The BBC Photoshop’s the news By William Bowles

9 March 2005

I have been following BBC coverage on both the World Service and BBC Radio 4 as well as the BBC Website over the past few days of the shooting death of the Italian secret serviceman and the wounding of the freed Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. The discrepancy between eyewitness accounts of the event and the BBC’s reportage is, to put it mildly, glaring, not only by virtue of what is not reported but the manner in which the story has been covered.

According to Pier Scolari, Sgrena’s companion in the car, in an Agence France Presse story:

“The Americans and Italians knew about (her) car coming,” Scolari said. “They were 700 meters (yards) from the airport, which means that they had passed all checkpoints. Giuliana had information, and the US military did not want her to survive.”

Other reports mention 400 bullets fired at the car. The BBC news this morning (7/3/05) talked of Sgrena suffering from “a shrapnel wound” but according a news report:

Sgrena … was hospitalized with serious wounds to her left shoulder and lung…

But this is the least of the problems with the BBC’s failure to adequately cover events. In a report on the BBC’s Website it referred to the shooting as follows:

Accounts of what happened on the road to the airport in Baghdad differ but Ms Sgrena has said she cannot accept US troops accidentally fired on her car.

In an interview with the BBC Ms Sgrena said:

We had no signal. We were just on the way to the airport. They started to shoot at us without any light or signal. There was no block, there was nothing. It was so immediate. I didn’t know how I was alive after all that attack.

But this not what listeners to BBC World Service or BBC Radio 4 heard (8/3/05). Instead, the report was perfunctory in the extreme. BBC Radio 4 News at 8am reduced the story to its essentials, merely stating that:

“Accounts … differ radically … with [her] companion suggesting [the attack] may have been deliberate” following that with the US account that the car “was traveling at high speed [and] failed to stop”

The bulk of the report was given over to the funeral of the murdered Italian secret service agent. BBC World Service news was even more terse, stating that:

“Her claim that her car was deliberately attacked has increased tensions [between Italy and the US]”.

End of story.

An earlier World Service story told the listener even less, reducing the tragedy to a single sentence with the report that “accounts … differed radically”. Period.

No mention of the eyewitness report carried by AFP of where the car actually was (past the checkpoints), nor of the warning they had been given by her kidnappers that the US would try to kill her because:

“Everyone knows that the Americans do not like negotiations to free hostages, and because of this I don’t see why I should exclude the possibility of me having been the target,” she said.

And writing in her left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper, she said upon her release her kidnappers warned her to be careful ‘because there are Americans who don’t want you to go back’.”

The contrast between what can be found on the BBC’s Website and what the radio news carried is also startling to say the least pointing to a deliberate attempt to suppress eyewitness accounts of what actually happened.

The latest BBC News Website story (at the time of writing this 8/3/05) omits all reference to earlier reports of what actually happened reducing the facts of the case to the following ‘account’:

Accounts of what happened on the road to the airport in Baghdad differ but Ms Sgrena has said she cannot accept US troops accidentally fired on her car.

She told the BBC that Americans guarding Baghdad airport might not have been informed about her arrival, but their actions could not be excused.

The US military, who said troops fired on the speeding car after it failed to stop, has opened a full investigation. –

So why didn’t the BBC radio news not carry what one would have thought was highly pertinent information concerning how the secret service agent died, or don’t the BBC regard eyewitness accounts as news? And by today, (9/3/05), the story has disappeared entirely from BBC news coverage but the point here is not how many stories the BBC runs on the event but the nature of its coverage and just how radically different it is from stories that support the prevailing government orthodoxy.

The BBC’s news coverage follows a tediously predicable line with anything that contradicts the comfortable relationship between the BBC and the British state’s relationship to the US being simply ignored with its stock phrase of eg “accounts differ radically”, with the bulk of its radio and online coverage being of the funeral in Rome.

But then consider the almost total lack of coverage by the BBC of the deaths of at least a dozen journalists in Iraq and what is clearly a deliberate policy on the part of the US government to target journalists who are not ‘embedded’, in other words, independent, uncensored coverage. Can it be an accident that Sgrena had covered events in Fallujah that were highly critical of how the US acted? Reports that we never heard on the BBC as the BBC relied entirely on its ‘embedded’ ie censored news stories, though neglecting to mention that in fact its stories were censored, merely telling the listener (on occasion, when it got reminded) that its reporters were ‘embedded’.

Search Me? 
A search for stories on the BBC Website concerning journalists who have died in Iraq is frustrating to say the least. After finally locating one story concerning the death of a journalist in Iraq and selecting the ‘search for similar’ option, instead of retrieving similar stories, I got thousands of stories that were anything but similar and eventually gave up.

Clearly, the BBC needs to spend a few quid of that £70 million ($130 million) a year it spends on its Web presence on a decent Boolean search engine, not a cutting edge endeavour, there are any number of Perl-based scripts available that do a more than an adequate job of narrowing down search parameters, especially when you consider that it has complete control over its own archive as opposed to trying to do a general search of the Web’s 7 billion pages.

And obviously, the BBC doesn’t spend much time doing its own research on the deaths of journalists in Iraq. Three reports by independent journalist Steve Weissman as well as the report by Reporters Without Borders ‘Two Murders and a Lie’, point to the fact that the US is deliberately targeting independent journalists in Iraq.

The Palestine Hotel
On April 8 2003, two journalists were killed by tank fire in the Palestine Hotel. The Reporters Without Borders enquiry shows:

… there was lying, as well as three levels of responsibility.

Supposed legitimate self-defence in response to shooting from the hotel – the excuse offered right from the beginning and re-stated and maintained at the highest level of the US government – was pushed in an effort to dominate the media and political discourse. This first version of events became the official version and was a lie by the authorities.

Despite the evidence, it took four months for the US Army to come up with its report, in which “direct firing” was replaced by an “enemy hunter/killer team” to justify legitimate self-defense. The new explanation is also a lie, by omission.

By focusing debate on technical military problems, the US government ignores the key to the tragedy – that the soldiers in the field were never told that a large number of journalists were in the Palestine Hotel. If they had known, they would never have fired. When they did know, they gave and received instructions and took precautions to ensure the hotel was not fired on again. The firing of a tank shell at the hotel was not therefore a deliberate attack on journalists or the media.

The report is exhaustive and includes references to nine other journalists who have died in Iraq that includes the following:

9 Other Journalists Killed

The deaths of other journalists killed by US forces during and after the war in Iraq have not been seriously investigated.

22 March: Terry Lloyd, veteran war reporter with the British TV station ITN (ITV News), was killed when his convoy crossed into Iraq from Kuwait and was caught in shooting between Iraqi forces and US Marines. US firing probably killed him. The Pentagon has never produced the results of an enquiry into the incident or fully cooperated with British Army efforts to find out what happened to French cameraman Frédéric Nérac and Lebanese interpreter Hussein Osman, both in the convoy, who disappeared at the same time.

8 April: US forces bombed the offices in Baghdad of the Arab TV stations Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. Al-Jazeera special correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed but no officials appear to have investigated his death.

17 August: Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, 41, was killed by a US soldier while filming (with permission) a prison guarded by the Americans in a Baghdad suburb. A month later, the Pentagon said his death was “regrettable” but that troops had “acted within the rules of engagement. “

Enquiry into the Death of Patrick Bourrat

Patrick Bourrat, an experienced war reporter and special correspondent of the French TV station TF1, died on 22 December 2002 during US manoeuvres in Kuwait, the day after being hit by an Abrams tank as he warned his cameraman to get out of the vehicle’s way, according to the French embassy. He was the first journalist to die because of the impending Iraqi war.

A US military spokesman, Maj. Denton Knapp, said: “We did everything we could to keep him safe” but he “made a mistake and it was a tragic one. “ The message was that it was Bourrat’s own fault that he died.

The facts seem more complicated. We have not been able to see the full medical record but evidence we have suggests there were irregularities in his treatment that included serious medical errors. He may not have simply died as a result of the tank accident.

In another story, Weissman deals with the death of veteran Palestinian journalist Mazen Dana, killed by a US soldier in a tank not 50 metres from him. As with the other journalists killed by the US, the ‘investigation’ into his death is as Weissman puts it:

Look at the picture of the RPG-7 on this page and compare it to the photo of Dana with his camera. No matter how young, inexperienced, and terrified the soldiers were, proper training should have kept them from mistaking the camera for anything else. But this would require making a priority of protecting journalists and other civilians, which the Bush Administration refuses to do.



In reality, the repeated whitewashing of these killings gives U.S. troops a very different message: Shoot first, ask questions later, and let the journalists steer clear.

Weissman also gives an account of the horrific treatment of four Iraqi journalists three of whom worked for Reuters, the fourth a stringer for NBC. All were investigating the shoot down of a US Kiowa helicopter:

According to the three Iraqis, the Americans approached them in the general area of the crash sites. The three shouted “Reuters, Reuters, journalist, journalist.” The soldiers looked in the car and saw the TV cameras and photographic equipment.

The four were then taken to an American base where:

… the soldiers kept them for 72 hours, much of the time in a cold room where they were not allowed to sleep. According to the Iraqis, the Americans forced them to assume stress positions, beat them, and threatened them with rape.

“They took me to a kind of caravan where there was one Lebanese and two Americans for interrogation,” recalled Sattar. They took his clothes and made him kneel on his knees with his hands in the air.

“Are you a woman?” the Lebanese translator asked.

“He asked me to pick up a shoe, took it and beat me on the face with it. Then he made me take the shoe in my mouth. He made me put my finger in my anus then he made me smell my hand and put it in my nose.”

Ahmad told a similar story: “They told me to stick my middle finger in my anus and then lick it.”

Defending the detention of the three Iraqis, the Army claimed with that “enemy personnel posing as media” had fired on U.S. forces. The Army offered no evidence…

What is clear is that it’s US government policies that encourage a laissez faire attitude toward human life rather than the deliberate targeting by individual US troops on the ground of journalists.

But not once have the BBC challenged the statements made by the US government or it’s clearly documented lying and coverup of evidence, preferring rather to take at face value US statements about “tragic accidents”, or “Iraq is a dangerous place”, yes but for whom?

What is evident is that the BBC is failing completely in its statutory obligations to cover events by even its own so-called objective standards. How else does one explain the vast discrepancy between its coverage of events so that subjects that are on the government’s ‘hit list’ get the ‘treatment’ that is, aggressive and negative coverage but subjects such as the death of the Italian secret serviceman or of journalists get soft-peddled, downplayed or simply ignored?

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