Killings At Falluja – The BBC Tells One Side Of The Story

In a recent Media Alert (Why Even Talk About It? Part 1, April 4, 2003) we reported that the BBC’s leading current affairs programme, Newsnight, had devoted 45 seconds to the killing of 62 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s al-Shula market place on March 28 – an average of less than one second per death.

Today, the BBC’s News at 1 O’Clock devoted 3 minutes and 10 seconds to the killing of 13 and wounding of 75 Iraqi civilian protestors by US troops in Falluja. Recall that these are the same Iraqi civilians the US/UK forces “came to liberate”, according to the BBC’s Jane Corbin on Panorama (The Battle for Basra, BBC1, April 27, 2003).

If the 190 seconds spent on the 88 civilian casualties sound generous by BBC standards, consider the content of what was said. Bear in mind that reports from the scene are confused – US forces claim they were shooting in self-defence after being attacked; local Iraqis claim the protestors were unarmed.

BBC anchor, Anna Ford, began the report, saying:

“The US troops say they fired in self-defence after they’d been fired at.” (BBC 1 O’Clock News, April 29, 2003)

Ford then cut to BBC reporter, Clare Marshall, in Baghdad, who said:

“The American troops based here [Falluja] say people holding a demonstration opened fire upon them – they shot back.”

The BBC then cut to an interview with Major General Glen Webster, Deputy Commander US Forces:

“Soldiers should be empowered to enforce the law and keep them from doing so [sic]. Now that does not mean that anyone breaking the law will be shot; it simply means that if that is the force required to protect life and property, then our soldiers are authorised to use it.”

No Iraqis were interviewed – the “Arab street” was shown shouting angrily in the usual media manner. Instead, Ford then put questions to correspondent Richard Bilton in Falluja, who said:

“The US forces say… shots were fired, they [US troops] fired back, there was a gunfight that lasted about 20 minutes.”

Bilton then gave what viewers must have imagined would be the Iraqis version of events:

“Now what local people here say, this was a very specific demonstration. They had come to the school house because they were angry that the school house was being used, not for students, but for the US military. There is a lack of direct translators here, but I think communication was a problem. As soon as it got out of hand, there was a very large firefight… So it was a very confused scene… And there is this feeling that something very grim happened here last night. There is anger on one side, and from the Americans there is this feeling that they +were+ defending themselves, that they +were+ under very real threat.”

In the space of just over 3 minutes, the BBC repeated that the US was acting in self-defence five times, with Bilton stating emphatically that the Americans claimed they “+were+ defending themselves, that they +were+ under very real threat”.

This may turn out to be true – although, interestingly, there were no mentions of any US casualties – but the problem is that this is not the only version of events.

The contradictory account, completely ignored by the BBC in its report, suggests that the protestors were unarmed and had not fired on the US troops. How do we know this? Because a report from the BBC’s own website was cut and pasted onto the Media Lens message board at 11:40, some 90 minutes before the BBC 1 O’Clock News was aired. This is what the BBC online report states:

“At least 13 Iraqis are reported to have been killed in the town of Falluja when US forces opened fire on demonstrators on Monday night.

“There are conflicting reports as to what happened in the town, which lies 50 kilometres (35 miles) west of Baghdad.

“A US spokesman said soldiers started shooting after people in the crowd fired on them – but Iraqi witnesses said the protesters were unarmed.”

The report continued:

“A local Sunni cleric, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, said the demonstrators were unarmed and had gone to a local school occupied by US forces to ask them to leave, Reuters news agency reports.

“‘It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons. They were asking the Americans to leave the school so they could use it,’ the cleric is quoted as saying.

“Witnesses quoted by the French news agency, AFP, said the demonstrators had been marking Saddam Hussein’s birthday when the Americans opened fire.”

If this were an isolated example of the BBC reporting events from a pro-government point of view, it might be explained away as merely careless work. Instead, all mainstream media – the BBC is hardly alone – consistently suppress and whitewash US/UK human rights abuses, while consistently hyping the crimes of official enemies. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky summarise the operative logic in their book Manufacturing Consent:

“This bias is politically advantageous to U.S. [and UK] policy-makers, as focusing on victims of enemy states shows those states to be wicked and deserving U.S. hostility; while ignoring U.S. and client state victims allows ongoing U.S. policies to proceed more easily, unburdened by the interference of concern over the politically inconvenient victims.” (New introduction to Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon, 1988. Herman to Media Lens, August 27, 2002)

Another useful rule of thumb that can also be seen to apply to today’s report is that honesty about Western atrocities tends to decrease according to the importance of the media outlet. US dissidents have, for example, long received more positive treatment in, say, Canada, than in the US – it really doesn’t matter much what writers like Herman and Chomsky say about centres of US power to a Canadian audience. But criticising US power to a US audience, much less to a mass US audience, is far more problematic for policy-makers and so happens far less. In Britain, the highly important and influential main BBC and ITN TV news programmes are similarly more tightly-controlled than the relatively low circulation broadsheet papers, and indeed the BBC’s own website.


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.

Write to the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook: [email protected]

Ask Richard Sambrook why, in reviewing the killing of 13 and the wounding of 75 Iraqi civilians, the BBC mentioned the possibility that American troops had been shooting in self-defence in Falluja five times, while failing to mention, once, claims that the Iraq protestors were unarmed.