Media Lens - 2007 News analysis and media criticism Mon, 19 Nov 2018 05:55:56 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb MANUFACTURING THREATS - SUDAN, IRAN, AND THE WAR FOR CIVILISATION

News that British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons had been jailed in Sudan after allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Mohammed fed straight into the UK media’s hate factory and its “war for civilisation”.

The Gibbons story was mentioned in a massive 257 articles in UK national newspapers in the first week, providing an excuse to boost claims of “genocide” in Sudan in 10 of these.

The suffering in Sudan has certainly been appalling - it is estimated that the conflict has cost the lives of 100,000 people with two million made homeless. But Iraq is far worse - the occupation has so far resulted in the deaths of 1 million people with more than 4 million displaced from their homes. Whereas, over the last year, the term “genocide” has been used in 246 articles mentioning Sudan - many of these affirming that genocide has taken place - the results of the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and of the earlier sanctions regime, are essentially never described in similar terms.

To its credit, an Independent leader warned that it would be wrong “to treat Ms Gibbons' case, as some have done, as a harbinger of the supposedly inevitable clash between the ‘enlightened’ West and ‘primitive’ Islam”. (Leader, Ms Gibbons and a teddy bear named Mohamed,’ The Independent, November 30, 2007)

The advice was largely ignored, however. Following Gibbons’ release after eight days in jail, a December 4 Telegraph leader described how the “delight and mutual congratulations that have characterised the agreement between the Sudanese dictator and the British authorities... presents a nauseating picture”. The arrest being, after all, “testimony to the danger of allowing a rogue state to proceed unchecked”. (Leader, ‘Sudan’s grotesque stunt,’ Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2007)

Is Sudan, then, to replace Iraq as the third “rogue” member of the “axis of evil”? Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips appeared to recommend as much, writing a day earlier of how the teddy bear incident was “yet another symptom of the great onslaught being mounted against our civilisation and towards which not one inch of ground must be given if that civilisation is to survive“. (Phillips, ‘The teddy-bear teacher and Labour's spineless response to a rogue state that threatens us all ...,’ Daily Mail, December 3, 2007)

Such preposterous hyperbole belongs in the same category as Hitler's description of Czechoslovakia as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, on Power And Ideology - The Managua Lectures, South End Press, 1987, p.33)

Phillips was similarly outraged when 15 British sailors were “kidnapped” by an Iranian warship on March 23 while on patrol in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. Then, she raged at “a military debacle for Britain - a self-inflicted humiliation at the hands of Iran, at a time when the mortal danger posed to the free world by this rogue state is increasing by the day“. (Phillips, ‘The real issue isn't Mr Bean selling his story. It's our utter humiliation by Iran,’ Daily Mail, April 16, 2007)

Iran was, of course, “steadily advancing towards its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons with which it is threatening to bring about the apocalypse it has been working towards for the past three decades”.

Like the rest of the media, Phillips later fell silent when evidence emerged suggesting that the British sailors had in fact strayed into Iranian waters, and had therefore not been “kidnapped” at all. On July 22, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee reported:

"We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt al-Arab waterway provided by the Government was less clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran’s interests to contest the accuracy of the map.” (

Martin Pratt, Director of Research at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, pointed out that the British government’s map was “certainly an oversimplification... it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading”. (Ibid)

George Monbiot - Iran “Is A Dangerous And Unpredictable State”

This did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of journalists eager to portray Iran as a threat to world peace. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian last month: "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb." He added: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad.” (Monbiot, ‘The Middle East has had a secretive nuclear power in its midst for years,’ The Guardian, November 20, 2007; comment/0,,2213812,00.html)

We wrote to Monbiot on the same day:

Hi George

In your latest Guardian article, you write:

"I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb."

What is the basis for your belief, please?

You also write:

"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Is it your understanding that Ahmadinejad, rather than Khamenei, is the supreme ruler of Iran? If so, why? And which "acts of terror abroad" do you have in mind? Do you include the claims that Iran has supplied EFPs to blow up US-UK tanks and troops in Iraq, for example?

Finally, what is the basis for your belief that Ahmadinejad is "opposed to the existence of Israel"?

Best wishes

DE and DC

We wrote a further two times but received no replies. Monbiot had earlier written to us in February 2005:

“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.” (Email, February 2, 2005)

These were kind words but they surely overstated the case. In truth, we have little power to hold journalists to account - it is a simple matter for them to ignore our emails.

Monbiot’s comments on Iran recall his pre-war comments on Iraq. At a crucial time politically, he wrote in November 2002: "if war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that..." (Monbiot, 'See you in court, Tony,' The Guardian, November 26, 2002)

We asked him:

"Can you explain why you would prioritise the support of such a war ahead of a war to remove the Algerian generals, the Turkish regime, the Colombian regime, or maybe Putin? Would you also support a war to remove these regimes, if this turns out to be the only way?" (Email, November 26, 2002. See our series of Media Alerts, beginning with: http://www.Media

He replied the same day:

“The other nations you mention have some, admittedly flimsy, domestic means of redress: in other words, being democracies, or nominal democracies, citizens can, in theory, remove them without recourse to violent means. There is no existing process within Iraq for removing the regime peacefully. Like many of those who oppose this war with Iraq, I also want to help the Iraqi people to shake off their dictator...

“As I suggest in my article, we must try the non-violent means first, and there are plenty which have not been exhausted. But if all the conditions which I believe would provide the case for a just war are met - namely that less violent options have been exhausted first, that it reduces the sum total of violence in the world, improves the lives of the oppressed, does not replace one form of oppression with another and has a high chance of success - then it seems to me that it would be right to seek to topple Mr Hussein by military means.” (Email, November 26, 2002)

We asked him if he thought Iraq was a special case to be singled out for this kind of treatment. He replied:

"I do not believe that Iraq is a special case, or, rather, I do not believe that it is any more special than a number of other cases." (Email, November 27, 2002)

So why single out Iraq, just then, when the British and American governments were clearly intent on attacking Iraq? He replied:

"... why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua? The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought. Yes, of course the reason for this is that the hawks in the US have put it on the agenda." (Email, December 3, 2002)

The elusive but key truth is that mainstream politics and media have an astonishing capacity to make certain issues seem particularly real and important while consigning others to oblivion. To criticise the actions of the Iranian state, for example, is to have a voice - our words are likely to matter, they may well be heard; they can lead to discussion and even action. To criticise the actions of a government of marginal media interest is to be a voice in the wilderness - we might as well be muttering to ourselves in the bath. The temptation for a professional journalist is to be 'relevant', to accept mainstream parameters of debate, and to ignore the costs of his or her actions.

By late 2002, establishment propaganda had made the need to take action to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime seem real, urgent and important - Monbiot was swept along in the wake of that propaganda. Something similar appears to be happening again, now, over Iran.

On December 18, we analysed the UK national press over the last 20 years searching for ‘gay rights’ and ‘Iran’. We found 79 mentions - 56 of these have been since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq:

2007 - 14
2006 - 9
2005 - 9
2004 - 19
2003 - 6 (5 post-invasion, 1 pre-invasion)
2002 - 2
2001 - 3
2000 - 1
1999 - 1
1998 - 2
1997 - 2
1996 - 1
1995 - 1
1994 - 5
1992 - 1
1989 - 1
1988 - 2

Following the invasion, Iran took the place of Iraq as the West’s official enemy - it was the ideal scapegoat for the catastrophic occupation and a suitable device for maintaining the traditional fear of foreign ‘threats’.

We found a similar pattern when searching for the terms ’Taliban’ and ‘women’s rights’. Since February 1995, there have been 56 mentions in the Guardian. Of these, 36 have appeared since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Following the September 11 attacks, there was the same number of mentions (nine) in the last three and a half months of that year as there had been in the previous three years combined. 90% of the mentions in 2001 occurred after 9-11.

US Spies Confound The Warmongers

Just two weeks after Monbiot’s comments on Iran, his own newspaper covered the latest report by the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which summarises the work of the 16 American intelligence agencies. The report, ‘Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,’ disclosed that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years:

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.” (Ewen MacAskill, ‘US spies give shock verdict on Iran threat: Intelligence agencies say Tehran halted weapons programme in 2003,’ The Guardian, December 4, 2007)

The report concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme." (Ibid) The programme had not been restarted as of the middle of this year.

Other evidence challenges the claim that Iran is supplying sophisticated weaponry to Iraqi insurgents. In May, the Guardian devoted an entire front page column to anonymous US military sources who insisted:

"Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it's a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces." (Simon Tisdall, 'Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq,’ The Guardian, May 22, 2007. You can see the front page to the left, click it for a larger version)

Journalists have long taken for granted that Iran is smuggling advanced roadside bombs, known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), into Iraq. However, in October, historian and security analyst Gareth Porter described on Inter Press Service how the US military command had accused Iran last January of providing EFPs despite knowing that Iraqi machine shops had been producing their own EFPs for years. By late 2005, the British military had found clear evidence that Iraqi Shiites were manufacturing their own EFPs.

The US command also had substantial evidence that the Iraqi Mahdi army had received EFP technology and training on how to use it from Hezbollah rather than Iran. In November 2006, a senior intelligence official told the New York Times and CNN that Hezbollah had trained as many as 2,000 Mahdi army fighters in Lebanon. According to British expert Michael Knights, writing in Jane's Intelligence Review last year, the earliest EFPs appearing in Iraq in 2004 were probably constructed by Hezbollah specialists. Porter noted that British and US officials have long known that the EFPs being used in Iraq closely resemble weapons used by Hezbollah against Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon.

Despite all of this, Porter observed, the US command, operating under close White House supervision, “chose to deny these facts in making the dramatic accusation that became the main rationale for the present aggressive US stance toward Iran”. (Porter, ‘U.S. Military Ignored Evidence of Iraqi-Made EFPs,’ IPS, October 25, 2007;

And so, while the media continue to capitalise on any excuse to promote a “clash of civilisations” between the West and “militant Islam”, it remains a remarkable fact that the ‘threats’ faced are mostly invented. Much of the actual violence against the West has been, and will continue to be, in retaliation for grave Western crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere consuming literally millions of lives.

The simplest way for the West to bring its “war on terror” to a successful conclusion would be for it to stop waging war and to renounce terrorism.


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

Write to Melanie Phillips

Write to George Monbiot

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:15:54 +0000

“See The World Through Their Eyes”

For several months now, non-UK visitors accessing the Guardian website have been shown an endlessly revolving animation in three segments that would not look out of place on FAIR, ZNet, or indeed Media Lens.

The first segment depicts a blue-eyed man wearing glasses with images of anti-war demonstrators reflected in the glasses. The protestors are carrying a banner that reads: “End The War NOW!” It instantly recalls the enormous February 15, 2003 anti-war march in London.

The second segment shows a nervous-looking woman in traditional Arab dress with intense flames reflected in her eyes. The third has two grief-stricken women, again in Arab dress, with one carrying a frightened child - their images are reflected in a soldier’s goggles. The animation ends with the words:

“See the world through their eyes. The Guardian Weekly Global Network (theguardian”

These images are shown hour after hour, week after week, to people visiting the site. This surely is a newspaper subjecting Western policies to fierce critical analysis. It must be focussing relentlessly on Iraqi, Afghan and other civilian suffering as a result of these policies.

But in reality, the Guardian has a long history of supporting Western state violence and of suppressing the truth of its consequences.

In 1956, the Guardian’s editors backed military action during the Suez crisis:

“The government is right to be prepared for military action at Suez“, the paper wrote, because Egyptian control of the canal would be “commercially damaging for the West and perhaps part of a plan for creating a new Arab Empire based on the Nile”. (Leader, August 2, 1956; cited, Murray Mcdonald, ‘50,000 editions of the imperialist, warmongering, hate-filled Guardian newspaper,’ July 2007; www.Media ?t=2617&highlight=murray+McDonald)

In 1991, a Guardian leader hailed the righteousness of Operation Desert Storm in almost biblical terms:

“The simple cause, at the end, is just. An evil regime in Iraq instituted an evil and brutal invasion. Our soldiers and airmen are there, at UN behest, to set that evil right. Their duties are clear ... let the momentum and the resolution be swift.” (Leader, January 17, 1991, ibid)

Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team, later reported that the ensuing allied bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq - electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, 'The Ambiguities of Power - British Foreign Policy since 1945', Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)

The Guardian used the word ‘evil’ three times in a single paragraph in its leader. The same emotive word has not been used once in any Guardian editorial to describe the Bush-Blair-Brown invasion of Iraq - a war crime that has cost the lives of one million people and forced 4 million more from their homes.

In March 1999, the lack of United Nations approval did not deter the Guardian from again supporting war:

“The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo.” (Leader, ‘The sad need for force,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999)

Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane later conceded of Kosovo: “this is a tale of how to tell lies and win wars, and how we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see in this nice clean war”. (O’Kane, The Guardian, December 16, 1995)

In December 2001, the Guardian celebrated a quick victory in Afghanistan:

“... the US-led campaign in Afghanistan continues to be far more successful than the pessimists, and even most optimists, ever thought possible. It is always harder to act than not to act, but the action taken by the US has been largely vindicated, at least in the short term... This is not a reason for silly gloating; but it certainly ought to be a reason for those who have consistently claimed to know that each stage of the operation would create some new and worse catastrophe to confess that they got it wrong. Their confidence turned out to be fear. Their apparent knowledge was in fact ignorance. Their belief that history would prove them right proved only the more useful lesson that history repeats itself until it does not. The war was largely over by Christmas after all.” (Leader, ‘They did it their way: George Bush, not Tony Blair, is the victor,’ The Guardian, December 8, 2001)

In February 2003, just four years after Kosovo, the Guardian was once again happy to lend credence to an obviously fraudulent pretext for war:

“It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell [at the Security Council], that it is simply all lies... Iraq must disarm.” (Leader, ‘Powell shoots to kill,’ The Guardian, February 6, 2003)

Four days after US tanks entered Baghdad in April 2003, leading Guardian commentator Hugo Young was quick to justify Blair’s war of aggression - the supreme war crime:

“For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like a vindication on an astounding scale... No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising.” (Young, ‘So begins Blair's descent into powerless mediocrity,’ The Guardian, April 13, 2003)

A Time To Say Goodbye

Like the Guardian’s animation, columnist and Guardian assistant editor Madeleine Bunting gives the impression that her newspaper is a compassionate voice against violence. Bunting recently lamented how the slaughter in Iraq had been “normalised into the background of our lives”. A “public revulsion” at the violence remains, but “the horror gives way to exhaustion”. (Bunting, ‘The Iraq war has become a disaster that we have chosen to forget,’ The Guardian, November 5, 2007)

Part of the problem, Bunting continued, was that the war has become almost impossible to report, taking “either terrifying courage or extraordinary ingenuity” to bring images to our screens of those caught up in the disaster.

But something doesn’t add up. As Bunting noted in her own article, fully one in six Iraqis has been displaced from the country, many escaping to Syria (1.4 million) and Jordan (750,000). Are we really to believe that it takes “terrifying courage” for journalists to fly to Damascus and Amman to cover their plight? And yet coverage of the suffering of Iraqi refugees is almost completely absent from the British media. In fact, there has been so little in-depth reporting we may struggle to imagine what it looks like.

A sublime example is provided by the courageous young Iraqi writer, Riverbend, on her Baghdad Burning website:

In her September 7 entry, ‘Leaving home,’ she gave an insight into the tragedy that has engulfed Iraq’s 4 million refugees. The misery of lives uprooted by fear and violence was communicated through the simple truth of the details recorded. As she and her family prepared to leave Baghdad, their life-long home, each family member was able to take just one suitcase full of personal belongings. Riverbend wrote:

“Two months ago, the suitcases were packed. My lone, large suitcase sat in my bedroom for nearly six weeks, so full of clothes and personal items, that it took me, E. and our six year old neighbor to zip it closed.... I packed and unpacked it four times. Each time I unpacked it, I swore I’d eliminate some of the items that were not absolutely necessary. Each time I packed it again, I would add more ‘stuff’ than the time before.”

“It was a tearful farewell as we left the house. One of my other aunts and an uncle came to say goodbye the morning of the trip. It was a solemn morning and I’d been preparing myself for the last two days not to cry. You won’t cry, I kept saying, because you’re coming back. You won’t cry because it’s just a little trip like the ones you used to take to Mosul or Basrah before the war...

“It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk - the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away - but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over - the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away.

“I knew then as I know now that these were all just items - people are so much more important. Still, a house is like a museum in that it tells a certain history. You look at a cup or stuffed toy and a chapter of memories opens up before your very eyes. It suddenly hit me that I wanted to leave so much less than I thought I did.

“I cried as we left - in spite of promises not to. The aunt cried... the uncle cried. My parents tried to be stoic but there were tears in their voices as they said their goodbyes. The worst part is saying goodbye and wondering if you’re ever going to see these people again. My uncle tightened the shawl I’d thrown over my hair and advised me firmly to ‘keep it on until you get to the border’. The aunt rushed out behind us as the car pulled out of the garage and dumped a bowl of water on the ground, which is a tradition - its to wish the travelers a safe return... eventually.”

How often have we been allowed to be touched by this kind of truthfulness humanising Iraqi misery for the reader? Where is the media focus on personal details with the power to transform anonymous masses, mere numbers, into people? Where is the depth of concern suggested by the Guardian in its website animation?

In fact, the Guardian did set aside 625 words for Riverbend to publish a curiously bland piece in May (’Goodbye Baghdad,’ May 11, 2007; comment/story/0,,2077244,00.html) - the only time she has ever appeared in the paper in four years of searing eyewitness commentary. Even we have published almost twice as many words (1,155) in a single article in the Guardian over the same period.

The only other appearance Riverbend has made in the UK press was in a much more substantial, 2,500-word piece in the Sunday Times (April 2, 2006). The other 19 mentions she has received in national quality newspapers have been mostly brief reviews of her book Baghdad Burning.

Riverbend’s words were written in a country that has seen perhaps a million people killed since 2003, and 1.5 million more killed as a result of sanctions since 1990. In his crucial book, A Different Kind Of War - The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq (Barghahn Books, 2006), former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, writes:

“At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical and mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-for-Food Programme.” (p.144)

The result:

“The [US-UK] hard-line approach prevailed, with the result that practically an entire nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and mental foundations.” (p.161)

And this was the major reason why, as von Sponeck notes, the number of excess deaths of children under five during 1991-1998 was between 400,000 and 500,000. (Ibid, p.165)

This was even before the even worse catastrophe that has followed the 2003 invasion. We need to be clear, than, that Riverbend’s words describe experiences comparable to history‘s very worst tragedies - she is a latter-day Anne Frank. And these events are happening now, a few hours from London, as a result of our own government’s actions.

It is shocking to read Riverbend and to realise just how alienated we are from the truth of Iraq. We know because, in reading her words - of the 6 year-old neighbour helping to heave the suitcase closed, of the beloved table where the homework was done - the reality of the Iraqi people suddenly rushes into focus. We can picture Riverbend doing her homework, we know her tears on leaving her home, we can imagine her little neighbour, because we have known all of these things in our own lives. She could be any articulate, intelligent young woman writing from any city in Britain.

We are reading the impressions of a soul sensitive to the pain of separation from familiar objects, to empty spaces on walls, to the uncertainty of separation from neighbours and relatives - and yet it is this same soul that has endured 12 years of ferocious bombing, dictatorship and sanctions, and four more years of cataclysmic violence. This consciousness, this sensitivity, could so easily have been snuffed out at any time, like so many others have been.

On February 20, the normally restrained Riverbend wrote of the gang rape of an Iraqi woman, Sabine, by Iraqi “security forces“. She concluded her piece with these words:

“As the situation continues to deteriorate both for Iraqis inside and outside of Iraq, and for Americans inside Iraq, Americans in America are still debating on the state of the war and occupation - are they winning or losing? Is it better or worse.

“Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts: It’s worse. It’s over. You lost. You lost the day your tanks rolled into Baghdad to the cheers of your imported, American-trained monkeys. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3000 troops. That is what you lost America. I hope the oil, at least, made it worthwhile.”

This honesty shamed just about every last journalist writing in the UK media. Riverbend now writes, far less often, as a refugee in Syria.

The Guardian Performance - Just Numbers

In the last six months, the Guardian has focused in less than a dozen articles specifically on the plight of Iraqi refugees. Mostly, these have been short, dry news pieces documenting the latest statistics of suffering from the latest aid agency reports. On July 31, Jonathan Steele covered a report by Oxfam and a network of 80 aid agencies that described “a nationwide catastrophe, with around 8 million Iraqis - almost a third of the population - in need of emergency aid”. (Steele, ’Children hardest hit by humanitarian crisis in Iraq,’ The Guardian, July 31, 2007)

On August 27, Ian Black’s report was titled “Displaced Iraqis double despite US military surge” (Black, The Guardian, August 27, 2007). No irony was intended in Black’s use of “despite”, although it would be unthinkable in coverage of any other illegal Great Power occupation.

More statistics followed from Suzanne Goldenberg on September 20: “2m Iraqis forced to flee their homes: Many move several times in search of safety and jobs Ethnic map redrawn, says Red Crescent report.” (Goldenberg, ‘Refugees in their own land,’ The Guardian, September 20, 2007)

There were no descriptions of spaces on walls, no little neighbours struggling with suitcases, no tears - just numbers.

Five days later, Richard Norton-Taylor reported similar figures in a 326-word piece. On October 11, Julian Borger noted that Amnesty International had criticised Britain over its forced returns of Iraqi refugees. The usual aid agencies were quoted:

“‘There are more and more makeshift camps in abysmal conditions, with terrible sanitation and water supply, very little or no healthcare, and no schools,’ Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said yesterday.” (Borger, ‘Iraqi provinces shut out internal refugees,’ The Guardian, October 11, 2007)

To be sure, the details of British government indifference were disturbing enough. Out of 740 rulings on the fate of Iraqi refugees last year Britain granted asylum to 30, according to Home Office figures. The US allowed entry to 535 Iraqis last year, less than a fifth of the number it accepted in 2000, three years before the war began.

And we recall how Tony Blair insisted, with quivering jaw, that compassion for the fate of Iraqi civilian suffering was of course at the very heart of the US-UK motivation for attacking that country:

"But the moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam... Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones. But there are also consequences of 'stop the war'. There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being..." (Blair, 'The price of my conviction', The Observer, February 16, 2003)

On October 20, the Guardian’s Michael Howard finally did supply a couple of paragraphs of personal testimony on the fate met by Iraqis who had fled their homes in Baghdad as they faced bombardment from Turkey in the North of Iraq. (Howard, ‘Kurdistan: Iraqis who fled homes in fear face new terror as Turkey targets PKK rebels,’ The Guardian, October 20, 2007)

And on December 5, Michael Howard wrote of “thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who are returning to their former homes following the recent lull in sectarian violence”. (Howard, ‘UN promises aid as displaced Iraqis head home,’ The Guardian, December 5, 2007)

This is the propaganda version of events being widely pushed throughout the media. A week earlier, the Guardian’s own Jonathan Steele had reported a UN survey of Iraqi refugees which described their real reasons for returning to Iraq: “only 14% felt security had improved. Forty-six per cent said they could no longer afford to stay in Syria, and 25% said their visas had expired and they were ‘obliged to leave‘.” (Steele, ‘Refugees celebrate first bus back to Iraq,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2007)

In the last six months, the Guardian has published not a single in-depth report based around eyewitness accounts of the suffering of Iraqi refugees.

This is not an isolated phenomenon linked to “compassion fatigue”, as Bunting would have us believe. Analysis of the media record shows that human beings are consistently divided into “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.

On January 19, 100 eminent doctors backed by a group of international lawyers wrote to Tony Blair of Iraq:

“Sick or injured children, who could otherwise be treated by simple means, are left to die in their hundreds because they do not have access to basic medicines or other resources. Children who have lost hands, feet, and limbs are left without prostheses.” (The Letter: 'Sick or injured children, who could be easily treated, are left to die in hundreds';

The doctors added:

“... we call on the UK Government not to walk away from this problem, but to fulfil its obligations that it entered into under Security Council Resolution 1483 during the period 22 May 2003 to 28 June 2004“.

But the government did walk away and the Guardian failed to report the story.

On September 14, a report by the British polling organisation, Opinion Research Business (ORB) revealed that 1.2 million Iraqi citizens “have been murdered” since the March 2003 US-UK invasion. ( x?NewsId=78)

The Guardian failed to report the poll.

In 2006, Hans von Sponeck published his forensic, damning account detailing US-UK responsibility for the catastrophic impact of sanctions on Iraq. The Guardian has not reviewed the book, nor even mentioned its existence.

Abandoned by the British government and the British media, the Guardian included, Iraq’s refugees continue their struggle for survival. Posting from Syria, one newly displaced refugee, Riverbend, writes:

“As we crossed the border and saw the last of the Iraqi flags, the tears began again. The car was silent except for the prattling of the driver who was telling us stories of escapades he had while crossing the border. I sneaked a look at my mother sitting beside me and her tears were flowing as well. There was simply nothing to say as we left Iraq. I wanted to sob, but I didn’t want to seem like a baby. I didn’t want the driver to think I was ungrateful for the chance to leave what had become a hellish place over the last four and a half years.”

In the same endearing spirit of endlessly thoughtful observation and indomitable optimism, she adds:

“We were all refugees - rich or poor. And refugees all look the same - there’s a unique expression you’ll find on their faces - relief, mixed with sorrow, tinged with apprehension. The faces almost all look the same.”

But for British journalism, their faces do not look the same - they do not even exist.


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Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:15:01 +0000

By: Nikolai Lanine and Media Lens


The writer Simon Louvish once told the story of a group of Soviets touring the United States before the age of glasnost. After reading the newspapers and watching TV, they were amazed to find that, on the big issues, all the opinions were the same. "In our country," they said, "to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what's your secret? How do you do it?" (Quoted, John Pilger, Tell Me No Lies, Random House, 2004, p.9)

It's a good question, one being asked by Nikolai Lanine who served with the Soviet Army during its 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, but who now lives and works as a peace activist in Canada. Lanine has spent several years trawling through Soviet-era newspaper archives comparing the propaganda of that time with modern Western media performance.

If the claims of modern professional journalism are to be believed, the similarities should be few and far between. Soviet-era media such as Pravda (meaning, ironically, “The Truth”) are a byword for state-controlled mendacity in the West. Thus Simon Jenkins commented in the Times in the 1980s: “There is a smack of Pravda about this pious self-censorship.” (Jenkins, ‘A new name on the tin mug of scandal,’ The Times, March 19, 1989)

Doris Lessing, recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote in 1992:

“Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.” (Lessing, ‘Questions you should never ask a writer,’ New York Times, October 13, 2007. Originally published June 26, 1992)

This standard Western association of thought control with totalitarian societies is a red herring. In fact, thought control is far more characteristic of ‘democratic’ societies - where state violence is no longer an option, propaganda comes into its own.

After all, it is a remarkable fact that our society never discusses the possibility that a corporate media system monitoring a society dominated by large corporations might be something other than free, open and honest. Consider Lessing’s analysis in the light of these comments from media analyst Danny Schechter:

“We are bombarded with information, although if you look closely, most of it has a similar grammar, a similar focus and similar sources, all revolving around institutions and topics that most viewers admit in survey after survey they don’t really understand.” (Schechter, The More You Watch The Less You Know, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.43)

Verbiage “designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything”, in other words, because it is “dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended”.

How “dangerous”? David Barsamian recently asked Noam Chomsky why one regular New York Times commentator refused to recognise blindingly obvious truths embarrassing to US power. Chomsky responded:

“If he wrote that, then he wouldn‘t be writing for the New York Times. There is a certain discipline that you have to meet. In a well-run society, you don’t say things you know. You say things that are required for service to power.” (Chomsky, What We Say Goes, Penguin, 2007, p.2)

We are very grateful to Nikolai Lanine for agreeing to co-author this piece and for his hard work over several months in making it possible. All quotations from the Soviet press archives were translated from the original by him. We are also grateful to Noam Chomsky who originally put us in touch with Nikolai.

A Humanitarian War of Self-Defence

Inspired by the success of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, US-backed Afghan militants – including future founders of the Taliban movement – stepped up their attacks on Afghan government forces in the late 1970s.

Fearful of the “threat to the security of [the Soviet] southern boarders”(Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, Secrets of the Afghan War, 1991, p.48) and concerned that the conflict might spread to neighbouring Soviet republics - and so risk radicalising their dominantly Muslim populations (accounting for more than 20% of the Soviet population) - the Soviet government invaded. The invasion was a straightforward act of aggression, an attempt to crush a perceived threat to Soviet security and power.

Inevitably, the Soviet government portrayed its invasion as an act of humanitarian intervention initiated at the “request of the [Afghan] government”. (Pravda, April 27, 1980) The aim was “to prevent the establishment of... a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.48)

Once the “terrorists” had been defeated, Afghanistan would be left to become “a stable, friendly country”. The invasion, then, was in the best interests of the Afghan people - the focus of the Soviet government’s benevolent concern.

The Soviet media presented the invasion essentially as a peacekeeping operation intended to prevent enemy atrocities. Krasnaya Zvezda [Red Star], a major Soviet military newspaper, reported in May 1985:

"Since the establishment of this [Soviet] base, [the Mujahadeen]'s predatory extortions, violence, [and] reprisals have stopped; and poor peasants are [now] working the land peacefully." (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 1, 1985)

The same paper noted:

“Before the arrival of the Soviet soldiers here, [the area] was literally swarming with [insurgents]... [who] were ruthlessly killing... everyone, who was desperately longing for a new life... However, Soviet soldiers arrived, and life in the district has started normalising." (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 27, 1985)

Voenni Vestnik [Military Bulletin] took it for granted that "...[Soviet] paratroopers are protecting peaceful [Afghan] citizens". (Voenni Vestnik #4, 1983)

This, of course, was a reversal of the truth that the Soviet superpower was killing large numbers of civilians and causing great suffering to the population.

Pravda insisted that the Afghan army had conducted military operations “at the demand of the local population” and because of “the danger to lives and property of citizens” posed by the resistance. (Pravda, February 7, 1988)

Military personnel constantly echoed government claims that intervention was required “to help the hapless Afghan people to defend their freedom, their future”. (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 5, 1988)

The invasion was also portrayed as an act of self-defence to prevent a “neighboring country with a shared Soviet-Afghan border... [from turning] into a bridgehead for... [Western] aggression against the Soviet state”. (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) Soviet intervention was also a response to unprovoked violence by Islamic fundamentalists (described as “freedom fighters“ in the West), who, it was claimed, planned to export their fundamentalist struggle across the region “’under the green banner of Jihad’, to the territory of the Soviet Central-Asian republics”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.45) The Soviet public were told they faced a stark choice: either fight the menace abroad, or do nothing and later face a much greater threat on home soil that would, geopolitically, “put the USSR in a very difficult situation”. (Sovetskaya Rossia [Soviet Russia], February 11, 1993)

This theme was endlessly stressed by the Soviet media system - Soviet forces were “not only defending Afghan villages. They keep the peace on the borders of [our] homeland”. (Pravda, April 2, 1987) The goal was "peace and security in the region, and also the security of the southern border of the USSR". (Mezhdunarodnyi Ezhegodnik, 1981, p.224) The unquestioned assumption was that Soviet forces had no option but to act “pre-emptively” in “self-defence”.

Reading Soviet propaganda on these themes inevitably recalls Tony Blair’s famous assertion:

"What does the whole of our history teach us, I mean British history in particular? That if when you're faced with a threat you decide to avoid confronting it short term, then all that happens is that in the longer term you have to confront it and confront it an even more deadly form." (ITN News at 6:30, January 31, 2003)

To this day, many former Soviet military and media commentators continue to reinforce similar claims. Former top Soviet military adviser in Afghanistan, General Mahmut Gareev, writes in his book "My Last War" (1996) that the "situation in Afghanistan was of great importance" for the security of the Soviet state (p.363). The "high political, military and strategic interests of the USSR demanded certain actions and decisions". (p.36) The Soviet leadership was "aware that events in the south of the country were exceptionally important and had great significance for the security of the Soviet state. It was impossible not to react". (p.35-36)

After the 1979 invasion, the Afghan insurgency repeatedly launched attacks on border areas, including rocket strikes on Soviet towns. Ignoring the fact that these attacks were a +response+ to Soviet aggression, the Soviet media described them as “provocative criminal acts against the Soviet territory”. (Izvestiya, April 20, 1987)

For Democracy And Human Rights - America And Britain Attack

In near-identical fashion, the British and American governments have presented their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as acts of self-defence which also happen to be in the best interests of the Afghan and Iraqi populations.

In 2001, the then UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon insisted that, in Afghanistan, Britain “was acting in self-defence against Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'ida network”. (Ben Russell, ‘Parliament - terrorism debate,’ The Independent, November 2, 2001)

As with the Soviet media, the self-defensive, humanitarian intent behind both invasions are staples of much US-UK media reporting. On the April 12, 2005 edition of the BBC's Newsnight programme, diplomatic editor Mark Urban discussed the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces since January:

“It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work.” (Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)

When George Bush declared: "we are not conquerors; we're liberators”, he could have been quoting one of the top Soviet generals in Afghanistan, who said:

“We didn't set ourselves the task of conquering anyone: we wanted to stabilise the situation.” (Varennikov, CNN Interview, 1998)

In April 2002, Rory Carroll wrote in the Guardian:

“Whoever is trying to destabilise Afghanistan is doing a good job. The broken cities and scorched hills so recently liberated are rediscovering fear and uncertainty.” (Carroll, 'Blood-drenched warlord's return,' The Observer, April 14, 2002)

The point being that, for Carroll, as for George Bush, Afghanistan really had been “liberated” by the world’s superpower.

The New York Times wrote in September 2007:

”Military statistics show that U.S. forces have made some headway at protecting the Iraqi population, but there are questions over whether the gains can be sustained.” (Michael R. Gordon, ‘Assessing the “surge”,’ New York Times, September 8, 2007)

Even in reporting that a large proportion of world opinion wants to see the US leave Iraq, the BBC managed to boost the claimed humanitarian intent:

“Some 39% of people in 22 countries said troops should leave now, and 28% backed a gradual pull-out. Just 23% wanted them to stay until Iraq was safe.” (Most people 'want Iraq pull-out,' hi/middle_east/6981553.stm, September 7, 2007)

The idea that Iraq might not be safe until US-UK troops leave, is unthinkable to many Western journalists, as it was to Soviet journalists.

In some cases, Western reporting perhaps even surpassed Soviet propaganda. As US tanks entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, ITN's John Irvine declared:

"A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery." (ITN Evening News, April 9, 2003)

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were in response to decades of US-UK violence, and support for violence, in the Middle East. For what it’s worth, Osama bin Laden specifically cited Western oppression in Palestine, Western sanctions against Iraq, and US bases in Saudi Arabia, as reasons for the attacks. And yet, as in the Soviet case, US-UK aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq was justified as a response to attacks that were “unprovoked”. Blair even cited the 9/11 attacks as evidence to this effect on the grounds that the attacks had taken place long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In both the West and the USSR, the occupations were, and are, presented as fundamentally well-intentioned acts motivated by rational fears and humanitarian aspirations.

In Accordance With International Law

According to the Soviet government, the 1979 invasion was justified by international law (Pravda, December 31, 1979; Gareev, 1996, p.40) and was "in complete accordance with... the 1978 Soviet-Afghan Treaty". (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) The Soviet state had to honour its obligations "to provide armed support to the Afghan national army". (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.47)

In 1988, Izvestiya quoted general Boris Gromov, the commander of Soviet troops in Afghanistan:

"We came to Afghanistan at the end of 1979 at the request of the lawful government [of Afghanistan] and in accordance with the agreement between our countries based on the... Charter of the United Nations." (Izvestiya, July 2, 1988)

Soviet journalists consistently supported these claims. Pravda and Izvestiya wrote in 1980 that Soviet forces were in Afghanistan "at the request of the [Afghan] government with the only goal to protect the friendly Afghan people” (Pravda, March 16, 1980) and “to help [this] neighbouring country... to repel external aggression". (Izvestiya, January 3, 1980)

Such views were frequently expressed by Soviet elites and mainstream journalists. The 1980 issue of International Annual: Politics and Economics, published by the Soviet Academy of Science, observed that the Afghan government “repeatedly asked the USSR" to provide "military aid". The "Soviet government granted the [Afghan] request, and the limited contingent of Soviet troops was sent into the country," Mezhdunarodnyi Ezhegodnik noted (1980, p.208). Such actions were entirely in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and Article 4 of the [Soviet-Afghan] Treaty of December 5, 1978, Ezhegodnik added. (1981, p.224)

Soviet leaders and commentators criticised and debated, not the fundamental +illegality+ of the invasion, but the merit of the +strategies+ for achieving its goals.

Soviet Chief of General Staff Ogarkov argued in 1979 (before the invasion), that the decision to send troops to Afghanistan was “inexpedient” because the initial invasion force of 75,000 was insufficient to the task, which was to “stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.” It was “impossible to achieve this goal with such a [small] force”, he claimed. (Quoted, Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, 1991, p.59). General Gareev, a top Soviet advisor to the Afghan armed forces, argued in his memoirs that “from the military point of view, it was perhaps more advisable to conduct a more massive and powerful invasion of Afghanistan”. (Gareev, 1996, pp.45-46)

In the 1980s, the invasion was seen by many Russians as a “mistake” rather than a crime. The attack was deemed legal and well-intentioned, but poorly executed and at excessive cost to the +Soviets+ - a view that is commonly held to this day. Apart from extremely rare exceptions describing Soviet “participation in the Afghan war” as “criminal” (Trud [Labour] newspaper, January 22, 1992), the invasion has almost never been described as an act of Soviet aggression.

When the US and UK governments talk of their “just cause” in Afghanistan they are essentially repeating the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya which quoted an Afghan official declaring that the Soviet and Afghan soldiers were fighting “for a just cause and happy new life for all Afghan people”. (Izvestiya, January 14, 1986)

Similarly, and almost exactly echoing Izvestiya, an Observer editorial commented in October 2006:

"The UK has responsibilities to the elected democratic government of Iraq, under a UN mandate. Britain must honour its commitments to its partners in Baghdad and in Washington." (Leader, ‘Blair should heed the general's reality check,’ The Observer, October 15, 2006)

While the manifest illegality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is presented by newspapers like the Observer as a kind of initial teething problem rendered irrelevant by a subsequent “UN mandate“, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan takes a different view:

“The Security Council’s mandate was for us to help the Iraqi people. I don’t think one can say that the Security Council sanctioned the occupation of Iraq, it merely noted the occupation of Iraq and asked the UN to help the Iraqi people...“ (Mark Disney, On The Edge, August 2007)

The only US/UK responsibility under international law is to leave.

Closely echoing Soviet performance, the US-UK media essentially never challenge the fundamental and obvious illegality of both invasions, focusing also on “mistakes”. Reviewing the situation in Iraq, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian:

“... the question being asked here [Washington], even by staunch Republicans who share the president's goals, is: why has the Bush administration been so incompetent?” (Garton Ash, ‘Iraq's government has failed, but America's isn't doing so well either,’ The Guardian, September 6, 2007)

For Garton Ash, as for most Guardian commentators, the key issue is “incompetence”, not the supreme criminality that is the waging of a war of aggression.

On August 20, 2007, the New York Times website linked to an article titled, ‘The Good War, Still to Be Won,’ with the synopsis: “We will never know just how much better the fight in Afghanistan might be going if it had been managed more competently over the past six years.” (New York Times, August 20, 2007)

This closely echoes Soviet media performance on the 1979 invasion, where there was also close to zero recognition of the illegality of the invasion, as described reflexively in the Western media at the time. Ironically, contemporary US-UK media are closely matching the Soviet propaganda they ridiculed in the 1970s and 1980s.

To their credit, the Soviet media did at least, on occasion, +mention+ the issue of international law. In their book, The Record Of The Paper, Howard Friel and Richard Falk note that in the seventy editorials on Iraq that appeared in the New York Times from September 11, 2001, to March 21, 2003, the words ‘UN Charter’ and ‘international law’ never appeared. (Friel and Falk, The Record Of The Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, Verso, 2004, p.15)

We asked Hugh Sykes, a BBC journalist reporting from Baghdad, for his opinion on the issue of legality in relation to the invasion of Iraq. Sykes replied:

“The Americans et al always say they are here 'at the invitation of the democratically elected Iraqi government'.

“It certainly WAS an illegal occupation before the elections in 2005, but is it still illegal?

“I tend not to put phrases like that into reports because I think I should stick to reporting events and providing analysis when asked.” (Email to Media Lens, September 9, 2007)

Imagine a comparable comment from a BBC journalist in the 1980s:

‘The Soviets et al always say they are here 'at the invitation of the democratically elected Afghan government'. It certainly WAS an illegal occupation before... but is it still illegal?’

In fact, of course, Western reporters were never in doubt about the truth of the Soviet invasion. When we conducted a search of newspaper archives, we found, for example, dozens of media references in the 1980s to the Soviet “puppet government” in Kabul. The New York Times commented in 1988:

“Soviet troop withdrawal will leave behind a puppet Government whose ministries are laced with Soviet ‘'advisers.’” (A.M. Rosenthal, ‘The great game goes on,’ New York Times, February 12, 1988)

In February 1990, Tony Allen-Mills reported for the Independent:

“Many former freedom fighters have made their peace with the puppet government left behind by the departing Soviet army.” (Allen-Mills, Out of Kabul: ‘Why pride must not come before a Najibullah fall,’ The Independent, February 19, 1990)

By contrast, the same newspaper reported of the Taliban in June 2006:

“Their focus is the ‘puppet’ government of Mr Karzai and its complicity in what is portrayed as the Western military persecution of ordinary Afghans.” (Tom Coghlan, ‘Karzai questions Nato campaign as Taliban takes to hi-tech propaganda,’ The Independent, June 23, 2006)

Readers will search long and hard before they find an example of a news reporter describing the current Afghan government as a “puppet government” without the use of inverted commas.

As for the idea that BBC journalists avoid controversial “phrases” and merely “stick to reporting events“, the day after Sykes’ reply the BBC website observed:

“The surge was designed to allow space for political reconciliation...” (‘US surge “failure” says Iraq poll, BBC online, September 10, 2007;

It is not, in fact, less controversial to suggest that the massive increase in US violence “was designed to allow space for political reconciliation”, than it is to argue that the invasion was illegal.

Blaming ‘External Interference’

A striking feature of Soviet media performance on Afghanistan was its focus on “external interference” - primarily US in origin - and the role of this interference in fuelling the war.

In 1988, Pravda reported that Afghan president Najibula had criticised this ”interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan”. (Pravda, February 9, 1988) The newspaper failed to mention that the Soviet Union was itself guilty of illegal external “interference“. Instead, journalists blamed the West for ”pouring oil onto the fire of the Afghan conflict”. (Pravda, February 22, 1987) Ignoring the fact that much of the fighting in Afghanistan was in +response+ to the Soviet occupation, the media were also heavily critical of Iran and Pakistan.

Iran was criticised for “supporting the armed Islamic opposition” and for “sending its political emissaries and agents into the territory of Afghanistan”. (Spolnikov, 1990, pp.104-105) Russian journalist Andrei Greshnov, who worked as a TASS correspondent in Afghanistan for eight years in the 1980s, describes in his book “Afghanistan: Hostages of Time” (2006) how for several years, starting in the early 1980s, he was tasked with collecting information on Iranian Shia infiltration across the Afghan border near Herat. Iranian influence was very tangible in Western Afghanistan and widely confirmed by the testimony of Soviet soldiers interviewed (by Lanine) over the last 20 years.

We wonder how the Western media would have reacted if, in response to claims that Tehran had supported the Afghan insurgency and resisted their illegal invasion, Soviet officials had proposed bombing Iran. One can only guess at the level of Western outrage and horror at such a clear example of Soviet aggression, if an attack +had+ taken place. Presumably the press would never have tired of reminding us that the Soviets’ real goal in the region was control of oil.

The Soviet press also directed fierce criticism at Pakistan for training and aiding Afghan jihadis, and for providing “the bridgehead for an undeclared war against [Afghanistan]”. (Izvestiya, February 19, 1986) Readers were left with the impression that “external interference” and “terrorism” were the +only+ reasons for the continuing bloodshed, with Soviet troops acting in self-defence to bring “stability” to Afghanistan. In most reporting, the Soviet role in sustaining the conflict was not even a consideration.

The Soviet media heavily emphasised that weapons captured by Soviet and Afghan troops “were manufactured in the USA, UK, Italy, Iran, Pakistan”. (Izvestiya, July 7, 1987) These arms were “arriving from Iran [and] Pakistan” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 4, 1987), and “exploding and shooting in Afghanistan, killing children, women, soldiers...”. (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 14, 1986)

Closely echoing Soviet government propaganda, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 25, 2007:

"Unfortunately the Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by... supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.” (‘US imposes new sanctions on Iran,’ BBC website, October 25, 2007)

As in the Soviet case, the US-UK media have heavily boosted the US-UK governments’ emphasis on “external interference“. A June 17, 2007, New York Times report observed:

"American forces have begun a wide offensive against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia on the outskirts of Baghdad." (Thom Shanker and Michael Gordon, 'GIs in Iraq open major offensive against al Qaeda,' New York Times, June 17, 2007)

The BBC's Andrew North emphasised the same alleged enemy:

"10,000 US and Iraqi troops are taking part in an operation against al-Qaeda." (North, 'US launches major Iraq offensive,' BBC Online, June 19, 2007; go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/6766217.stm)

Occasional glimpses of truth defy the rhetoric. The Iraq Study Group Report, published in December 2006, concluded:

"Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency... Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts." (The Iraq Study Group Report, December 6, 2006; report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army, said of Iraq in September, 2007:

"By motivation... our opponents are Iraqi nationalists, and are most concerned with their own needs - the majority are not bad people." (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Embrace returning troops, pleads army chief,’ The Guardian, September 22, 2007)

This was a remarkable comment - it is hard to recall any journalist ever contradicting government demonisation of the Iraqi resistance so completely. A more typical description was provided by senior ITN correspondent James Mates in June 2004, when he reviled the "determined and brutal terrorists" threatening Iraq, which was "now sovereign". (ITN, 18:30 News, June 28, 2004) There is indeed hideous terrorism in Iraq, but British journalists generally find it simpler, more convenient, to include all insurgents in this category.

Reflexive demonisation of Iran is also, of course, a constant focus of media reporting. A New York Times article observed:

“U.S. Says Iranian Arms Seized in Afghanistan" (New York Times, April 18, 2007). These “new signs of interference by Iran have raised concerns about the obstacles to a stable and democratic postwar Iraq”. (‘U.S. warns Iran against interference,” The Sun, Baltimore, April 24, 2003)

In similar vein, the Observer reported in August:

“The conflict in Helmand has morphed way beyond that of crushing the Taliban. The nightmare scenario has unfolded: the Helmand valley has mutated into a geopolitical battleground for jihadists, a blooding ground for budding martyrs from across the globe.

“Convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers carrying holy warriors stream daily from Pakistan's porous border to target British teenagers.” (Mark Townsend, ‘Afghan Conflict: 'It's bleak and ferocious, but is it still winnable?', The Observer, August 19, 2007)

An Independent leader commented:

“There must be an acceptance also that the Taliban will never be utterly defeated until they are denied a safe haven in the western provinces of Pakistan.” (Leader, ‘Politicians must accept the reality on the ground,’ The Independent, August 14, 2007)

The point is not that external support for the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq exists, as it certainly existed for insurgents fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The point is that, in contemporary Western media, as in the Soviet case, the non-Western source of “external interference” is reflexively condemned as illegitimate, while the legitimacy of US-UK “external interference” is simply assumed.

Patriotism And ‘Backing Our Troops’

In their speeches, Soviet officials regularly affirmed the military’s “deep belief in the noble cause of helping the friendly nation” of Afghanistan (Pravda, 15 May 1988), stressing that Soviet advisors were working “shoulder to shoulder with... Afghans”. (Zhitnuhin, & Likoshin, 1990, p.169)

One Soviet journalist claimed of Soviet political advisors:

"They went to Afghanistan with a sincere belief in the high purpose of their mission. For most of them this belief grew into a conviction." (Zhitnuhin, & Likoshin, p.171)

The steady supply of media stories lauding the motivation and heroism of the troops on the ground reflected the high status of the military in Soviet society. The writings of most “embedded” journalists who spent time with troops were full of admiration and respect for all ranks from privates to generals. Even Gennady Bocharov, whose book on Afghanistan is full of harsh criticism of the Soviet system, presents a sympathetic account of Soviet soldiers, and also of Gromov, the commander of the Soviet occupation. Bocharov describes Gromov as a “charming general” with “more compassion than any priest” who, nonetheless, “as a regular army man... carried out his inhuman mission in Afghanistan with precision and efficiency”. (Bocharov, 1990, p.142)

Similar sentiments expressed towards front-line troops are found throughout Greshnov’s book and provide a striking contrast to his harsh critique of the Soviet military leadership. He describes how, on one occasion, his bonding with Soviet troops left him speechless with emotion.

These ties were naturally reflected in reporting by most journalists that depicted fighting men as brave and selfless, in many cases justifiably. But, more generally, the media’s emphasis on the heroism of individual soldiers helped bury the hidden, deeper truths, namely: the illegality and appalling destructiveness of the invasion.

Western journalism is of course similarly full of patriotic praise for troops under fire. As US tanks arrived in Baghdad and US troops prepared to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, ITN's veteran correspondent, Mike Nicholson, was positively gleeful:

"They've covered his face in the Stars and Stripes! This gets better by the minute... Ha ha, better by the minute." (Tonight with Trevor McDonald, ITV, April 11, 2003)

Nicholson was describing the completion of an appalling act of aggression, a war that had been launched illegally. And as we commented at the time, even the troops draping the US flag over the face of Saddam Hussein’s statue quickly understood that this was a deeply offensive and foolish act.

Thus, also, the BBC's version of events in Iraq:

"You can marvel at the Americans' can-do spirit... in the [US] sergeant's case the will to carry on comes from a sense of responsibility towards the people of Iraq." (Mark Urban, '"Can-do" spirit of US troops in Baghdad,' Newsnight, May 17, 2007)

Another BBC journalist, Paul Wood, recently described his “journey through Iraq's Sunni heartland with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne". Wood concluded his article with these comments on the US forces:

"They must win here if they are to leave Iraq.

"Even if things are turning around, their local allies remain uncertain, the population divided, the casualties, although reduced, keep coming.

"There is much still to do." (Wood, ‘Voyage into Iraq's Sunni centre,’ BBC website, October 26, 2007;

Despite all the deceptions, false pretexts, evident illegality, and evident motive of control of oil, Wood presented the occupation as a peacekeeping operation. This is indistinguishable from the performance of the totalitarian Soviet press in the 1980s.

Timothy Richard, a former soldier with Iowa Army National Guard, who refused to deploy to Iraq and became a war resister, writes:

“The problem with the media’s perception in the US, is what I’ve come to call the ‘cult of the soldier’.” (Email to Lanine, August 10, 2007)

Richard says that the media followed the government’s lead in creating the slogan “Support our Troops”, so that even opponents of the war felt obliged to conform.

Soviet critics of the Afghan war were also accused of a shameful lack of patriotism and a failure to support the troops. Thus, in 1988, Izvestiya quoted general Gromov’s reference to “irresponsible” comments by people who “doubt the heroic deeds” of Soviet soldiers: “Nobody, not a single person in our country, has the right to ruin the faith of young people in the sanctity of the military biography that wasn’t lived in vain.” (Izvestiya, July 2, 1988)

Invisible Civilian Casualties

The Soviet media completely suppressed the devastating consequences of the occupation for the civilian population of Afghanistan. On occasions when the cost of the war was discussed, it focused on the cost to the Soviet Union. It is estimated that 1.5 million Afghans (Bradsher, 1999) and 15,000 Soviets (The New York Times, February 16, 1989) died during the nine years of fighting. But the Soviet media had little interest in Afghan casualties. Aside from a tiny number of dissidents, few voiced concern for a civilian population that bore the brunt of the suffering.

Even during Gorbachev's semi-liberal reforms of the late 1980s, discussion of Afghan suffering was strictly prohibited. Andrei Greshnov describes how he repeatedly wrote about Afghan civilian casualties in the monthly classified reports submitted by all TASS journalists to the Soviet leadership in Moscow (it was of course important for decision makers to know the truth of the situation on the ground). Greshnov recalls:

“The government +knew+ the truth about the situation in Afghanistan, including about civilian casualties – I personally wrote about it. But such information was never allowed to reach the general public through the mainstream Soviet press.” (Phone interview with Lanine, August 8, 2007)

By contrast, Western journalists are largely unconstrained by state controls. And yet, in early January 2002, American writer Edward Herman estimated that media coverage afforded to the death of Nathan Chapman - the first and, at that point, sole US combat casualty of the invasion of Afghanistan - had exceeded coverage afforded to +all+ Afghan victims of bombing and starvation. CNN Chair Walter Isaacson is reported to have declared that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan“. (Howard Kurtz, ‘CNN chief orders “balance” in war news,’ Washington Post, October 31, 2001)

The US-UK bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. On September 19, 2001, the Guardian had reported forty deaths per day in Maslakh refugee camp to the west of Herat in Afghanistan, “many because they arrive too weak to survive after trying to hold out in their villages“ as the threat of bombing shut down all aid convoys. By January 2002, Maslakh contained 350,000 people, making it the largest refugee camp in the world at that time. Aid agencies reported that 100 people were dying every day in the camp.

Occasional references to this disaster did appear. Between September 2001 and January 2002, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Maslakh a total of five times - an average of once per month. A Lexis-Nexis database search in May 2005 showed that Maslakh had been mentioned 21 times over the previous four years in all UK national newspapers.

On October 29, 2004, the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and Columbia University, New York: 'Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey.' ( article/PIIS0140673604174412/fulltext)

The authors estimated that almost 100,000 more Iraqi civilians had died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred. The report was met with instant (and as it turns out, fraudulent) government dismissals, and a low-key, sceptical response, or outright silence, in the media. There was no horror, no outrage.

Our media search in November 2004, showed that the Lancet report had at that time not been mentioned at all by the Observer, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Star, the Sun and many others. The Express devoted 71 words to the report. A similar reception awaited the October 2006 Lancet study, which reported 655,000 excess deaths since the 2003 invasion.

This, however, does represent a difference from, and improvement over, Soviet media performance, which suppressed almost all discussion of civilian casualties. The Western media +does+ discuss casualties, but it consistently and heavily downplays the true cost of US-UK violence. As with the Soviet media, the concern is invariably for the cost to ‘us’. Also, the suffering is inevitably portrayed as unavoidable - alternative action would have resulted in far worse suffering, we are told - or the result of ‘mistakes’ rooted in benevolent intentions.

A further difference is that the Western media system is to an important extent responsive to media activism - rational criticism +does+ have an impact. However limited, this represents a valuable avenue for improving media performance.

The Cost of Leaving

In the 1980s, the continued presence of Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan was justified on the grounds that leaving would result in an even bloodier civil war. In his speech, published in Izvestiya on February 10, 1988, Gorbachev asked:

"Are military clashes going to intensify after the withdrawal of Soviet troops? It is hardly necessary to prophesy, but... such a development can be prevented if those who are now fighting against their brothers will take a responsible position and try, in practice, to join peaceful reconstruction."

The Soviet leadership claimed that they would leave Afghanistan only on the condition that “external interference stops”(Pravda, January 7,1988) and that “the faster the pace of establishing peace on Afghan soil, the easier it will be for Soviet troops to leave”. (Izvestiya, February 10, 1988)

Again, the official position was echoed uncritically by the Soviet media. Writing of planned negotiations in Geneva on the future of Afghanistan, Pravda's commentator Ovchinnikov stressed that "the cessation of external interference" in Afghanistan was a precondition that would "allow Soviet troops to withdraw". He accused the US administration of avoiding positive solutions and stressed that the problem was "not the date of the beginning of the Soviet troops' withdrawal but the date of the stopping of American aid to [the mujahideen]". Ovchinnikov literally repeated the official line that Soviet soldiers "will leave Afghanistan with a sense of duty accomplished when external interference stops". (Pravda, January 11, 1988)

The journal Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn commented:

"It is professed that as soon as we leave [Afghanistan], there will be a slaughter, slaughter, slaughter. My experience in Afghanistan indicates that, probably, there will be a civil war, [and] there will be fighting. This is an internecine war. When I was flying out of Afghanistan last year, I thought that after our withdrawal some part of NDPA would be wiped out by the vengeful Islamic movement." (Prohanov, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn [International Affairs] #7, 1988)

In similar vein, the Financial Times wrote in April: "this grim situation could easily get worse - if the Americans pulled out too quickly, or set a deadline for withdrawal that simply encouraged their foes to wait them out Iraq could tip into a full-scale civil war". (Leader, ‘No easy way out of Iraq Congress should not set an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal,’ Financial Times, April 11, 2007)

By contrast, Moskovskie Novosti argued that the rationale for staying had not been the whole story:

"The withdrawal of the Soviet troops raised a lot of defence problems for Afghanistan, but also opened the road for the solution of political problems." (Moskovskie Novosti, May 21, 1989)

The 2004 BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, featured a 1987 debate between a Soviet journalist and commentator Vladimir Pozner (mistakenly identified in the documentary as a "Soviet spokesman in the US"), and American intellectuals, including Richard Perle, then Assistant Secretary of Defense. Pozner commented:

"I believe that we can get out [of Afghanistan], provided that no more aid is given to what people here call ‘freedom fighters‘, and we call ‘counter-revolutionaries‘. I believe that’s possible, provided that the United States is also interested in the same.”

Perle responded:

"Well, it’s not very complicated. They arrived in a matter of days, on Christmas Eve in 1979; they could be home by Christmas Eve, if they decided to leave Afghanistan and let the Afghans decide their own future. If you leave, the problem of support to the mujaheddin solves itself.” (

Not quite the American position with regards to its own occupations today.

Soviet And Western Media - Similarities And Differences

Western reviews of Soviet media performance generally patronise Soviet journalists as submissive, eager functionaries of a state propaganda machine. These analyses fail to take into account the extreme difficulty of reporting honestly from within a totalitarian system. Unlike Western journalists, Soviet reporters were extremely vulnerable and essentially powerless. In a society where everyone was “merely a cog in a gigantic state-party machine,” Bocharov writes, “journalists played the part of rivets. If the body of the machine vibrated, then every rivet had to vibrate with it. And not individually, but together”. (Bocharov, p.56)

Why did Russian journalists who had extensively covered the victims of US aggression in Vietnam just a few years earlier not try to expose the truth of Afghan suffering?

The fact is that some +did+ try. This is made clear in the writings of Soviet journalists, two of whom (Andrei Greshnov and Sergei Bukovsky) Lanine recently interviewed by phone and email. For these journalists to even ask awkward questions was to place their careers in jeopardy. Those who were openly critical faced far more serious consequences.

Radio Moscow news announcer Vladimir Danchev famously called Soviet troops in Afghanistan "invaders" and “occupiers”, and even called on Afghans to continue their resistance. Danchev was quickly taken off air, investigated by the KGB, and forced to undergo psychiatric treatment (relatively mild punishment that reflected international awareness of Danchev‘s plight. See: New York Times, May 27 and December 15, 1983).

Other Soviet journalists had little choice but to stick to the official line. In the 1980s, multiple layers of censorship strictly blocked all attempts to discuss Afghan civilian casualties. Bocharov describes (1990) how we was forbidden even from mentioning +Soviet+ casualties (p.53) - to refer to the deaths of Afghan civilians was unthinkable. Articles by Soviet journalists from Afghanistan “were edited mercilessly”, Bocharov writes:

“The final touches would be applied in Moscow” by the civilian and military censorship. (pp.51-52)

In an email to Lanine (July 22, 2007), Bukovsky recalled how, in 1988, he published an article exposing the role of senior military incompetence in the deaths of Special Forces soldiers. Such courageous expressions of defiance were so unusual that Bukovsky was convinced he would be arrested along with the senior military censor, who Bukovsky describes as a "decent officer" who “fought hard with” him “for every word” in the published article. After the piece was published on July 14, 1988, Bukovsky and his censor expected officials to arrive and arrest them.

The arrest never happened, but the military censor was officially reprimanded and fell out of favour with his superiors. Bukovsky was interrogated by military counter-intelligence and his loyalty challenged. He was also strongly criticised for quoting a Soviet officer to the effect that Afghan insurgents "never leave their dead and wounded behind" - a comment that contradicted the official depiction of the Mujahadeen as "foul, blood-thirsty rogues". "I was [literally] spat at" for writing that, Bukovsky recalls.

The relationship of the Western media to centres of power is very different. By comparison with Soviet media workers who, Bocharov emphasises, “wrote what they were +ordered+ to [italics added]”, Western journalists have much greater freedom. And yet, crucially, the outcomes of media coverage on major themes - the illegality of launching wars of aggression, the fraudulence of alleged humanitarian motives, and the costs to civilian populations - are much the same. In both cases, a misinformed population was, and is, bombarded with "necessary illusions."

Western media have presented the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan from within strikingly similar frameworks to those provided by the Soviet government and media:

‘We’ (US-UK and the USSR) are acting in self-defence, out of good intentions, at the request of foreign governments and/or to spread democracy, while our enemies commit acts of aggression against us and the people we are trying to help.

‘Our’ goal is stability and peace - our enemies strive to intimidate through terror.

‘We’ act according to international law - our enemies are criminal, murderous, morally indefensible and guilty of “external interference“.

‘Our’ attempts to promote ‘values’ abroad are noble because inherently superior - our enemies’ values are medieval, irrational or non-existent.

The most revealing similarity is that the Western media fail, just as the Soviet media failed, to ask the most crucial questions:

By what legal and moral +right+ did we invade in the first place?

Without exploring these fundamental issues, and without incorporating honest answers in frameworks of reporting, the media neglect their most important task - the task described by the courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass: “to monitor power”.

Like the Soviet media, Western professional journalists adopt and echo government statements as their own, as self-evidently true, without subjecting them to rational analysis and challenge. As a result, they allow themselves to become the mouthpieces of state power. It is fundamentally the same role performed by the media under Soviet totalitarianism.

The consequences for the victims of Soviet and US-UK state power are also fundamentally the same.

Selected Bibliography

In Russian

Gareev, M.A. (1996). Moya Poslednyaya Voina (Afganistan bez Sovetskih Voisk). [My Last War (Afghanistan Without Soviet Troops)]. Moscow: Insan.

Greshnov, A. (2006). Afganistan: Zalozhniki Vremeni [Afghanistan: Hostages of Time], Moskva: Tovarishestvo Nauchnih Izdanii KMK.

Gromov, B.V. (1994). Ogranichenny Kontingent [The Limited Contingent]. Moscow: "Progress" Publishing Group.

Lyahovsky, A.A., & Zabrodin, V.M. (1991). Taini Afganskoi Voini [Secrets of the Afghan War]. Moscow: Planeta.

Spolnikov, V.N. (1990, c1989). Afganistan. Islamskaya Opozitsiya: Istoki i Tsel. [Afghanistan: Islamic Opposition [and its] Origins and Goals], Moscow: Nauka.

Zhitnuhin, A.P. & Likoshin, S.A. (ed.) (1990). Zvezda nad Gorodom Kabulom. [The Star over Kabul-city], Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya [Young Guards]. (Chapter "The light on the summit" about Soviet advisers who worked in Afghanistan with Democratic Organization of Afghan Youth, p.169-)

In English
BBC Broadcast (2004). The Power of Nightmares. Part II: The Phantom Victory. Retrieved from

Bocharov, G. (1990). Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes. NY: A Cornelia & Michel Bessie Book.

Bradsher, H.S. (1999). Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; New York: Oxford University Press.

Varennikov, V. (1998). CNN Interview for 1998 CNN’s “Cold War” series, Episode 20: Soldiers of God.

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:13:41 +0000

We are happy to report that we will be accepting the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award on December 2. See here:

For the first time this year, thanks to readers’ donations, David Cromwell has been able to take a sabbatical from his full-time job as a researcher at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. This has meant David has been able to spend 50% of his time on Media Lens work for one year until March 2008. David Edwards continues to be able to devote most of his time to Media Lens.

One of our longer-term projects this year has involved working on a follow up to our book Guardians Of Power (Pluto Press, 2006). Last year, we documented some of the tremendous press reactions we got to our book from as far afield as South Korea and Japan (www.Media The book has also been translated into Korean and Arabic. We cited positive comments from former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby and others. To this day, the book has yet to receive a single mention in any national British newspaper. We can hardly conceive of a greater back-handed compliment!

While the press reaction has been predictable enough, more interesting are the reactions of some of the larger ‘radical’ publishers to our proposals for a follow-up book. One commissioning editor rejected our sample chapters saying:

“it reads rather too much as a collection of Media Lens alerts, rather than as a standalone book, and that puts very severe limits on what it can be expected to do in commercial terms.”

A second editor wrote:

“It’s of course an urgent subject and you’ve assembled some great material, but it felt to us more a collection of pieces rather than a book, and we found ourselves wondering whether, as a book, it could make a lasting impact in the trade.”

This criticism would have been more credible to us if Guardians Of Power - also built around the most interesting sections from our media alerts - had not been so well received by experienced media commentators. John Pilger, for example, described it as “the most important book about journalism I can remember”. Also, our first book involved considerable rewriting, expansion and updating to make it a cohesive whole. We would hope that many readers found it a credible “standalone book” whose argument builds cumulatively throughout. The material we have assembled since its publication in early 2006 is, if anything, even more powerful - on climate change, Iraq, Iran, Latin America and other issues.

The unspoken real reason for rejection, we believe, is that these publishers have a morbid fear of alienating the big newspapers on which they depend for favourable reviews of their books, and of which we are so critical in our own.

We received a taste of this fear in 2002 when we invited readers to ask journalists why they had failed to review John Pilger’s book, The New Rulers of the World. We were sent this surprise response by Fiona Price at Verso, the publisher of Pilger’s book. Significantly, the email was copied to Susie Feay, the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday:

“Please could you ask the people who visit your website to refrain from emailing the literary editors of national newspapers questioning why they have not reviewed John Pilger's book, The New Rulers of the World. The Independent has a review waiting to be published but after receiving a number of unpleasant emails, all copied in to your email address, they are seriously thinking of pulling the review.

“I am working hard to get other national newspapers to review the book and do not appreciate having my efforts undermined by people who do not understand the pressure of space for reviews in newspapers. A paper's failure to review a title is not always politically motivated.” (Fiona Price, Marketing & Publicity Manager, Verso, email to Media Lens, July 30, 2002)

It turned out that Feay had received a grand total of two emails from our readers! Suffice to say, Pilger did not share Price’s view (his book was eventually reviewed by the Independent on Sunday, on April 20, 2003).

Verso’s reaction gave a small indication of how thought is controlled in modern society - not by force or physical intimidation, but by the sheer power of corporations to enable or deny access to a mass audience. Verso, recall, is one of the more courageous and radical of publishers.

The control is silent, the rules unwritten, undiscussed - it is simply understood that behaviour potentially or actually damaging to corporate interests will be punished. People are not disappeared in our society, but careers +are+ stalled, contracts are lost, professional relationships are soured. The net result is that important ideas are prevented from appearing, they are drowned out by ideas deemed safe and suitable based on priorities other than honesty and compassion.

In his book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers. The key word is ’trust’. Because employers cannot be on hand to manage every decision, professionals are trained to “ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests – or skewers the disfavoured ones” in the absence of overt control. Schmidt continues:

“The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology.” (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds – A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16,

Even to have this discussion, even to talk about the problem of corporate control, is to be ‘untrustworthy’, to be judged beyond the pale. As ever, the rationalisation revolves round the idea that it is somehow impolite, disrespectful, unreasonable and even disgraceful to bring to light what is ‘simply understood’ and cannot be challenged. The ‘gentleman’s agreements’ that so often lie at the heart of modern systems of thought control really are deemed to be just that - to challenge them is to be deemed something less than a “gentleman”.

Fiona Price’s email was really a convoluted way of saying what the King of Spain - aka, Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias - recently said to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez:

“Why don't you shut up?”

Chavez later replied:

“I think it's imprudent for a king to shout at a president to shut up. Mr King, we are not going to shut up."

It is imprudent, indeed, for any of us to “shut up” when so much modern suffering is built precisely on silence.

Last year, we mentioned that Norway’s Medialupe, in part inspired by Media Lens, was underway:

Since then, Ireland’s Media Bite has also started seriously challenging the Irish media:

Media Bite’s excellent Media Shot, ‘Tipping the Balance In The West,’ ( was recently published in the leading Irish political magazine The Village.

As ever, if you value what we're doing, please consider sending a donation. There are various methods by which you can donate, either as a one-off payment or on a regular basis.

Warm thanks to all our readers for their many kind words of support and donations over the last year - they are very much appreciated.

Best wishes

David Edwards, David Cromwell and Olly Maw

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:12:24 +0000

The Guardian this week published an article by the readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth, discussing “the contradiction between what the Guardian has to say about environmental issues and what it advertises”. (Butterworth, ‘Open door - The readers' editor on... the contradiction between what we say and the ads we run,’ The Guardian, October 29, 2007;,,2200887,00.html)

Butterworth cited comments made by Guardian columnist George Monbiot following a discussion with Media Lens:

"Newspaper editors make decisions every day about which stories to run and which angles to take. Why can they not also make decisions about the ads they carry? While it is true that readers can make up their own minds, advertising helps to generate behavioural norms. These advertisements make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable."

Monbiot asked: "why could the newspapers not ban ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2 per kilometre? Why could they not drop all direct advertisements for flights?"

These were very sane and courageous questions from Monbiot - he deserves every credit for raising them. Butterworth supplied Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s comments in response:

"It is always useful to ask your critics what economic model they would choose for running an independent organisation that can cover the world as widely and fully with the kind of journalism we offer.”

It can of course be useful to discuss solutions in this way. However, we have noticed that the question, ‘Well, what’s your alternative?’, is often a fallback position after sheer weight of evidence has forced the abandonment of denials of the existence of a problem. So, for example, debaters - let’s call them the ‘Free Press’ Faithful - may tirelessly insist that, in the UK, we have “a press which has a relatively wide range of views - there is a pretty small ‘c’ conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left...". (Andrew Marr, The Big Idea - Interview with Noam Chomsky, BBC 2, 1996,

This may be their firm belief - or at least, what they are firmly determined to believe. On occasions when this position becomes untenable in debate - evidence that a corporate press does not report honestly on a world dominated by corporate power is overwhelming - the ‘Free Press’ Faithful will appear to agree and move on to alternatives.

Superficially, this looks like progress. But, all too often, the underlying conviction remains that there are no credible alternatives. The point being that a problem without a solution is not a problem; it is a fact of life. Rusbridger asked us in February 2004:

“I'd be interested to know what alternative business model you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine? If so, what cover price do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising, what other source of revenue would you prefer?

“These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well. I can only answer as to my experience. alan.' (Email to Media Lens, February 6, 2004)

Alas, this was not a precursor of vibrant debate and discussion. For several years now, Rusbridger has refused to respond to our emails. Our 2006 book, Guardians Of Power, discussing these and related issues, has never been so much as mentioned by the paper, much less reviewed. This could, of course, simply reflect the worthlessness of what we have to say. George Monbiot, however - one of the most respected commentators on the paper - appears not to share this view. More to the point, Monbiot’s intervention aside, there has been essentially no discussion of issues that we and many readers (and many excellent writers and media analysts) have sought to raise over many years.

The suspicion that the Guardian editor is not willing to recognise the existence of a problem worthy of serious discussion and action is reinforced by other comments from him cited by Butterworth:

“Alan Rusbridger, warns against creating a ‘joyless’ paper. ‘If you had nothing to do with any form of consumption, your circulation would take a big dip and reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism... to preaching. So long as you do these things in reasonable proportion and balance, I do not think we should stop covering aspects of consuming such as travel or fashion, eating or holidays and motoring.’”

The Guardian editor is here leading readers away from the issues that matter. In fact, as Rusbridger well knows, if the Guardian “had nothing to do with any form of consumption”, it would go out of business, because it and other ‘quality’ titles are dependent on advertising for "75 per cent or more of their total take". (Peter Preston, 'War, what is it good for?', The Observer, October 7, 2001)

That is the problem and it is why newspapers have to be so careful not to alienate their big advertisers and related political allies. Rusbridger suggests that the real difficulty would be the “joyless” experience of an advert-free newspaper - but this is a mere diversion from very deep-rooted and serious issues.

And let’s consider the suggestion that “reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism... to preaching“ in context. Consider, first, that this was in response to a very reasonable suggestion that the Guardian might initially look at banning some of the more destructive forms of fossil fuel advertising.

Consider, further, the broader context. Wherever you look, corporate giants are investing in the same high consumption of fossil fuels that has already brought us to the brink of disaster. Last month, the BBC described “Airbus’ gamble on the success of the A380”, the new “Superjumbo” airliner. The “gamble” is based “on what Airbus believes will be ever-growing demand for long-haul travel". (

In June, the Financial Times reported that a survey of business leaders had found that “Climate change is bottom of the priority list for Britain’s largest companies... and their biggest shareholders are not much more exercised by the issue.” (John Willman and Kate Burgess, ‘Climate change “not a business priority”,’ Financial Times, June 4 2007)

More than half of the companies surveyed by YouGov said there were more urgent issues, such as brand awareness, marketing strategies and corporate social responsibility. Just 14 per cent of them had a clear plan for tackling climate change.

A report from Headland, a communications consultancy, says fund managers “do not pay much attention to climate change issues when taking investment decisions”. They regard climate change effects as slow and cumulative and the issue as outside the remit of typical fund managers who “are not looking at 2012, let alone 2050”. Long term for the investment community was about three years, they said.

The New York Times reported last month:

"There is plenty of oil and gas still in the ground, energy executives say. But global consumption is rising so fast that they must keep looking for new sources. Despite worldwide concern over global warming and the role of fossil fuels in causing it, United States government specialists project that global oil and gas demand will increase by some 50 percent in the next 25 years." (Jad Mouawad, ‘A Quest for Energy in the Globe’s Remote Places,’ New York Times, October 9, 2007)

And yet the Guardian editor chooses to focus on bizarre notions of his paper having “nothing to do with any form of consumption”, of the risk of a “joyless” newspaper. Meanwhile, the world stands (at best) at the very brink of disaster, while big business acts as if nothing at all has changed. To spell it out: Something needs to be done - fast!

Finally, Rusbridger comments:

“The journalism we do matters much more than advertising. That is obvious. That is why the PR industry exists and why people try to buy space nested in the journalism context. As long as the journalism is free and we allow George Monbiot to criticise us and we feel free to criticise people who advertise, that is more important than the advertising.”

Here we face a positive shoal of liberal herrings - each one darting away from problems that are becoming ever more crucial. Of course journalism matters more than advertising. The problem is that a mountain of evidence demonstrates that profit-seeking corporate media - dependent on advertisers and allied government news sources, often also dependent on wealthy owners, or giant parent companies, and under constant attack from right-wing flak groups - suppress much that is important about our world and its problems.

The Guardian might claim to be free of one or more of these constraints, but this is irrelevant because the Guardian is one small part of a biocidal media system, and its record is anyway also lamentable. Holding up Monbiot’s virtually unique intervention as a sign that all is well, that tolerating such criticism is all that is required, is not reasonable. One article from Monbiot is not enough. The presence of one Monbiot tolerated on one newspaper is not enough. These are serious structural issues that cannot be wished away. And incidentally, we wonder just how much more would be tolerated from Monbiot. Would it take one burst of criticism alienating one big advertiser? Or two or three? How long would Rusbridger, himself, then be tolerated?

Monbiot’s questions were vitally important. How can we move away from a media dependent on fossil fuel advertising? What are the first small steps that could be taken? How might readers react positively to offset the financial damage incurred?

We are not economists, or financial strategists with detailed knowledge of the Guardian’s performance. We don’t know how media executives coped with the loss of tobacco advertising - we know it happened after being declared impossible. We are not specialists on how the British empire adjusted for the vast loss of revenue generated by the slave trade, although we know such a loss was declared insupportable (which it turned out not to be).

We believe that we, all of us, need to look beyond blinkered, short-term self-interest towards enlightened self-interest rooted in compassion for the suffering that surrounds us and that is sure to increase. In 1914, the novelist Robert Tressell wrote:

"Even if you are indifferent to your own fate – as you seem to be – you have no right to be indifferent to that of the child for whose existence in this world you are responsible.

"Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children." (Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Oxford, 2005, p.129)

If these are harsh words, how then are we to describe the future facing us? Why do we lavish so much time, energy and love on our children, and yet do nothing to save them from a terrifying, collapsing world that they are now almost certain to inherit?


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

Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian

Write to the letters page

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:11:06 +0000
“RED HERRING” - Al Gore, The Climate Sceptics And The BBC

On October 10, the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News led with the story that a High Court Judge had found nine “errors” in Al Gore’s climate film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which the UK government has been sending to schools around the country. As a result, by way of “balance”, the government will now be required to include “guidance notes” with the film. (BBC news online, ‘Gore climate film's “nine errors”,’ October 11, 2007;

The case had been brought by Stuart Dimmock, a lorry driver and school governor who says he objects to the film’s “brainwashing” of schoolchildren. Although Dimmock’s lawyers branded the judgement a “landmark victory”, they failed in their attempt to ban the film from secondary schools. (

Also on October 10, BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ featured an extended report on the story including an interview with Dimmock. The following exchange was of particular interest:

Stuart Dimmock (SD): It’s a political shockumentary, it’s not a scientific documentary.

BBC presenter Robin Lustig (RL): But you’re not a scientist yourself, are you?

SD: No.

RL: Some people might wonder why you felt so strongly about this that you were prepared to take it all the way to the High Court, whether you have an agenda of some kind – do you?

SD: I have two young children. In my mind it’s wrong that we push politics into the classroom.

RL: Could I ask you one other question, Mr Dimmock? It’s not cheap taking a case to the High Court [The case cost £200,000].

SD: No, it’s not.

RL: Were you helped financially to do this?

SD: The government have been ordered to pay my costs. [Unclear] £60,000 upfront payment.

RL: But you didn’t know that that was going to be the order until today, did you?

SD: No, I didn’t.

RL: Who took the risk?

SD: [Long, five-second pause]. Mmmm, I’ve had pledges of support.

RL: May I ask you from whom?

SD: You can ask from whom but I’m sorry I can’t tell you because I haven’t got the names of the people that have pledged their support. It’s through a website. (BBC R4 ‘The World Tonight’, October 10, 2007, our transcript; whole item can be heard here)

Although Dimmock claimed not to know who had provided financial support, the website of the New Party, of which he is a member, had declared two weeks earlier, on September 27:

“The New Party is backing a legal challenge by one of its members against a government decision to circulate Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, to all 3,850 English secondary schools.” ( september2007/high-court-to-judge-al-gore-film.html)

Perhaps the backing was moral rather than financial.

The BBC’s Robin Lustig did not press the issue further: Which website? Who was funding it? Instead, he moved on to discuss the issue with BBC environment reporter Roger Harrabin. In ‘balanced’ BBC fashion, Harrabin declared of the Al Gore film: “it was not made to show to children and I think, you know, fair cop”.

Also remarkable in ‘balanced’ news coverage, the BBC’s framing of the judicial process and decision suggested that it was entirely reasonable for a judge to sit in judgement on climate science. It was left to Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen to point out to the BBC: "The judge has set himself to adjudicate on the scientific consensus," the implication being that this was questionable (Allen, The World Tonight, op. cit.). In our view the adjudication was as absurd as the idea that a judge should pronounce on whether a journalist's report was “unfounded”, as happened in the 2003-2004 Hutton Inquiry.

It was also left to Dr. Allen to point out that some of the judge's nine assertions of ‘error’ were “just plain wrong". Unfortunately, as far as we are aware, the BBC headline reports had no balancing quotes from climate scientists disputing the judge’s claims. (Note: Judge Burton‘s judgement actually has the word “error” in quote marks, recognising that there might indeed be scientific justification for these arguments - a subtle but vital point missed by the media)

Later, in an online piece, Roger Harrabin did take a somewhat more sceptical view of the judge’s findings. On Arctic melting, which is proceeding faster than the most recent IPCC report had expected, Harrabin noted, “the judge is on slightly more contentious ground”. (Harrabin, BBC news online, ‘The heat and light in global warming,’ October 11, 2007;

Of Dimmock, the lorry driver who brought the case to court, Harrabin noted in a single tantalising, but ultimately mysterious, sentence:

“Mr Dimmock is a member of the ‘New Party’, apparently funded by a businessman with a strong dislike of environmentalists and drink-drive laws.”

Fascinating, but what did this signify? The reader was left dangling at the end of this one sentence, to wait in vain for further clarification.

Hidden Links - “A Red Herring”?

There was worse to come from the BBC. The day after the High Court decision, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore. Suddenly to be seen making multiple appearances in BBC studios was Martin Livermore, director of a group called the Scientific Alliance.

Livermore was interviewed on BBC R4’s ‘The World At One’ by presenter Shaun Ley, who asserted that the Scientific Alliance “campaigns to improve the quality of debate about science”. (The World At One, BBC R4, Friday, October 12, 2007). Livermore proceeded to lampoon efforts to combat climate change as a “fashionable cause”, and expressed “concern” that the Nobel award “will tend to close down the debate even further”. He added:

“There is a view from a lot of people that this is such a serious issue that even though things are uncertain we shouldn't allow a debate, we should push ahead with trying to do something about it, and that any person who questions the perceived wisdom should actually be censored, effectively. So I think this will push us further down that path, which is not healthy.”

Contrary to the BBC’s naive description, the Scientific Alliance was founded with the financial backing of wealthy businessman Robert Durward, who owns Cloburn Quarry in Lanarkshire and is director of the British Aggregates Association which defends the interests of the quarrying industry. The Scientific Alliance also has deep links to a network that has long been pursuing a “sceptical” agenda on environmental issues. Livermore, for example, was the “scientific consultant” behind Martin Durkin’s deeply flawed and much criticised Channel 4 ‘documentary’, ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’. (George Marshall, 'The Great Channel 4 Swindle,' March 9, 2007; 03/09/the-great-channel-four-swindle)

Durward is also a financial backer and member of the National Policy Committee of the New Party, a group so right-wing that Scottish Tories described them as “fascist”. On its website, the New Party states:

“The National Policy Committee (NPC) consists of ordinary people from all walks of life and is in overall charge of the creation and development of our policies.”

Committee members include Alex Black, “a self employed Road Transport Contractor”; Mike Clarke, “for most of his career he applied his knowledge of chemistry in oilfield systems, working, training and advising on corrosion management and chemical treatments in the North Sea and many overseas count [sic]”; Robert Durward, “involved in the agricultural, haulage, plant and minerals industries“, and so on. Just “ordinary people from all walks of life”, in other words. ( nationalcommittee.html)

Both the New Party and Scientific Alliance work closely with the PR company Foresight Communications founded by Mark Adams OBE, who was a private secretary for parliamentary affairs at No. 10 for nearly four years. He also worked as private secretary to Tony Blair for six months after the 1997 election. Adams set up the Scientific Alliance with Durward in 2001.

The jigsaw pieces fall into place when we recall that Stuart Dimmock, who brought the High Court Case, is also a member of the New Party. Rather than being a solitary ‘David’ fighting the government ‘Goliath’, it appears Dimmock fought the case with considerable business backing.

When challenged by Media Lens on his radio programme’s failure to explore these connections, Marc Settle, that day's editor of BBC R4’s ‘The World At One’, responded:

“I agree that the programme could have been clearer about the connection between the New Party and the Scientific Alliance, and in future I will ensure that editions I am involved with will make the relationship clear.” (Settle, Email, October 14, 2007)

Andy Rowell, author of ‘Green Backlash’ and co-editor of, put the BBC to shame by publishing a powerful blog exposing these links the day after the court decision. (‘Revealed: The hidden agenda behind Gore film attack,’ October 11, 2007; revealed-the-hidden-agenda-behind-al-gore-film-attack/)

We communicated some of Rowell’s findings to the BBC’s Roger Harrabin. This was vital material, was it not? No, Harrabin replied, the network of links was “a red herring”. After Rowell discussed the issues with him in a telephone conversation, Harrabin told us he was pursuing the links and that we should “watch this space” with regard to that day’s Ten O’Clock News (Friday, October 12, 2007).

We watched that “space” - a climate-related item by Harrabin which appeared on the “Ten” about Gore sharing the Nobel Prize with the IPCC. Harrabin even had an interview with the near-ubiquitous Martin Livermore of the Scientific Alliance. But of the links between that group, the New Party, Martin Durkin, and wealthy businessman Robert Durward, there was not a word.

A number of newspapers have since reported that financial support for Dimmock’s case was provided by Lord Monckton, who wrote the New Party‘s manifesto. Last year, Monckton argued that the IPCC had grossly exaggerated the danger of climate change in articles published by the Sunday Telegraph. Monckton wrote:

“This week, I'll show how the UN undervalued the sun's effects on historical and contemporary climate, slashed the natural greenhouse effect, overstated the past century's temperature increase, repealed a fundamental law of physics and tripled the man-made greenhouse effect.” (Christopher Monckton, ‘Don’t believe it!’ Sunday Telegraph, November 5, 2006)

The articles - decidedly Durkin-esque in theme and content - were subsequently demolished by climate scientists. Environmental campaigner George Monbiot commented wryly of Monckton:

“He is trying to take on the global scientific establishment on the strength of a classics degree from Cambridge.” (Jonathan Leake, ‘Please, sir - Gore’s got warming wrong,’ The Times, October 14, 2007)

Monckton is now behind moves to have copies of Durkin’s documentary, ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, sent to 3,400 UK secondary schools “to counter Gore’s flagrant propaganda”. It is hoped that the package will feature a new film called ‘Apocalypse No!’, a slideshow of Lord Monckton challenging Gore’s arguments.

The irony of this initiative is clear when we consider that Monckton backed Dimmock’s court case and that, as noted above, Dimmock insists: “In my mind it’s wrong that we push politics into the classroom.”

The website promoting Dimmock’s campaign declares its aims:

“1. To research and monitor examples of partisan political content being introduced into schools.
2. To support those campaigning to keep education free from political bias.
3. To promote fair and honest teaching.” ( option=com_content&task=view&id=6&Itemid=27)

And it turns out, in a further twist, that Monckton’s schools initiative is being funded by a right-wing American think-tank, the innocently named Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI). (Michael McCarthy, ‘Climate deniers to send film to British schools,’ The Independent, October 15, 2007)

Rather like the Scientific Alliance, the good folk at SPPI “support the advancement of sensible public policies for energy and the environment rooted in rational science and economics”. (

As anyone who has studied the corporate green backlash will know, “sensible public policies” are actually policies that recklessly subordinate people and planet to short-term profit for the people promoting them (See Andy Rowell, Green Backlash, Routledge, 1996).

One entry title on the SPPI website reads: ‘Greenhouse Warming? What Greenhouse Warming?’ (August 22, 2007; greenhouse_warming_what_greenhouse_warming_.html)

The author? “Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monkton of Brenchley”, listed as Chief Policy Adviser at SPPI. (

In one of his Telegraph articles, Monckton wrote:

“The Royal Society says there's a worldwide scientific consensus. It brands Apocalypse-deniers as paid lackeys of coal and oil corporations. I declare my interest: I once took the taxpayer's shilling and advised Margaret Thatcher, FRS, on scientific scams and scares. Alas, not a red cent from Exxon.” (Monckton, op.cit.)

The same, alas, cannot be said of Craig Idso, the Science Adviser and Chairman of the Board at SPPI where Monckton is Chief Policy Advisor. Idso is listed on Greenpeace’s webpage documenting “Exxon-Mobil's funding of climate change sceptics.” (

We are deceived if we imagine climate scepticism is the product of a few wealthy eccentrics with too much time and money on their hands. Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, clarifies the bottom line goal for industry:

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.” (Lesly, 'Coping with Opposition Groups,' Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)

With the world teetering on the brink of an environmental abyss - and, perhaps, already sinking into that abyss - industry’s hall of crazy mirrors with their “balancing information” is bigger and more active than ever. It might seem insane, but the infinite, insatiable nature of the corporate profit drive has always been just that.

This is the price we pay when society is dominated by unrestrained greed, and by the blindness that greed brings.


For further details of the Scientific Alliance, go to:

Also see Andy Rowell, ‘The Alliance of Science’, Guardian, March 26, 2003;,,921537,00.html

Professor John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, has written a critique of Judge Barton’s remarks: http://www.Media

See: 'Surviving Climate Change: The Struggle to Avert Global Catastrophe', edited by David Cromwell and Mark Levene, which has just been published by Pluto Books (London, 2007).

For further analysis and resources, please go here:


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

Write to Roger Harrabin, BBC environment correspondent

Write to Steve Herrmann, BBC news online editor

Write to Robin Lustig, presenter of BBC R4’s ‘The World Tonight’

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:09:52 +0000
Oil Laws - Colonising Iraq’s Economic Prize

An Equitable Sharing of Resources?

We are led to believe that Western societies are free and open. In many respects this is true: freedom of speech and the right to protest still exist, albeit within ever-tighter constraints. At root, however, much of what we see and hear in the corporate media has been shaped by money, power and greed. What passes for vibrant public debate is often a sham.

Some media professionals are aware of this, but they keep their heads down and stick to the narrow job requirements demanded of them. But many journalists cannot, or will not, grasp the notion that there are serious limits to news reporting and debate; limits that are set by powerful interests in society. The very possibility is viewed as an affront to journalistic pride and hard-bitten common sense.

A few journalists, however, are very well aware of the boundaries. They consciously seek to exploit occasional gaps in the corporate news blanket smothering reality, and to point the public to facts and perspectives that discomfit the powerful.

The issue of Iraq's oil illustrates the standard problem: incessant repetition of a state-approved script, with tiny instances of solidly critical reporting. Discussion of any possible relationship between the invasion of Iraq and the US-UK thirst for oil - both as a hydrocarbon resource and as a strategic tool for dominance - is close to taboo. If raised, the topic is swiftly dismissed as 'conspiracy' talk.

It was only last month that news media reported the bombshell dropped by Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve:

"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." (Bob Woodward, 'Greenspan Is Critical Of Bush in Memoir,' Washington Post, September 15, 2007)

After that remarkable line from his new book was made public, Greenspan rapidly backtracked. He "clarified" that he was talking about "security" and that oil was "not [...] the administration's motive." (Bob Woodward, 'Greenspan: Ouster Of Hussein Crucial For Oil Security,' Washington Post, September 17, 2007). The media's attention has since moved away from such dangerous ground. Instead, safe territory on Iraqi oil is defined by terms such as 'investment', 'stability', 'reconciliation' and 'equitable sharing of resources.'

The basis for such discourse was established before the invasion in 2003, when we were relentlessly told that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction had to be rooted out and 'stability' brought to the region. The doctrine of reconciliation and democracy was reaffirmed when George Bush gave a speech in January 2007 in which he set out 'benchmarks' to measure Iraq's 'progress'. Bush proclaimed a noble aim for the Iraqi government, with US support:

"To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis."

Bush also pledged that: "military and civilian experts [will] help local Iraqi communities pursue reconciliation, strengthen the moderates and speed the transition to Iraqi self-reliance. And Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice will soon appoint a reconstruction coordinator in Baghdad to ensure better results for economic assistance being spent in Iraq." ('"The Most Urgent Priority for Success in Iraq Is Security," Bush Says,' New York Times, January 11, 2007)

Thus, the approved framework of oil revenue 'sharing', underpinning Washington's 'reconciliation' among Iraqis, was decreed by the US president. And indeed this is the line followed in the bulk of corporate news reporting. Consider the following typical examples.

A Financial Times editorial hails a "national reconciliation package" to include "a law governing the country's oil and gas industry" and "directed at [...] discord between Iraq 's ethnic and confessional groups." (Leader, 'The irreconcilable. As deadlines pass, time is running out for a political solution in Iraq,' Financial Times, June 7, 2007)

The Times notes the guiding "principle that all oil revenues should be divided between the Iraqi regions". (Carl Mortished, 'Western oil major's bid marks breakthrough for troubled Iraqi industry,' The Times, August 23, 2007)

Ian Black, Middle East editor of the Guardian, writes of a raft of measures designed to tackle Iraqi debt relief. These include "a revenue-sharing oil law", drafted with the help of that well-known benefactor, the World Bank. (Black, 'Rice breaks the ice with Syria , but not Iran,' The Guardian, May 4, 2007)

The 'anti-war' Independent writes of "redistributing the cash [oil revenues] to the regions - which the new oil law states must be done in proportion to regions' populations". (Saeed Shah, 'Foreign companies in scramble for 10 new Kurdish oil contracts,' The Independent, March 23, 2007)

Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent of the Financial Times, even makes the classic journalistic mistake of taking government "hopes" at face value:

"The US hopes the oil law will reassure Sunnis that they will still receive a solid share of national oil export revenues under a new political order dominated by the Shia majority." (Negus, 'Iraqis try to curb pressure on US to quit,' Financial Times, September 10, 2007)

To date, no oil law has been approved by the Iraqi parliament despite extraordinary pressure from the US and UK governments. Sticking to the approved line, the FT's Andrew Ward writes of "oil revenues [...] being distributed equitably to the provinces, in spite of the failure to pass a national oil law". (Ward, 'Little political progress, White House admits,' Financial Times, September 15, 2007)

The Reality On - And Under - The Ground

Contradicting the thrust of the above mainstream version of events, PLATFORM, a London-based human rights group monitoring the oil industry, argues that the oil law “has been wrongly described as providing a mechanism for sharing revenue among Iraq's sectarian groups; in fact, this law does +not+ deal with that issue, which will be the subject of a separate law, not yet drafted". (PLATFORM, 'The Iraqi oil sector, privatisation and the UK's role,' Submission to the Iraq Commission, 14 June 2007; _Iraq_Commission_Platform_submission.pdf - our emphasis)

PLATFORM activist Eva Jasiewicz told us:

"The mainstream media, with few exceptions, has uncritically reproduced White House and Foreign Office propaganda over Iraqi oil policy. The reporting has not been lazy; it has actively colluded in the repeated circulation of US-UK lies over revenue sharing, oil for peace and reconciliation as the goals of the law." (Email to Media Lens, October 9, 2007)

Jasiewicz continued:

“The story of the corporate colonization of Iraq's oil, and potential dismemberment of the country under a brutal military occupation, has been disappeared from the news agenda. Reporters ignoring the political and economic realities at stake in Iraq are guilty of deception and of promoting the neoliberal agenda of economic takeover of Iraq."

The Federation of Oil Unions, the largest trade union in the Iraqi oil sector with over 26,000 members, also starkly challenges the media message of "reconciliation":

"Depending on how it is applied, the current draft of the law could increase poverty, undermine state institutions and worsen the conflict in Iraq." (PLATFORM, op. cit.)

In reality, Orwellian-named 'production sharing agreements' are being prepared which would hand over the lead role in the development of oil resources to corporations under highly-profitable contracts of up to 30 years. Unsurprisingly, this has been met with considerable opposition in Iraq. In response, the 'production sharing' terminology has been dropped from later drafts of the law. But as Kamil Mahdi, an economist at the University of Essex warns, "the content remains the same." (Mahdi, 'No law for oil,' Red Pepper, August 2007;

Such lucrative contracts are being sought by US-allied sectarian and political blocks within Iraq, all manoeuvring to gain control of Iraqi politics and state institutions. Mahdi warns that the likely outcome is that "the majority of Iraq's oil resources are to be surreptitiously privatised and handed over to multinationals under the guise of decentralisation and benefit-sharing." The draft law stipulates a "bizarre resource management arrangement" that will have Iraq's regions scrambling over each other in a desperate race to award oil contracts to corporations. Any actual benefits will be reserved for "corrupt local elites and the multinationals themselves."

Mahdi adds:

"The weak, sectarian and fractious Maliki government has proved to be just what the US needs at this time: one that is willing to acquiesce in US military offensives and to pursue the handover of oil to the multinationals, while at the same time applying the harsh economic policies dictated by the IMF, particularly over the domestic price of fuel." (Ibid.)

The UK government has played a key role by boosting the lobbying efforts of oil multinationals. Six of these oil companies collectively appointed lobbyists, the International Tax & Investment Centre (ITIC), to push for Iraqi resources to be opened up to long-term oil production contracts. ITIC was even advised by UK Foreign Office and Treasury officials on how best to influence Iraqi decision-makers.

Moreover, the main ITIC lobbying document, 'Petroleum and Iraq's Future', was sent to the Iraqi finance minister in late 2004 by the British ambassador to Iraq. ITIC says that the ambassador "formally" submitted it to the Iraqi minister, implying UK endorsement of its contents. A diplomat from the British embassy played a key role in organising a meeting of ITIC and its six corporate sponsors with Iraqi ministers and officials in January 2005.

Since the first draft of the oil law was completed in July 2006, British officials in both Whitehall and Baghdad have actively worked on the law. It was first seen by British officials at that time, fully eight months before it was seen by members of the Iraqi parliament in March 2007. (See PLATFORM, op. cit.; _Platform_submission.pdf)

This scandal has barely caused a ripple across the corporate media.

Progress Is Needed Soon!

A rare exception hinting at the truth about Iraqi oil was an Associated Press report in March 2007 which described "close associates" of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expressing "fears the Americans will torpedo his government if parliament does not pass a law to fairly [sic] divvy up the country's oil wealth among Iraqis." American officials also made it clear to the "hardline" Iraqi prime minister "that they want an Iraqi government in place by year's end acceptable to the country's Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt." The message from the Americans was stark and left al-Maliki "convinced he would not survive in power without U.S. support." (Steven R. Hurst, 'Iraqi Leader Fears Ouster Over Oil Money,' Associated Press, March 14, 2007)

Then, in June 2007, a news story appeared at the top of the front page of the New York Times:

"U.S. Warns Iraq That Progress Is Needed Soon".

Admiral William J. Fallon, the leading American military commander for the Middle East, warned al-Maliki "in a closed-door conversation" of the pressing need for the Iraqi government "to make tangible political progress [...] to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress." A major milestone of this "progress" is "to complete a law on the division of oil proceeds." Clearly frustrated by Iraqi intransigence, Fallon warned al-Maliki: “You have the power. You should take the initiative.” (Michael R. Gordon, 'U.S. Warns Iraq That Progress Is Needed Soon,' New York Times, June 12, 2007)

Michael Gordon, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, had been invited to sit in on this "closed-door conversation". Gordon stated candidly that "it was only at the end of the meeting that American officials agreed that it could be on the record". In other words, as columnist David Broder noted, the NYT's Pentagon correspondent was invited by the US commander to sit in on "what would normally be a private meeting." The signal to the Iraqi Prime Minister was obvious: not only will you be pressured by the Americans to "make progress", but the pressure will be boosted by publicising it globally via the front page of the NYT.

Broder added:

"From an administration known for its secrecy, this deviation means only one thing: So desperate is the need to push Maliki into action that even the [ New York ] Times becomes a lever." (Broder, 'Failure on Two Fronts,' Washington Post, June 17, 2007)

This bullying behaviour is, of course, standard for Washington and well documented (see, for example, Noam Chomsky, 'Failed States', Hamish Hamilton, London, 2006).

"I Trust This Meets With Your Approval": An Exchange With The BBC

On September 6, a piece by BBC business reporter Robert Plummer, 'Little progress on halting Iraq's decay', appeared on the BBC news online website (

Plummer amplified the standard US doctrine:

"Now the US wants Iraq to pass an oil law as a means of promoting reconciliation among different religious and ethnic groups."

We emailed him:

"What evidence do you have that the US administration desires the oil law 'as a means of promoting reconciliation'? Surely you would agree that is rather different from reporting that the US +claims+ that is their aim?"

We pointed out to Plummer that PLATFORM argues that the "law has been wrongly described as providing a mechanism for sharing revenue among Iraq's sectarian groups; in fact, this law does not deal with that issue, which will be the subject of a separate law, not yet drafted". (PLATFORM, op. cit.)

We also reminded him that there is considerable concern that the proposed oil law would benefit western (and other) corporations at the expense of the Iraqis themselves. We asked him why he had marginalised, indeed ignored, such valid perspectives. Within minutes, we received the following reply:

"When someone has written a piece about one subject, it seems a bit perverse to write asking why it wasn't about an entirely different subject. I didn't set out to write about the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi oil law -- I wrote about reconstruction and why it's costing so much money.

"I didn't 'marginalise' or 'ignore' anyone's arguments. I simply mentioned the oil law in passing, in a necessarily brief fashion, because it was peripheral to my theme.

"The 'oil law' in my piece was shorthand for the whole mass of oil-related legislation that is in prospect in Iraq . I'm well aware that there are in fact four proposed interlocking bills, only one of which has been drafted. I just thought that only a lawyer would be interested in that level of detail.

"I'm sorry I didn't write the piece you clearly wanted to read -- perhaps we can do that at a later date." (Email from Robert Plummer, September 7, 2007)

It is apparently a matter of "detail", that "only a lawyer would be interested in", that legal measures for oil revenue 'sharing' have yet to be drafted. Regular readers will be familiar with this standard plea by professional journalists that there is ‘insufficient space‘.

In our reply, we pressed the point that Plummer had still not addressed:

"What evidence do you have that the US administration desires the oil law 'as a means of promoting reconciliation'? You haven't answered that point in your reply. I provided you with the reference to PLATFORM because there is substantial evidence that the oil legislation is about conquest, not reconciliation." (Email to Robert Plummer, September 7, 2007)

We received a final response:

"Never let it be said that we ignore the views of our readers. I have now amended the sentence in question to read: 'Now the US wants Iraq to pass an oil law, as +what it says is+ a means of promoting reconciliation among different religious and ethnic groups.' I trust that meets with your approval." (Email from Robert Plummer, September 7, 2007)

We replied:

"Many thanks for doing that. It's a small but important difference.

"After the disaster that has befallen Iraq - and with Iran now in the crosshairs - it's surely vital for all of us to regard any professed government aims and pronouncements with scepticism, and to shine a light on the underlying motivations that drive state policy." (Email to Robert Plummer, September 7, 2007)

A similar challenge from Media Lens to Andrew Ward, the Financial Times's White House correspondent, on his reporting of the Iraqi oil law, elicited this curious response:

"Newspaper deadlines do not, unfortunately, allow for the cross-checking of every statement given by the White House. But I will keep your email as reference for the next time I write about the issue." (Email, September 21, 2007)

This reads like a straightforward admission that the FT generally takes at face value any statement issued by the White House, despite all the deceptions of the war against Iraq.

Concluding Remarks - Not About Oil, Of Course!

The real agenda behind Iraq's oil – the striving by powerful states, particularly the US, for strategic control of the resource-rich Middle East - has been all but ignored by the corporate media. When the truth is glimpsed, it is waved away as very much a secondary aim trailing behind the noble commitment to 'democracy'. As one Cambridge academic noted in the Financial Times:

"The war in Iraq is not, of course, about oil. Coalition troops are there to advance democracy and to protect the innocent. But the consequences for the world's energy markets of an unresolved conflict in a country that holds the world's third largest accumulation of oil reserves cannot be ignored." (Nick Butler, director of the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies at the Judge Business School, 'Iraq needs an "oil for peace" deal,' Financial Times, September 12, 2007)

What is routinely missing from the corporate news media is historical context shedding light on Washington's real, rather than stated, motivations. Of central and long-standing relevance is the 1945 US State Department description of Saudi Arabian energy resources as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history". Undiscovered oil fields in Iraq could well boost that country's reserves to 300 billion barrels, even more than in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the whole of the Gulf region has long been considered "probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment." (Cited in Noam Chomsky, 'Hegemony or Survival', Hamish Hamilton, London, 2003, p.150)

Based on copiously-documented historical evidence, Noam Chomsky writes of US power:

"The basic missions of global management have endured from the early postwar period, among them: containing other centers of global power within the 'overall framework of order' managed by the United States; maintaining control of the world's energy supplies; barring unacceptable forms of independent nationalism; and overcoming 'crises of democracy' within domestic enemy territory." (Ibid., p.16)

But these truths, necessary for any public understanding of world affairs, are deemed too 'radioactive' to be carried by the corporate media.


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

For further details of the Iraqi oil law, see websites such as Hands Off Iraqi Oil (, PLATFORM (, War on Want ( and the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra (

Write to Robert Plummer, BBC business reporter

Write to Steve Herrmann, BBC news online editor

Write to Andrew Ward, White House correspondent of the Financial Times:

Write to Katherine Butler, foreign editor of the Independent:

Write to Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor at the Observer:

Write to Ian Black, Middle East editor at the Guardian

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:08:58 +0000


The mainstream media are continuing to use figures provided by the website Iraq Body Count (IBC) to sell the public a number for total post-invasion deaths of Iraqis that is perhaps 5-10% of the true death toll.

As we recently reported, only a handful of media outlets covered a new ORB poll revealing that 1.2 million Iraqis had been murdered since the 2003 invasion. BBC Online provided a rare example:

“A UK-based polling agency, Opinion Research Business (ORB), said it had extrapolated the figure by asking a random sample of 1,461 Iraqi adults how many people living in their household had died as a result of the violence rather than from natural causes.

“The results lend weight to a 2006 survey of Iraqi households published by the Lancet, which suggested that about 655,000 Iraqi deaths were 'a consequence of the war'.

“However, these estimates are both far higher than the running total of reported civilian deaths maintained by the campaign group Iraq Body Count which puts the figure at between 71,000 and 78,000.” (BBC Online, ’US contractors in Iraq shootout,’ September 17, 2007;

BBC’s Newsnight programme used IBC’s figures in the same way:

“More than a million Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003, according to the British polling company ORB. The study’s likely to fuel controversy over the true, human cost of the war. It’s significantly up on the previous highest estimate of 650,000 deaths published by the Lancet last October... The independent Iraqi [sic] Body Count group puts the current total at closer to 75,000.” (Newsnight, BBC2, September 14, 2007)

These reports again raise serious issues about what IBC’s figures actually mean, how they are being used and misused to cast doubt on higher numbers, and about what IBC is doing to promote or reduce the confusion. (See our 2006 Media Alerts archive for previous analysis, beginning with: http://www.Media

Just “Care And Literacy” - No Extrapolations Required

In its latest press release, ‘The State of Knowledge on Civilian Casualties in Iraq,’ IBC explains 'What IBC Does':

“Provides an irrefutable baseline figure”

Similarly in 2006, IBC wrote: “We are providing a conservative cautious minimum.” (

These both describe laudable objectives involving little more than accurate data collection. IBC co-founder John Sloboda made the point in a BBC interview in response to criticism that he and his colleagues were “amateurs” in the field of mortality studies:

"Our position is, and always has been, that reading press reports, which is what this job is, requires nothing other than care and literacy. The whole point about it is that it doesn't require statistical analysis or extrapolations."

And yet in their latest press release (September 3, 2007), under the title, ’How plausible is 600,000 violent Iraqi deaths?’, IBC devote five pages to wide-ranging criticism of the 2006 Lancet study which estimated 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq. IBC’s conclusion:

“Our own view is that the current death toll +could+ be around twice the numbers recorded by IBC and the various official sources in Iraq. We do not think it could possibly be 10 times higher.” (

In similar vein, the Toronto Star quoted IBC co-founder John Sloboda as saying:

"The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher." (Haroon Siddiqui, ‘How many civilians have died?’ Toronto Star, September 20, 2007;

This last comment was reported less than a week after the publication of ORB’s poll revealing 1.2 million Iraqi deaths.

Two questions arise: Why is it important for IBC - providing an “irrefutable baseline” based on data collection - to challenge the methodology and conclusions of epidemiological studies published in the Lancet which go far beyond data collection and which do not in any way challenge their baseline as a "cautious minimum"?

Secondly, while IBC’s self-described task does indeed require only “care and literacy”, does not the task of challenging peer-reviewed science published by some of the world’s leading epidemiologists require very much more? Does it not, in fact “require statistical analysis or extrapolations,” and much else besides?

In a 2006 addition to their website, IBC wowed visitors with scientific jargon:

"Our data is very rich, because it provides a large subset of what is happening.

"It has high spatiotemporal specificity. Post-event interviews are always hampered by the fact that people tend to move on, and may not remain in the area or even in the country. Our data is recorded as close to the time and place of death as possible, and so has 'forensic' elements." (

It seems that IBC have used their credibility as data collectors to ‘cross sell’ their credibility as commentators on peer-reviewed epidemiology to the media community. But this second task is unrelated to their task as data collectors, and is an area in which, to our knowledge, none of the co-authors of their press releases have any research record or publication history in any relevant scientific discipline.

In a 2006 BBC interview, John Sloboda said of the 2004 Lancet study:

“Some critics of the Lancet study have said it's like a drunk throwing a dart at a dartboard. It's going to go somewhere, but who knows if that number is the bulls eye.

“Unfortunately many many people have decided to accept that that 98,000 figure is the truth - or the best approximation to the truth that we have.” (

Sloboda was here endorsing a claim based on a failure to comprehend even the basic meaning of the Lancet study’s range of figures - the “drunk throwing a dart at a dartboard” analogy was and is absurd. No qualified epidemiologist would countenance making such a comment.

Unsurprisingly, most journalists reporting on international affairs appear unable to distinguish between the task of “reading press reports” on the one hand, and engaging in "statistical analysis or extrapolations", on the other. Reporters naturally assume that, given its “high spatiotemporal specificity”, IBC’s credibility is on a par with the world’s leading experts in the field published in the world’s leading scientific journals and subject to an exacting system of peer review.

Certainly IBC do nothing to discourage, and everything to encourage, such a view. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable for IBC to point out in commenting on the Lancet studies to highly influential media that they are in fact +not+ especially qualified to comment on the science of epidemiology?

The Problem Of Relying On The Journalistic Record

IBC also move far beyond data collection in this latest addition to the site:

“Those who suggest that the IBC data-base is likely to contain only a tiny minority of actual deaths generally argue three things. First, they say that IBC only records deaths in areas where Western journalists are present; second they propose that there have been at least seven credible studies which suggest up to ten times as many deaths as we have recorded; and third they assert that an alternate media world exists containing a professional Arab-language press which continually reports far more deaths than the sources we monitor in English.

“We have dealt with the first two claims in detail on the public record and will be happy to answer questions about them in the discussion. IBC in Context (Feb 2006)”

IBC omit to mention the most obvious and telling criticism: that the credibility of their database as an approximate guide to levels of violence in Iraq - i.e., "The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher" - is undermined by the fact that conditions in Iraq are so lethal that journalists are unable to discover many violent deaths of civilians.

Consider that a study of deaths in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996 by Patrick Ball et al at the University of California, Berkeley (1999) found that numbers of murders reported by the media in fact decreased as violence increased. Ball described the “problem of relying on the journalistic record” in evaluating numbers killed:

“When the level of violence increased dramatically in the late 1970s and early 1980s, numbers of reported violations in the press stayed very low. In 1981, one of the worst years of state violence, the numbers fall towards zero. The press reported almost none of the rural violence.” (Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer, ‘State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection’, 1999;

Ball added:

“Throughout the 1980 to 1983 period newspapers documented only a fraction of the killings and disappearances committed by the State. The maximum monthly value on the graph [see link above] is only 60 for a period when monthly extra-judicial murders regularly totaled in the thousands.”

Ball explained that "the press stopped reporting the violence beginning in September 1980. Perhaps not coincidentally, the database lists seven murders of journalists in July and August of that year".

The significance is indicated in a Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) report (September 7, 2007), which described how the number of journalists and media workers killed in Iraq since the start of the 2003 invasion had reached 200. According to RSF, 73 per cent of journalists killed had been directly targeted, a figure which was "much higher than in previous wars". RSF also reported that more journalists had been taken hostage in Iraq than anywhere else in the world. A total of 84 journalists and media workers had been kidnapped in the previous four years. ( Media_Worker_Death_Toll_Reaches_200-3197.shtml)

Lancet study co-authors Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham wrote recently:

“A study of 13 war affected countries presented at a recent Harvard conference found over 80% of violent deaths in conflicts go unreported by the press and governments.” (Roberts and Burnham, ‘Ignorance of Iraqi death toll no longer an option,’ www.Media

We contacted the author of the study, Ziad Obermeyer, for details. Demonstrating a level of scientific caution that is absent from some of IBC‘s bold pronouncements, Obermeyer responded that because his manuscript was progressing through the peer review process he could not provide anything for "formal citation". He added:

“It is safe to say, however, that our estimates of violent war deaths, based on nationally representative surveys, are substantially higher than those commonly cited for most of the 13 countries we study.” (Email to Media Lens, September 24, 2007)

Roberts and Burnham continued:

“City officials in the Iraqi city of Najaf were recently quoted on Middle East Online stating that 40,000 unidentified bodies have been buried in that city since the start of the conflict. When speaking to the Rotarians in a speech covered on C-SPAN on September 5th, H.E. Samir Sumaida’ie, the Iraqi Ambassador to the US, stated that there were 500,000 new widows in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Commission similarly found that the Pentagon under-counted violent incidents by a factor of 10.” (Roberts and Burnham op. cit)

IBC's methodology was devised by Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire. Herold has tracked deaths in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion of 2001. It was Herold's Afghan Victim Memorial Project that inspired John Sloboda to set up IBC. Herold's “most conservative estimate” of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from American/NATO operations is between 5,700 and 6,500. But, he cautions, this is “probably a vast underestimate”. (Haroon Siddiqui, 'Counting the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ Toronto Star, September 23, 2007;

There is no reason to believe that the application of the same methodology in Iraq is generating very different results. But IBC has never, to our knowledge, accepted that their own count is "probably a vast underestimate" of the total death toll.

In the past, IBC’s response to the suggestion that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths has been, in effect, 'Prove it!' Well, the bureau chief of one of three Western media agencies providing a third of IBC’s data from Iraq sent this email to a colleague last year (the latter asked us to preserve the sender’s anonymity):

“iraq body count is i think a very misleading exercise. We know they must have been undercounting for at least the first two years because we know that we did not report anything like all the deaths we were aware of... we are also well aware that we are not aware of many deaths on any given day.” (Email sent October 25, 2006)

Despite IBC’s claims, nowhere in their discussion do they deal with the problem that journalistic reporting of violent deaths can decrease as violence increases, particularly when that includes violence against journalists, as is very much the case in Iraq.

More to the point, as data collectors, IBC are not in a position to comment authoritatively on the impact of violence on the capacity of journalists to report accurately from Iraq. As data collectors, they have no more insight, no deeper understanding, than anyone else.

The reasonable response to the question of political impacts on their database is not for IBC to authoritatively suggest that they “have dealt with” the problem of lack of journalistic coverage - to conclusively declare: “The death toll could be twice our number, but it could not possibly be 10 times higher” - but to openly acknowledge that their task is limited to the monitoring of media reports.

For leading mainstream journalists, and for IBC themselves, to present IBC as an informed and credible source on political realities on the ground in Iraq is highly inappropriate.

A good example of this distortion was provided on September 7 by Michael Gordon of the New York Times. Gordon offered positive spin on the ‘progress’ of the 'surge':

“The most comprehensive and up-to-date military statistics show that American forces have made some headway toward a crucial goal of protecting the Iraqi population.” (Gordon, ‘Assessing the “Surge” - Hints of Progress, and Questions, in Iraq Data,’ New York Times, September 8, 2007)

In assessing evidence for this humanitarian “headway”, Gordon turned to IBC:

“Iraq Body Count, a British-based nongovernmental group that monitors civilian deaths, notes that the number of civilians who were killed by shootings, executions and bombs has declined from January through July.”

He quoted IBC:

“'Levels of violence reached an all-time high in the last six months of 2006... Only in comparison to that could the first half of 2007 be regarded as an improvement.'”

The last caveat was unimportant, the word supporters of the occupation were looking for was “improvement”.

But there is a problem with IBC’s evidence and with Gordon’s analysis of its significance. In fact, IBC have not at all found that “the number of civilians who were killed by shootings, executions and bombs has declined”. The website has found fewer +reports+ of deaths of civilians killed by shootings, executions and bombs in "information gathering and publishing agencies, principally the commercial news media who provide web access to their reports". (

While a significant proportion of the deaths recorded or corroborated by IBC come from “cumulative totals reported by official Iraqi sources, in particular the Medico-Legal Institutes (morgues) and, for corroboration purposes, the Ministry of Health”, IBC describes the commercial news media as their “main sources”. (Ibid)

And Les Roberts has commented:

"Media and government reports catch only the tip of the iceberg." (Siddiqui, op. cit;

For IBC to emphasise that “the first half of 2007 [could] be regarded as an improvement” on the basis of their data collection is therefore misleading. Indeed the whole basis of IBC’s comment was misleading:

“Levels of violence reached an all-time high in the last six months of 2006.”

In fact, levels of media +reporting+ of civilian deaths was at an all-time high in the last six months of 2006 - that is not the same thing. As a consequence, and as the material cited above from Patrick Ball and RSF makes clear, IBC are in a position to comment +only+ on numbers of media reports of deaths, not on the inferred significance of those numbers for political realities on the ground.

The Failure To Challenge Media Distortions

What is so disappointing is that while IBC are willing to stray radically beyond merely "reading press reports" with "care and literacy" to challenge scientific studies that do not in any way challenge their "irrefutable baseline figure", they are apparently not willing to challenge media reports that in effect do challenge that figure. The New York Times report above was a good example. Another appeared in the Financial Times on September 10:

“The war has already cost the lives of 3,760 US troops, and wounded 28,000 more. Iraq Body Count, a group that monitors Iraqi deaths, estimates that 70,000 Iraqis have been killed. It says there has been a ‘modest improvement’ in security compared with the bloody second half of 2006....” (Demetri Sevastopulo, ‘Echoes of Westmoreland and Vietnam,’ Financial Times, September 10, 2007)

But IBC is +not+ “a group that monitors Iraqi deaths”; it is a group that monitors media reports of Iraqi deaths. And IBC does not monitor “Iraqi deaths”; it monitors media reports of Iraqi +civilian+ deaths as a result of violence. IBC does not monitor reports of war-related deaths due to disease, lack of food, water and medicine, and so on. IBC also does not collect reports of Iraqi military deaths.

Because IBC’s “irrefutable baseline” figure refers only to violent deaths of civilians reported by the media, the Financial Times in effect challenged that baseline by asserting that 70,000 Iraqis - i.e., civilians and military - had died. Readers might well have construed that some of these “Iraqi deaths” must have been military deaths, for example, and therefore will have come away from the article believing that many less than 70,000 civilians had died from violence.

The Financial Times could hardly be a more prestigious, influential and high-profile media outlet. And this kind of distortion has been repeated innumerable times, globally, since 2003. Notice, again, the complete inappropriateness of quoting IBC as an authoritative source reporting “a ‘modest improvement’ in security” on the basis of its data collection. As the Guatemala study above indicates, the drop in media reporting could be interpreted as indicating a +worsening+ of security, not least for journalists, leading to a drop in reporting of violent deaths.

Whereas IBC have responded vigorously, indeed tirelessly, in responding to the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies (and to our criticism), to our knowledge they have all but ignored these actual challenges to their baseline figure - a figure which seeks to establish a “cautious minimum” for violent deaths of Iraqi civilians +alone+, not for "Iraqi casualties" in toto, as the Financial Times report suggests.

Indeed, far from exposing these abuses of their work, under ‘Press and media uses of IBC’ (, IBC provide not a single word of criticism of media use of their work. Instead, one of the examples they choose to highlight is an Independent article from July 2005. The first sentence of the article reads:

"Almost 25,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed during the two years of war and insurgency that began with the US-led invasion in March 2003. More than a third have died as a result of action by allied forces." (Terry Kirby and Elizabeth Davies, ‘Iraq conflict claims 34 civilian lives each day as “anarchy” beckons,’ The Independent, July 20, 2005;

It is striking that IBC link to a high-profile media report that so badly misrepresents its figures. As so often, this opening sentence gave the impression that IBC are recording the total number of civilian deaths, rather than merely recording deaths from violence as reported by the media. The extreme gravity of this distortion in downplaying the true extent of Iraqi casualties to the British public is clear enough, given, for example, Patrick Ball’s work.

Elsewhere, IBC write:

“A large number of press and media reports have cited our figures, discussed and assessed our work. Nearly all mentions have been in the context of drawing attention to the human cost of the war.” (John Sloboda, February 17, 2006;

Again, this is not mere data collection; it is political analysis of media performance. Having ourselves studied media reporting on Iraq closely over the last four years, we arrive at a very different conclusion: media reports have often cited IBC’s figures in the context of +burying+ the human cost of war.

As numerous studies over many decades have shown, it is quite simply the structural role of the corporate media to defend established power by minimising, as far as possible, public perception of the costs to civilians of US-UK state violence. This role has not suddenly changed in regard to Iraq. On the contrary, media performance on Iraq has been a text book example of a corporate propaganda system acting to protect allied elite interests.

Finally, the danger of moving beyond data collection is emphasised in this comment on IBC’s website in response to media reports of the “surge”:

“Despite any efforts put into the surge, the first six months of 2007 was still the most deadly first six months for civilians of any year since the invasion.” (‘The Baghdad "surge" and civilian casualties’;

This was also highly politicised analysis. IBC’s framing of the issue exactly matches that found in the pro-war Observer:

“Despite the surge, violence remains roughly at the same levels.” (‘Iraq benchmarks,’ The Observer, September 2, 2007)

Imagine what Western journalists would have made of a Soviet organisation observing that a particular period of time had been "the most deadly" for civilians in Afghanistan in the 1980s “despite” a massive surge in Soviet military activity.

And yet this is currently the standard line in mainstream reporting, part of a wider attempt to present the occupation as a well-intentioned effort to achieve peace and democracy, rather than conquest and control.

To their credit, IBC have made an improvement to their website. Their “counter”, which previously recorded “Minimum” and “Maximum” deaths in Iraq, has been changed. Viewed alongside the name Iraq Body Count, visitors were likely to assume that the “Maximum” category referred to the maximum possible number of civilian deaths in Iraq - the full body count - rather than the maximum number of deaths recorded in media reports. The counter now reads:

“Documented civilian deaths from violence 74,432 – 81,120” (

IBC comment:

“The change to a simple unlabeled range is intended to help avoid misinterpretation or misrepresentation of these numbers as (for example) the ‘maximum possible’ death toll, or IBC’s ‘estimate’ of it.”

This is a welcome change. However, the very name of the website remains misleading. IBC is, in truth, an Iraq Reported Body Count - nothing more.


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

Write to Iraq Body Count

Raise the issues covered in this alert with the following journalists:

Write to Katherine Butler, foreign editor of the Independent:

Write to Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor at the Observer:

Write to Ian Black, Middle East editor at the Guardian

Write to Paul Reynolds at BBC Online:

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:07:58 +0000

In response to our September 18 alert, ‘The Media Ignore Credible Poll Revealing 1.2 Million Violent Deaths In Iraq,’ BBC Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler sent one Media Lens reader the following response:

“Sorry but this Media Lens inspired stuff is very sophomoric. The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the nuremberg rallies. I always wondered why people marched to another's beat without any obvious thought from themselves. Perhaps you know the answer, or perhaps you merely intend to keep marching.

“Please don't write to me again in someone else's words. It is so embarrasing for you. Please learn to think for yourself.


The polite and thoughtful email that elicited this response was sent by James, a masters student at Durham University. You can read it here: http://www.Media

The email contains several points that we did not even make in our media alert.

The irony of Esler’s focus on our alleged fascistic tendencies is that it has become very much the reflexive response of irate journalists over the last six years. In his enthusiasm for the war that has since demolished Iraq, the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote to us on March 15, 2002:

"Dear Serviles
I would have more respect for you if you showed the smallest awareness that a tyrant bore some responsibility for tyranny. I appreciate this is difficult for you, it involves coming to terms with complexity and horribly Eurocentric principles such as justice and universality, and truly I share your pain. But your for [sic] sake far more than mine, I'd like to know roughly how many deaths in Iraq are down to Saddam. If you admit that we're in double figures, or more, what should be done about it?
Viva Joe Stalin"

The Independent on Sunday’s deputy editor Michael Williams described Media Lens emailers - who were challenging the paper's hypocrisy in ’saving the planet’ while banking the loot from fossil fuel adverts - as "a curmudgeonly lot of puritans, miseries, killjoys, Stalinists and glooms". (Williams, 'A bottle of bubbly for the best way to fly,' Independent on Sunday, January 22, 2006)

Peter Beaumont of the Observer cringed with disgust as he told readers how Media Lens was “a closed and distorting little world”, part of “a curious willy-waving exercise... Think a train spotters' club run by Uncle Joe Stalin." (Beaumont, 'Microscope on Media Lens,' The Observer, June 18, 2006;,,1800328,00.html)

The Stalinist zombies were also very much on the march in the mind of BBC producer Adam Curtis, who interpreted our analysis of his series The Century Of The Self as us “stamping [our] little feet” and “trying to whip up an attack of the clones”. (Email to Editors, June 18, 2002)

The “clones”, Esler’s “robotic” respondents, are members of the public who care enough about the devastating impact of corporate media bias to take time out of their day to write to journalists. This in a society that endlessly seeks to persuade us to care only about our immediate self-gratification and our immediate families, while the environment collapses around us, while 2 million people lie dead in Iraq from twelve years of sanctions and four years of illegal occupation.

The Observer editor, Roger Alton, composed this response to one (also) extremely polite emailer:

"Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at Media Lens? Don't you have a mind of your own?" (Email forwarded, June 1, 2006 - our censorship)

It could just be that Alton was also the “senior journalist” who anonymously described us to a BBC reporter as “poisonous c*nts". (Posted by BBC journalist David Fuller, Media Lens website, May 15, 2006)

Esler clarified his outrage to another reader (who complained in response to the Nuremberg rally email):

“The reason no one takes media lens seriously is not the substance of your complaints. It is the robotic, identikit, narcissistic manner in which they are expressed. I know you will not understand this, but your complaint below is precisely what I had in mind. I made a comparison with the fascistic habit of mind which seeks to intimidate through numbers of people unthinkingly doing the same thing. Hilariously, you and a handful of other people have done precisely that. Berthold Brecht explains the fascistic habit of mind and its lack of self-awareness when he pointed out that ‘Furz hat keine Nase.’ [‘Fart has no nose‘]

“Please don't write again. Genuine complaints from geuine people I am happy to deal with. Phoney outrage from Media Lens is simply a waste of everyone's time. Again, I don't suppose you will get it. Gavin” (http://www.Media

Esler wrote to yet another reader:

“i object to the deceitful and frankly despicable methods of Media Lens which discredit whatever point it is they - you - have to make in your orchestrated and robotic campaign. if you really are doing this ‘thin kingly‘ then you are utterly beyond redemption. you have decided to act like an automaton? hilarious.

“please don't write to me again. matters of war and peace are too important for your synthetic outrage.


In fact there is no “orchestrated and robotic campaign”. One of our readers - Miriam Cotton, co-editor of Ireland’s excellent Mediabite website ( made the point in an email to Esler:

“Posters on Media Lens use that site in the same way they might watch Newsnight – as one source of media information along with newspapers, television and other news outlets. The only difference for us between the BBC and Media Lens is that the latter facilitates audience participation. But we are the same people who make up part of your regular audience. The vast majority of us have never met each other and we are from all walks of life and indeed are posting from different places around the world.” (Posted, Media Lens message board, September 21, 2007)

We write analysis of media performance and invite anyone who happens to read it to write to journalists (and to us) in comment. To be sure, this is not always pleasant for journalists - no-one likes to be criticised - but it is not Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, or any other form of totalitarianism. It is vigorous public participation in political debate, which is supposed to be what democracy is all about.

Another reader made a related point:

Dear Gavin Esler

If I read an Amnesty International alert and write a letter to the Embassy of Myanmar regarding human rights abuses I act as a concerned human being.

If I read a Media Lens alert and send an email to Newsnight about their deplorable reporting of possibly 1 million deaths, I act as an automaton?

Shame on you for your abusive and petty responses. Please concentrate on the issues and not the messenger.

Dr Aly Kassam

I, Corporate Non-Conformist

A further irony is that Esler is a stereotypical corporate journalist - a highly polished media performer, but one who often presents the benevolent claims of power as Truth. In 2004, Esler commented on the death of Ronald Reagan:

"Many people believe that he restored faith in American military action after Vietnam through his willingness to use force, if necessary, in defence of American interests." (Newsnight, June 9, 2004)

Reagan was, Esler insisted, "a man who was loved even by his political opponents in this country [America] and abroad".

This will have come as news to the survivors of Reagan’s covert wars in Central America. Thomas Carothers, a former Reagan State Department official, observed that the human cost of the US war in Nicaragua alone "in per capita terms was significantly higher than the number of US persons killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the twentieth century +combined+". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 'Hegemony or Survival', Hamish Hamilton, p.98) For details, see:

Reagan - Visions of the Damned - Part 1

Reagan - Visions of the Damned - Part 2

Esler, by contrast, explored Reagan‘s spiritual qualities, quoting Nancy Reagan to the effect that her husband "had absolutely no ego". In the Daily Mail, he went further: "above all, Ronald Wilson Reagan embodied the best of the American spirit - the optimistic belief that problems can and will be solved, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier than we are." (Esler, 'The Great Communicator,' Daily Mail, June 7, 2004)

The child survivors of Reagan’s ferocious war in Guatemala struggled to share this optimism. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported that the percentage of the Guatemalan population living in extreme poverty increased rapidly from 45% in 1985 to 76% in 1988 (Reagan was president from 1981-89). Other studies estimated that 20,000 Guatemalans were dying of hunger every year at that time, and that more than 1,000 children died of measles alone in the first four months of 1990. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 'The Victors,' Z Magazine, November 1990; January, 1991; and April, 1991)

Esler did manage to mention the Iran-Contra affair: "The scandal blighted the last two years of an otherwise extraordinarily successful presidency...".

As we noted in our Media Alerts on June 10 and June 15, 2004, Esler’s views on Reagan coincided with most mainstream commentary across the media spectrum. As in almost all reporting, Reagan’s enormous and truly horrendous crimes were out of sight. Esler‘s, then, might well be described as a “robotic response“.

Two months later, Esler noted that US crimes at Abu Ghraib prison had produced: "Images that shamed America's mission in Iraq." (Newsnight, 24 August, 2004) Imagine what Western journalists would have made of a Soviet media claim in the 1980s suggesting that photographs of crimes in Kabul were “Images that shamed the Soviet mission in Afghanistan.” The Soviet invasion was a vast war crime, not a “mission” that could subsequently be “shamed”.

More independence of thought was manifested on August 26, 2004, when Esler referred to "Iran's nuclear threat" - a threat that existed then, as now, only in the minds of US-UK government officials and mainstream journalists.

Esler again echoed government claims in discussion with Lancet editor, Richard Horton, on the subject of the 2004 Lancet report. Esler commented:

"But you haven't got 100,000 death certificates, you haven't got 100,000 bodies. You've got somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 is where you've put it, and you've gone in the middle." (BBC2, Newsnight, November 2, 2004)

Horton responded:

"But that... is a misunderstanding of the figures. The most likely estimate of excess deaths is 98,000. It's +not+ right to say that it's equally likely it could be between 8,000 and 194,000. The most likely figure is 98,000, and as soon as you go away from that figure, either lower or higher, it's much less likely it will be much lower or higher."

It was a misunderstanding, but not uniquely Esler’s - the claim has been repeated robotically by journalists right across the media.

On April 12, 2007, Esler interviewed Nicholas Burns, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs,

"But do you worry that it is however demoralising, four years after the invasion of Iraq, several weeks of the so called surge in US troops, more Iraqi troops on the streets and so on, that you cannot guarantee the safety of people in what's supposed to be the safest part of the country?"

Again, Esler had apparently accepted the government line that the “surge” was about guaranteeing “the safety of the people”, rather than about defeating the insurgency and securing Iraq’s oil billions for US power.

Conclusion - The Party Political Spinbots

Once again we see the double standard journalists employ when dealing with ’real’ people - senior government and corporate managers with power and influence - and “unpeople”, including members of the public. Esler would not dream of referring to the Nuremberg rallies in condemning the pre-programmed answers he so often receives from party political spinbots on Newsnight. And yet the most obvious and tedious theme of mainstream political discourse is that ministers and members of parliament are forever “on message”, refusing to even minutely depart from their carefully prepared scripts.

If Esler compared this genuine capitulation to Group Think with the behaviour of genocidal fascists responsible for the mass murder of millions, his position would quickly become untenable. Such a grave insult to people with power and influence - and to the memory of the victims of Nazism - would be deemed so serious, so outrageous, that the heavens would pretty much fall on Esler‘s head. But when it comes to us and our readers - anything goes!

Meanwhile, the journalists who so casually berate thinking members of the public for their lack of independent thought, are all too willing, themselves, to conform to the strict demands of a corporate system that tolerates little dissent.


Our goal is to encourage reasoned debate. This seems unlikely to result from writing to Gavin Esler. We are therefore not recommending that readers write to him at this time.

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:05:14 +0000
The Media Ignore Credible Poll Revealing 1.2 Million Violent Deaths In Iraq

We Can’t Talk About Oil

The media are not, as is commonly supposed, windows on the world; they are more like paintings or sketches of windows on the world - both the ‘window’ and the ‘reality’ beyond are manufactured corporate products.

The problem is that the manufacturers selling their wares, while portraying themselves as disinterested, are anything but. They are profit-seeking media corporations that have a very clear interest in highlighting certain issues and in burying others out of sight.

Economist Alan Greenspan - former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve - writes in a single sentence of his new 531-page memoir:

"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." (Leader, ‘Power, not oil, Mr Greenspan,’ Sunday Times, September 16, 2007)

A Sunday Times leader briefly waved away this curious outburst:

“Many free market economists, like their Marxist opponents, fall into the fallacy of believing that everything in politics hinges on financial self-interest. True, oil has always been an important factor in Middle Eastern strategy but even countries opposed to the war believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The real reason for the war was Saddam's defiance and the projection of US power after 9/11.” (Ibid)

Asked to explain his remark, Greenspan said:

"From a rational point of view, I cannot understand why we don't name what is evident and indeed a wholly defensible pre-emptive position." (Richard Adams, ‘Invasion of Iraq was driven by oil, says Greenspan,’ The Guardian, September 17, 2007)

Greenspan noted that he made his “pre-emptive” economic case for war to White House officials and that one lower-level official told him: "Well, unfortunately, we can't talk about oil." (Bob Woodward, ‘Greenspan: Ouster Of Hussein Crucial For Oil Security,’ Washington Post, September 17, 2007)

Greenspan’s comment was too important to be completely ignored by the media, but far too dangerous to be seriously discussed (the three sentences from the Sunday Times, above, constitute the most in-depth discussion to appear in the UK press). We can be sure that honest and open analysis of this absolutely central issue will not be forthcoming. Indeed, Greenspan has quickly “clarified” that, in arguing that “the Iraq war is largely about oil”, he of course didn’t mean that oil was the motivation for the war:

"I was not saying that that's the administration's motive. I'm just saying that if somebody asked me, 'Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?' I would say it was essential." (Ibid)

1.2 Million Iraqis Have Been Murdered

Another aspect of reality that has no place in the corporate media’s painted window was highlighted last Friday with the release (September 14) of a new report by the British polling organisation, Opinion Research Business (ORB). ORB is no dissident, anti-war outfit; it is a respected polling company that has conducted studies for customers as mainstream as the BBC and the Conservative Party.

The latest poll revealed that 1.2 million Iraqi citizens “have been murdered” since the March 2003 US-UK invasion. (

In February, Les Roberts, co-author of the 2004 and 2006 Lancet reports, argued that Britain and America might by then have triggered in Iraq "an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide", in which 800,000 people were killed. (Roberts, 'Iraq's death toll is far worse than our leaders admit,' The Independent, February 14, 2007;

The key importance of the new poll is that it provides strong evidence for this claim, and strong support for the findings of the 2006 Lancet study, which reported 655,000 deaths. Roberts sent this email in response to the ORB poll:

"The poll is 14 months later with deaths escalating over time. That alone accounts for most of the difference [between the October 2006 Lancet paper and the ORB poll]. There are confidence interval issues, there are reasons to assume the Lancet estimate is too low but the same motives for under-reporting should apply to ORB. Overall they seem very much to align. (e.g. both conclude that: most commonly violent deaths are from gunshot wounds [in contradiction to IBC and the MOH*], most deaths are outside of Baghdad [in contradiction to the other passive monitoring sources which tallied ~3/4th of deaths in the first 4 years in Baghdad and have only recently attributed even 1/2 as being elsewhere], Diyala worse than Anbar....)."

[* MOH = Iraqi Ministry of Health] (Email to Media Lens and others, September 14, 2007)

And yet, despite its obvious significance, the ORB study has been almost entirely blanked by the US-UK media. At time of writing, four days after the findings were announced, the poll has been mentioned in just one national UK newspaper - ironically, the pro-war Observer. It has been ignored by the Guardian and the Independent.

The BBC’s Newsnight may have been alone in providing TV broadcast coverage. The programme devoted the first 28 minutes of its September 14 edition to the financial crisis at Northern Rock bank. At 28:53 anchor Gavin Esler said:

“More than a million Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003, according to the British polling company ORB. The study’s likely to fuel controversy over the true, human cost of the war. It’s significantly up on the previous highest estimate of 650,000 deaths published by the Lancet last October. At the time, the Iraqi government described +that+ figure as ‘ridiculously high’. The independent Iraqi [sic] Body Count group puts the current total at closer to 75,000.” (Newsnight, September 14, 2007)

Esler’s contribution ended after 34 seconds at 29:27.

Could it be that journalists are just too ill-informed to understand the importance of the ORB study? Not according to news presenter Jon Snow, who responded to one emailer asking why Channel 4 had not covered the new study:

"... anyone who reports iraq is bound to be aware of every death toll assessment. alas no one has the slightest idea exactly how many people have died..we are all certain that a very greta many have. Obviously those of us who find the war most heinous want to pin the largest possible number on the people who did this. it is an un fulfilling excercise because by definition it is unprovable and therefore pointless. What we do try to do is to report the known deaths whenever they happen. Iraq Body count, the Lancet extrapolated survey, the Red crescent are all estimates that help to give us a sense of numbers, but we shall never know for sure. What we also do is to report the four million poeple (minimum) who have been displaced by the war. the one and a half million in Jordan and in Syria respectively are largely counted numbers and reliable.” (www.Media

Snow wrote:

"... anyone who reports iraq is bound to be aware of every death toll assessment".

We are to believe, then, that highly trained professional journalists have a solid grasp of these issues - members of the public need not worry on that score! But what is so striking is that journalists consistently exhibit an inability to grasp even the basic meaning of the figures involved. Consider Esler’s comment above:

“The independent Iraqi [sic] Body Count group puts the current total at closer to 75,000.”

Iraq Body Count (IBC) does not at all offer a “total” figure to be compared with the Lancet and ORB studies. IBC only collects records of violent civilian deaths reported by two different (mainly Western) media sources operating in Iraq. Epidemiologists report that this type of study typically captures around 5 per cent of deaths during high levels of violence, such as exists in Iraq. By contrast, the Lancet studies provide figures for all deaths - violent and non-violent, civilian and military, reported and unreported.

The response we received from the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, is a further case in point:

“I certainly think it was right to report the ORB findings, and to put them in context. The IBC figure is of course not offering a comprehensive estimate of the total number of deaths, but it has the virtue of being real data and therefore provides one end of the spectrum.” (Email to Media Lens, September 17, 2007)

The suggestion that the Lancet reports are not based on "real data" is remarkable. It is also wrong to suggest that IBC provides a different "end of the spectrum" to the Lancet reports. Talk of a "spectrum" presupposes that the same quantity is being measured in each case. But that is simply false.

Snow also comments:

"... alas no one has the slightest idea exactly how many people have died".

In fact we do have a good idea of how many have died - the issue of exactness is a red herring. The point about the ORB study is that it provides strong supportive evidence for the findings of the earlier, far more detailed and rigorous 2006 Lancet study. The Lancet authors have been calling for exactly this kind of follow up study to help confirm or refute their findings. It seems clear that the Lancet figure of 655,000 deaths, although now a year out of date, was accurate.

For the media to ignore the ORB study is an authentic scandal. Doubtless the failure is in part rooted in simple ignorance of its significance. If so, this amounts to a form of criminal negligence in the face of vast war crimes. But, as discussed above, structural realities continue to apply - the media system is an integrated component of a system that benefits from the subordination of people and truth to profit and power.


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

Write to Alan Rusbridger and Simon Kelner, editors of the Guardian and Independent, respectively. Ask them why their newspapers have not mentioned the ORB report:



Write to Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight. Ask him if really believes 34 seconds does justice to the ORB study, in light of its significance in evaluating the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies.

Write to Gavin Esler

Write to Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC Online

Alerts 2007 Mon, 15 Nov 2010 15:04:16 +0000