“Iraq: The Human Cost Of War
50,000 civilian deaths?
500,000 civilians injured?
2,000,000 refugees and displaced people?
10,000,000 in need of humanitarian assistance?”
(Front cover of the March/April 2003 issue of “Amnesty”, Amnesty International UK’s magazine, quoting warnings by UN humanitarian agencies)
“All the indicators are already red and we are very, very concerned.” (Veronique Taveau, spokeswoman for the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator, ‘Food warning issued by UN’, James Drummond and Mark Turner, Financial Times, 21 March, 2003, page 7)
Deceit In The Service Of Power
In one media alert after another, we have attempted to document the relentless stream of deceptions, omissions and outright lies that have enabled Washington and London, in full view of a horrified world, to undertake a massive, illegal and immoral invasion of a stricken Third World nation.
“We have not seen such systematic distortion of intelligence, such systematic manipulation of the American people, since the war in Vietnam,” wrote John Brady Kiesling, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service in his letter of resignation last month to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Here in the UK, leading politicians, assisted by a largely compliant media, have engaged in a similar attempt to suppress, divert and mould public opinion. In the eyes of the Media Lens editors, and many people posting messages at the Media Lens website (www.MediaLens.org), the propaganda dished up regularly by BBC and ITN news bulletins has been truly shameful. Television images of pink mushroom clouds rising above the skies of Baghdad, with palm trees in the foreground, and green ‘night-sight’ footage of reporters filing meaningless live ‘progress’ reports back to the news studios, hide the devastating reality: that Iraqi men, women and children, as well as ‘coalition’ soldiers, are being ripped apart as a direct consequence of the global ambitions of right-wing US interests, supported by an arrogant UK government, in defiance of international law and global public opinion.
Not all mainstream commentators have been content to play along with the ‘momentum of war’, or to restrict their challenges within a narrow frame of thought that hardly ruffles the feathers of power. The veteran columnist Alan Watkins, for example, shrewdly notes that “Mr Blair strikes me as possessing the capacity of the religious maniac to regurgitate, with every appearance of sincerity, any piece of garbage which may be required in the temporary service of some higher cause.” (Alan Watkins, ‘He may have the sympathy vote. But not mine’, The Independent on Sunday, 16 March, 2003, page 25). Indeed, Media Lens has traced the deceptions and lies promulgated by Blair and his government in pursuit of an invasion of Iraq; an attack not sanctioned by the fig leaf of a second UN resolution, despite London and Washington’s best efforts of ‘diplomacy’, for which read ‘bullying’, ‘bribery’ and ‘coercion’.
But now that ‘war’ is underway, all such thoughts must be put behind us. Or, as an editorial in the Independent asserts: “The debate about the rights and wrongs of this war is over.” (‘When democracies do battle with a despot, they must hold on to their moral superiority’, The Independent, 20 March, 2003, page 18). It is now time to ‘back our boys’, as the tabloid Sun would have it.
The BBC and ITN are taking a more subtle approach, with frequent bulletins from reporters ‘embedded’ within British fighting forces and relentless reiteration of government propaganda. Reports from Iraqi sources of Iraqi civilian deaths and injuries already carry the usual proviso “yet to be confirmed”, a warning that does not apply so readily to statements issuing from Washington and London. Meanwhile, disturbing images of the victims of the US-led invasion are not allowed to trouble western viewers.
Steve Anderson, controller of ITV News, said: “I have seen some of the images on Al-Jazeera television. I would never put them on screen. I’m not criticising them for that. There seems to be an acceptance of images I don’t think would be acceptable here.” Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, told a BBC Radio 5 Live discussion that such images “were not suitable for a British audience.” (‘TV stations criticise the use of “images of war”‘, Ian Burrell, The Independent, 24 March 2003)
British audiences, therefore, are being spared the reality of war. We are not suggesting that shocking images of dead and wounded bombing victims should be paraded relentlessly on our screens and in our newspapers, but near-total suppression of the brutal effects of the illegal invasion of Iraq by US, UK and Australian forces is bias, pure and simple. Our main news bulletins are pitiful. Where are the interviews with Baghdad citizens waiting in fear of the next onslaught of “Shock and Awe”? Why is there so little attention given to the major humanitarian agencies that are fearful of the effects of water and power being cut off by ‘allied forces’ (deliberately or otherwise) for over 48 hours in Basra, Iraq’s second city? Where are the primetime news interviews with anti-war campaigners, or with ordinary members of the British public, who feel disgust, shame or dismay at the illegal and immoral intervention being carried out by ‘their’ own government?
How can “due impartiality” be claimed by news organisations broadcasting interviews with leading western politicians and military commanders who have planned, and are now undertaking, a massive assault that most authoritative commentators regard as a major breach of international law? A breach, moreover, that likely constitutes a crime against humanity, however much it is shrouded in the rhetoric of ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people. The BBC, funded by the British television license payer, is failing in its supposed public duty “to report events as they develop with accuracy and impartiality; to provide the appropriate background information; and to air as wide a range of views as possible.”
But then, at ‘sensitive times’, the BBC has a long history of quietly dropping its Reithian norms of ‘impartiality’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’; norms which, in any case, have only ever applied in a meaningless, rhetorical sense. During the Falklands War in 1982, journalist John Pilger notes:
“Leaked minutes of one of the BBC’s Weekly Review Board meetings showed BBC executives directing that the reporting of the war should be concerned ‘primarily with government statements of policy’ while impartiality was felt to be ‘an unnecessary irritation’. ” (John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, p. 492)
The BBC’s reporting of the 1999 Nato bombing campaign in the Balkans was another example of this august institution’s abdication of its public responsibilities; in particular, the station’s reluctance to bring home to the viewer the inconsistencies and deceit implicit in Nato’s pronouncements, as well as Nato’s terrorist actions in bombing civilian targets. Although BBC reporter John Simpson upset government spin doctors with his frank reports from Belgrade, the BBC did not inform its viewers and listeners of the terms of the Rambouillet ‘peace treaty’, nor did it query Nato’s claims about the Serbian ‘war machine’ being ‘degraded’. Nor, worst of all, did it systematically question the politicians and military planners about the many non-military targets being hit – atrocities routinely presented by Nato and the BBC (and the media as a whole) as ‘blunders’.
The BBC was not alone in acting as mouthpieces for Nato. Indeed, when the bombing was over, several journalists praised themselves for smoothing public opinion in Nato’s favour. Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson wrote, “So, if you want to know why the public supported the war, thank a journalist, not the present government’s propagandist-in-chief [Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary]” (Quoted by Charles Glass, ZNet daily commentary, 1 August, 1999, www.zmag.org)
The Guardian’s Maggie O’Kane, made the same point: “Campbell should acknowledge that it was the press reporting of the Bosnian war and the Kosovar refugee crisis that gave his boss the public support and sympathy he needed to fight the good fight against Milosevic.”(Glass, ibid). Even the BBC’s John Simpson spoke up for the media’s support of Nato: “Why did British, American, German, and French public opinion stay rock-solid for the bombing, in spite of Nato’s mistakes? Because they knew the war was right. Who gave them the information? The media.” (Glass, ibid)
In the ongoing ‘Gulf War’, actually a full-blown invasion of Iraq, the media is going to have a much tougher time of keeping public opinion ‘rock-solid’, especially given that the attack was already launched in the face of overwhelming public opposition: a clear sign, if any were still needed, that our ‘democracy’ is a cruel sham. The American writer Edward Herman makes the point well:
“In democracies governments are supposed to represent the people, so that there shouldn’t be a need for massive protests to get the government to do what the public wants done. We shouldn’t see ‘democratic’ governments trying furiously to drag their country into actions that people oppose – and that many oppose passionately – even after being subjected to intense propaganda and disinformation.” (War-makers, Bribees, And Poodles Versus Democracy, Edward Herman, February 18, 2003, www.zmag.org)
Powerful political leaders will pursue their own world-shaping agenda unless western electorates becomes so defiant that the political costs of trampling public opinion become unsustainable. We are still a long way off reaching that point: unsurprising when the majority of the public are shielded from uncomfortable facts and critical modes of reasoning by a servile media system.
The exceptions shine through. Robert Fisk, with his typical combination of compassion and clarity, focuses attention on the civilian casualties of the Bush-Blair attack on Iraq:
“Donald Rumsfeld says the American attack on Baghdad is ‘as targeted an air campaign as has ever existed’ but he should not try telling that to five-year-old Doha Suheil. She looked at me yesterday morning, drip feed attached to her nose, a deep frown over her small face as she tried vainly to move the left side of her body. The cruise missile that exploded close to her home in the Radwaniyeh suburb of Baghdad blasted shrapnel into her tiny legs they were bound up with gauze and, far more seriously, into her spine. Now she has lost all movement in her left leg.” (‘This is the reality of war. We bomb. They suffer. Veteran war reporter Robert Fisk tours the Baghdad hospital to see the wounded after a devastating night of air strikes’, Independent on Sunday, cover story, 23 March 2003)
Contrast the above with an online BBC news article by BBC ‘defence’ correspondent Jonathan Marcus on US aims for the ‘war’, which barely considered the likely humanitarian cost. Instead, he concentrated on ‘coalition’ technology and strategy. Virtually all he said on the human costs was:
“There will be civilian casualties. But the aim of the US and British is to reduce these to a minimum and to reduce damage to the civilian infrastructure to a minimum as well.”
This may be the stated aim of the US and the UK. But why would a responsible journalist take it at face value?
Marcus then goes on to say:
“Clearly much can go wrong. But the outcome of this conflict is not in doubt. How long it takes and the level of casualties on both sides will depend upon the degree of Iraqi resistance.”
This is astonishing. Does the likely level of Iraqi casualties really depend more upon the “degree of Iraqi resistance” than the lethal firepower now being inflicted upon them under the “Shock and Awe” nightmare by US forces?
How can Jonathan Marcus, as an ‘impartial’ BBC reporter, claim that the level of casualties will be determined by the resistance shown by those being bombed, rather than by the immense violence imposed upon them by those doing the bombing? It takes a particular brand of highly trained professional to write such words untroubled by logic or shame. (‘US aims for swift, crushing war’, BBC Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2835661.stm, 17 March, 2003)
We have already noted elsewhere that many people are so disgusted, confused or alienated by mainstream propaganda that they are now seeking out ‘alternative’ sources of news and comment on the analysis. A Media Lens reader told us recently that when he challenged Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on The Guardian’s omissions, deceptions and distortions on Iraqi coverage, the response was smug or, perhaps, incredulous: “What are you going to read instead then?” (email to Media Lens reader, 19 March, 2003).
The fact is, many people are already reading excellent material at ZNet, Indymedia, SchNEWS and elsewhere.
This is the kind of contemptuous response that faces us wherever we look. Similarly, Blair confronts us, in effect, with the question: ‘Well, who else are you going to vote for – the Tories?!’ Modern democracy, in the media as well as in politics, is all about choices that are denuded of meaning. For those of us who seriously aspire to rein in state-corporate violence and domination, the choice between The Guardian and the Times, or between Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith, are not choices at all. In attempting to escape from the labyrinthine ‘nightmare of history’, freedom does not consist in choosing from different cul de sacs. What we need are ways out!
It is crucial, now more than ever, not to give in to anger, frustration or despair. As Noam Chomsky, repeatedly points out: “We basically have two choices: give up, and be sure that the worst will come; try, and it may make things better. Because a great many people make the second choice, the world does become a better place. A good shot in the arm is to spend a little time with people who do not share our immense privilege, but go on to struggle, without ever asking questions, facing terrible risks and sometimes enduring harsh punishment, even assassination. It’s a humbling experience.”
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 the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:
Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news.
Email: [email protected]
Steve Anderson, controller of ITV news:
Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering.
Email: [email protected]
Write to the editors of The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent:
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, Observer editor
Email: [email protected]
Simon Kelner, Independent editor
Email: [email protected]