“We’ll unleash the dogs of hell, we’ll unleash ‘em… They don’t even know what’s coming – hell is coming. If there are civilians in there, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (Sergeant Sam Mortimer, US marines, Channel 4 News, November 8, 2004)
The Face Of Raw Power
Sometimes media choices are beyond all rational comprehension. On November 10, the BBC’s 18:00 news began with a report of Sudanese government actions against refugees in the Darfur region of the country. The conflict, the BBC reported, “is thought to have killed more than 70,000 people in a little over a year – nearly two million people have been forced from their homes into refugee camps.”
BBC foreign correspondent, Feargal Keane, reported that refugee shelters had been torn down by police. Video footage showed a village elder being kicked and beaten by police, tear gas was fired at women and children, a plastic bullet was fired at the BBC team. As police attempted to forcibly move the refugees, Keane noted that this represented “a clear breach of international law”.
“This was a day when the Sudanese government showed the face of raw power. When the international community was left powerless, and the most vulnerable, defenceless.” (BBC 18:00 News, November 10, 2004)
This did indeed represent an appalling abuse of defenceless people. But whereas the British media and public are not morally responsible for the abuses of the Sudanese government, we +are+ responsible when our own government shows “the face of raw power” to “the most vulnerable”. Can we imagine Keane, or any other BBC journalist, using similar language to describe our government’s actions?
Moreover, whereas the British public can do little to influence the actions of the Sudanese government, we have a very real ability to influence our own government through elections, protest and civil disobedience. In other words, by any sane moral standard, the actions of our government represent an incomparably +more+ important focus than the actions of the Sudanese government.
And whereas 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Sudanese conflict in little more than a year, 100,000 civilians are estimated to have died as a result of our own government’s invasion of Iraq since March 2003. Whereas 2 million people are said to have been displaced in the Sudan, a quarter of a million people are estimated to have been displaced from Fallujah in just the last few weeks.
There is, readers will recall, one further difference. Whereas the Sudanese police were shown tear-gassing civilians in Keane’s report, US-UK forces are currently waging full-scale war on Iraqi civilian areas with main battle tanks, airburst firebombs, artillery barrages and helicopter gunships.
Which issue, then, should be prioritised in BBC news reporting?
And yet the BBC’s late news on November 10 began by devoting eight minutes to the Sudan story, followed by five minutes on Fallujah.
ITV – The Three Words
Over on ITV (November 10, 18:30), it is Cartoon Time as anchors Nick Owen and Andrea Catherwood stroll down the catwalk to bring us the latest news from Fallujah. This was explained with the help of computer animation: cartoon Humvees trundled along streets and cartoon tanks blasted snipers in cartoon buildings.
An outraged friend of ours asked this simple question, a question that is all but unthinkable to the media:
“What +right+ have they got to do what they’re doing to that city? What right?!”
It’s an interesting question. There were no WMDs, no links to al Qaeda, the civilian population was not being massacred by Saddam Hussein in the year prior to the war. So what actually +is+ our justification for waging full-scale war on Iraqi cities? Who are we to do it? How is it that we are helping the people we are destroying?
It is indeed like a cartoon – the US and UK governments keep running in mid-air, though any pretence of legal and moral justification has long since fallen away. But they do not fall because we have no democracy, no political opposition to establishment control, and no freedom of speech.
Our friend’s question does not exist for the elite media. For highly-trained, highly professional journalists the issue is more complex – there are caveats, nuances. But in truth, in their minds, this is just another campaign in the West’s permanent Just War. There are different units, different campaigns, different enemies – but it’s basically always the same righteous, liberating Just War.
So, for our media, Fallujah is on a par with the Battle for Normandy, it is another phase of Operation Desert Storm. We may be illegally attacking Third World residential areas housing thousands of helpless civilians, and a ragtag army of the people we came ‘to liberate’, but for our media it is the same Just War. Thus, anchorwoman Andrea Catherwood spoke over a map that might just as well have been of Arnhem:
“The US marines made steady progress… army chiefs say they have control of 70 percent of the city, including the strategically important Highway 10.”
But why is Highway 10 strategically important? What are US forces doing there? What right do they have to be demolishing this Third World city that has never threatened America or Britain?
ITV tells us simply that this is “a prime example of urban warfare” – of the kind we often see in our endless Just War.
What other truths do we need to know about this urban war? More cartoons: “The marines can call on some of the latest technology, like The Buffalo, that can locate and destroy mines and booby troops using a robot arm.”
A cartoon Buffalo is shown approaching a cartoon car, which explodes as the Buffalo’s extendable arm touches it. There’s more:
“They’ve also got the Packbot. It’s a small remote-controlled robot fitted with a camera which can climb stairs and even open cupboards to search houses and other buildings for explosives.”
A black and silver cartoon robot is shown climbing a block on a roof and touching it with a probe. This feels like an outtake from a programme on space exploration. But what is being explored here is a different moral universe – one inhabited by professional executives working for the ITV subsidiary of The Corporation.
Finally we are told: “Paul Davies reports on a day of urban warfare.”
We see footage of a marine in action. The marine turns and growls to camera:
“We’re going in, we’re taking the city this time.”
This is a classic moment from Hollywood versions of the Just War. This is John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Tom Hanks – we recognise this dialogue, we recognise this figure.
Davies repeats the marine’s tough-guy promise, savours it, adding: “It’s no idle boast, but it’s been achieved the hard way.” This, also, is straight out of Hollywood.
We see grainy shots of marines firing: “These remarkable images sent back over shaky video phones tell a story just about as far away from the clinical, long-range warfare the Americans would prefer to wage as it’s possible to be.”
Yes, how ironic for the US forces – they would surely prefer long-range combat and “clinical” killing. It’s an interesting point, isn’t it, as the superpower wages a war of colonial conquest on impoverished Third World streets? Davies continues:
“But the swift progress of this operation has been at a cost. Even before today’s street battles, ten American soldiers had been killed, more than 40 marines and their Iraqi allies wounded. There are no accurate figures on the number of militants dead, or civilian casualties.”
Throughout the whole report, these are the words we have been waiting for, and there are three of them: “or civilian casualties”. Nothing more was said on the matter.
Are we to understand, then, that because there are no +accurate+ figures, the issue need not be discussed at all? Are we to understand that it is enough to drool over Buffalos, Packbots, tank attacks on Highway 10, how the marines are “going in”, without discussing the fate of the innocent human beings being slaughtered in this city? Is this a human response to the assault on Fallujah? Is this even sane? Has there been any sense in TV reporting that this killing is, in fact, illegal?
After seeing ITV’s earlier lunchtime news, we had written to the editor and director of the programme on the same day. This is what we sent:
Dear Nick Rabin and Jane Thompson
Paul Davies’ claim on today’s ITV lunchtime news that “there is no word yet of civilian casualties” in Fallujah is incorrect. The UN’s IRIN agency [United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network] channelled this report from Red Crescent today:
IRAQ: Medical needs massive in Fallujah – Red Crescent
FALLUJAH, 10 November (IRIN) – Twenty doctors along with dozen of Iraqis were killed by a US air strike on a government clinic on Tuesday in the centre of Fallujah, 60 km west of Baghdad according to Dr Sami al-Jumaili, who survived the strike.
“In the early morning the US attacked the clinic, a place that we were using for treating the injured people in the city. A girl and ten-year-old boy, I really don’t know if they want to tackle the insurgents or the innocent civilians from the city,” al-Jumaili told IRIN.
According to the health worker, the building was one of three community clinics that had been receiving civilians wounded since the assault on the city by US and Iraqi troops to destroy insurgents began on Monday. He said that the clinic was already running out from medicines and the only ambulance that was left in the city had also been hit by US fire.
People in the town say that hundred of houses have also been destroyed and other says that they are running out water and food, adding that shops and markets have been closed and there is no place to source food. Civilians are fearful that if they go out they could be targeted by US troops, now controlling much of the north and centre of the city.
Water and electricity had also been cut off since Sunday, and doctors say that together with the chronic lack of supplies, there is not a single surgeon in the city. Without electricity medical staff cannot keep blood refrigerated. Communication has also difficult, with telephones working only sporadically.”
Not a word of this, or material like it, appeared on ITV on November 10.
ITV’s evening news (18:30) continued to limit itself to the three words: “or civilian casualties”. The late news (22:30) included additional combat footage, but the three words remained.
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 Nick Owen: Email: [email protected]
Write to Andrea Catherwood Email: [email protected]
Write to Paul Davies Email: [email protected]
Write to ITN producer Nick Rabin: Email: [email protected]
Write to ITN news director Jane Thompson: Email: [email protected]
Write to Paul Wood Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News Email: [email protected]
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