23July2014

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THE MYTHOLOGY OF 'MISTAKES'

"Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show 'exceptions' to, or 'mistakes' in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence." (Mark Curtis, Web Of Deceit)

"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)

From State Occasions To Senseless Death

The BBC website notes that Nicholas Witchell, the BBC's world affairs correspondent (formerly, royal and diplomatic correspondent), was "the first journalist to broadcast the confirmed news of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and provided live radio commentary from outside Westminster Abbey at her funeral". Witchell has frequently been the BBC radio commentator at "national or state occasions such as the Ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph and was awarded a Radio Academy award in 2001 for his coverage of the event". (http://news.bbc.co.uk/aboutbbcnews/hi/profiles/newsid_3237000/3237226.stm)

These "national and state occasions" are, of course, unashamedly patriotic events - journalists commentating on them must be willing to set aside criticism and scepticism in respectful deference to custom, royalty and national pride. It is of exactly these events that Tolstoy wrote: "From infancy, by every possible means - class books, church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments - the people is stupefied in one direction" - that of mindless patriotism.

And it is these same people that pay the price, Tolstoy noted: "before they look round, there will be no more admirals, presidents, or flags, or music; but only a damp and empty field of battle, cold, hunger, and pain; before them a murderous enemy; behind, relentless officers preventing their escape; blood, wounds, putrefying bodies, and senseless, unnecessary death." (Tolstoy, Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, New Society, 1987, p.95)

It might seem ironic, then, that Witchell is currently reporting daily from Baghdad on our government's illegal and violent occupation of Iraq. From promoting the pomp and circumstance of "state occasions" to reporting the blood-drenched streets of Baghdad, Witchell has personally traced the path of cause and effect identified by Tolstoy.

'Winning' - The Delighted Iraqis

On the day a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, Witchell declared of the US offensive:

"It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy." (BBC News at Six, April 9, 2003)

Retired general William Odom, former head of the US National Security Agency, said this month:

"Bush hasn't found the WMD. Al-Qaida, it's worse, he's lost on that front. That he's going to achieve a democracy there? That goal is lost, too. It's lost. Right now, the course we're on, we're achieving Bin Laden's ends." (Quoted, Sidney Blumenthal, 'Far graver than Vietnam', The Guardian, September 16, 2004)

In May of this year, Witchell contrasted the reality of US abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib with the alleged unreality of the Daily Mirror's pictures of alleged British abuses:

"After the appalling +reality+ of what the Americans have been doing, the Mirror's pictures threatened to compromise the work of every British soldier." (BBC 1 News At Ten, May 14, 2004, original emphasis)

Witchell thus gave the impression that claims of British abuse and torture were unreal - an outrageous claim given Red Cross and Amnesty reports to the contrary that were widely available at the time.

On October 1, Witchell reported that a series of insurgent car bombs in Baghdad were "intended to undermine the future". (BBC1, 18:00 News, October 1, 2004)

Not to undermine the +American+ future for Iraq, but to undermine the very future itself.

On September 24 we sent the following email to Witchell:

Dear Nicholas Witchell

On last night's 22:00 BBC1 News, you said:

"Dr. Allawi may say, 'we're winning', and there may be a time soon when that claim is more obviously justifiable. If that time arrives, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will be delighted."

The suggestion that the US-backed interim government has the support of the "overwhelming majority of Iraqis" is remarkable. I have seen no evidence to support this claim. Could you provide sources for this view, please?

A poll taken at the end of April found 42% of Iraqis saying they would feel safer if the Americans left their country immediately. Only 29% said they would be less safe. Another poll in mid May found the trend increasing: 55% felt life would be more secure if the Americans withdrew. ('Liberation will only come when the Americans leave - Let's hope Moqtada al-Sadr stands in the elections,' Jonathan Steele in Baghdad, The Guardian, Friday June 18, 2004) Few commentators believe the interim government would survive without US support.

A poll by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in May showed nine out of 10 Iraqis see US troops as occupiers rather than peacekeepers. Other results, published in the Financial Times, include a surge in the popularity of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric. More than half of those asked - a sample of 1,600 people from Iraq's different ethnic groups - wanted coalition forces to leave Iraq, compared to 20% one year ago. ('New photos show Abu Ghraib abuse', George Wright, Thursday May 20, 2004, The Guardian)

The Guardian reported that the poll "suggests that the coalition had lost the trust of Iraqis". This lack of trust surely extends to the "coalition"-imposed interim government.

Sincerely

David Edwards

Witchell replied the same day:

Dear Mr Edwards,

The meaning of what I said is perfectly clear: that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will be pleased if security and stability is established. It was in no way a statement which implies any endorsement of Allawi's interim government.

Nick Witchell.

We also replied on the same day:

Dear Nick

Many thanks but that's not quite correct. You said:

"Dr. Allawi may say, 'we're winning', and there may be a time soon when that claim is more obviously justifiable. If that time arrives, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will be delighted."

Your comment suggested that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis would welcome specifically +Allawi's+ victory in the war against insurgents. That is very different to suggesting that the overwhelming majority would (obviously) welcome an end to the conflict. Your comment gave the impression that most Iraqis support Allawi against the insurgents. The deep Iraqi mistrust of the "coalition" and its imposed interim government, and the widespread and escalating nature of the insurgency, suggests otherwise.

Best wishes

David Edwards

On September 30, we sent the following email to Witchell in Baghdad:

Dear Nicholas Witchell

Once again your comments on tonight's report from Iraq were remarkable. You said:

"As is so often the case in this conflict it's the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life - either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents." (Nicholas Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, September 30, 2004)

Earlier this week, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported that operations by US and multinational forces and Iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqis - most of them civilians - as attacks by insurgents, according to statistics compiled by the Iraqi Health Ministry.

http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/9753603.htm)

As for your astonishing claim idea that US forces merely make "mistakes" in killing civilians, Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian earlier this month:

"[I]t is not just the launch of the war which was illegal. Illegality continues today. Take the US helicopter attack on a crowd in Haifa Street, Baghdad, last Sunday, which killed 13 people and injured dozens (including a Guardian reporter). It was almost certainly a war crime.

"The pilots' unarmed victims came into the street after insurgents had destroyed an American Bradley fighting vehicle, a cross between a tank and an armoured personnel carrier. The soldiers inside it were quickly rescued by comrades and withdrew. By the time the jubilant crowd gathered to gawp at the Bradley's smouldering remains, military activity had ceased.

"Why then did the pilots shoot? The official version is that ground fire was being aimed at them. Even if true, questions remain. Why didn't the helicopters fly off to safety? Fire need not be answered, if there is a more sensible way of avoiding being hit, especially when the ground troops the helicopters were supposedly protecting had already left the scene. Secondly, did the pilots properly assess the risk to civilians from a disproportionate response? From the casualties caused, the evidence strongly suggests they did not.

"The assumption has to be that the pilots' motive was revenge. If so, the incident would not be unique. In case after case, the behaviour of US forces in Iraq appears to be degenerating into vindictive killing, decided not only at the tactical but also at command level.

"Lieutenant-general James Conway, who commanded US marines at Falluja in April, recently revealed he was unhappy with a higher-ranking decision to assault the town after four American contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated. He was against "attacking out of revenge", he now says." ('Iraqis want elections - and foreign troops to leave now. Yes, the invasion was illegal. But war crimes are still being committed,' Jonathan Steele, Friday September 17, 2004, The Guardian)

Indeed, on April 10 details emerged from aid agencies and hospital sources that fully 600 Iraqis had been killed and 1700 injured in Falluja, many of them civilians. Human rights activist and trainee lawyer, Jo Wilding, described some of the reality:

"Screaming women come in, praying, slapping their chests and faces. Maki, a consultant and acting director of the clinic, takes me to the bed where a child of about 10 is lying with a bullet wound to the head. A smaller child is being treated for a similar injury in the next bed. A US sniper hit them and their grandmother as they left their home to flee Fallujah... Snipers are causing not just carnage but also the paralysis of the ambulance and evacuation services. The biggest hospital after the main one was bombed is in US territory and cut off from the clinic by snipers. The ambulance has been repaired four times after bullet damage. Bodies are lying in the streets because nobody can go to collect them without being shot." (Wilding, 'Eyewitness in Fallujah', Sunday Herald, April 18, 2004. See also :http://www.wildfirejo.blogspot.com)

There are, sadly, of course, many other examples that could be cited. One might also ask if the invasion itself, described by Kofi Annan as illegal, was merely a "mistake".

Sincerely

David Edwards

We have as yet received no further replies.

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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