Saturday, June 10, 2006 9:18 AM
An Exchange With BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson
MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
June 9, 2006
MEDIA ALERT: AN EXCHANGE WITH BBC WORLD AFFAIRS EDITOR JOHN SIMPSON
On June 6, we sent the following email to the BBC’s Baghdad Correspondent Andrew North, World Affairs Editor John Simpson and Director of News Helen Boaden:
Who would guess from your reports and commentary tonight (BBC1, Ten O’Clock News) that the US-UK ‘coalition’ had anything to do with the catastrophic loss of life in Iraq?
Andrew North mentioned sectarian strife and insurgent attacks causing civilian and ‘coalition’ casualties. John Simpson talked of Lebanese-style “civil war”. There was not a word about US-UK killings of civilians (Simpson hinted at the very end that this was “a war” that the ‘coalition’ might not be able to win). There was no mention of comments made just three days ago by Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to the effect that violence against civilians by ‘coalition’ troops was a “daily phenomenon” and that many troops “do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on a suspicion or a hunch”.
There was not a word about the November 19, 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha, or of comments made recently by Camilo Mejia, a US infantry veteran who served briefly in the Haditha area in 2003: “I don’t doubt for one moment that these things happened. They are widespread. This is the norm. These are not the exceptions.”
No mention of The New York Times’ references last Sunday to “harsh Marine battle tactics” in Iraq. John Burns wrote:
“Reporters’ experiences with the Marines, even more than with the Army, show they resort quickly to using heavy artillery or laser-guided bombs when rooting out insurgents who have taken refuge among civilians, with inevitable results.”
And of course no mention that in reporting 100,000 excess Iraqi civilian deaths since the invasion, the prestigious November 2004 Lancet report observed:
“Eighty-four percent of the [violent] deaths were reported to be caused by the actions of Coalition forces and 95 percent of those deaths were due to air strikes and artillery.”
How can you report the loss of life in Iraq without so much as mentioning the vast numbers of deaths caused by the occupying armies? Is it enough to tell yourselves that this is ‘just Media Lens banging on again’?
The following day (June 7), we received this reply from John Simpson:
The thing that worries me most about your complaints, present and past, is their extraordinary selectivity. On two occasions last week, Tuesday and Thursday, I reported from Baghdad for the Ten O’Clock News about the killings of civilians by American forces at Haditha and Ishaki. On each occasion these reports were the lead story on the BBC. Why do you think al-Maliki said what you quoted him as saying?
Because after we had spotlighted these two deeply disturbing cases, and they had come to the forefront of international attention, someone asked him for his response. This was it.
I’ve got an unpleasant feeling that you know all this perfectly well, but pretend it hasn’t happened because it doesn’t fit your particular obsession — which is that the BBC is in some way the mouthpiece of the British government. It takes an enormous act of will to believe that nowadays, and only the most prejudiced and blinkered person could possibly manage to do it — but you’re prepared to make the necessary effort. Well, you’ve lied about my reporting in the past, so I suppose we can’t expect anything better.
There is no question that American tactics, allied to the jumpiness and lack of training of many of their troops, have caused serious loss of life in Iraq over the past three years. There was a time when the Americans killed many more civilians than any other force. This isn’t the case now: a civil war is under way, although the US and British governments don’t like to see it called that, and anything between thirty and sixty people are murdered every day. No one in Iraq itself is suggesting that US forces kill that number daily at present.
Do me a favour — be honest. Stop trying to make everything fit your preconceptions, and try to find out what’s really going on.
We have replied (June 9):
Many thanks for your email. We note, also, the “extraordinary selectivity” of your response – we have written to you several times over the last five years but have never before received an answer. Presumably you feel you are on particularly firm ground this time. And, on the face of it, you are – our email noted the absence of any reference to US-UK killings in a major BBC 1 news report on Iraqi deaths, and yet you led two BBC news programmes just last week on just that subject.
But you cannot seriously imagine we are arguing that the BBC +never+ mentions ‘coalition’ killings – we know that the BBC covered the massacre at Haditha after US congressman John Murthy blew the whistle on May 17. Of course we accept that the BBC makes occasional mention of US-UK killings. The question is: to what extent, in what context, and in what depth?
Incidentally, we do not argue that the BBC acts as “the mouthpiece of the government” – it speaks for the establishment, which has long been united in supporting violent foreign policy. The British historian Mark Curtis has observed:
“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)
The BBC is not about to rebel against this bloody establishment consensus – not least because it +is+ the establishment.
Over the past five years, we have shown how the BBC does a remarkable job of obscuring Western responsibility for suffering in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The BBC’s rare mentions of US-UK crimes are presented in a context of reporting that powerfully legitimises the use of mass violence – crude realpolitik is presented as “humanitarian intervention”, violent occupation as “democracy”, and ruthless suppression as “maintaining law and order”.
This is not a view we have simply made up. A 2003 Cardiff University report found that the BBC had “displayed the most ‘pro-war’ agenda of any broadcaster” (Matt Wells, ‘Study deals a blow to claims of anti-war bias in BBC news,’ Guardian Unlimited, July 4, 2003). Over the three weeks of the initial conflict in Iraq, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC also placed +least+ emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in just 22% of its stories about the Iraqi people. If you have any evidence that this emphasis has changed, please send it along.
But in fact, of course, it hasn‘t. Thus, the BBC has made few and sceptical mentions of the November 2004 Lancet report of 100,000 excess civilian deaths since March 2003 – preferring to cite the far less credible, and much lower, Iraq Body Count study.
In October 2005, a year after the Lancet report appeared, the BBC News website noted: “Unofficial estimates put Iraqi civilian deaths since the war at about 25,000.” (’US death toll in Iraq hits 2,000,’ October 26, 2005; news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4376812.stm)
When asked why this low figure was used when the 100,000 figure from the Lancet report was available, the BBC responded of the latter:
“The figures it details are now around one year old where as those produced by Iraq Body Count are continually updated.” (Email from complaints personnel, October 27, 2005)
This was apparently not an attempt at humour.
That same month, Tarik Kafala, Middle East Editor of the BBC News website, wrote to one of our readers:
“We do not usually use the Lancet’s figure in standard news stories because it is so far out of line with other studies on the same issue. There are also some questions over the validity of the Lancet study in the case of measuring casualties in Iraq. The technique of sampling and extrapolating from samples has been criticised in this case because the pattern of violence in Iraq has been so uneven.” (Email, October 31, 2005)
Hard to believe, but Kafala was here writing of a study led by Johns Hopkins – one of the world’s premier research organisations – and published in one of the world‘s most highly respected science journals.
In September 2004, the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell commented:
“As is so often the case in this conflict it’s the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life – either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents.” (Witchell, BBC 1, Six O’Clock News, September 30, 2004)
We pointed out to Witchell that earlier that week Knight Ridder Newspapers had reported that operations by ’coalition’ forces and Iraqi police were killing twice as many Iraqis – most of them civilians – as attacks by insurgents, according to statistics compiled by the Iraqi Health Ministry. As discussed in our earlier email, two months later the Lancet reported that 84 per cent of violent deaths were caused by the actions of the ‘coalition’.
Witchell’s reference to “mistakes” was recently echoed by the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall, who declared solemnly:
“There’s still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?” (Kendall, BBC Six O’Clock News, March 20, 2006)
But BBC apologetics of this kind long pre-date the latest phase of the US-UK assault on Iraq. In 1996, Ben Brown said of the effects of UN sanctions:
“He [Saddam Hussein] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens to near starvation – pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and despairing mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which he’ll now have to give up.” (Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)
We have pointed out that Saddam’s claims were irrelevant – the UN, aid agencies and any number of independent experts had +confirmed+ that sanctions had reduced Iraqi citizens to near starvation. Estimates put the cost at over one million lives lost.
In your own November 2002 Panorama special, ‘Saddam – A Warning from History‘, (BBC1, November 3, 2002) – an outrageous nod to the title of the BBC series, ’The Nazis – A Warning From History’ – you limited your comments on Western responsibility for genocide in Iraq to 16 words in one sentence. You even used the past tense:
“They [sanctions] were indeed a savage punishment, for they chiefly hurt the ordinary people of the country.”
You watered down even these 16 words by adding on sanctions: “Saddam made sure they [the Iraqi people] suffered even more than they had to.”
More generally, Britain and America are forever portrayed by the BBC as responsible and well-intentioned – one would never guess that these are two of the great corporate societies of our world driven by a relentless quest for profits and strategic control. In a 2003 Panorama special, Matt Frei said:
“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (Frei, BBC1, Panorama, April 13, 2003)
By contrast, US presidential candidate and congressman, Dennis Kucinich, wrote in March 2003:
“Is President Bush’s war in Iraq about oil? Of course it is. Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one: Oil is a major factor in the President’s march to war, just as oil is a major factor in every aspect of US policy in the Persian Gulf.” (Kucinich, ‘Obviously Oil,’ AlterNet, March 11, 2003)
This is utterly ‘off world’ commentary from the ’measured’ BBC point of view.
In March 2003, Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark’s observed that the declining humanitarian situation in Iraq threatened to “take the shine off” the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign. (Wark, Newsnight, March 21, 2003)
We were to believe that it was possible for the supreme war crime – the waging of a war of aggression – to “shine”.
Prior to the event in June 2004, the BBC never tired of insisting that the “coalition” really would “hand over power to the Iraqis”. The death of a British soldier in Basra was particularly tragic, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Orla Guerin noted, because he was “the last soldier to die under the occupation”. (BBC1, 13:00 News, June 28, 2004)
And of course the BBC has consistently presented elections in occupied Iraq as “democratic”, such that the Iraqi people are at last free. Of a region under military occupation, where people have been forced to have basic surgery without painkillers, and where child mortality has risen by 30% since the March 2003 invasion, Ben Brown said:
“The people of southern Iraq know they have their freedom.” (Brown, BBC1, 22:00 News, October 20, 2004)
We could go on indefinitely. (See here for further examples: www.medialens.org/alerts/04/041130_Protest_BBC_1.HTM; www.medialens.org/alerts/04/041201_Protest_BBC_2.HTM)
Although you might counter that these are all quotes selected to make a particular case, the point is that there are no quotes that go the other way. With vanishingly rare exceptions, the truth of US-UK realpolitik – of control of oil, of American empire, of business-driven foreign policy, of US-UK mass murder and the commission of supreme war crimes – is unmentionable in BBC TV news reporting.
This relentlessly biased BBC coverage has the effect of persuading the viewer that US-UK actions in Iraq are fundamentally well-intentioned, benign, even legal. This is the reassuring context in which very occasional mentions of US-UK killings are made to look like isolated, unfortunate events – an unavoidable result of the fact that ’War is hell!’ And so our killing appears ‘forgivable’, as “blundering efforts to do good”. “It is a war, after all,” as Newsnight’s David Sells commented in response to one of the early US atrocities that consumed 62 civilian lives in Baghdad. (Sells, Newsnight, March 28, 2003)
But anyway, the question remains – how, in reviewing the astonishing death toll reported by the Baghdad morgue, did the BBC manage to make +no+ reference to the vast number of deaths inflicted by ‘coalition’ forces? BBC1’s May 6 Ten O’Clock News gave the impression that the ‘coalition’ was an innocent, uninvolved bystander in this war. Shouldn’t US-UK responsibility for deaths +always+ be mentioned when these issues are discussed? Isn’t it even more damning that the BBC was completely silent on the US-UK role just days after the BBC, and the press, had covered Haditha and other horrors?
Your comment, then, is an exact reversal of the truth – “only the most prejudiced and blinkered person” could possibly manage to believe that the BBC +doesn’t+ act as a mouthpiece for powerful interests.
It is disappointing to hear that you view us in such a dim light – that you believe we lie and deliberately distort our analysis. We believe the reason so many people, including senior journalists, respect our work is because they can see that we do +not+ lie and do not distort. For example, former New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, has said of our new book, Guardians of Power:
“This book – essentially a best of Media Lens compilation – is mercifully free of academic or political jargon, and is awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered.” (Wilby, New Statesman, January 30, 2006)
Guardian journalist George Monbiot wrote to us last year:
“I know we’ve had disagreements in the past, but I wanted to send you a note of appreciation for your work. Your persistence seems to be paying off: it’s clear that many of the country’s most prominent journalists are aware of Medialens, read your bulletins and, perhaps, are beginning to feel the pressure. If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy. I feel you have begun to open up a public debate on media bias, which has been a closed book in the United Kingdom for a long time.” (Email to Media Lens, February 2, 2005)
Even your own Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, has written:
“Another organisation that tries to influence our running orders is Medialens… In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.” (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4426334.stm)
Are all of these experienced journalists really being fooled by our lies and distortions? Guardians Of Power has been reviewed 19 times so far – not one reviewer has accused us of lying and distortion as you have done.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
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