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2004

THE BBC'S NICHOLAS WITCHELL RESPONDS

On October 5, we published a Media Alert: 'The Mythology Of Mistakes'. We challenged a claim made by Nicholas Witchell, the BBC's world affairs correspondent, that US forces merely make "mistakes" in killing Iraqi civilians. On September 30, Witchell had said on BBC news:

"As is so often the case in this conflict it's the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life - either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents." (Nicholas Witchell, BBC News, September 2004)

We received the following email from Witchell on October 7:

Dear Mr Edwards,

Can I thank you and your many subscribers for their emails. I've read them and followed the debate on your website.

I'm sorry that my words on this occasion (BBC Six O'Clock News: 30.09.04) have caused the reaction that they have among the subscribers to Media Lens.

Much (though I accept not all) of your complaint is founded on the Knight Ridder article of 25 September. You and your subscribers have not identified what efforts you may have made to test the assertions in that article. Maybe you have made efforts to place this particular article under your media lens. It would seem a little odd, I think, given the rigour of the scrutiny of which you and your subscribers are capable, if you have taken this article at face value without having made any effort to test/check it.

The BBC here in Baghdad has spoken at some length to a very senior official at the Iraqi Health Ministry who has indicated that they simply do not support the interpretation placed on their figures in the Knight Ridder "scoop" of 25 September, for the simple reason that the Health Ministry does not categorise WHO causes violent deaths, any more than it attempts to distinguish between Iraqis killed whilst fighting the Americans and Iraqis who could be regarded as "non-combatants".

As Knight Ridder themselves acknowledge in their 25 September report, the Health Ministry civilian figures "include an unknown number of police and Iraqi national guardsmen".  I don't believe anyone is suggesting that it is the Americans who are carrying out the repeated attacks on the Iraqi police and National Guard (a further 10 to 16 of whom were reported to have been killed yesterday in an explosion in Anah).

The BBC report which has prompted this reaction was about the series of 3 car bombs in Baghdad last Thursday which killed more than 40 people, among whom were some 34 children.

There were, in total, some 35 car bomb explosions in September which took several hundred civilian lives. I don't think any reasonable person would dispute that in recent weeks there have been significantly more civilian deaths in attacks such as these than there have been civilian deaths caused by the Americans. I referred to the latter as "mistakes" because I don't believe one can reasonably assert that the Americans are sending out their aircraft/forces with the premeditated intention of causing large numbers of deaths among "non-combatant" civilians. That there have been such deaths, and that they have been in substantial numbers, is similarly beyond doubt and, for example, during the recent nightly American airstrikes on Falluja, the BBC has consistently reported the statements about civilian deaths from local doctors and hospitals. It is important that we continue to do so and we shall.

However, plainly, when there is such uncertainty and ambiguity there is is a great responsibility on all of us who are attempting to report these things fairly from Baghdad to use the utmost care in our choice of language. I can assure you that this episode has forcefully re-emphasised that need to me.

Once again, thanks for all the e-mails.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Witchell.

Dear Nick

Many thanks for your thoughtful reply, we greatly appreciate it.

You ask what efforts we made "to test the assertions" in the Knight-Ridder report. Limited resources make it difficult for us to rapidly investigate the accuracy of stories published by major news agencies. We note, however, that the Knight-Ridder story was widely covered by leading newspapers across the United States - by the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example - which clearly found the story credible. Jonathan Steele also cited the report in his October 9 article in the Guardian, concluding:

"The greatest risk of pre-election violence in today's Iraq comes from the United States, not from the various groups of insurgents."

Steele added: "the footage of car-bombs and suicide attacks set off by insurgents, which TV cameras are able to film in central Baghdad and which we see on our screens, may give the false impression that anti-government forces are the biggest killers.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1323423,00.html)

You refer to an anonymous "very senior official" at the Iraqi Health Ministry who has indicated that ministry officials "simply do not support the interpretation placed on their figures" in the Knight-Ridder report because "the Health Ministry does not categorise WHO causes violent deaths". Why did you not name him?

The Knight-Ridder report, by contrast, quotes several named ministry officials: Dr Walid Hamed, a "member of the operations section of the health ministry which compiles the statistics", and Dr Shihab Ahmed Jassim, "another member of the ministry's operations section". Other named medical personnel are cited in support of the following claim:

"Iraqi officials said about two-thirds of the Iraqi deaths were caused by multinational forces and police; the remaining third died from insurgent attacks. The ministry began separating attacks by multinational and police forces and insurgents June 10."

In other words the ministry +does+ categorise who causes violent deaths: "From that date until Sept. 10, 1,295 Iraqis were killed in clashes with multinational forces and police versus 516 killed in terrorist operations, the ministry said." ('Iraqi civilian casualties mounting,' Nancy Youssef,  Knight Ridder Newspapers, September 25, 2004 http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/9753603.htm)

Iraqi health and hospital officials agree that the statistics represent only part of the death toll - families often bury their dead without informing government agencies or are treated at facilities that fail to do the same, suggesting the number of civilians killed may well be higher than even these figures suggest. This flatly contradicts your claim that civilians are killed as a result of US military actions, but "far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents" - perhaps your senior official should contact some of the officials cited by Knight-Ridder.

You say that much of our complaint is founded on the Knight-Ridder story. That is flatly false. We gave examples of apparently deliberate US revenge attacks targeting whole populations as cited by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian and blogger Jo Wilding. More importantly we clearly stated that we could cite "many other examples".

Like much of the media, your report heavily emphasised civilian suffering at the hands of insurgents, while excusing, or passing lightly over, the "coalition's" responsibility for vast death and destruction. By contrast, Bob Herbert wrote this week in the New York Times:

"Our troops continue to die but we can't even identify the enemy, which is why so many innocent Iraqi civilians - including women and children - are being blown away. The civilians are being killed by the thousands." (Bob Herbert, 'A War Without Reason,' The New York Times, October 18, 2004)

Ex-Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey was honourably discharged last year after 12 years as a Marine. Massey was in the main invasion force all the way to Baghdad, before his battalion was moved to Karbala. In an interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman entitled, 'Ex-US Marine: I killed civilians in Iraq', Massey said:

(http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/05/24/148212)

Massey reported many shootings of civilians in cars at checkpoints and described how his own unit had machine-gunned peaceful protestors. He also described the effect of bombing:

"They had tractor-trailer beds full of bodies. It was so bad - this is because of the bombing that we did - some of them had Iraqi flags on them, representing that they were a soldier, but 80% of them didn't. We would find tractor-trailers literally full of stocked bodies."

Massey's conclusion:

"Marines are trained from day one that you go in - when you go in to boot camp you learn what the Geneva Convention is, what the rules of the Geneva Convention are, what the rules of engagement. However, Iraq violated every rule of engagement that I have ever been taught - violated every rule of the Geneva Convention that I have been taught. If you have young marines coming up you to and asking you, staff sergeant, what's going on? You know, we have got a problem."

In April, Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent:

"In revenge for the brutal killing of four American mercenaries - for that is what they were - US Marines carried out a massacre of hundreds of women and children and guerrillas in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah." (Fisk, 'By endorsing Ariel Sharon's plan George Bush has legitimised terrorism,' The Independent, April 16, 2004)

The vengeful killing of literally hundreds of unarmed women and children through the application of massive military power against densely populated areas can hardly be considered a "mistake".

Writing on ZNet, Newstandard journalist and eyewitness in Fallujah, Dahr Jamail, reported: "As I was there, an endless stream of women and children who'd been sniped by the Americans were being raced into the dirty clinic, the cars speeding over the curb out front as their wailing family members carried them in...

http://zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=5308. See: http://newstandardnews.net)

Jo Wilding (http://www.wildfirejo.org.uk) recently posted this on the British Black Watch army website:

(http://www.theblackwatch.co.uk/ubbthreads/showflat.php?Cat=&Number=717&page=0&view=collapsed&sb=5&o=&fpart=1)

Many Fallujah residents trace the town's hostility towards US forces to April 2003, when American troops shot dead at least 13 protesters, who eyewitnesses claim were unarmed. There had been no fighting in the city during the US invasion. One Fallujah rebel said:

"The Americans have turned the Iraqis into cornered lions because of their attacks and detentions without reason." (http://www.occupationwatch.org/article.php?id=7062)

Many Iraqi people - again, eyewitnesses to the killing - believe that these 13 people were killed in a massacre that was essentially an act of revenge.

You write:

"The BBC report which has prompted this reaction was about the series of 3 car bombs in Baghdad last Thursday which killed more than 40 people, among whom were some 34 children... I don't think any reasonable person would dispute that in recent weeks there have been significantly more civilian deaths in attacks such as these than there have been civilian deaths caused by the Americans."

Your inserted caveat, "in recent weeks", is worthy of one of Blair's "dodgy dossiers". In your news report you didn't say: "As has so often been the case in recent weeks", you said: "As is so often the case in this conflict it's the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life."

But even accepting your caveated argument on its own terms, your claim is disputable. You point out that your report concerned a series of car bombs in Baghdad which killed more than 40 people, among them some 34 children. On October 2, Associated Press reported of these children:

"Families of the 35 children who died... blamed American troops for the tragedy, accusing them of attracting insurgents to a ceremony where the attacks occurred."

The report added:

"Residents said that before the start of the celebration, U.S. soldiers called upon the children through loudspeakers to join the crowd, promising them sweets. There were an unusually large number around because the long school holidays were nearing an end.

http://www.occupationwatch.org/article.php?id=7108)

Was this another mistake? Why do the opinions of eyewitnesses to the event - the parents of the victims - not matter in apportioning blame?

And is it merely a "mistake" that Iraqi children are continuing to be killed, mutilated and irradiated by cluster bombs, depleted uranium and discarded Iraqi ammunition. In May 2003, UNICEF reported that more than 1,000 children had already been injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war, including by cluster bombs (and unguarded) Iraqi munitions, and emphasised that "the coalition forces have a clear obligation under humanitarian law to remove these dangers from communities." (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=7758&Cr=iraq&Cr1=relief)

Another aid organisation reported just a month into the war that a hospital, situated in one of the poorest parts of Baghdad, "had amputated more than 100 limbs of children in that one month." (The Star Online, April 18 2003, http://thestar.com.my/services/printerfriendly.asp?file=/2003/4/18/nation/shaz17b.asp)

Since Saddam was toppled in April 2003, Iraq has paid out $1.8bn to the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) as reparations for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Of those payments, $37m have gone to Britain and $32.8m have gone to the United States.

By contrast, of the $18.4bn of US tax dollars allocated for Iraq's reconstruction, only $29m has been spent on water, sanitation, health, roads, bridges, and public safety combined.

Is it simply a "mistake" that the coalition has failed in its legal obligation under international law to protect the welfare of a civilian population under occupation?

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors - Media Lens

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: nick.witchell@bbc.co.uk

Email: helen.boaden@bbc.co.uk

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