The Nicest Guys You Can Imagine

In their film, The Corporation, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan describe how in the mid-1800s the corporation was declared a “fictitious person” in law and granted the same legal rights as real individuals. So what kind of ‘person’ is a corporation?

The filmmakers assessed the corporate ‘personality’ using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organisation and standard diagnostic tools of psychiatrists and psychologists:

“The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism… Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a ‘psychopath.'”(http://www.thecorporation.com)

We, of course, live in a society dominated by these corporate psychopaths. Our media is not +controlled+ by them, as is sometimes claimed; it is comprised of them.

Unsurprisingly, then, the corporate media system consistently responds in an inhuman and callous way to even the most horrific suffering. But isn’t the media made up of nice, well-educated, well-spoken journalists? Yes, absolutely, but Noam Chomsky makes the point that matters:

“When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny, are inherently monstrous. But the individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can imagine – benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves, caring about other people. I mean as individuals they may be anything. In their institutional role, they’re monsters, because the institution’s monstrous. And the same is true here.” (Ibid)

And the same is certainly true of the media response to the US-UK assault on Iraq.

On October 29, the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: ‘Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey’. (http://www.thelancet.com/journal/vol364/iss9445/early_online_publication)

The authors estimate that 100,000 more Iraqi civilians died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred. They write:


Most of those killed by “coalition” forces were women and children.

The report was met with a low-key, sceptical response, or outright silence in the media. There was no horror, no outrage. No leaders were written pointing out that, in addition to the illegality, lies and public deception, our government is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 civilians.

Scepticism is reasonable enough, of course, but there have been no debates allowing the report’s authors to respond to challenges. Journalists seem uninterested in establishing whether the government’s dismissal of the report might be one more cynical deception. Instead they have been happy to just move on. And to just move on in response to a mass slaughter of innocents on this scale is indeed indicative of corporate psychopathy. As Chomsky says, in their institutional roles, corporate journalists really are monsters.

At time of writing (November 2), the Lancet report has not been mentioned at all by the Observer, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Star, the Sun and many others. The Express devoted 71 words to the report, but only in its Lancashire edition. We asked the Observer editor, Roger Alton, why his paper had failed to mention the report. He replied:

“Dear Mr Edwards,

Thanks for your note. The figures were well covered in the week, but also I find the methodology a bit doubtful…” (Email to Media Lens, November 1, 2004)

In fact, the figures were covered in two brief Guardian articles (October 29 and October 30). The second of these, entitled, ‘No 10 challenges civilian death toll’, focused heavily on government criticism of the report without allowing the authors to respond. The Guardian then dropped the story.

The Independent also published two articles on October 29 and 30. But these were then followed up by two articles on the subject totalling some 1,200 words in the Independent on Sunday.

The Guardian’s David Aaronovitch told us:

“I have a feeling (and I could be wrong) that the report may be a dud.” (Email to Media Lens, October 30, 2004)

This is the sum-total of coverage afforded by The Sunday Times:

“Tony Blair, too, may have recalled Basil Fawlty when The Lancet published an estimate that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the start of the allied invasion.” (Michael Portillo, ‘The Queen must not allow Germany to act like a victim,’ The Sunday Times, October 31, 2004)

The Evening Standard managed two sentences:

“The emails came as a new study in The Lancet estimated 100,000 civilians had died since the conflict began. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman… added that the 100,000 death toll figure could not be trusted because it was based on an extrapolation.” (Paul Waugh, ‘Blair “did not grasp risk to troops”‘, October 29, 2004)

The Times has so far restricted itself to one report on October 29. This, however, at least contradicted the growing government and media smear campaign:

“Statisticians who have analysed the data said last night that the scientists’ methodology was strong and the civilian death count could well be conservative.

“They said that the work effectively disproved suggestions by US authorities that civilian bodycounts were impossible to conduct.” (Sam Lister, ‘Researchers claims that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in war,’ The Times, October 29, 2004)

Scientific Strength – Our Data Have Been Back And Forth

The tone for the response was set on Channel 4 News (October 29, 19:00), by science reporter Tom Clarke, who spent 53 seconds of his 2 minute 15 second report challenging the methodology of the Lancet report:

“Today, Downing Street dismissed the report saying the researchers used an extrapolation technique, which they considered inappropriate, rather than a detailed body count.” (Tom Clarke, Channel 4 website, October 29, 2004)

Clarke emphasised how much higher the report’s estimate of civilian deaths was than previous estimates:

“The Iraq Ministry of Health has estimated 3000 civilian deaths, but they’ve only been counting for six months.

“Another figure – over 16 000 since the conflict began – comes from a project called Iraqbodycount. Their estimate is based on reported casualties. This latest study comes up with a very different number: nearly 100,000 extra civilian deaths since war began – possibly more.”

Clarke then added:

“But without bodies, can we trust the body count? Higher than average civilian casualties in Fallujah strongly distorted this study making the nationwide average well over 100 thousand so families surveyed there were discounted from the final figure.

“The reliability of interviews must be questioned too, though four out of five families were able to produce a death certificate.”

Curiously, Clarke claimed that Fallujah “strongly distorted this study”. And yet, as he himself noted, “families surveyed there were discounted” – so Fallujah did +not+ in fact distort the report. But he then claimed the reliability of interviews must +also+ be questioned – ie that this was a further problem in addition to the distortion he had just discounted.

Clarke then made his most serious claim:

“But the study’s main weakness, and the one highlighted by Downing Street in dismissing today’s figures, is that it multiplies a small sample across the whole of Iraq. A country at war, where people are aggrieved and displaced from their homes, makes household based surveys far less accurate.”

It is remarkable that a news reporter could so casually dismiss the methodology and findings of a carefully implemented study that has been rigorously peer-reviewed for one of the world’s leading scientific journals.

We asked the report’s authors about the large rise in numbers of estimated civilian deaths over previous estimates, and also on the ability to make a reliable body count without bodies. Dr. Gilbert Burnham responded:

“In short, we used a standard survey method that is used all over the world to estimate mortality. So bodies are not necessary to calculate mortality. In fact going to the community for household surveys on mortality is the standard method used for calculating mortality all over the world, and is probably the method used in the UK census as well, although I am not a demographer.

“Anyway, information collected in surveys always produces higher numbers than ‘passive reporting’ as many things never get reported. This is the easy explanation for the differences between iraqbodycount.net, and our survey.

“Further a survey can find other causes of death related to public health problems such as women dying in childbirth, children dead of infectious diseases, and elderly unable to reach a source of insulin, which body counts cannot do–since they collect information from newspaper accounts of deaths (usually violent ones). Can one estimate national figures on the basis of a sample?

“The answer is certainly yes (the basis of all census methods), provided that the sample is national, households are randomly selected, and great precautions are taken to eliminate biases. These are all what we did. Now the precision of the results is mostly dependent on sample size. The bigger the sample, the more precise the result. We calculated this carefully, and we had the statistical power to say what we did. Doing a larger sample size could make the figure more precise (smaller confidence intervals) but would have entailed risks to the surveyors which we did not want to take, as they were high enough already.

“Our data have been back and forth between many reviewers at the Lancet and here in the school (chair of Biostatistics Dept), so we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!” (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to David Edwards, October 30, 2004)

Channel 4’s Tom Clarke had made a further observation:

“The definition of civilian is also unclear. The majority of violent deaths were among young men who may – or may not – have been insurgents.”

The report’s lead author, Dr. Les Roberts, responded to this point:

“The civilian question is fair.  About 25% of the population were adult males.  >70% of people who died in automobile accidents were adult males.  Presumably, they died more than other demographic groups because they are out and about more.  46% of people reportedly killed by coalition forces were adult males.  Thus, some of them may have been combatants, some probably were not… perhaps they were just out and about more and more likely to be in targeted areas.  We reported that over half of those killed by coalition forces were women and children to point out that if there was targeting, it was not very focused.  Thus, we are careful to say that about 100,000 people, perhaps far more were killed.  We suspect that the vast majority were civilians, but we do not say each and every one of the approximately 100,000 was a civilian.” (Email to David Edwards, October 31, 2004)

Clarke concluded his Channel 4 report with a damning statement:

“Given the worsening security situation, it’ll be a long time before we have an accurate picture for civilian losses in Iraq, if ever.”

This suggested that flawed methodology meant the Lancet report could safely be dismissed as failing to provide “an accurate picture for civilian losses in Iraq”. It meant the researchers, the Lancet peer review team, and the Lancet editors, had produced an unreliable piece of work.

To reiterate the response of the report’s authors: “we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!”

An October 29 Downing Street press release read:

“Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about a survey published today suggesting that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the war in Iraq, the PMOS [Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman] said that it was important to treat the figures with caution because there were a number of concerns and doubts about the methodology that had been used. Firstly, the survey appeared to be based on an extrapolation technique rather than a detailed body count. Our worries centred on the fact that the technique in question appeared to treat Iraq as if every area was one and the same. In terms of the level of conflict, that was definitely not the case. Secondly, the survey appeared to assume that bombing had taken place throughout Iraq. Again, that was not true. It had been focussed primarily on areas such as Fallujah. Consequently, we did not believe that extrapolation was an appropriate technique to use.”

We again raised these queries with the report authors. Dr. Roberts replied:

“Point 1 is true and it is not a mistake on our part.  We would have had a more accurate picture if we conducted a ‘stratified’ sample, with some in the high violence areas and some in the low violence areas.  But, that would have involved visiting far more houses and exposing the interviewers to even more risk.  Secondly, we do not know how many people are in the ‘high violence’ areas, so this would have involved large assumptions that would now be criticized.

“Most samples are taken with the assumption that all the clusters are ‘exchangeable’ for purposes of analysis.  The difference between them is considered in the interpretation of the data.

“Point two, assumes bombing is happening equally across Iraq.  There is no such explicit assumption.  There is the assumption that all individuals in Iraq had an equal opportunity to die (and if we did not, it would not be a representative sample).  It happens, that the one place with a lot of bombings, Falluja, and we excluded that from our 100,000 estimate….thus if anything, assuming that there has not been any intensive bombing in Iraq.

“Finally, there were 7 clusters in the Kurdish North with no violent deaths.  Of those 26 randomly picked neighborhoods visited in the South, the area that was invaded, 5 had reported deaths from Coalition air-strikes.  This, I suspect that such events are more widespread than the review suggests.” (Email to David Edwards, November 1, 2004)

Almost none of the above has been debated anywhere in the UK press. It is clear that the Johns Hopkins researchers, the Lancet editors, and the Lancet’s peer-review team, naturally took every precaution to ensure that the methodology involved could withstand the intense scrutiny a report of this kind was bound to generate. Their results point to the mass slaughter of 100,000 civilians. The media is just not interested.

Part 2 will follow shortly…


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: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Ask them why they have failed to so much as +mention+ the Lancet’s report of 100,000 excess civilian deaths as a result of the US-UK invasion of Iraq.

Email Channel 4 News about their reporting:

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Email: [email protected]