The BBC, The Sunday Telegraph and Cancer in Iraq

Regular Media Lens readers will know that we have generally focused on the performance of the ‘liberal’ media. The reason for this is that we assume that it is obvious that the ‘right wing’ media – the Times and the Telegraph, for example – is not to be taken seriously. We believe that, for many people, the idea that we have a free press is rooted in the belief that the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the New Statesman, and even the BBC, are open and honest purveyors of truth. As we hope we have begun to show, these media are a democratic and moral disaster, and are in fact crucial to the state-corporate suppression of democracy and truth.

We have so far described some of the key features of thought control in democratic society: the promotion of establishment-friendly commentators, facts and ideas; the omission (or rapid banishment) of establishment-costly commentators, facts and ideas; establishment influence on senior media management appointments; the influence of powerful advertisers; pressure from business-friendly governments; the smearing of dissident voices; and the resort to high-handed arrogance and abuse, or silence, in response to honest criticism.

If all of these somehow fail to stifle dissident impulses in the mainstream, then state-corporate power can always rely on flak.

In their classic work on the media, Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky describe how flak can be used to attack dissenting voices in the mainstream media and beyond:

“Flak refers to negative responses to a media statement or programme. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action… If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media… The ability to produce flak, and especially flak that is costly and threatening, is related to power.” (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon, 1988, p.26)

The response of the Sunday Telegraph to a recent BBC report is a case in point.

On BBC1’s Six O’Clock News last week (April 4, 2002), Rageh Omaar reported claims of “an explosion of cancer cases since the Gulf War” in Southern Iraq. “It is not just Iraqis who believe they’ve been contaminated”, Omaar added, “British Gulf War veterans have the same fears.”

By way of ‘balance’, Omaar also reported the opinions of Western authorities:

“Western governments say that there is no proven link between the depleted uranium [DU] used to destroy these Iraqi tanks and the rising numbers of cases of cancers in this area, but the Iraqi doctors in this region say that the evidence is in front of their eyes every day. Cancer cases here have risen twenty-fold since the Gulf War. Many are rare and aggressive cancers associated with radiation – even children as young as four have been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. The authorities may be using this as propaganda, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that ordinary Iraqis are continuing to die.”

Omaar clearly gave the impression that he found the claims of a twenty-fold increase credible – once again exposing the absurd notion that journalists are ever ‘neutral’ (journalists may not overtly declare their personal opinion, but the facts they use, and the extent to which those facts are highlighted, are inevitably influenced by personal opinion). But the British public can be forgiven for viewing the claims of “Iraqis” with considerable scepticism, given the demonising of the Iraqi regime by politicians and the media; and of course no one imagines that British Gulf War veterans, however sincere, are medical experts.

As ever, then, controversial issues +are+ raised in the mainstream, but the contest is weighted in such a way that the outcome is hardly in doubt: viewers are invited to choose between the arguments of much-maligned “Iraqis” and inexpert Gulf War veterans in one corner, and those of Her Majesty’s Government, in the other – truly powerful and credible opponents of the government’s line are nowhere to be seen.

Media Lens readers will be familiar with this style of reporting from previous Media Alerts. Thus ITN’s John Draper reported that “the Iraqi leader” has been “blaming the West for the hardships they [the Iraqi people] are suffering”. (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20, 2001)

No senior UN diplomats or aid agencies have been “blaming the West for the hardships”, it seems, just Saddam Hussein.

Reporting on the issue of “smart sanctions”, the BBC’s David Loyn said he was told by the Foreign Office that the aim of the sanctions review was “to focus sanctions better on oil and weapons and to try to win back [sic] the propaganda war.” (David Loyn, BBC 10 O’Clock News, February 20, 2001)

Assuming that senior UN diplomats and aid agencies do not engage in “propaganda”, we are again left with a straight contest between the Iraqi regime and Western governments. And whereas the Iraqi regime has of course been endlessly demonised, the words of senior Western leaders are consistently reported with deference, respect, and even awe. BBC reporters like Stephen Sackur are forever filmed standing before the august grandeur that is the Capitol, and the White House, describing what “Washington believes”, what “The Bush administration insists”, and what “London agrees”, as though they have been communing with the gods. The inauguration of presidents, and endless other state ceremonies serve to support the illusion.

The process of deification is so powerful that even George W. Bush, previously portrayed as an absurd and comical figure, recently had an imposing picture of his determined and impassioned face spread across much of the front page of the Guardian. Above, was a large banner headline: “Enough is enough – Bush”. (Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, April 5, 2002). And beneath these assertive words: “Speaking from the White House rose garden, Mr. Bush made clear to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that his patience was at an end.”

Hooking into our unconscious frailties, U.S. presidents are consistently presented as giant father figures – super-powerful but caring parents who are determined to protect us, their children, even if it means hurting other people. Thus, in another Guardian report, Borger quotes Bush:

“I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go. That’s about all I’m willing to share with you.” (Julian Borger, Michael White and Ewen MacAskill, ‘Bush: we will get rid of Saddam’, April 6, 2002)

In fact, of course, Bush is no powerful and kindly father figure with our best interests at heart; he is a spokesman selected and controlled by powerful big business interests following their own ruthless agenda. Borger himself hinted at the reality last year:

“In the Bush administration, business is the only voice… This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business.” (Borger, ‘All the president’s businessmen’, the Guardian, April 27, 2001)

To return to the BBC report, instead of citing Iraqis and Gulf War veterans, Omaar +could+ have placed far more credible contestants in the corner opposing Western governments. He could, for example, have cited Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Project, who briefed Britain and America on the lethal health risks posed to Western troops by depleted uranium (DU) shells, and who claims he warned Western governments as far back as 1991 that DU shells could cause cancer, mental illness and birth defects.

According to Rokke, a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University, the U.S. and UK have covered up the hazards, despite the rising death toll among allied troops who fought in the Gulf from illnesses linked to DU exposure, including Gulf War syndrome. He briefed the Commons Defence Select Committee on the risks of DU in 1999. Rokke says:

“Since 1991, numerous U.S. department of defence reports have stated that the consequences of DU were unknown. That is a lie. They were told. They were warned.” (Quoted, Felicity Arbuthnot and Neil Mackay, ‘Allies “told in 1991 of uranium cancer risks” – Leaked documents back cover-up claim’, Sunday Herald, January 7, 2001)

Rokke was tasked by the U.S. department of defence with organising the DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War. In Saudi Arabia, Rokke and his men buried vehicles and contaminated body parts and shipped other equipment back to a nuclear decontamination facility in the US. At least 10 men died. The only man in the 50-strong team not to fall ill wore full radioactive protective clothing. Today Rokke himself is seriously ill – he has difficulty breathing, his lungs are scarred and he has skin problems and kidney damage:

“DU is the stuff of nightmares,” he says. “It is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for 4,500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short-term memory damage. In semen, it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system.” (Quoted, ibid)

The New Scientist reports:

“Rokke… has no doubt what made him ill – contact with radioactive metal. Three years after he worked in the Gulf, the U.S. Department of Energy tested his urine. They found that the level of uranium in his sample was over 4,000 times higher than the U.S. safety limit of 0.1 micrograms per litre.” (Rob Edwards, ‘Too hot to handle’, New Scientist, 5 June 1999)

The Sunday Herald reported a restricted Ministry of Defence document dated February 25, 1991 – four days before the Gulf War ceasefire. It states that full protective clothing and respirators should be worn when close to DU shells and that human remains exposed to DU should be hosed down before disposal:

“The document – coded 25/22/40/2 – says inhalation or ingestion of particles from [DU] shells is a health risk and exposure should be treated as ‘exposure to lead oxide’. DU dust on food would result in contamination.” (Sunday Herald, op., cit)

Omaar could also have quoted Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at City University of New York, who has said:

“Ultimately, when the final chapter is written, DU will have a large portion of the blame [for health problems in Iraq]” (Scott Peterson, ‘DU’s fallout in Iraq and Kuwait: a rise in illness?’ The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1999)

Most of the concern with depleted uranium is focused on dust particles left after a bullet is incinerated upon impact. Small particles carried by the wind can enter the human body, where the emission of alpha particles can be extremely damaging to cells, according to Douglas Collins, a health physicist for 20 years and a director of nuclear material safety in Atlanta.

A 1990 study commissioned by the U.S. Army linked DU with cancer and stated, “no dose is so low that the probability of effect is zero.” (ibid) Dr. Asaf Durakovic, who was chief of nuclear medicine at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical centre from 1989 until 1997, argues that even the smallest internal alpha dose “is a high radioactive risk”. (ibid)

One safety memo, written by the U.S. Army in 1991, says a single charred DU bullet found by U.S. forces was emitting 260 to 270 millirads of radiation per hour. “The current [NRC] limit for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year,” it noted (ibid).

DU shells were also used in NATO’s assault against Serbia in 1999. Scientists of the National Institute for Health Protection in Macedonia detected eight times higher than normal levels of alpha radiation in the air during the air war. Yugoslav soldiers found DU rounds in Bujanovic in the south, and a Swiss-led international team found “serious radioactivity” when it dug up many rounds at a radio tower near Vranje. (Scott Petersen, ‘Depleted Uranium Haunts Kosovo and Iraq’, Christian Science Monitor, Summer 2000)

In Kosovo, Western de-mining groups were told by NATO to “exercise caution” and not to climb on destroyed armoured vehicles. In October Colonel Eric Daxon, the U.S. Army’s top radiological expert, said: “The best thing I can tell anybody about entering a contaminated vehicle or damaged vehicle is: ‘Don’t do it. It is a dangerous place to be’.” (ibid)

Siegwart-Horst Gunther, a German epidemiologist and president of Yellow Cross International, set up to protect children’s health, said his studies in Iraq since 1991 had led him to believe that contact with DU weapon debris was linked to “sharp increases in infectious diseases and immune deficiencies, Aids-like syndromes, kidney disorders and congenital deformities”. (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Uranium shells warning for Kosovo alternative maybe: MoD accused of hiding truth’, the Guardian, July 31, 1999)

Now it may well be that none of this proves that Iraqis are suffering mass death because of depleted uranium, but the point is that as far as the British public is concerned this kind of evidence is surely +far+ more telling and persuasive than the claims of Iraqi doctors and Gulf War veterans mentioned in the BBC report. Here, in fact, we arrive at an unwritten rule of media reporting: establishment arguments are generally tested on their strongest evidence in public debate; dissident arguments are generally tested on their weakest evidence. This is one of the powerful, hidden distortions of the establishment media.

But even this is insufficient for journalists of the right wing press, who rail against any sign of dissent in the mainstream. In an article titled, ‘BBC under fire for airing Iraqi cancer claim propaganda’ (The Sunday Telegraph, April 7, 2002), Chris Hastings and Charlotte Edwardes report:

“THE BBC has been accused of peddling propaganda on behalf of Saddam Hussein after it broadcast a report highlighting discredited claims that Allied shells used in the Gulf war caused cancer in Iraqi children.

“Leading scientists have condemned the news item by Rageh Omaar, a BBC correspondent, in which he reported claims that there was a direct link between depleted uranium ammunition used in the conflict and an increase in childhood cancer.”

Ironically, given Omaar’s failure to interview the Western scientists and experts cited above, the report continues:

“Mr Omaar, speaking from a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, stated that Iraqi doctors reported a 20-fold increase in all cancers since the end of the Gulf war. He quoted Iraqi claims that such cases were non-existent before the outbreak of the conflict in 1991… The report, however, was not based on any new scientific research by the BBC and did not interview any Western scientists.”

Although we have given an indication above of the extent to which Omaar failed to report the readily available, and credible, evidence challenging government claims on DU safety, the Sunday Telegraph exactly reverses the truth by repeatedly suggesting that Omaar was guilty of peddling pro-Iraqi “propaganda”:

“Mr Omaar did not say that he was subject to any reporting restrictions, even though he was accompanied by Iraqi officials at all times.

“The nature of the report, which was aired on BBC1’s 10 O’Clock News last week, has left the BBC open to speculation – strongly denied by the corporation – that it was trying to curry favour with the Iraqi regime in order to get access to the country in the event of war.

“Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, last night said: ‘Any British journalist, especially one working for the BBC reporting from Iraq, must surely be aware that they are doing so only because the Iraqi regime wants them to. Objective journalism in Iraq is well-nigh impossible.'” (Sunday Telegraph, ibid)

This is a shockingly crude smear, particularly in light of what Omaar omitted from his report – no doubt the Iraqi regime would have +preferred+ Omaar to interview some of the Western scientists mentioned above.

Finally, in case readers are in any doubt, the article once again smears the BBC report as a piece of pro-Iraqi propaganda:

“Vin Ray, the deputy head of news-gathering at the BBC, denied that a deal had been done with Iraq to gain access to the country in case of war. He said: ‘I can categorically refute that. The BBC is the most regularly banned media organisation from Iraq because of what we report. While it is true to say they don’t let us in often, we would not compromise our standards.'”

The Sunday Telegraph’s mixture of propaganda, conspiratorial suggestion and smear would normally merit no comment from us, but on this occasion we feel that useful lessons can be learned. The Sunday Telegraph’s article is an excellent example of how, when the ‘liberal’ media even +begins+ to step out of establishment-friendly line, powerful flak machines are on hand to subject them to pressure to force them back into line. Despite the illusion of a fierce debate, neither the BBC report nor the Sunday Telegraph presented any evidence challenging the government position on DU that was likely to be deemed serious and credible by British viewers and readers.

This is just one more example of how our society has evolved to control the public mind by suppressing truth and promoting lies, so facilitating the slaughter of innocents abroad for power and profit.


Write to Chris Hastings at the Sunday Telegraph:

Email: [email protected]

and Charlotte Edwardes:

Email: [email protected]

Ask them why they made no mention of the evidence presented by highly credible Western scientists and DU experts on the health risks posed by DU. Ask them why they repeatedly smeared Rageh Omaar as a purveyor of Iraqi propaganda, when his report more closely resembled UK government propaganda, making no mention of these Western sources challenging the government’s position.

Copy your letter to Dominic Lawson, the Sunday Telegraph editor:

Email: [email protected]

Write to Rageh Omaar at the BBC:

Email: [email protected]

Ask him why his report posed the controversy on DU health risks as a debate between “Iraqis” and Gulf War veterans on the one hand, and “Western governments” on the other. Ask him if he agrees that reasonable balance requires the citing of Western scientists and experts – whose views are far more credible to BBC viewers – in response to claims by the British government and scientists.

Copy your letter to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News:

Email: [email protected]