The Al-Shula Bombing And An Exchange With The BBCs Newsnight Editor
“Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.45)
Thus, the BBC’s David Dimbleby, interviewing a guest, not during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” but during the last Gulf War. Of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped during that war, some 7% were ‘smart’ bombs. Plenty of these went astray: hospitals, schools, mosques, power stations, central telephone exchanges, water purification plants, community health centres, textile factories, construction facilities, car assembly plants, cement works, bus and train depots were all hit – vast quantities of the infrastructure needed to maintain society were destroyed.
Then as now, the public were in awe of the high-tech sophistication of the bombs sent to kill and maim. Then as now, we were in particular awe of the remarkable Patriot missile system – able to actually shoot enemy missiles out of the sky. The Patriot was an outstanding triumph in 1991 – 98% successful in intercepting Scud missiles, according to US military estimates. Readers may recognise that this is the standard rate of support recorded by dictators like Saddam Hussein during ‘elections’. Unfortunately for the US military, professor Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was asked to investigate the 98% figure. The results were a little surprising:
“It became clear that it [the Patriot] wasn’t even close to intercepting +any+ targets, let alone some targets”. (Ted Postol. Quoted, Great Military Blunders, Channel 4, March 2, 2000)
Journalists reporting on the stunning success of today’s Patriots seem blissfully unaware of Postol’s findings. The Patriot system is a big deal for people keen on the related $110 billion public subsidy for big business known as National Missile Defence – journalists are doing a fine job on their behalf.
Al-Shula – Burying The Blame
Other missiles are also going astray. In the early evening of March 28, reports flooded around the world of the killing of 55 (actually 62) civilians in the al-Shula district of Baghdad. Hours later, Newsnight’s coverage of the atrocity consisted of a 45-second report by David Sells 16 minutes into the programme – an average of less than one second per death.
Typically for Newsnight and much media reporting, Sells presented the slaughter as an Anglo-American PR problem, and a predictable one at that: “It is a war, after all”, Sells noted blandly over footage of women wailing in grief: “But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds.”
We can imagine the reaction if Sells had broken the Bali bombing to BBC viewers in the same way: Yes, people had died – “It is a terrorist campaign, after all” – but the bombers’ aim “is to win hearts and minds.”
I asked Newsnight editor, George Entwistle, about the 45 seconds: “As a current affairs programme we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical value; i.e., can we take it on? We didn’t feel we could add anything”, he said. Something of “analytical value” would perhaps have been found if the victims had been British or American. Rationalisations aside, the ugly reality is explained by Noam Chomsky in his latest book, Power And Terror: “If they do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it’s so normal, why should we even talk about it?” (Chomsky, Power and Terror, Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.20)
The media were happy to communicate Downing Street’s claim that the market place explosion might have been the result of a rogue Iraqi anti-aircraft missile. This obvious attempt at damage limitation was communicated without challenge and the story was dropped. The Independent’s Robert Fisk and the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan, however, both reported (Gilligan, to me privately, not via BBC TV) the discovery of a missile fragment in the market place bearing two serial numbers: “30003-704ASB 7492” and “MFR 96214 09”. ASB stands for Airborne Special/Combination Bombing Equipment – a system used by US jets, including the B-52. The “MFR” number has been conclusively traced back to the manufacturer, Raytheon, suggesting the bomb was a Harm (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) device, or a Paveway laser-guided bomb. An EA-6B “Prowler” jet from the USS Kittyhawk was in action over Baghdad on Friday and fired at least one Harm missile.
Apart from Tuesday’s Newsnight, which Media Lens challenged to cover Fisk’s find (we were the source that the presenters said had “suggested” to them the meaning of ASB), the story has so far been all but ignored by the media.
On the same Newsnight programme, Kirsty Wark interviewed Gen Sir Michael Jackson, Chief of the General Staff: “I began by asking him if coalition troops are really powerless to help civilians targeted by Iraqi forces in Basra”, she told us. No need to challenge the veracity of the claim just days after US/UK claims of an uprising in Basra, of heavy artillery being fired into crowds, and of a mass Iraqi tank attack, had all been exposed as baseless.
The cumulative effect of the media’s endlessly biased emphasis and omission is that the public is persuaded that the US/UK establishment is reasonable, rational, respectable and honest; and that their enemies are lethally irrational and shifty – worthy candidates, in fact, for a dose of medicinal “shock and awe”. It looks like racism but only because Third World people have an unfortunate habit of getting between Third World resources and their rightful owners – Western corporations.
Might Makes Right – Media Lens And The New Statesman
Media Lens has been asked to write a weekly 600-word ‘box’ for the New Statesman magazine. In researching material for our articles we have approached old friends – Guardian, ITN and BBC journalists – asking them to explain their remarkable emphases and omissions in covering Iraq. We sent questions to three journalists, mentioning that the articles were intended for publication in the New Statesman. We anticipated, at best, brief email answers in return. Instead, imagine our surprise when we received this response from ITN:
Perhaps you could give me a call regarding your email earlier today to [ITN presenter] Lauren Taylor.
ITV News Press Office [phone number supplied]” (Email to Media Lens, March 28)
George Entwistle, editor of the BBC’s leading current affairs programme, Newsnight, responded similarly:
Thanks for your note. I’d be delighted to discuss running orders with you on the phone on Monday. I’ll be in my office from 2pm onwards – [phone number supplied]. I look forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes, George” (Email to Media Lens, March 30)
The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, actually offered to phone us:
“do you have a phone number? it’s complicated, so i’ll try and explain.” (Email to Media Lens, March 29)
In just under two years, these are the first occasions when any mainstream journalists have offered to speak to us on the phone; or, to our knowledge, any of the many hundreds of Media Lens correspondents who have contacted them. We believe there are lessons to be learned here.
It is clear that the media functions in a kind of sealed environment in which certain views matter because certain views are perceived to have the power to cause benefit or harm. In other words, the considerations are fundamentally selfish – ‘What has the power to damage/boost me and my media corporation?’ And not, ‘What is rational, moral and deserving of a meaningful, considered response?’ Why should this be the case?
An idea is provided by Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney, and who explains that corporate law ensures that the people who run corporations have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money:
“Corporate law… casts ethical and social concerns as irrelevant, or as stumbling blocks to the corporation’s fundamental mandate. That’s the effect the law has inside the corporation. Outside the corporation the effect is more devastating. It is the law that leads corporations to actively disregard harm to all interests other than those of shareholders. When toxic chemicals are spilled, forests destroyed, employees left in poverty, or communities devastated through plant shutdowns, corporations view these as unimportant side effects outside their area of concern. But when the company’s stock price dips, that’s a disaster.” (Hinkley, ‘How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility’, January/February 2002 issue of Business Ethics, see www.Media Lens.org)
Unrestrained greed and self-interest are at the heart of the corporate, including the corporate media, system. When Media Lens publishes critical material in a respected and influential magazine such as the New Statesman, this matters to the mainstream media for essentially the same reason that it matters when the stock price threatens their interests.
Thus, when we challenged the Independent on Sunday last year to publish a review of John Pilger’s latest book, we were met with outraged accusations of bullying – the review (which had been planned) never appeared. When, last Monday, we challenged the Newsnight editor to cover Robert Fisk’s discovery of a missile fragment in the al-Shula market place, we met a very different response. The next day a detailed report appeared on Newsnight with Media Lens actually quoted (unattributed) as the source that had “suggested to Newsnight” the significance of one of the serial numbers on the missile fragment.
When we write merely in our capacity as progressive website editors – and when our readers write brilliant, incisive, passionate letters exposing lies that have allowed war to be waged on Iraq – who could care less?!
This is ‘might makes right’ in a pure form and it derives from the very structure and purpose of the mainstream media. It is the media version of the same ‘might makes right’ that is blasting and burning its way across Iraq right now, leaving swathes of dead and mutilated people in its wake. Is it any wonder that the media does such a fine job in promoting cynical power? This is an airtight world where ‘real people’ have power and the powerless are of little real consequence.
Part 2 of this Media Alert will be sent on April 7.