Last night’s BBC Newsnight program reported the deaths of 70 “Iraqi militants” in US air raids on the western Iraqi city of Ramadi. The item lasted just nine seconds. This included three seconds of skepticism from an Iraqi doctor who reported that in fact civilians were amongst the dead. Viewers’ attention was then rapidly diverted elsewhere, a familiar pattern of mainstream news coverage.
A BBC news online report titled “US strikes kill ‘70 Iraq rebels’,” also led with the US military version of events. Perhaps by way of a nod to increasing levels of public frustration with “embedded” journalism, the phrase “Iraq rebels” at least appeared in quotes. The report also added a cursory note of caution in the second paragraph: “eyewitnesses are quoted saying that many [of the dead] were civilians”. (BBC news online, October 17, 2005)
A Media Lens reader wrote to Pete Clifton, the BBC’s news online editor:
Regarding the BBC article ‘US strikes kill “70 Iraq rebels”,’ isn't it biased to include the US quote in the headline?
I'm sure you'd agree an alternative such as ‘Iraqis: many civilians die in US attack’ is biased and would be avoided.
Why not choose a neutral headline to avoid contentious claims, such as “Dozens killed in US strikes?” (Darren Smith, message board, www.medialens.org, October 17, 2005)
Compare the emphasis and extent of the Newsnight and BBC online reports with today’s press release from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN):
“Two days of US air attacks against insurgents in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi have caused heavy casualties among the city's civilian population, a doctor and a senior Iraqi government official in Ramadi said.”
IRIN go on to quote Ahmed al-Kubaissy, a senior doctor at Ramadi hospital:
“We have received the bodies of 38 people in our hospital and among them were four children and five women. The relatives said they had been killed by air attacks in their homes and in the street.”
IRIN also quote a senior Iraqi government official in the city, who reported: “three houses had been totally destroyed in the air attacks on Sunday and Monday and 14 dead civilians had been found inside them. A further 12 civilians had been critically injured in the same air strikes.”
The official described the US attack as “a cowardly action... [adding] that if any insurgents have been killed, many more civilians have been buried with them over the past two days". (IRIN, “Iraq: Women and children killed in US air strikes on Ramadi, doctor says,” October 18, 2005)
The independent reporter, Dahr Jamail, paints an even more appalling picture of events in Ramadi:
Residents claimed that several people, including children, were congregating around the site where a US military vehicle was destroyed and five soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb on election day.
US warplanes conducted a strike on the crowd of two dozen people which had gathered to look at the wreckage and strip it for scrap metal. The military claimed that they were setting another roadside bomb in the same location.
Dr. Bassem al-Dulaimi at the main hospital reported that he received 25 dead bodies which were the result of US aerial bombings. Other doctors and Iraqi police officers reported that the dead were all civilians, including children. At least 14 other Iraqis were killed in US air strikes on a nearby village.” (Jamail, “‘Elections’ and other Deceptions in Iraq,” October 18, 2005)
Another story from Iraq that is embarrassing US-UK government politicians, and their supporters in the media, has received similarly scant attention in recent days. On October 15 The Independent reported that Jean Ziegler, a senior UN official, had condemned the “coalition” practice of cutting off food and water to force Iraqi civilians to flee before attacks on insurgent “strongholds” as a “flagrant violation” of international law. (Bradley S. Klapper, “Iraq referendum: US practice of starving out Iraqi civilians is inhumane, says UN,” The Independent, October 15, 2005)
This single article represents the sum-total of coverage in the mainstream press -- 298 words. The story was ignored by every other national British newspaper. A 302-word article on the BBC website will doubtless allow “Auntie Beeb” to claim it has “covered” the issue. (“US troops ‘starve Iraqi citizens’,” October 15, 2005)
American dissident David Peterson reports close to zero coverage of Ziegler’s comments in the US media.
The US forces have, in their usual robotic fashion, issued a blanket denial of Ziegler’s horrific charges. But mainstream news outlets have done little, if anything, to challenge US and UK government ministers and officials about what Ziegler has called the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/; op., cit)
When the mass killing of Iraqi civilians is couched in propaganda terms imported wholesale from the military, and reported in nine seconds or 300 words, it means the media have given the military a green light to kill with impunity. It means we are a couple of hundred words away from the kind of performance we would expect from a totalitarian media system.
What is it about Iraqis that makes us believe we have a right to go on killing them year after year? Why do their deaths mean so little to us? How can the deep moral degradation of our corporate press, and of our corporate political system, remain invisible to so many of us? How long must innocent people continue to pay the price for our indifference and complacency?
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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