTA-nominated current affairs documentary ‘Children of Syria’.
She was with the new outlet’s chief war correspondent Lyse Doucet (left) in Homs, Syria, in April 2014 when a bomb landed close to her vehicle and showered it with shrapnel
Filming was taking place at a centre for ‘internally displaced persons’ in Homs when the stray mortar landed near to the vehicle where Ms Morton was waiting outside.
Mr Goodwin was left with 35 wounds and although Ms Morton escaped with slight burns, she claims her mental health was seriously affected by the ordeal.
She says she turned to alcohol to deal with the after effects of the blast and, due to her fragile mental health, will never be able to return to war journalism.
‘She has not watched or listened to the news since May 2015,’ says her barrister in court filings ahead of a full trial of her damages claim.
Ms Morton claims that there was no need for her to make the trip to Homs, as she was not involved in the documentary, and that she was ‘persuaded/required’ to go, having refused a hazardous assignment in the town of Maaloula previously.
Filming was taking place at a centre for ‘internally displaced persons’ in Homs when the stray mortar landed near to the vehicle where Ms Morton was waiting outside. Pictured is the aftermath of an explosion in Homs, Syria, in 2014
‘Lyse Doucet expressed anger and frustration with the claimant for her decision to refuse to travel to Maaloula, and intimidated and pressurised her to travel to Homs in circumstances whereby the journey was unnecessary,’ Mr Anderson claims.
Canada-born Ms Doucet is one of the BBC’s top journalists and presenters, having won awards for her work in war-torn countries, and in 2014 was awarded an OBE for her services to broadcast journalism.
As well as being unnecessary, Ms Morton says the trip was also plagued with risk and the BBC had not done all it could to minimise the danger to its employees.
The situation on the ground in Homs at that time, when the Syrian Army was attempting to retake rebel-held areas, had not been fully taken into account before travelling, she claims.
And although a risk assessment was completed, it was not fully signed off by department heads, says her barrister.
Children warm themselves around a fire in Homs, Syria, in 2014
Against the terms of the assessment, the team had not been kept together and the BBC had failed to ‘limit loiter time’, with Ms Morton left waiting outside in ‘soft cover’ while Ms Doucet filmed inside for four and a half hours before the mortar strike.
Although she continued to work after the incident, Ms Morton eventually went off sick in January 2017 and has not returned since.
She also claims the BBC’s slow investigation and dismissal of a grievance against her by another former colleague only made matters worse.
Her doctors say it is unlikely she will be able to return to any form of journalism in the future.
For the BBC, David Platt QC denies liability and says Ms Morton – who was victim of a ‘random and lucky’ strike – was not put under any pressure to travel with the current affairs team to Homs.
‘There was no obligation on the claimant or any member of ”News” to go to Homs,’ he says.
‘The claimant had full ownership of this decision and could have declined to go. Indeed she had an absolute right to refuse.’
He adds: ‘Ms Doucet did not pressurise or intimidate the claimant, who raised no objection to going to Homs.
‘Neither did the claimant need to go, had she viewed it journalistically unnecessary.
‘Neither had Ms Doucet had any resentment over the decision not to travel to Maaloula, and this change of plan was driven primarily by Lana Antaki [a local producer].’
Mr Platt said the risk assessment had been properly completed and signed off and pointed out that the governor of the city had confirmed to the team that it was safe for them to visit.
The battle over Homs had been ongoing for years and, although there was increased fighting around that time, most of the city was functioning comparatively normally.
The centre which they visited was two miles from the fighting and down a narrow road, flanked by buildings, so was not an open target, he says.
‘The claimant had total discretion on where and how to work, did not take instructions from Ms Doucet, and was experienced in conflict zones,’ says Mr Platt.
‘It was her decision to remain in the vehicle and work from there. She was sufficiently relaxed not to wear her PPE – including body armour and helmet.’
He said Ms Morton had been ‘expressly advised’ by her driver not to stay in the vehicle and, as a war journalist, she knew exactly what she was signing up for.
‘She had applied for the job knowing that she would be exposed to an element of risk given the high probability that she would visit hostile environments.’
As well as denying liability, the BBC says Ms Morton had pre-existing alcohol and mental health problems, and that she brought her court claim too long after the 2014 incident.
The case is due to be heard by a judge later this month.