Media Lens recently issued a media alert about the lack of British media coverage given to the World Tribunal on Iraq, held in Istanbul last month. Our alert, The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing World Tribunal on Iraq, was sent out on July 6, 2005:
We suggested that readers ask senior BBC managers and editors why the BBC, a publicly-funded broadcaster, is failing to cover the many reports of alleged US war crimes in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. Why, in particular, did the main BBC news programmes ignore the Tribunal’s damning findings against the invasion and occupation of Iraq? And when has the BBC ever reported Bush and Blair’s culpability for war crimes?
These are troubling questions for well-rewarded media professionals to answer rationally, while preserving any semblance of self-respect. The cognitive dissonance demonstrated by senior BBC managers trying to believe that BBC ‘impartiality’ is upheld, even while actual media performance clearly promotes the agenda of destructive state power, is astounding to behold. One recalls the White Queen’s boast in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alice in Wonderland: The “Evidence-Based Journalism” That Ignores Evidence!
Helen Boaden, the BBC news director, has now issued the following statement to the many people who wrote to her. We asked a number of knowledgeable commentators to respond (see below).
“Thank you for your email criticising the BBC for lack of coverage of the World Tribunal on Iraq. We have received numerous complaints on this subject in different parts of the BBC and – after careful consideration of the matter – the following is the BBC response, which I am sending on behalf of the BBC.
“The subjects under discussion at the Istanbul meeting are indeed important and many of the topics are matters which the BBC has examined persistently and regularly across our outlets. There are many conferences which the BBC does not cover and – given finite resources – we take the view that what is important is that a full range of issues is aired.
“Currently our top financial priority in relation to Iraq is to report on events from the country itself. The BBC is the only British broadcaster to have maintained a continuous presence in the country, including the maintenance of a permanent bureau in Baghdad. One example of how this investment has paid off is the whole day of reports we carried on BBC News 24, BBC World, Radio 5 Live and on the BBC News website on June 7th. On that day, we chronicled different aspects of life for the 27 million people who live in Iraq. There’s a summary of what we did on the website:
“Turning to the agenda of the World Tribunal on Iraq, the BBC has examined events in Iraq from many angles, including the legal framework; the role of the UN; international relations; the conduct of coalition forces and the human rights violations at Abu Graib; the controversy over Guantanamo Bay. But unlike the WTI which takes the war in Iraq as unjust as its premise, the BBC must be open-minded and impartial in its approach.
“We are committed to evidence-based journalism. We have not been able to establish that the US used banned chemical weapons and committed other atrocities against civilians in Falluja last November. Inquiries on the ground at the time and subsequently indicate that their use is unlikely to have occurred.
“The BBC takes its commitment to impartial reporting with the utmost seriousness. Please rest assured that we strive for open-minded, responsible journalism.
Helen Boaden, Director, BBC News” (Email forwarded by numerous Media Lens readers, July 13 onwards, 2005)
The award-winning journalist John Pilger, who has extensive experience of visiting and reporting on Iraq, told us:
“Helen Boaden’s response is simply ridiculous. She says the BBC ‘has not established’ that the US has used banned weapons or committed atrocities. The US has admitted using napalm, a banned weapon, and the evidence of atrocities in Fallujah is overwhelming: too great to list here. Read, for example, the statements of doctors at Fallujah General Hospital and of other independent eye witnesses. The reason the BBC ‘has not established’ all this is because its reporters are embedded with the Americans and British and report the occupiers’ news, about which there is nothing ‘impartial’.” (Email to Media Lens, July 14, 2005)
We also contacted the World Tribunal on Iraq [WTI] for their response. Communications coordinator Caroline Muscat told us WTI had invited the BBC World Service correspondent in Istanbul, Jonny Dymond, to attend the Tribunal’s hearings. She helped to set up interviews and provide footage: “we did our best to meet his needs”.
Dymond confirmed to us that he attended the opening press conference, and was present on the first day of the 5-day proceedings (email from Jonny Dymond to Media Lens, July 14, 2005). This resulted in a news story on the BBC World Service lasting 24 seconds, and a longer report of about 90 seconds in length. These reports failed to mention the Tribunal’s finding that the BBC, and other named, mainstream media, bears “special responsibility for promoting the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”.
Caroline Muscat told us: “The lack of coverage on BBC World Service is not due to any neglect our end.”
But not a smidgen of even this limited coverage was broadcast on the major BBC news bulletins, such as the evening Six O’Clock and Ten O’Clock television news on BBC1. Muscat continued:
“In effect, Ms. Helen Boaden is saying that the Tribunal was not a priority story for the BBC because of judgments made at the BBC on this global initiative.” She added that the Tribunal “was followed by millions of people around the world on alternative media sites, the live audio and video streaming provided by the WTI web site… The fact that Iraqi people risked their lives to travel to Istanbul and testify on the horrors they face on a daily basis was not a priority story because the BBC says that, ‘Currently our top financial priority in relation to Iraq is to report on events from the country itself’.
“While we respect the BBC’s commitment to evidence-based journalism, it is hard to ignore the fact that the evidence in this story is the Tribunal itself. The fact that a significant number of respected diplomats, academicians, reporters and human rights lawyers came together with international experts from various fields to bring to the world’s attention the injustice occurring in Iraq, is in itself a story that merits reporting.
“The BBC has disregarded the experience and professionalism of all those who participated in this Tribunal. In fact, one of the reasons why this initiative took place is precisely because we felt, like millions of people around the world, that there was an imbalance and a lack of clarity and objectivity in the reporting of the so-called ‘war on terror’. By failing to understand the significance of presenting this other side of the story of this war the BBC has in fact proved us right.” (Email to Media Lens, July 14, 2005)
We contacted Dahr Jamail, a ‘non-embedded’ journalist who has bravely reported from Iraq for a total of 8 months to date. Jamail testified in Istanbul, detailing many atrocities inflicted upon Iraqis by US forces. This was his response:
“It is interesting that Helen Boaden uses the reason for not covering the WTI that the BBC uses ‘evidence-based journalism,’ then goes on to state that the BBC has, ‘not been able to establish that the US used banned chemical weapons and committed other atrocities against civilians in Fallujah last November.’
“This is one of the main purposes for the WTI to have even occurred – to provide this information to the media and to inform the world of the atrocities being committed in Iraq.” (Email to Media Lens, July 13, 2005)
Jamail pointed out that the Tribunal provided all the evidence the BBC needs, “from witnesses which included several Iraqis, of the US use of illegal weapons in Fallujah during November such as cluster bombs, uranium munitions, napalm and chemical weapons”. Jamail also pointed to the “testimonies and photographs of the US military raiding hospitals and killing both doctors and civilians as what appears to now be their standard operating procedure for their military adventures in Iraq.” He concluded:
“It is clear that if the BBC was truly ‘committed to evidence-based journalism’ as Ms. Boaden states, they would report what Iraqi doctors and civilians say as to what occurred in Fallujah in November.”
Blind Faith: The BBC Ignores Its Own ‘Impartiality’ Mantra
Hans von Sponeck is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who ran the humanitarian oil-for-food programme in Baghdad for 18 months. He resigned in 2000, appalled at the impact of UN sanctions on Iraq. He also responded to Boaden’s email:
“The World Tribunal was anything but just ‘another conference’. A sensitive and impartial BBC should have quickly discovered that the Istanbul event provided a rare glimpse into a world-wide public mind which stands for peace, justice, political honesty and accountability. The BBC chose to ignore its own advice that ‘impartiality is to cover all sides’. To bypass a responsible international movement at a time when political opportunism and dishonesty are rampant, when international law is broken at will and human security is becoming a distant dream, is anything but coverage of all sides and the antithesis of open-minded journalism.” (Hans von Sponeck, email to Media Lens, July 13, 2005)
Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, acknowledged “the immense difficulties on the ground” for reporters in Iraq, but told us that Boaden’s points “about the deployment of depleted uranium and the atrocities in Fallujah and elsewhere are specious”. He continued:
“There is plenty of reliable evidence that the invasion forces used depleted uranium and napalm-style materiel in Iraq (we the British certainly used the former in 1991) and the BBC’s defence experts could do a lot more to put this into the public arena. The deployment of such ghastly weapons against civilian areas is surely +feeding+ the anger that results in attacks like those against Madrid and London. The inability or reluctance of the BBC properly to expose or even discuss intelligently the use of such weaponry as depleted uranium or napalm is shameful and even provocative for its viewers and listeners, especially given its propensity to allow its presenters and guests to go into finger-wagging fury over Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons.” (Email to Media Lens, July 14, 2005)
Finally, Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University and author of ‘Ethics for Journalists’, sent us his response to the BBC statement:
“The mainstream media have been celebrating the ‘revolution’ that occurred over the coverage of the London bombs – with the prominent use of mobile phone images provided by members of the public and weblogs. This, it has been argued, represents a major ‘democratisation’ of the mainstream media. Yet significantly, the incorporation of data supplied by non-professional journalists has in no way impacted on the overall bias of the coverage. In other words, the most important revolution needed in the mainstream media is over news values. Their failure to report the Iraq War Tribunal shows how conventional news priorities still predominate. Mainstream journalism remains too closely tied to dominant economic, political and economic structures and interests. More and more people are realising this and turning to more authentic alternatives.” (Email to Media Lens, July 13, 2005)
Mark Byford, the BBC’s deputy director-general, claimed recently that the “BBC now begins with the presumption that the licence-payer is right. After all, the licence-payers are the public that fund and own the BBC in the UK.” (Byford, ‘Your flexible friend’, The Guardian, June 11, 2005) He observed: “How an organisation responds when someone complains is an important determinant of how people feel about its openness and responsiveness.”
True enough. Alas, judging by the reactions we see every day, many members of the public are deeply sceptical about the BBC’s own claims of “openness” and “responsiveness”.
They are increasingly wise to the appalling reality that the publicly-funded BBC is an accessory to war crimes and state terrorism perpetrated by the British government, in tandem with its US ally.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC news,
Email: [email protected]
And Mark Byford, deputy director-general
Email: [email protected]
Ask why the BBC is failing to give prominent coverage to the substantial evidence of “coalition” war crimes in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. Why does the BBC never question Tony Blair and other senior politicians about their culpability for these atrocities?
Please copy your emails to the following:
Roger Mosey, head of BBC television news
Email: [email protected]
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Email: [email protected]
Michael Grade, BBC chairman
Email: [email protected]