1 December 2004 — Media Lens
Tomorrow, December 2, the peace group A Call For Light is organising a peaceful vigil outside the BBC, Bush House, Aldwych, London, between 5:30pm and 7:00pm.
Like the rest of the mainstream media, the BBC did next to nothing to expose the devastating effects of US-UK war and sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq from 1990 onwards. Ahead of last year’s war, the BBC endlessly echoed and channelled UK government propaganda claims, almost never subjecting those claims to serious challenge.
Post-invasion and post-Hutton, the BBC has presented the occupation of Iraq as a flawed but well-intentioned act of ‘liberation’ and ‘rebuilding’. Yesterday, the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Network reported of Fallujah:
“Approximately 70 percent of the houses and shops were destroyed in the city and those still standing are riddled with bullets.” (‘Fallujah still needs more supplies despite aid arrival’, www.irinnews.org, November 30, 2004)
You would not know from BBC coverage that a vast war crime has taken place in Fallujah. If Saddam Hussein had demolished 70% of Kuwait in 1990, it would surely have been declared one of the great atrocities of the twentieth century.
Legitimising The Illegitimate
The US-UK “coalition” would soon “hand over power to the Iraqis” on June 30, Laura Trevelyan declared on BBC1 in May. (16:45 News, May 23, 2004) Thus “soon the occupation will end”, Orla Guerin observed. (BBC1, 19:00 News, June 16, 2004)
The death of a British soldier in Basra was particularly tragic, Guerin noted on the day of the “handover” (June 28), because he was “the last soldier to die under the occupation”. (BBC1, 13:00 News, June 28, 2004) On the same programme, Matt Frei declared Iraq “sovereign and free” on “an enormously significant day for Iraq”. It was an “historic day”, anchor Anna Ford agreed.
Guerin described how Iraqi troops participating in an official ceremony “have waited all their lives for freedom”, and so “feel satisfaction that power will be back in Iraqi hands”. (Guerin, BBC1, 18:00 News, June 28, 2004)
Back in the real world, Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times:
“The formal occupation of Iraq came to an ignominious end yesterday… In reality, the occupation will continue under another name, most likely until a hostile Iraqi populace demands that we leave.” (Krugman, ‘Who lost Iraq?’, New York Times, June 29, 2004)
Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent:
“Alice in Wonderland could not have improved on this. The looking-glass reflects all the way from Baghdad to Washington… Those of us who put quotation marks around ‘liberation’ in 2003 should now put quotation marks around ‘sovereignty’.” (Fisk, ‘The handover: Restoration of Iraqi sovereignty – or Alice in Wonderland?’ The Independent, June 29, 2004)
In November, Anna Ford continued with the BBC’s preferred version of events:
“Iraq’s prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has said he has given American and Iraqi forces the authority to clear Fallujah of terrorists.” (Ford, BBC1, 13:00 News, November 8, 2004)
Caroline Hawley noted in July that the interim Iraqi government would need to ensure the security of the Iraqi people “if it’s to keep their support”. (Hawley, BBC1, 18:00 News, July 28, 2004)
We await credible evidence of this support for the US puppet regime.
Nicholas Witchell said in September:
“Dr. Allawi may say, ‘we’re winning’, and there may be a time soon when that claim is more obviously justifiable. If that time arrives, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will be delighted.” (Witchell, BBC1, 22:00 News, September 23, 2004)
On October 20, Ben Brown said:
“The people of southern Iraq know they have their freedom.” (Brown, BBC1, 22:00 News, October 20, 2004)
Imagine our reaction if a Russian journalist had said the same of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
On October 21, Caroline Hawley observed:
“It’s hard to imagine that there can be free and fair elections across this country without a dramatic improvement in security.” (Hawley, BBC1, 22:00 News, October 21, 2004)
With the United States having so far lost 1,100 troops killed in action in Iraq, with ten times that number wounded, at a cost of $200 billion, some find it hard to imagine that Bush and Rumsfeld would allow free and fair elections +regardless+ of the ‘security’ situation.
Dr. Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a senior political scientist at Baghdad University, and an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein’s government, is official spokesman for the Iraqi National Foundation Congress. Nadhmi says:
“We suggested to the occupation forces and Iraqi government four requirements for an Iraqi election: an international committee of oversight; an immediate ceasefire because we cannot have elections under bombardment and rockets; [the] withdrawal of American troops from the major cities one month before the election.” (Quoted, Dahr Jamail, ‘Iraqi Critics Speak Out on Occupation, Elections’‚ The New Standard, November 22, 2004)
Ignoring these suggestions, which Nadhmi describes as prerequisites for a free and democratic election, the interim government declared martial law. Nadhmi asks:
“How can we have a free election under martial law?… Martial law is one of the nails in the coffin of this regime. The last pretext for democracy here is now buried. Their declaration of martial law is a declaration of political bankruptcy.”
From An Establishment Perspective
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)
New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman allows us to decode the propaganda:
“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘The New Rulers of the World’, Verso, 2001, p.114)
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)
The BBC’s John Humphrys said:
“So maybe it’s not being too naive to think America really does want to use its position as the world’s only superpower to spread freedom and democracy. The truth is, it’s a question of where. Only last week James Woolsey ˆ who once ran the CIA and has been appointed to run the new information ministry in Iraq – claimed America had been actively promoting democracy for most of the past century.” (Humphrys, ‘Bush turns a blind eye to the wars he doesn’t want to fight’, Sunday Times, April 13, 2003)
Mel Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former CIA analyst, takes a different view:
“None of this smells right at this point…and points to the politicization of the reconstruction process. Too many contracts have already gone to Cheney’s old firm (Halliburton) and Shultz’s old firm (Bechtel). The possible appointment of Jim Woolsey is total farce. Woolsey was a disaster as CIA director in the 90s and is now running around this country calling for a World War IV to deal with the Islamic problem. This is a dangerous individual who should not be part of any reconstruction process.” (‘War in Iraq With Mel Goodman, Senior Fellow, Center for International Policy’, April 15, 2003,
On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Gavin Esler noted that US crimes at Abu Ghraib prison had produced: “Images that shamed America’s mission in Iraq.” (Esler, Newsnight, August 24, 2004)
Much as crimes in Kabul “shamed” the Soviet Union’s mission in Afghanistan in the 1980s, perhaps.
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)
Much as the humanitarian situation threatened to “take the shine off” Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
In July 2004, Newsnight described how Iraqi insurgents were “blighting US attempts to bring peace and stability to Iraq”. (Newsnight, July 5, 2004)
Resistance to an illegal superpower invasion by a quarter of a million troops is the real obstacle to peace, according to the BBC. Imagine the BBC declaring (not merely reporting) that the US-UK occupation was blighting international attempts to bring peace and stability to Iraq.
On October 1, Nicholas Witchell reported that a series of insurgent car bombs in Baghdad were “intended to undermine the future”. (Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, October 1, 2004)
As opposed to the +Americans‚+ version of “the future”.
On the BBC’s Politics Show, Jeremy Vine suggested that the failure to discover any WMDs in Iraq would be “toe-curlingly embarrassing for the politicians”. (Vine, The Politics Show, BBC1, May 4, 2003)
Imagine launching an illegal invasion, occupation and devastation of a defenceless Third World country, killing tens of thousands of civilians on a completely concocted pretext. What could be more “embarrassing”? Or indeed a more compelling case for a war crimes tribunal?
Earlier this year, Nicholas Witchell was happy to confuse the issue of the Daily Mirror’s pictures of alleged abuse of Iraqis with the wider issue of British abuse:
“After the appalling +reality+ of what the Americans have been doing, the Mirror’s pictures threatened to compromise the work of every British soldier.” (Witchell, BBC1 22:00 News, May 14, 2004, original emphasis)
But British abuses +were+ real. For example, according to the Red Cross, married father of two, Baha Mousa, was among nine men seized at a hotel in Basra by British troops in September 2003:
“Following their arrest, the nine men were made to kneel, face and hands against the ground, as if in a prayer position,‚ the report said. ‘The soldiers stamped on the back of the neck of those raising their head.’” (Agencies, ‘Red Cross report details alleged Iraq abuses’, The Guardian, May 10, 2004)
Amnesty International launched “a scathing attack on the British military in Iraq”, the Guardian reported. Amnesty produced evidence of eight cases in which Iraqi civilians, including a girl aged eight, were shot dead by British soldiers in southern Iraq.
Naming The Bad Guys
Discussing the war against the insurgency, Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark asked a US military expert: “Can you choke off terrorism in Iraq?” (Newsnight, September 23, 2004)
James Robbins reported that the interim government was faced by: “Saddam loyalists joined by al Qaeda elements.” (Robbins, BBC1, 13:00 News, June 28, 2004)
Most experts reject the claim that al Qaeda and other foreign fighters are at the heart of the insurgency. Toby Dodge, a British-based analyst, told the Al Jazeera website:
“[The] Insurgency is a national phenomenon fuelled by alienation. I don’t think this war is winnable because they have alienated the base of support across Iraqi society.” (Quoted, James Cogan, ‘Iraqi elections announced amid mass repression’‚ November 22, 2004)
On November 16, the Los Angeles Times reported that US-UK forces are fighting “a homegrown uprising dominated by Iraqis, not foreign fighters.” According to the paper:
“Of the more than 1,000 men between the ages of 15 and 55 who were captured in intense fighting in the center of the insurgency over the last week, just 15 are confirmed foreign fighters, Gen. George W. Casey, the top US ground commander in Iraq, said Monday.”
The LA Times added: “American commanders said their best estimates of the proportion of foreigners among their enemies is [sic] about 5 percent.” (Quoted, Norman Solomon, ‘Will the Real “Iraqi Forces” Please Stand Up?’, November 19, 2004
In October, the BBC‚s Paul Wood referred to the “so-called ‘resistance fighters”’. (Wood, BBC1, 13:00 News, October 22, 2004)
Ben Brown described Fallujah as “a haven for Sunni extremists”. (Brown, BBC1, 18:30 News, October 27, 2004)
In September 2004, Witchell said:
“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, BBC1, 18:00 News, September 30, 2004)
A research study published in The Lancet in October made a conservative estimate of 98,000 civilian deaths since the invasion:
“The researchers found that the majority of deaths were attributed to violence, which were primarily the result of military actions by Coalition forces. Most of those killed by Coalition forces were women and children… Eighty-four percent of the 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.” (‘Iraqi Civilian Deaths Increase Dramatically After Invasion’, October 28, 2004
Tony Blair “passionately believes” that Saddam Hussein had to be confronted to avoid future regrets, the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan insisted. (Trevelyan, BBC1, 13:00 News, January 14, 2003)
By contrast, former cabinet minister, Clare Short, insists that Tony Blair used “various ruses” and “a series of half-truths, exaggerations, reassurances that were not the case to get us into conflict by the spring”. (Patrick Wintour, ‘Short: I was briefed on Blair’s secret war pact’, The Guardian, June 18, 2003)
Paul O’Neill, former US Treasury secretary, explained how the Bush administration came to office determined to topple Saddam Hussein, using the September 11 attacks as a pretext: “It was all about finding a way to do it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’” (O‚Neill, quoted, Julian Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”’, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)
O’Neill reports seeing one memorandum, long before September 11, 2001, preparing for war dating from the first days of the administration. Another, marked “secret” said, “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq”. O’Neill also saw a Pentagon document entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts”, which discussed dividing Iraq’s fuel reserves up between the world’s oil companies. So much for Blair’s passionate beliefs!
Matt Frei had this to say:
“If you remember, Paul O’Neill was sacked mainly because he was incompetent, and he was more infamous for his gaffes than his insights on economic theory. He once famously said that the collapse of the energy giant Enron was an example of the genius of capitalism, and perhaps more accurately that the tax code in America was 9,500 words of complete gibberish.” (Frei, Newsnight, BBC2, January 12, 2004)
The 1991 Gulf War And The Effects Of Sanctions
A Guardian report cited by historian Mark Curtis found that the issue of oil featured in 4% of BBC1 reports and in 3% of BBC2 reports – a remarkable achievement, given the obvious central concern. The BBC told its reporters to be “circumspect” about pictures of death and injury. (‘”Circumspect” BBC’, The Guardian, January 15, 1991)
David Dimbleby asked on live BBC TV:
“Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.45)
Only 7% of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped in the 1991 war employed ‘smart’ technology. The accuracy of these weapons was indicated by the performance of the much-vaunted Patriot missile system, declared 98% successful in intercepting and destroying Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 war. Professor Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was asked by Congress to investigate the 98% claim. Much to his surprise, Postol found that the Patriot’s success rate was rather less impressive than claimed:
“It became clear that it wasn’t even close to intercepting +any+ targets, let alone some targets.” (Postol, Great Military Blunders, Channel 4, March 2, 2000, original emphasis)
In a 2002 documentary, the BBC’s John Simpson reported of the 1991 Gulf War:
“The big attack didn’t bring the terrible loss of life that Saddam had feared.” (Simpson, ‘Saddam: A Warning from History’, BBC1, November 3, 2002)
In late 1991, the Medical Educational Trust in London estimated that up to a quarter of a million men, women and children had died in the assault. On his return from Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the war, UN diplomat Marrti Ahtisaari wrote:
“Nothing that we had seen or read had prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results…” (Quoted, Milan Rai, War On Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.135)
The BBC’s 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)
In the Observer of June 23, 2002, John Sweeney reviewed arguments made in his BBC documentary on the same day:
“The Iraqi dictator says his country’s children are dying in their thousands because of the West’s embargoes. John Sweeney, in a TV documentary to be shown tonight, says the figures are bogus.” (Sweeney, ‘How Saddam ‘staged’ fake baby funerals’, The Observer, June 23, 2002)
In his Observer article, Sweeney wrote:
“In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet.”
We asked Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq, to respond. Von Sponeck described Sweeney’s article as “exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian, double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important figures.
“Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data analysis exactly because they did not want to politicise their work… This article is a very serious misrepresentation.” (Email to Media Lens, June 24, 2002)
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday, who set up and ran the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme, has said:
“Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy… That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.” (Interview with Media Lens, May 2000, http://www.medialens.org)
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