26 November 2004 — Media Lens
On November 8 and 11 we published two Media Alerts: ‘Legitimising Mass Slaughter in Fallujah’‚ in which we commented on the bias and inhumanity of BBC and ITV News reporting on Fallujah.
These alerts generated a massive response from readers – one of the biggest we have seen – and contributed, we believe, to a short-lived improvement in both BBC and ITV reporting. As a flood of emails was being copied to us, the BBC in particular began paying attention to the plight of civilians in Fallujah in a way that it had conspicuously not done earlier in the week. This could of course have been a coincidence, but we doubt it. We suspect that BBC editors and journalists were shocked by the intensity and extent of public feeling, a suspicion strengthened by a response of unprecedented seriousness from the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden (see below).
We also suspect that some journalists at the BBC, including front-line journalists, were already uneasy about the savagery of the US demolition of Fallujah and the BBC’s response to it. On October 11, news anchor Anna Ford sent short messages of this kind to several readers:
“I’ve taken your concerns to the Head of TV News Roger Mosey. Daily discussion here on our coverage.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, November 11, 2004)
It is worth bearing in mind that while no one likes to receive even rational criticism, journalists can use challenges of this kind to raise important issues within their organisations. Like all corporations, media companies are essentially totalitarian institutions subject to a strict, top-down hierarchy of control. Journalists are expected to be ‘team players’, ‘focused’ and ‘disciplined’ – code words that refer to the need to remain focused on ‘pragmatic’ bottom line goals of profitability and market share. In the BBC’s case, it also means not inviting the kind of devastating punishment the government meted out over the Andrew Gilligan affair.
To attempt to take a moral stance in this environment is difficult; it risks raising issues that are deeply threatening to senior management. The BBC’s senior management, of course, is appointed by the government. A flood of well-argued emails rooted in concern for human suffering allows journalists to challenge government and/or corporate malfeasance with less risk of their being labelled ‘committed’, ‘crusading’ or ‘ideological’.
On November 16, we received the following from the BBC’s Helen Boaden:
It’s good to have considered feedback and I am sorry that you are troubled by some of our coverage of the assault on Fallujah. Our correspondents in Iraq are working under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions and we are proud of them.
Our aim as BBC journalists is to approach all stories, including wars, from an impartial standpoint, reflecting events and significant opinions in a fair and balanced way.
It is often incredibly difficult to disentangle the strands to get at the truth. However, editors, producers, researchers and correspondents are constantly assessing every aspect of coverage. Our aim is to inform our audiences and put developments in context so as to explain a complicated and developing story. We are well aware of the need to report on the widest possible range of opinion about what is going on.
THE TV HEADLINE
We have monitored our reports on BBC Television News, BBC Radio and BBC News Online from lunchtime on November 8th. The BBC One TV One o’clock News opened with the headline “US-led troops are about to launch a major offensive on the city of Fallujah” which was accurate. The closing headline to which you refer was not as precise as we would have wanted and lessons have been learned from this. However, there was no sense of ambiguity whatsoever about who was leading the assault.
Furthermore, on the BBC One Six 0’Clock News, Andrew Marr made it clear that while the British government wanted to emphasise that the Fallujah attack was Mr Allawi’s decision, there was a different interpretation. He said, “There are Americans backed up by British troops going in there, so responsibility for whatever happens in Fallujah will be shared by the Prime Minister and the American president.”
I have reminded our newsrooms that it is important to use the word “interim” when talking about the Iraqi government, to reinforce the fact that it is as yet non-elected by popular vote.
From the outset we have raised questions about civilian casualties both in the city and those who have fled. Getting first hand information from within Fallujah has been extremely difficult. We have made clear that correspondents embedded with the marines have seen little of civilians and their reports are restricted. In Fallujah in the past week, we, in common with other broadcasters, have not been able to report freely from civilian areas for safety reasons; but we have tried to remedy this as much as we can. We have reported what’s being said by aid officials in the city; we have talked by phone to ordinary residents (three such contributors to last Wednesday’s Newsnight alone); we are interviewing Iraqis in the UK and we are using Arabic media reports and the BBC Arabic Service.
From the start, Newsnight and other outlets have interviewed Fadhil Badrani, who is a journalist in Fallujah, who reports for the BBC World Service in Arabic. He has spoken of the street battles and the “hell” which the people left in Fallujah have to endure.
We have also interviewed a journalist who was in Fallujah until a few days before the US assault.
BBC News Online have carried Arab press reviews and special reports from Fadhil Badrani.
The use of such words is often contentious. This term was decided upon because it describes people who are “rising in active revolt”. It is the best word to use in situations of rebellion or conquest when there is no free-standing government.
We aim to provide our audiences with the information they need to make their own judgements. . Having consulted widely, this is probably the most appropriate word to use in the case of the fighters in Fallujah, as distinct from civilians who may be staying in the city for other reasons, such as they’re old or ill or want to protect their homes from possible looting.
On Radio Five Live’s Drive programme there was a discussion on this very issue. The broadcaster and sociologist Professor Laurie Taylor was asked about whether the BBC should call the fighters in Fallujah Insurgents… that is the word …what we’re talking about terminology row ”insurgents”, “resistance fighters” or “militants”. He replied: “We should probably credit the BBC with getting it right-with the word insurgent.”
As for use of the word terrorist, it is the Americans and Mr Allawi who have used this word. We have simply reported it.
We do not agree that the BBC is biased and acting as the mouthpiece for the US/UK government.
We have consistently reported on a wide range of arguments in the run up to, and now during, the Fallujah offensive.
Here are a few examples. We reported:
*on the significant opposition to the Iraq war of Sir Stephen Wall, Tony Blair’s one-time right-hand man on European matters..
*the political fall-out within Iraq – the resignation from the interim government of the main Sunni Party, in protest at the Fallujah assault.
*Radio 4’s World At One interviewed Iraq’s former foreign minister about his “grave concerns about a protracted and bloody military operation in Fallujah.”
“It also heard from Gwyn Prins, joint alliance research professor at the LSE and Columbia University who, while believing there’s military and political logic behind the decision to deal with the “Fallujah problem” said the situation should not have reached such a pitch.
*Radio 4’s PM interviewed the UK spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic party, Fareed Sabri. (The Americans last tried to take Fallujah in April. The military operation failed but it was followed by a negotiated peace. Fareed Sabri took part in that negotiation)
*Last Friday’s TV 10 o’clock News kicked off its second piece on the story with Kofi Annan’s criticisms of the coalition action and included Peter Kilfoyle MP as a domestic critic of the war.
MEDIA CHOICES (Part 2)
Our BBC One Six and Ten o’Clock News bulletins led with Fallujah on November 8 and 9. On November 10 the story ran second to Darfur, a new and very significant breaking story. Fallujah was still the lead on that day’s Newsnight; and we have devoted considerable airtime to Fallujah in all our output since November 8.
On the question of Fergal Keane’s reporting from Darfur: he was a witness to brutal behaviour by the Sudanese authorities. If one of our reporters saw brutal behaviour by Iraqi or coalition forces we would similarly report that. You may remember that we gave extensive coverage earlier this year to the abuses revealed in Abu-Ghraib.
Indeed, on Monday, November 15, the BBC One Ten O’Clock News carried the NBC television network footage of what it says is a US soldier shooting dead an unarmed, wounded Iraqi prisoner at a mosque. The allegations and the US Army’s investigation into them were reported across all BBC networks.
Thank you for your continuing interest.
Director, BBC News
Media Lens Response
We are grateful for such a substantial and thoughtful response.
Boaden argues that “there was no sense of ambiguity whatsoever about who was leading the assault.”
This is correct, although not in the way Boaden intends. The BBC’s lunchtime news anchor, Anna Ford, opened her report on the programme in question with this statement:
“Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has said he has given American and Iraqi forces the authority to clear Fallujah of terrorists.”
On seven occasions in this one programme, the BBC gave the impression that Allawi was the final authority in Iraq, thus indicating that the assault on Fallujah was an Iraqi government operation directing US and Iraqi forces to the attack. There was no ambiguity whatever, as Boaden rightly points out.
Entrenched habits of patriotic journalism are such that the media finds it impossible to report objectively, much less critically, on wars in which British forces are involved. Journalists reflexively slot conflicts into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ frameworks, with ‘us’ portrayed as reluctant, chivalrous interventionists intent on ‘bringing peace’, ‘restoring order’, ‘rebuilding the country’ (we have destroyed) and so on. ‘Them’ on the other hand refers to ‘terrorists’, ‘murderers’ and, in this case, ‘Saddam loyalists’ and ‘foreign fighters’ (essentially the same devilish ‘foreign agitators’ of Cold War propaganda).
It is difficult to maintain the ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world when we are illegal occupiers killing ordinary Iraqis resisting our occupation ‘ so the illegality and the ordinary Iraqi resistance fighters are hardly mentioned. The issue of oil, of course, is not allowed even to exist, although it would be at the forefront of reporting on the crimes of an official enemy.
Remarkably, at the height of the attack on Fallujah, the broadcast media repeatedly switched from news of the attack to news from the rest of Iraq with comments such as: “Elsewhere in Iraq there has been an upsurge in violence as insurgents attacked…’
The point was not made that there had +also+ been “an upsurge in violence‰ elsewhere in Iraq, as though the attack on Fallujah was not deemed to constitute violence. This also fits a generalised pattern. Violence is a pejorative term suggesting illegitimacy or illegality – the “coalition”, by contrast, is involved in ‘peacekeeping’, ‘maintenance of law and order’, and ‘security’; not violence.
As part of its patriotic role, the media is drip-feeding the British public the impression that Iraqis are in control of their country and are deeply committed to fighting the insurgency. This is crucial propaganda lending a veneer of legitimacy to an illegal occupation and the staggering violence by which it is being maintained. The reality – that a Western superpower is imposing its will on an impoverished but oil-rich Third World country against the will of its people – is nowhere in sight.
The US manipulation of local puppets in pursuit of this cause is intended to camouflage the reality. To present the words of such stooges as worthy of serious attention – which is exactly what happens when news programmes open with such words ‘ is crude propaganda worthy of Goebbels or the commissars under Stalin.
Boaden suggests that Andrew Marr’s comment indicated that “while the British government wanted to emphasise that the Fallujah attack was Mr Allawi’s decision, there was a different interpretation’. This is what Marr said:
“There are Americans backed up by British troops going in there, so responsibility for whatever happens in Fallujah will be shared by the Prime Minister and the American president.”
The suggestion that different parties involved in a military action share responsibility for what happens does not in any way offer a “different interpretation” to the claim that +final+ responsibility rests with Allawi as ultimate author of the action. Boaden’s argument is a red herring.
We did not raise the issue of the importance of using “interim” to describe Allawi’s government. This is a trivial point beside the BBC’s presentation of Allawi’s regime as an independent, legitimate source of authority worthy of respectful, indeed headline, attention.
Boaden writes that “From the outset we have raised questions about civilian casualties.”
In fact the BBC main news said next to nothing about such casualties until a flood of complaints from our readers appeared to contribute to a short-lived change in reporting. Boaden appears to recognise this initial, low-key emphasis when she writes: “Getting first hand information from within Fallujah has been extremely difficult.”
And yet reliable reports from doctors in the city, from escaping refugees, and from the Iraqi Red Crescent, +were+ being heard at a time when BBC TV news was finding them “extremely difficult” to access. In fact, the BBC’s emphasis has been highly patriotic. It was initially focused on the preparations and goals of the US military, presenting the attack on Fallujah from a “coalition” point of view. The impression given was of a World War II-style ‘just cause’, which the attack on Fallujah most certainly was not.
Boaden’s comment on use of the term “insurgent” was also not raised by us – another red herring.
Boaden writes “As for use of the word terrorist, it is the Americans and Mr Allawi who have used this word. We have simply reported it.”
Why, then, has the BBC not repeatedly reported “use of the word terrorist” by commentators describing US and British military actions in Iraq? Is it because Allawi and the Americans are deemed legitimate in a way that the insurgents are not? Allawi, as we have discussed, has +zero+ legitimacy, while the Americans are acting illegally in occupying the country, as the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has made clear. Note, again, that Boaden brackets Allawi with the American government, suggesting comparable legitimacy.
Has the BBC ever reported that the British or US governments are involved in state terror? We doubt it. And yet both are undoubtedly using the demonstration effect of mass violence to terrorise insurgents, and Iraqis generally, into abandoning resistance to the occupation. US military officials have openly stated that the appalling fate suffered by Fallujah is intended ‘pour encourager les autres’ – a very clear example of state terrorism.
Boaden writes: “On the question of Fergal Keane’s reporting from Darfur… If one of our reporters saw brutal behaviour by Iraqi or coalition forces we would similarly report that.”
Recall that Keane said: “This was a day when the Sudanese government showed the face of raw power. When the international community was left powerless, and the most vulnerable, defenceless.”
There was nothing in BBC TV reporting that expressed comparable moral outrage at the destruction of Fallujah by the Western superpower acting outside of international law. But in fact far worse violence was committed in Fallujah than featured in Keane’s report. Here, too, the international community was powerless in the face of the slaughter, and the most vulnerable citizens in Fallujah were also its victims.
It was morally indefensible to subordinate our own ongoing and illegal mass killing in Fallujah to reports of lesser crimes by a foreign government for which we are not democratically or morally responsible. Instead of holding foreign secretary Jack Straw to account for his crimes against humanity in Iraq, he was respectfully invited by the BBC to comment on Sudanese crimes in Darfur. This was grotesque in the extreme.
Next Thursday, December 2, the peace group A Call For Light is organising a peaceful vigil to protest BBC reporting outside the BBC, Bush House, Aldwych, London, between 5:30pm and 7:00pm. See our next Media Alert for more details and comment.
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 attend the December 2 vigil outside the BBC.
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News
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