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Beyond the Blog-o-Bots, Part 2


In Part 1 of this alert we reviewed Robert Fisk’s observation that "more and more people are trying to find a different and more accurate narrative of events in the Middle East. It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European ‘mainstream’ newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times".

Fisk observed of mainstream press reporting that it "must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn’t appear in a major British paper". (Justin Podur, ‘Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit,’ December 5, 2005; http://www.rabble.ca/rabble_interview.shtml?sh_itm=a37c84dbd62690c4c1abb1a898a77047&rXn=1&)

Fisk is a brilliant and courageous journalist – we have quoted his work many times – but we profoundly disagree with these comments.

British historian Mark Curtis reviewed the performance of the Independent and other newspapers in his book The Ambiguities of Power:

"Of the five daily broadsheet newspapers in Britain – the Daily Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Independent and Guardian… the first three – which account for around 70 per cent of broadsheet readership – systematically fail to elucidate the specific link between British policy and human rights abuses. The Independent also regularly portrays the reality of British foreign policy in an inaccurately benevolent light." (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, pp.116-117)

As an example, we can consider the Independent’s performance in the lead up to, and immediate aftermath of, the invasion of Iraq.

Two months before Blair launched his war of aggression, an Independent story described how the prime minister had "spent much of yesterday advancing the cause of world peace with a series of high-profile Downing Street guests". (Andrew Grice, ‘Putting the world to rights: a busy day in Downing Street,’ The Independent, January 10, 2003)

As the government’s audacious campaign of deception reached its peak on the eve of war, an Independent editorial said of Blair: "his patent sincerity has impressed, banishing his reputation as a fickle politician without convictions". (Leader, ‘A divided world stands on the brink of a war that could have been avoided,’ The Independent, March 18, 2003)

The following day, the editors responded to Blair’s lie-packed March 18 speech to parliament:

"Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more… this was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic. The case against President Saddam’s 12-year history of obstructing the United Nation’s attempts at disarmament has never been better made." (Leader, ‘Whatever the anxieties over this conflict, Mr Blair has shown himself to be a leader for troubled times,’ The Independent, March 19, 2003)

Like the rest of the media, the Independent was happy to promote the endless flood of terror alerts and scare stories used to frighten the public into supporting the war. The Independent’s lead story on February 19, 2003 claimed that "three giant cargo ships are being tracked by US and British intelligence on suspicion that they might be carrying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction". (Michael Harrison, ‘Iraq crisis: three mystery ships are tracked over suspected weapons’ cargo,’ The Independent, February 19, 2003)

The report added: "the movement of the three ships is the source of growing concern among maritime and intelligence experts".

In an online Guardian debate on June 5, the Observer’s Peter Beaumont said of this story: "just goes to show, we can all make mistakes. ie the story was – as far as i know – a load of cobblers."

Two weeks later, Michael Harrison, author of the Independent article, assured us:

"We are confident of our sources and satisfied with the veracity of the story. Indeed, we are continuing to pursue the story with the intention of reporting on it further. Hope this is of help." (Email to David Cromwell, June 19, 2003)

Alas, nothing more was ever heard of this concocted tale.

An August 2003 Independent editorial was titled:

"The Americans are trying to build a prosperous, democratic Iraq, but they cannot do it on their own." (Leader, The Independent, August 9, 2003)

We could cite endless other examples and omissions from the Independent’s reporting on US-UK sanctions against Iraq, on Iraq’s non-existent WMD, on Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Haiti, climate change, and so on.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent summed up the reality in an email to us:

"So much of what you say [about media complicity in human rights abuses] is depressingly true and believe me there are days when I want to have two baths to wash away my sense of disgust that I am part of the media industry." (Alibhai-Brown, email to David Cromwell, August 16, 2000)

In 2001 Noam Chomsky said of the Independent’s reporting on Iraq:

"It’s worth remembering that no matter how much they try, they are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures, but anything more is, literally, inconceivable." (Chomsky, email to David Cromwell, February 24, 2001)

A couple of weeks after Fisk praised the British press, the Independent’s sister paper, the Independent on Sunday, presented a year-end review of the world’s conflicts in 2005, focusing heavily on Iraq.

This review was a thing of wonder for us. The article lists many instances of Iraqi civilians killed by suicide bombers, and of ‘coalition’ troops killed by insurgents. But there is not one mention of Iraqi civilians being killed or injured by ‘coalition’ forces:

"JANUARY

No let-up in war in Iraq … American soldier convicted of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and jailed for 10 years … Helicopter crash kills 31 US Marines … Iraqis vote in first election since the invasion … violence flares in Darfur, Sudan … Ten servicemen, nine British and one Australian, die in Iraq when Hercules plane crashes.

FEBRUARY

North Korea boasts for first time that it has nuclear weapons … Suicide bombers kill 125 in Hillah, Iraq, worst such attack since coalition invasion … former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri assassinated in Beirut … Syria blamed, pulls 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

MARCH

US military deaths in Iraq reach 1,500 … Judge to preside at trial of Saddam Hussein is murdered.

APRIL

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shia, is named Iraq’s interim Prime Minister … Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani sworn in as interim President … Robert Mugabe retains power in Zimbabwe elections amid accusations of electoral fraud.

MAY

Hundreds reported killed in crackdown on uprising in Uzbekistan … Iraq violence soars, with 350 dead in suicide bombings in two weeks.

JUNE

Suicide bomber targets school in Kashmir, 14 die … violence in run-up to Iranian election.

JULY

Britain a terrorist target for the first time since launch of ‘war on terror’ … British suicide bombers kill 52 people in attacks on London transport … Innocent Brazilian killed by police who think he is terrorist … Repeat attack on transport system fails, with four suspected would-be bombers detained … Roadside bomb in Iraq kills three British servicemen.

AUGUST

Fourteen US Marines from a reserve unit die in deadliest roadside bomb used on US forces in the Iraq war.

SEPTEMBER

Co-ordinated bombings kill at least 160 in Baghdad … North Korea pledges to drop its nuclear weapons development … US soldier Lynndie England jailed for three years for abusing prisoners.

OCTOBER

Bombs in Bali kill 22 … US military deaths in Iraq reach 2,000.

NOVEMBER

In France, two weeks of rioting strike cities … Suicide bombers target three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60. Iraqi woman held after her explosive belt failed to detonate.

DECEMBER

Death toll in Iraq war stands at 30,000 Iraqis, 2,140 US soldiers and 97 British service personnel." (Independent on Sunday, December 18, 2005)

Below, we provide a small sample from the missing facts:

Whole Streets Were Obliterated

In an entry for January 8, 2005, Iraq Body Count reported 14 Iraqi civilians killed by a laser-guided bomb dropped by a US F-16 jet in Aathya, near Mosul: "suspected insurgent hideout, wrong house hit". (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount35.php?ts=1137165789)

On January 18, independent journalist Dahr Jamail reported from Baghdad:

"The U.S. military is resorting to collective punishment tactics in Iraq similar to those used by Israeli troops in the occupied territories of Palestine, residents say. Military bulldozers have mown down palm groves in the rural al-Dora farming area on the outskirts of Baghdad, residents say. Electricity has been cut, the local fuel station destroyed and the access road blocked." (Jamail, ‘U.S. Military Resorting To Collective Punishment,’ Inter Press Service, January 18, 2005)

Also in January, the Observer reported figures that "suggest 600 civilians are dying a month – which would equate to about 11,000 casualties in the past 18 months". (Antony Barnett, ‘Fighting kills 135 children,’ The Observer, January 30, 2005)

On May 9, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than 1,000 US troops, supported by fighter jets and helicopter gunships, had attacked villages in and around Obeidi, a city near the Euphrates river not far from the Syrian border. Some 75 Iraqis – described as "insurgents" were reported killed. (James Sturcke, ‘US troops kill 75 insurgents,’ Chicago Tribune, May 9, 2005)

On May 19, Dahr Jamail reported:

"As with the siege of Fallujah six months back, U.S. claims over the siege of the Iraqi town Al Qa’im are being challenged now by independent sources." (Jamail, ‘US Claims Over Siege Challenged,’ Inter Press Service, May 19, 2005)

Iraqi civilians and doctors in the area said no foreign fighters were present in the town. Al Qa’im and surrounding areas had suffered severe destruction, and many in the town (population 110,000) had been killed, they said. The town’s centre had been "been almost completely destroyed," according to the director of Al-Qa’im hospital Dr. Hamdi Al-Alusi. He said the casualties included many women, children and elderly people, and appealed to humanitarian organisations to intervene quickly.

In June the Guardian reported the launch of ‘Operation Spear’ targeting the Iraqi cities of Karabila and Qaim. This involved bombers, helicopters and 1,000 marines with tanks and amphibious assault vehicles. The chief doctor at the main hospital in Qaim, counted at least 17 civilian dead during the offensive, according to Reuters, while the director of Ramadi hospital "said he had taken possession of at least 50 bodies discovered in and around Karabilah", including three women and four men with Egyptian passports, according to the Los Angeles Times. (http://www.voices.netuxo.co.uk/library/letter_augsep05.htm)

According to a member of the Karabila city council "about 16 houses were destroyed and 71 were damaged" and "three mosques, two schools and a medical clinic for children and pregnant women were wrecked". (Ibid)

In Qaim, "whole streets were obliterated" and "every house was searched, often only after the front gate had been blown off with explosives" and "weapons caches were detonated on the spot bringing houses down around them". (Ibid)

In July, the media reported that little information was available about three more offensives: ‘Operation Dagger’ in Central Iraq; ‘Operation Sword’ – involving 1,000 US troops and 100 Iraqi soldiers – and ‘Operation Scimitar’, which began on July 7 with raids 19 miles southeast of Fallujah.

In August, the BBC reported: "Almost 1,000 people are known to have died in a stampede of Shia pilgrims in northern Baghdad, Iraqi health officials have said." (August 31, 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4199618.stm)

In September, US forces attacked Tal Afar. In a bid to soften resistance, the US military carried out repeated air and artillery strikes against the city, where most of the population of 200,000 was reported to have fled to the surrounding countryside. (‘Troops launch offensive on Iraq town,’ Associated Press, September 10, 2005)

On October 18, Jonathan Finer reported in the Washington Post: "A series of U.S. air and ground strikes Sunday near the western city of Ramadi killed 70 suspected insurgents, the military said in a statement Monday. But Ramadi health workers and residents, including several eyewitnesses, reported 39 civilians among the dead, including 18 children allegedly killed when an aerial bombardment targeted a U.S. Humvee that had been disabled by a deadly roadside bomb on Saturday." (Jonathan Finer, ‘U.S. strikes kill 70 in Iraq,’ Washington Post, October 18, 2005)

The report continued:

"Family members of the victims descended upon Ramadi General Hospital, which ran out of refrigeration space for the dead. The bodies of a woman and three children lay in the garden Monday, and victims’ relatives fought with each other as they sifted through remains."

In November, dozens of civilians including women and children were reportedly killed in US air strikes near al-Qaim, local doctors said:

"We’ve been receiving the injured since Monday morning’s air strikes," Dr Ahmed al-Rabia’a from al-Qaim hospital said. Local witnesses said the dead and injured were mainly civilians. According to al-Rabia’a, several women and children were among the 43 dead and 25 injured who reached his hospital. (‘Civilians killed near al-Qaim in air strike, doctors say’; November 1, 2005; http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=49875&SelectRegion=Middle_East&SelectCountry=IRAQ)

On November 6, the Observer reported:

"Thousands of American and Iraqi troops, backed by fighter jets, besieged an insurgent-held town near the Syrian border yesterday in Iraq’s biggest military assault since the storming of Falluja… About 2,500 American troops and 1,000 Iraqi army soldiers cordoned off roads around Husaybah." (Ned Temko, ‘Major US attack on eve of Iraq talks,’ The Observer, November 6, 2005)

On November 23, the Guardian reported the aftermath of this offensive:

"There was more resistance at Ubaydi in the following days. The US went in with tanks, Humvees, helicopters and planes. They swept from one end to the other, searching for weapons. They kicked in doors or used explosives to get in, or used tanks to do it… When people saw a ferocious assault was under way, they began to leave town. Women and children came out carrying white flags. It was eerie seeing columns of people appearing through the smoke and explosions, with no one knowing which direction the shooting was coming from. I am sure we will hear of more casualties." (Sean Smith, ‘Up close: the reality of Iraq’s hidden war,’ The Guardian, November 23, 2005)

None of the above was deemed worthy of mention in the Independent on Sunday’s article reviewing the world’s conflicts in 2005.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:Email: [email protected]

Write to Leonard Doyle, foreign editor of the Independent:Email: [email protected]

Write to Michael Williams, the Independent on Sunday’s reader’s editor, about the 2005 review in his paper:Email: [email protected]

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