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Concealing Catastrophe


In a recent Media Alert, ‘Grit Your Teeth – Basic Surgery In “Liberated” Iraq’ (May 16, 2003), Media Lens invited readers to ask the BBC and ITN why they had devoted so little coverage to the severe crises afflicting the civilian population of Iraq. One reader forwarded a copy of this letter sent to ITN’s editor of news, David Mannion:

“Dear David Mannion, Why have you given so little coverage to the grave crises afflicting the civilian population of Iraq? Please draw attention to UNICEF’s, May 14 report indicating that 300,000 Iraqi children are currently facing death from acute malnutrition – twice as many as under Saddam in February – and the suffering in Umm Qasr, where patients undergoing basic surgery without painkillers “have to grit their teeth, or put a piece of cloth in their mouths to bite on,” according to aid workers. Why are these horrors not being widely discussed? Our own government needs to take direct responsibility to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people and the press should be bringing this to our attention. Just imagine this happening in the UK – what an outcry there would be!” (Forwarded to Media Lens, May 19, 2003)

This email is close to ideal from our point of view – polite, rational and succinct. It raises issues of obviously vital humanitarian concern. How can it be that the broadcast media has failed to even mention the doubling of acute malnutrition rates among literally hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq? The implied suffering of tiny innocents is beyond imagining. And how can the horrific conditions in Umm Qasr – ‘liberated’ by British troops, after all – not even have been reported? How could we not be moved by these tragedies and the media’s failure to cover them?

And are we not forever being told that the media is desperate to engage a bored and indifferent public in political debate; to involve ordinary people in thought, discussion and democratic action in response to the vital issues of the day? So what was David Mannion’s response to this example of polite public engagement in politics?:

“I would be most grateful if you would cease sending me unsolicted e-mails. Thank you” (Forwarded May 19, 2003)

Mannion has sent the same response to several correspondents who have written to him. Imagine if this had been sent by a politician in reply to one of his constituents! The difference is summed up by the title of Curran and Seaton’s classic text on the British media: ‘Power Without Responsibility’.

If Mannion felt it was not his job to respond to questions relating to his news product, he could easily have directed the emails, or emailers, elsewhere. Instead, the queries are simply rejected as “unsolicited” and unworthy of a serious reply.

What is being made visible here is the fault-line where corporate culture collides with democratic politics. The corporate media is said to be all about serving the democratic needs of society by giving the public the information we need to make informed decisions – ‘We just give them what they want!’ is the perennial cry of media executives.

But there is a problem – the corporate mass media, intended to supply democracy with a free flow of information, is, itself, a rigidly hierarchical structure of power. Corporations are closer to unaccountable, totalitarian tyrannies, with power flowing strictly top-down, than they are to democracies. Employees may contribute to a ‘suggestion box’, but power flows from the top – there is nothing remotely democratic about a corporation.

How can rigid hierarchies of corporate power be responsible for providing information to democratic societies? How can a democratic society exist without a democratic mechanism for deciding which facts, ideas and opinions flow into society? What does democracy mean when there are two main TV broadcasters and the editor of one of them responds to queries with, effectively, ‘Shut up and go away!’?

On the other hand, imagine how a middle manager in an oil company would respond to emailers complaining about how the company was prospecting for oil and marketing itself. They would find such complaints completely absurd – it is their job to run the business, not the public’s. The problem with media corporations is that it is their job to maximise profits, but it is also supposed to be their job to serve the public. It could not be more obvious that genuinely democratic politics and totalitarian corporate media systems are completely at odds.

One Heartbreaking Film – The Newsnight Editor Says It All

ITN, it must be said, is consistently put to shame by the BBC, which at least appears to make sincere efforts to respond to readers and viewers. On May 16, Newsnight editor, George Entwistle, responded to an article by Media Lens co-editor, David Edwards, that appeared in the New Statesman on the same day:

“Hello David

Reading your latest New Statesman column, I thought I could help provide at least part of an answer to a question you ask (perhaps rhetorically).

Q: “How many Britons, for example, are aware of the state of Iraq’s hospitals a month after ‘liberation’?”

A: At least 904,000.

That’s the number of people who watched Matthew Price’s heartbreaking 12 minute film shot in the Saddam Medical City hospital, Baghdad, at the end of April, and broadcast on Newsnight on Tues 6th May.

Best wishes, George”

When compared to Mannion’s response, we have to admire Entwistle’s willingness to engage in reasoned debate. But really this is an astonishing comment by Entwistle. Indeed, as so often happens, the Newsnight editor has here unwittingly revealed a great deal about how he, and in fact the media generally, sees the world.

In his New Statesman article, Edwards asked how many Britons were aware of the state of Iraq’s hospitals. In response, Entwistle refers to one 12-minute report filmed at the end of April – some three weeks earlier – and shown 10 days before his reply.

Consider that a May 18 report published by the Los Angeles Times based on Baghdad hospital records suggests that at least 1,700 civilians died in Baghdad alone during the US invasion, with a further 8,000 injured. Several hundred other civilian deaths went undocumented in Baghdad as a result of the chaos of the conflict and the destruction of hospital records. As many as 1,000 people are still missing. Iraqbodycount.net currently (May 22) estimates a minimum of 4,849 civilian deaths throughout Iraq.

Let us take as a conservative estimate that just 4,000 civilians died throughout the whole war – approximately 1,000 more than died on September 11. But to this, of course, has to be added the many thousands of injured, and also the 300,000 children facing death from acute malnutrition. In addition, the World Health Organisation reported (May 20) that Iraq is facing catastrophe with the health system functioning at about one fifth of its capacity. David Nabarro, executive director of WHO’s sustainable development and healthy environments unit, said:

“It’s a catastrophe of the non-functioning of a state, rather than the humanitarian crisis that we were preparing for beforehand.” (Agence France-Presse, May 20, 2003)

In terms of the scale of human suffering, this far surpasses the tragedy of September 11 – these are hundreds of thousands of suffering victims, not thousands. We can add to the list of horrors, and our responsibility for them, almost indefinitely.

Current levels of malnutrition have piled on to the existing pre-war malnutrition blamed by senior UN diplomats, not on the Iraqi government, but on Western sanctions – our invasion compounded a sanctions disaster we created and maintained. In November 2001, Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday – former UN humanitarian coordinators in Iraq – cited a UN report which concluded that “the death of some 5-6,000 children a month is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. The US and UK governments’ delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for this tragedy, not Baghdad”. (Von Sponeck and Halliday, ‘The hostage nation’, The Guardian, November 29, 2001)

The unrestrained looting and trashing of Baghdad’s hospitals and other infrastructure represented the dramatic failure, illegal under international law, of the occupying forces to establish law and order in conquered territory – we are accountable. But the severity of the looting, in turn, is surely rooted in the appalling privations experienced by the Iraqi population under Western sanctions. John Pilger, for example, has repeatedly documented how even middle class Iraqi professionals have been forced to sell their possessions – basic necessities like tables and chairs – at flea markets in order to survive. Is it any wonder that desperate people turned to unrestrained looting when Baghdad fell?

To this must be added the children currently being killed and injured by unexploded ordnance around Iraq. There were 300 casualties, mostly children, around Kifri, Kirkuk and Mosul alone in the first two weeks following the end of the war, according to the UK-based Mines Advisory Group. “Boys will be boys”, Christian Aid notes, but why are children tampering with objects that they know are extremely dangerous?

“According to ordnance disposal experts here in Basra, the children aren’t doing this for fun – they are doing it to earn hard cash – cash their families need to buy food. The shell casing of most ammunition – be it bullets, anti-aircraft or artillery rounds – is made of brass. The casing contains gunpowder, which is used to propel the actual round. It is the brass section the children are after – the metal is worth money.

“But to get to the brass section, they must first knock the round off the top and then empty out the gunpowder. Here today, Basra is experiencing 40 degree heat – enough to set off gunpowder without human interference. At this temperature, ammunition must be stored correctly – the British army won’t even handle certain ammunition during the hottest hours of the day here.” (http://www.reliefweb.int )

Again, according to senior diplomats and aid agencies, the poverty behind these acts of desperation is rooted in 13 years of ruthless sanctions – we also bear real moral responsibility for these deaths and injuries.

And how would we feel if a superpower had been spraying depleted uranium bullets around our fields and in our cites? Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organisation’s representative, says of depleted uranium in Iraq:

“If the Americans have used it again, they have a duty to notify the people in the areas and take immediate action to remove it. It is certain that its use will harm people particularly if it is used in populated areas.” (Agence France-Presse, ‘New fear in Iraq over US use of depleted uranium in war’, May 8, 2003)

And how would we in the West feel if an invading army allowed our nuclear power stations and facilities to be simply looted? There are reports of yellow cake – a radioactive compound derived from uranium ore – being emptied on the ground from containers that were then taken for domestic use, and of radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding. In response, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said:

“I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control. We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action.” (UN News Service, ‘IAEA urges return of experts to Iraq to address possible radiological emergency’, May 19, 2003)

Imagine if the above horrors had been inflicted on the United States by some superpower that had previously dropped the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-sized bombs on the country (more than 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, if we correct for size of population) in 1991, wrecking its infrastructure. Imagine if sanctions imposed by the same superpower had then killed (again, correcting for population), say, 14 million American civilians. Imagine if the same power had then again bombed and invaded the United States killing many tens of thousands of civilians, while doubling malnutrition rates among millions of children with appalling conditions in hospitals deprived of medicines and anaesthetics because they had not been protected by the invading power.

With these vast numbers of people dead and dying, imagine if the editor of a respected media outlet responded to the claim of insufficient coverage, pointing to one “heartbreaking 12 minute film shot in a New York City hospital”.

How would we respond? Presumably with dumbstruck silence. Not only would it be clear that the media outlet in question had abandoned all claims to serious reporting of the catastrophe that had befallen the United States, it would be clear that this outlet was completely unmoved by the vast suffering of the American people. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s what we really have done to an impoverished Third World country, and it’s the way our media really have responded. This is the astonishing level of suppression of truth – rooted in the reflexive state-corporate determination to protect established power at all costs – that has reduced our media to a kind of high-tech moral barbarism.

The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, also responded vigorously to an earlier email from the Media Lens editors. Despite its length, we have printed his response in full:

“Dear David

Thank you for your recent email. It’s not the case that the BBC’s main TV news programmes have failed to report on the health problems facing post-war Iraq.

I will confine my comments to terrestrial TV news, since you refer only to the main news programmes – but let me say at the outset that we have done numerous items across radio, News Online, BBC4 and BBC3.

BBC1 bulletins

Hospitals:

Stephen Sackur reported on Wed, May 7 that hospitals were overflowing and disease was spreading. He said that the health care network had broken down and referred to the problem of looting. Typhoid was on the increase.

“Iraq’s doctors, today, abandoning their patients briefly to condemn a health care system which is chronically sick. Hospitals are overflowing, disease is spreading and the Americans have just appointed one of Saddam Hussein’s old guard to run the Health Ministry. The truth is hospitals like the Kadisiya General in one of Baghdad’s poorest suburbs are on their own. The health care network has broken down. Which is why five-month-old Habajasem will almost certainly die. She has a congenital heart problem and needs surgery, she can’t have it because the specialist heart unit hasn’t been functioning since the war and the looting.

“At her bedside, her aunt was beside herself with grief. Saddam Hussein got us into this mess, she said, but look at us now? No money, no work, no food. And with every passing day, more disease. These children have typhoid, they should be in isolation, but the isolation hospital was looted. So they mix with the countless cases of gastroenteritis. Dirty water is doing terrible damage to Baghdad’s children.”

Sanitation

Stephen Sackur has regularly highlighted the dangers to health caused by the break-down in utility services:

“Half a mile from the hospital, the local power station, intact but crippled by war damage to the National Grid. This meter reads two, it should read 24. The result, homes with no power, water pumps idle, a public at risk……”

“There are problems here that cannot be solved by any amount of American troops. Like the fact that rubbish simply isn’t being collected, which adds to the health problems caused by no electricity – and filthy water as well.

“Wherever you look around here, there are people whose lives are more squalid now than they were before the war began.

“What they don’t need are streets awash with sewage. This is called Health Street – it seems like a cruel joke. The local sewage pumping station has no power – the generators are broken. Raw sewage has come up through the toilets. In a city operating on 40% of normal electricity, thousands have sewage problems.

Hundreds of thousands have no clean water. “We’ve all had diarrhoea,” Mohammed Abdul Sahab told me. “We take medicine, but soon the diarrhoea comes back.” Baghdad is a broken, filthy city. That’s the result of decades of neglect, more than the recent war. But the US and the British are now the occupying power. They have a responsibility to make life tolerable for people here. For the moment, they’re overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. A sewage lake outside the pumping station. Workers here haven’t been paid for three months. Summer’s heat is already here. The Americans have little time to sort out this mess.”

Cholera

We reported on the World Health Organisation’s warning about a cholera epidemic. Frank Gardner’s report from Basra put the outbreak in the context of contaminated drinking water and lack of proper facilities. He flagged up the problems of other sanitation-related diseases:

“Iraq’s hospitals see cholera every summer but this year they are having to deal with the confusion that follows a war. Doctors here in Basra say they are now bracing themselves for an epidemic, not just ofcholera but of a whole range of water-borne diseases. 13 years of sanctions and three weeks of war and the onset of the Middle East summer are placing a huge strain on the city’s fragile health system… Basra’s rivers and canals have become a source of drinking water for many. It’s a mistake that could cause some people their lives.”

2) Newsnight

Two recent examples of longer films which have focussed on the health problems:

May 6th. Matthew Price showed 24 hours in the life of a Baghdad hospital, looking at the whole range of problems causing illness in the wider community

May 14th. Peter Marshall provided an overview of the problems as a new American civil administrator arrived to try to restore more order.

3) Breakfast

22nd April: Interview with Hatim Geroge Hatim, UNICEF co-ordinator in Baghdad

Hope this helps.

Yours, Richard” (Sambrook to Media Lens Editors, May 16, 2003)

Again, it is to his credit that Sambrook is willing to respond in this way – we are grateful to him.

But again, in response to the enormous horrors piled on the people of Iraq by Western sanctions and by Western violence in the past six weeks, Sambrook is able to list perhaps half a dozen reports on Iraq. This constitutes an extraordinary suppression of the reality of what is happening in Iraq.

We need only consider the thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq, the hundreds of thousands of sick infants, and compare the coverage given to the 3,000 deaths on September 11. For the media, 9-11 was an enormous tragedy – a catastrophic turning point in history. For months and years afterwards, the media has dedicated endless hours of airtime reporting and reflecting on the atrocity. Literally dozens of documentaries and special news reports were shown by the BBC and ITV in the lead up to the first anniversary last September. The far worse events that have happened in the last two months (much less the last 13 years) in Iraq, and that are happening now, are just another Third World problem. This is shameful, and is in fact comparable to the kind of moral blindness that afflicted society at the time of the slave trade.

Why do 4,000 Iraqi civilian victims and 300,000 suffering Iraqi children matter so much less than 3,000 American civilian victims? Why do people from powerful Western countries matter so much more than people from powerless Third World countries? What is the difference in the subjective experience of pain and despair between these groups of human beings? Why do horrors perpetrated by our government’s enemies – at Halabja, for example – always matter to our media so much more than the crimes of our own governments; governments that we, after all, have elected? Why can journalists and editors not see that it is this discriminatory compassion, this belittling of the suffering of some alongside the massive emphasis on the suffering of others, that is a central factor in the exploitation and disasters, including terrorism, afflicting our world? The answer, of course, is that editors and journalists are of power and working for power.

Anyone who has been watching BBC and ITN News will know that Iraq has very quickly been disappeared from our screens and replaced, first by SARS (soon forgotten), then by Britain’s Olympic bid, and most recently by the issue of Britain joining the Euro. Iraq now receives, at best, fleeting mentions that steer clear of US-UK responsibility for suffering. Instead, reports often focus on the happy fate of individual Iraqi children airlifted to high-tech medical salvation by US-UK forces – stories which actually portray the ‘liberators’ in a positive light. The chaos afflicting the rest of the Iraqi people – misery that reflects less well on the US-UK governments – has been downplayed or ignored altogether. There has been a quite transparent burying of the horrors reported on a daily basis by the UN and aid agencies in Iraq.

A key to understanding why the media have acted almost in unison in ignoring these crises can be found in the relationship between government and media. The two leading political parties, particularly of course the government, point in the direction of a particular story and the media obediently follow. If we had a genuine political opposition drawing attention to the situation in Iraq, it is possible that the media would feel obliged to provide reasonable levels of coverage.

But with both leading political parties united on a militant foreign policy, united on Iraq, and united on not wanting to discuss the catastrophe befalling the people of Iraq, the media is instead free to talk about David Beckham’s latest hairstyle and about special effects in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. This is just one of the many prices we, and many other people, are paying for New Labour’s destruction of any semblance of meaningful democracy in Britain.


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 David Mannion, ITN’s news editor: Email: [email protected]

And to ITN’s head of news gathering, Jonathan Munro: Email: [email protected]

And to the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook: Email: [email protected]

And to Newsnight editor, George Entwistle: Email: [email protected]

Ask them why they have given so little coverage to the horrors afflicting the civilian population of Iraq. Ask them to draw attention to WHO’s May 20 report suggesting that Iraq is facing “a catastrophe” with the Iraqi health system functioning at one fifth of its capacity. David Nabarro, executive director of WHO’s sustainable development and healthy environments unit, said:

“It’s a catastrophe of the non-functioning of a state, rather than the humanitarian crisis that we were preparing for beforehand.”

Why has this not been reported? Why is this less newsworthy than the special effects in the new Matrix movie, or David Beckham’s latest hairstyle?

Feel free to respond to Media Lens alerts: [email protected]



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