Mark Damazer, the deputy director of BBC News, has declared his support for the recent controversial BBC Correspondent documentary on Iraq (see archived media alerts). In a letter to The Guardian, Damazer defends the biased and distorted programme as ‘a fair report’ (letters, July 4, 2002).
Media Lens readers will recall Correspondent reporter John Sweeney’s contention that the Iraqi government ‘has faked mass baby funerals – “evidence” of the 7,000 children under five the regime claims are being killed each month by sanctions.’ (Observer, June 23, 2002). Sweeney, the BBC and The Observer have received scores, if not hundreds, of emails pointing out that the claim that thousands of young Iraqi children are dying each month has been well-documented by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF). To misrepresent such claims as those of Saddam, as the BBC and The Observer do, is a gross deception that supports the propaganda issued over recent years by the US State Department and the UK Foreign Office.
As BBC deputy director of news, Mark Damazer has now responded to the recent article, ‘A Shameful Attack’, in the Guardian’s media section (July 1) by Mark Seddon, a producer on the Correspondent programme. Seddon was not only unhappy with the editorial line taken by the programme, but he was not even consulted about it, despite an earlier assurance that the ‘editorial line would be agreed between producers and reporters’. Seddon also revealed a longstanding ‘antipathy’ between reporter John Sweeney and George Galloway, the Labour MP and anti-sanctions campaigner, who claims he was not given the opportunity to respond to the charges made about him by Sweeney. (See: article)
The full text of Damazer’s letter, apparently written for him by Karen O’Connor, editor of the Correspondent documentary, is as follows:
BBC was fair on Iraq
Thursday July 4, 2002
Mark Seddon’s article (A shameful attack, Media, July 1) about BBC2′s Correspondent on Iraq, in which he alleges a lack of impartiality, contained a number of serious inaccuracies. Every argument in the film about Saddam’s manipulations was backed by the evidence we found.
The World Health Organisation’s food and medicine programme is being administered through Saddam. There is money in a WHO account to pay for vital medicines in northern Iraq – and Saddam is the obstacle.
Further, it was absolutely right for the programme to challenge George Galloway’s claims about the number of children dying as a result of sanctions. It was Mr Galloway’s choice not to answer. Correspondent also examined the effects of sanctions.
The reporter, John Sweeney, explained how “dual use” sanctions are still causing hardship. We heard from doctors who despair because they cannot get radiology equipment to treat cancer because such machinery is deemed to have a dual use – in other words, Saddam may make weapons with it.
I regret Mr Seddon felt unhappy about the programme. But it was a fair report on a matter of real concern
Deputy director, BBC News
As Media Lens readers will readily note: the ‘claims’ of Iraqi children’s deaths from the impacts of sanctions are not George Galloway’s, but those of Unicef, Save the Children Fund, Human Rights Watch and many other respected international agencies who have described the economic sanctions against Iraq variously as ‘a silent war against Iraq’s children’ and ‘humanly catastrophic [and] morally indefensible’. Damazer’s argument, essentially the same as the crude deceptions issued by the US and UK governments is that ‘Iraq has plenty of money available to purchase food and medicines. Any problems are the fault of Saddam Hussein.’
The reality is somewhat different. The humanitarian crisis is not simply a matter of ‘food and medicines’. It is a result of two factors :
(a) the massive deterioration of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure (electricity, water, sanitation, sewage, hospitals, and so on.) and
(b) the collapse of Iraq’s economy and ensuing widespread poverty.
These two factors are both overwhelmingly the result of the 1991 Gulf War and over 10 years of economic sanctions.
According to the UN Secretary-General, the sums available to the Iraqi people are inadequate. In 2000, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claimed that $16 billion was available for the humanitarian programme. That figure was wrong: the real revenue was just under $12 billion. But even the FCO’s inflated figure fell well short of what was (and is) needed.
For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated the cost of reconstructing Iraq’s essential infrastructural utilities at $50 – $100 billion. According to the most senior UN aid official working in Iraq, UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Tun Myat: ‘the overall well-being of the people [of Iraq]‘ will ‘not improve’ unless ‘the basics – housing, electricity, water and sanitation – [are] restored.’
Economic sanctions have been blamed for the suffering in Iraq by, among others: the pope, Anglican bishops, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, The Economist magazine, and France’s foreign minister.
The BBC’s Damazer and Sweeney neglect to mention that the UN takes around 25% of all humanitarian funds to pay for ‘war reparations’ and its own expenses. Moreover, a humanitarian programme like oil-for-food cannot address the problems of sanctions-induced economic collapse. For example, according to Human Rights Watch (a respected non-governmental organisation):
‘An emergency commodity assistance program like oil-for-food, no matter how well funded or well run, cannot reverse the devastating consequences of war and ten years of virtual shutdown of Iraq’s economy … The deterioration in Iraq’s civilian infrastructure is so far-reaching that is can only be reversed with extensive investment and development efforts’ (statement, August 4, 2000).
Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck resigned as heads of the UN humanitarian ‘oil-for-food’ programme in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Hans von Sponeck wrote to John Sweeney on 25 June, 2002 in response to Sweeney’s biased article two days previously in The Observer, saying: ‘A large team of UNICEF professionals subjected the data to rigorous review to avoid what you have not avoided and that is a politicization of statistical material. This is not professional and disappoints. Why did you not consult with UNICEF/Baghdad and New York before you wrote your article?’
Many other concerned people would also like to know why The Observer and the BBC are contributing to the suffering of the Iraqi people by misrepresenting and omitting the facts of the UN sanctions regime.
Ask the BBC’s deputy director of news, Mark Damazer, how John Sweeney’s documentary on Iraq can possibly be described as ‘a fair report’ when it gave such a misleading account of the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq. Ask Damazer why neither Denis Halliday nor Hans von Sponeck, former UN humanitarian chiefs in Iraq, were interviewed for the programme. What is his response to von Sponeck’s view that Sweeney’s treatment of UNICEF data was ‘not professional and disappoints’.
Copy your email to the letters page of The Guardian(who have yet to publish any responses to Mark Damazer’s letter)
Ask Sweeney why he did not allow officials from the UN to answer the serious charge that its data on the sanctions, and the devastating effects of sanctions, are completely untrustworthy because they supposedly ‘depend on the word of the government of Iraq’. For a detailed refutation of this misleading contention, see the relevant extract from UNICEF’s August 1999 document, ‘Questions and Answers for the Iraq child mortality surveys’ (available on the website of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
Copy your email to the Producers Of BBC’S Correspondent
Copy your email to the Observer’s editor, Roger Alton who published Sweeney’s Observer article on June 23).
Copy your email to the ,Letters Page Of the Observer
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.
Please copy full exchanges of your corresponce to [email protected]
Find out more about the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people, and what you can do to help. Visit the websites of
Voices in the Wilderness UK and the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq(sources for much of the material provided in this media alert update, for which grateful thanks)