The following brief letter was sent in to the UK Guardian on November 24:
In May 2013 the reputable polling company ComRes asked a representative sample of the British public the following question: “How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?”
According to 59% of the respondents, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war. The results are especially shocking because respondents were not asked to limit their estimates to Iraqi civilians or to deaths caused directly by violence.
The latest scientific estimate of the death toll from the war is almost 500,000. This was published in PLOS Medicine. Two previous studies, also published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, suggest the death toll may possibly have been closer to a million. Only 6% of the respondents in the ComRes poll estimated more than 500,000 Iraqi deaths. Only 0.3% said they didn’t know or declined to give an estimate.
The ComRes poll is powerful evidence that the media misled the public about the consequences of the war. The evidence is bolstered by the way the poll was ignored by the British media. Using Lexis-Nexis, the only prominent piece we could find about the poll in the British press was an op-ed by Ian Sinclair in the Morning Star, a small leftwing newspaper.
Anyone tempted to support military intervention anywhere in the world should know how effectively the most catastrophic human costs of war can be hidden from the public.
Joe Emersberger, Keane Bhatt, Noam Chomsky, David Cromwell, David Edwards, Peter Hallward, Jeb Sprague, Daniel Thornton
The letter was finally published ten days later, on December 4, in the online edition only. I doubt it would have been published at all if Chomsky had not added his name.
The delay made me doubt that the Guardian would ever publish it, so, on November 28, I also sent it to the UK Independent. They never published the letter, nor did they even reply to my emails asking then if they would or not.
Think of the millions of words written to justify the war in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. Imagine them piled up alongside the 242 word letter about the ComRes poll – which reveals what people actually learned (basically nothing) about the consequences of the war. Very much to his credit, twelve days after the letter appeared, Seumas Milne wrote an excellent article about recent wars that cited the ComRes poll. Milne wrote
Given the dire lack of coverage and debate about what actually took place, maybe it’s not surprising that most British people think fewer than 10,000 died in a war now estimated to have killed 500,000.
Last year, in this Spinwatch article, I discussed similar polls done in the USA that documented an almost identical level of ignorance.
On January 2, I was delighted to hear John Pilger prominently mention the ComRes poll is a radio commentary piece for the BBC (transcript here).
George W Bush was mocked for his “Mission Accomplished” stunt in which he tried to declare the war over as it began, but we can’t mock the corporate media for what it accomplished. Disappearing hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from a very recent and extensively covered war is quite a feat. We should fear what the “free press” could easily accomplish in the future.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) remains unmoved by any of this. In its latest World Report, all HRW had to say about the US media was that it was “vibrant”.
A word on my hectoring, self-righteous, fundamentalist and insulting tone
A few corporate journalists whom I’ve corresponded with recently have applied all the pejoratives above to the tone of my correspondence with them and to my blog posts in general.
Let me clarify a few things, as I attempted to do with them.
First, there is always a tradeoff between honesty and civility. If you honesty describe the horrific outcomes that the corporate media produces, then offending some journalists, including the ones you least care to offend, is inevitable. Nevertheless, I think describing the outcomes honestly should be the priority even if it puts off some decent journalists.
Second, I do not believe that most corporate journalists are below average in their intelligence or in their capacity to empathize with others. Top-down organizations hire and promote people who make certain assumptions about the world. Even the assumption an internal dissident might make (“I can contribute something positive by working within these constraints, and resigning will do no good at all”) is still a very necessary assumption. There are rotten people in all walks of life, but I don’t think such people are necessarily a majority within rotten institutions. Chomsky said to the British journalist Andrew Marr during a 1996 interview
“I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
In this superb piece, Jonathan Cook explains in detail the hurdles he had to jump as a dissident journalist within the UK Guardian and later as a freelancer. His account does not depict his editors, much less the rest of his former colleagues, as stupid or malicious.