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‘With Total Destruction’ – The Failure Of Journalism In Iraq


On March 22, an Economist magazine editorial described the recent violence in Tibet as a "colonial uprising", a "revolt" against foreign occupation. This was accurate, as was the implication that China has no legitimate claims over Tibet. (‘A colonial uprising – Tibet,’ The Economist, March 22, 2008)

By contrast, recent media coverage of the fifth anniversary of the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq depicted the conflict as an "insurgency”, with the US military engaged in "counter-insurgency”. American media analyst David Peterson commented:

“In other words, in Tibet, China is a +colonial power+ and +doesn’t belong there+. Okay. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military forces are +not+ a colonial power imposing their will from the outside, but +do belong there+, quite unlike the people who are resisting the U.S. forces, who clearly lack this right.” (Email, March 22, 2008)

Instead, in covering the fifth anniversary, the media emphasis was on the success of the “surge” in reducing violence. The invasion may have been a disaster, we were told, but the addition of 30,000 extra US troops has stabilised the situation, and so the troops should stay until ‘the job is done’. The presupposition is that the US-UK presence has some kind of legitimacy. Anyone seeking the logical basis for this idea need look no further than George Bush Sr’s comment towards the end of the 1991 Gulf War: “What we say goes.”

An Independent editorial inevitably focused on “the totality of our failure” and “the intelligence debacle”, rather than on crimes and audacious lying. The editors commented:

“Removing a dictator was only to be the start; the objective was a benign and democratic Middle East – an environment in which Israel and the Palestinians could make peace, and energy exports were plentiful and secure.” (Leader, ‘Five years after the invasion, the totality of our failure is clear,’ The Independent, March 19, 2008)

The Independent is happy to take these claims on trust from the same leaders who lied about everything else. Compare this to an online BBC version written by Paul Reynolds, who has consistently shown a willingness to respond to the many net-based activists who have emailed him:

"[The invasion] was intended, its proponents argued, to remove a threat to world peace and to plant the flag of freedom in a Middle East democratic desert."

And:

"The critics countered that the threat was an illusion, that the US was invading illegally and sought control over the region and Iraq‘s oil." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7293689.stm)

Offering the official view as argument, rather than fact, and pairing it with a dissident view of events is the least one should expect of serious journalism.

The Independent commented on Iraqi violence:

“The indiscriminate killings may have slowed, but ethnic cleansing continues apace”.

Iraqis have been killing Iraqis, then. As ever, the US and British armies’ direct responsibility for mass death is treated as a non-issue. Jason Hurd served in central Baghdad from November 2004 until November 2005. He has told of how, after his unit took "stray rounds" from a nearby firefight, a machine gunner responded by firing over 200 heavy calibre rounds into a nearby building:

"We fired indiscriminately at this building. Things like that happened every day in Iraq. We reacted out of fear for our lives, and we reacted with total destruction."

Hurd said the situation deteriorated rapidly while he was in Iraq:

"Over time, as the absurdity of war set in, individuals from my unit indiscriminately opened fire at vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road. People in my unit would later brag about it. I remember thinking how appalled I was that we were laughing at this, but that was the reality." (Dahr Jamail, ‘We Reacted Out of Fear, and With Total Destruction,’ Inter Press Service, March 14, 2008)

Everyone who cares to check on the internet knows that this is the reality, and yet it rarely disturbs the media focus on “sectarian violence”. The photo journalist and chronicler of the Vietnam war, Philip Jones Griffiths, who died last month, commented on one of his pictures of a wounded Vietnamese civilian:

"This woman was tagged, probably by a sympathetic corpsman, with the designation ‘Vietnamese civilian’. This was unusual. Wounded civilians were normally tagged ‘Vietcong suspect’ and all dead peasants were posthumously elevated to the rank of ‘Vietcong confirmed’.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/08/in_pictures_philip_jones_griffiths_/html/8.stm)

Who can doubt that much the same is true of the latest wars? Iraq veteran Jody Casey blew the whistle on one of the orders he had been given:

"‘Keep shovels on the truck and an AK[-47 assault rifle], and if you see anybody out here at night on the roads, shoot them. Shoot them, and if they weren’t doing anything, throw a shovel off.’ At that time when we first got down there, you could basically kill whoever you wanted – it was that easy…” (See our Media Alert, ‘You could kill whoever you wanted,’ April 19, 2006; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060419_you_could_kill.php)

The Truth Behind “The Surge”

The success of the “surge” is, itself, largely fictional. In Current History (December 2007), journalist Nir Rosen argued that the main factor in reducing levels of violence was probably that there were just fewer people to kill after the terrible ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion. A second factor was the actions of tribes, with US funding and support, to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda. A third factor was the Mahdi army truce. A fourth factor may well have been the presence of 30,000 more US troops. Like most media, the Independent was again content to report the official view as fact:

“The controversial troop surge briefly subdued the violence but at tremendous cost in men and material.” (op. cit)

The claims of reduced violence are likely much exaggerated. In a briefing to the German Parliament in Berlin last month, epidemiologist Les Roberts of Columbia University said:

“Belligerents in times of war almost always downplay the number of deaths they induce… in spite of hundreds of members of the press being present, that is exactly what has happened in Iraq.” (http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2734)

Over the previous two months, Roberts observed, the Iraqi Government and US military claimed that there had been 1,099 violent deaths in Iraq. This was repeated endlessly in the press as evidence that the “surge” is working. Roberts commented:

“Virtually no one has pointed out the absurdity of these numbers. If this is true, it suggests that the murder rate in Iraq is half that seen in Detroit and Baltimore in 2006, and significantly lower than the rate in Jamaica and Venezuela.”  

Few journalists are aware that even in pre-war Iraq in 2002, “only about one-third of deaths in Iraq were recorded by the government”. (Roberts, Ibid) No one would argue that a newspaper count of reported rapes in London, say, would represent more than a small fraction of all such attacks, and yet journalists assume that death rates in Iraq from newspaper reports are mostly complete.

Thus, on March 11, the prestigious Reuters news agency informed readers:

“The latest tolls from the widely cited human rights group Iraq Body Count (IBC) show that up to around 89,300 civilians have been killed since 2003." (http://www.reuters.com/article/gc05/idUSSAT14062420080311)

In reality, IBC record violent deaths of civilians as reported by the media. They also include records from morgues and hospitals.

The Independent answered the question, ‘Who won the war?’:

“Not the 90,000 Iraqi civilians or the 4,200 US and UK troops killed since 2003.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-who-won-the-war-796612.html)

The 4,200 figure is accurate; the 90,000 figure is an appalling journalistic failure. The Independent should understand by now what the IBC figures represent – even IBC does not suggest that they represent a total for civilian casualties.

The BBC told the public (March 22):

“The campaign group, Iraq Body Count, says the civilian death toll since March 2003 is between 82,000 and 89,000, although it warns many deaths may have gone unreported.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7309292.stm)

In October 2006, the Guardian’s former political editor Michael White, wrote of the 2006 Lancet study of post-invasion mortality in Iraq:

“I have two problems. Firstly, the figures offered by the study range from 392,976 to 942,636, so the 655,000 estimate splits the difference. This is both strikingly imprecise (not necessarily avoidable), and also at variance with other estimates, both governmental and more disinterested.”(White, ‘A serious note of caution. I have two problems with the Lancet’s headline-grabbing estimates of Iraqi casualties,’ The Guardian, October 12, 2006
http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/michael_white/2006/10/post_501.html)

The idea that the 655,000 figure simply “splits the difference” was a gross error. How can we explain the appearance of such a comment in a major UK newspaper? Last week, White wrote to journalist and film-maker Gabriele Zamparini on the same issue:

“Thanks for your email about the casualty rate in Iraq. I read it with interest, a complex subject which arouses strong emotions as well as difficult technical arguments about data and methodology which few of us (certainly not me) can claim to understand.”
(http://www.thecatsdream.com/blog/2008/03/exchange-with-assistant-guardian-editor.htm)

It is appalling that, in 2006, White could write with such ignorance to a key national audience on such a vital matter. We might think the media just chatter away and are of no great consequence. But in fact journalists have immense power to affect the fate of human beings. George Monbiot wrote in 2004 that "the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job”. (Monbiot, ‘Our lies led us into war,’ The Guardian, July 20, 2004)

Once again we are faced with the (selective) lack of quality control in the mainstream media – journalists can write almost any old rubbish as long as it does not pain elite interests. Although White’s honesty is admirable, his confession inevitably recalls former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby‘s observation:

“I have often expressed the view that journalism needs a social class category all to itself. It is not a profession (no esoteric knowledge) nor a skill (many hacks, including me, don’t have shorthand) nor a working-class occupation (no manual labour). I would call it unskilled middle class.” (Wilby, ‘The making of a tyrant,’ The Guardian, December 10, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/dec/10/comment.pressandpublishing)

To its credit, the Guardian +did+ achieve a first in mainstream journalism in five years by at last offering an excellent in depth analysis of the death toll in Iraq. (Jonathan Steele and Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘What is the real death toll in Iraq?’ The Guardian, March 18, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/19/iraq)

In his recently submitted dissertation for the Department of Politics at the University of Bristol, ‘Medialens and Britain’s role in World Politics: An Assessment,’ MSc degree student Brett Gillman, while generally supporting the work of Media Lens, commented:

“The disagreement with IBC should be viewed as a tactical mistake particularly due to the negative publicity created.” (p.53)

In fact any publicity for the catastrophe afflicting the civilian population of Iraq is extremely welcome, the issue having received close to zero serious analysis (as is standard for all US-UK wars). Of course there are costs but the choice is a simple one: fall silent or speak out. Noam Chomsky makes the point with his usual élan:

“One can proceed – that is, if one is interested in truth and justice and immune to shrieks of horror and a deluge of brickbats.” (Chomsky blog, Znet, March 27, 2008)

The evidence that IBC’s figures are a massive undercount is by now overwhelming – most likely by an order of magnitude (ie roughly a factor of 10).

Living Dangerously – Journalism In Iraq

Last month, Rageh Omaar of Al Jazeera English gave an idea of the sheer scale of the problem when he noted that “our ability to report… has been eroded, to the point where journalists, however large and well-funded their news organisation, can only try to provide a snapshot of the war’s impact on Iraqi society”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/mar/17/iraqandthemedia.iraq)

Omaar added that “operating there as a journalist has never been harder”.

A November 2007 survey of journalists working in Iraq by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEW) confirmed Omaar’s view. The journalists — most of them “veteran war correspondents” — described conditions in Iraq as “the most perilous they have ever encountered,” and that this above everything else was influencing coverage. (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/643/journalists-iraq)

A majority of journalists surveyed (57%) reported that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the previous year alone — and many more are continually threatened. Last month, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) reported that a total of 210 journalists and media assistants had been killed since March 2003, with only "an insignificant number" of investigations into the deaths by the Iraqi authorities resulting in arrests. (http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26266)

The lack of government action is unsurprising. Responding to the US military’s arrest of one his journalists in Iraq, Associated Press president Tom Curley noted last month that at least a dozen other Iraqi photographers have been detained or arrested. Curley commented:

"It’s impossible not to conclude that the words and pictures these journalists produced were considered unhelpful to the war effort and that their arrests would have served a broader strategy of information control." (David Edwards and Muriel Kane, ‘US Arrests Iraq Journalists To Censor News,’ Associated Press, March 20, 2008)

Patrick Cockburn reported that when a bomb exploded in the Karada district of Baghdad, killing 70 people, the police beat and drove away a television cameraman trying to take pictures of the atrocity. Despite recognising government pressures and the extreme risks of reporting in Iraq, Cockburn confidently asserted: “Civilian casualties have fallen from 65 Iraqis killed daily from November 2006 to August 2007 to 26 daily in February.” But as we have seen, these figures are not remotely reliable. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/patrick-cockburn-iraq-is-a-country-no-more-like-much-else-that-was-not-the-plan-796499.html)

A majority of journalists surveyed by PEW said most of the country was too dangerous to visit. Nine out of ten said this was true of at least half of Baghdad itself. Even the basics of getting the story are remarkably difficult. Outside of the Green Zone, most American journalists are forced to rely on local staff to do face-to-face reporting. But nearly 90 per cent of journalists say local staff cannot carry any equipment — not even a notebook — that might identify them as working for the western media for fear of being killed.

According to an earlier RSF report (September 7, 2007), 73 per cent of journalists killed had been directly targeted, a figure which was "much higher than in previous wars". (http://electroniciraq.net/news/themedia/Media_Worker_Death_Toll_Reaches_200-3197.shtml) And, as we have previously discussed, ample evidence supports the common sense understanding that the media’s ability to accurately monitor violent deaths decreases sharply as journalists are directly targeted. (See our alert: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/07/071003_iraq_body_count.php)

The BBC reported that only 28% of Americans recently polled could correctly identify the number of US troops killed in Iraq (4,000), compared with more than half in August last year. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7308882.stm) But public awareness of the Iraqi death toll is very much lower. A poll by the University of Maryland a year ago found that most Americans believed that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the invasion (Roberts, op. cit) – a figure that was likely 1 per cent of the real number.

A reasonable approximation of the truth +is+ out there – but our media just don’t want to see it.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to: Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]

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