BBC News Director Helen Boaden Responds
“Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate… This is precisely the opposite of what a functioning democracy needs, which is a ruthless accounting of the powers that be.” (Robert McChesney, professor of communications, University of Illinois)
Scores of readers responded to our Media Alert, ‘BBC Silent on Fallujah’ (May 17, 2005), in which we highlighted the evasions of BBC news director Helen Boaden in her Newswatch article at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/
An earlier media alert, ‘Doubt Cast on BBC Claims Regarding Fallujah’ (April 18, 2005) noted that Boaden’s Newswatch article failed to address the many specific and detailed allegations of atrocities committed by US forces in their assault on Fallujah last November. Moreover, statements made to us by Human Rights Watch had cast doubt on Boaden’s firm assertion that HRW could “compellingly” rule out the use of banned weapons by US forces in Fallujah. Both of these points, we argued, surely merited a reply from the BBC.
We received the following response from Helen Boaden on May 19:
Dear Mr Cromwell and Mr Edwards,
In your original complaint, you criticised the BBC for failing to support your [sic] contention that US forces in Falluja used banned weapons and committed other atrocities. Our correspondent in Falluja at the time, Paul Wood, did not report any of these things because he did not see any of these things.
Later, in the normal course of discussions on a range of issues with Human Rights Watch, he asked if they had heard of the allegations and what they thought of them. A senior researcher at Human Rights Watch said he was aware of the claims, had made some inquiries, but did not have any evidence to substantiate the allegations.
We did not state, because it is not the case, that Human Rights Watch had carried out a full investigation of these stories, travelling to Falluja to interview eye-witnesses and gathering other testimony. We were making the point that if these allegations were credible, you would expect to see them taken up by the many, reputable international human rights organisations which monitor Iraq.
The fact that they have not is one more reason for us to be cautious about this story. Equally, we at the BBC do not know for certain that banned weapons were not used in Falluja. We keep an open mind, continue to research the issue and – as with any story – we would broadcast it if and when we stand it up.
Far from covering up American use of banned weapons in Iraq, you can be certain that if we had proof of this, it would be leading every bulletin. We stand by our reporting of Falluja.
You are welcome to post this response on your website.
Director, BBC News
We are grateful to Helen Boaden for taking the time and trouble to respond – no doubt under pressure from a large number of emails. We responded on May 24:
Dear Helen Boaden,
Thank you for your reply of 19th May. We are grateful that you have responded, but we are concerned that you continue to evade the points that have been put to you.
Could you possibly please first of all retract your renewed assertion that claims of banned weapons use by US forces have been made +by+ Media Lens? That is incorrect. We are asking the BBC to report such claims; an entirely different matter.
Your argument is that: “Our correspondent in Falluja at the time, Paul Wood, did not report any of these things because he did not see any of these things.” Is this really the best that the BBC can do? What about the testimony from other sources that Paul Wood, and other BBC reporters, could have obtained by interviewing refugees, Iraqi doctors or human rights groups in Iraq? Or even by inspection of media reports elsewhere, some of them mainstream outlets? The argument that Paul Wood reported no atrocities or abuses because he personally saw none, is unlikely to impress the growing proportion of the BBC audience turning to the internet for news. Nor will it impress BBC viewers and listeners who read newspapers.
You, and Paul Wood, appear to be unaware of the fact that US marines have, in fact, already +admitted+ that they have used an upgraded version of napalm. A weapon which uses kerosene rather than petrol was deployed when dozens of bombs were dropped near bridges over the Saddam Canal and the Tigris river, south of Baghdad. Andrew Buncombe reported in the Independent on Sunday:
“‘We napalmed both those bridge approaches,’ said Colonel James Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11.
“‘Unfortunately there were people there… you could see them in the cockpit video. They were Iraqi soldiers. It’s no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect.'” (Buncombe, ‘US admits it used napalm bombs in Iraq,’ Independent on Sunday, August 10, 2003)
Allegations about the use of weapons that have “melted” people have appeared in the US press. For example, the Washington Post reported that: “Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin.” (Jackie Spinner, Karl Vick and Omar Fekeiki, ‘U.S. Forces Battle Into Heart of Fallujah,’ Washington Post, November 10, 2004)
Why has the alleged use of such weapons, reported in major press outlets, not been covered by the BBC?
Or consider the testimony of human rights workers such as Michele Naar-Obed based in Duluth, Minnesota. Naar-Obed was a participant on a recent peace delegation to Iraq, her third visit. Her aim is to offer a perspective that is all too often lacking in mainstream news media: “It’s the perspective from the ordinary Iraqi who doesn’t live inside the ‘green zone,’ from the ones who have watched their country laid waste by dictatorship, violence, bombs, depleted uranium and occupation and the ones whose hopes and dreams held common by most human beings have turned into nightmares.” (Naar-Obed, ‘Nonviolence gaining tiny foothold in Iraq,’ Duluth News Tribune, March 13, 2005)
She noted: “our delegation heard reports from refugees, human rights workers, sheiks and imams about the November 2004 invasion of Fallujah. We learned of execution-style killing of men handcuffed and blindfolded, of women and children killed while holding white flags and of bodies burned and grossly disfigured. Doctors are convinced chemical weapons or, at the very least, napalm was used. Men between 16 and 50 years were not allowed to leave the city even if they weren’t part of the ‘insurgency.’ U.N. representatives confirmed these reports and told us they have spent weeks negotiating access into Fallujah to begin investigation and have been denied.”
Why have such reports of alleged atrocities, as related by Iraqi refugees, doctors and human rights workers, and confirmed by UN representatives, not been covered by the BBC?
There have also been reports of cluster bombs being dropped in Iraq, including Fallujah. BBC Worldwide Monitoring picked up this report by one London-based Arabic news agency:
“US military aircraft bombarded a number of neighbourhoods that had fallen into the hands of gunmen such as the Al-Askari neighbourhood, which was the target of a fierce aerial attack. B-52 bombers capable of dropping bombs weighing up to a tonne were used for the first time in recent battles and dropped a number of shells and cluster bombs on the city.” (Quds Press news agency, ‘Iraqi gunmen claim to regain control of Al-Fallujah districts,’ December 12, 2004)
On February 22, 2005, BBC Worldwide Monitoring picked up an article in the Iranian press by a Dr Kabak Khabiri entitled: “America’s attack on Fallujah and the Geneva Convention”. The BBC Monitoring Report noted that Dr Khabiri “outlined America’s ‘war crimes’ in Iraq in general and in Fallujah in particular, and said almost all the methods used by the US forces in their military operations clearly contravened the Geneva Convention. The examples given by Dr Khabiri include: attacks on civilians and residential areas; the use of depleted uranium bombs; and torturing prisoners of war and individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism. The article says the US administration has never expressed any regret about the actions of its military forces in Iraq, and instead it has defended these methods. It states that the international organisations and conventions had regrettably no power to face the blatant violations.” (BBC Worldwide Monitoring, February 22, 2005)
BBC Worldwide Monitoring is relaying reports about depleted uranium, cluster bombs, fire bombs, poisonous gas and other atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians. So why does the BBC never refer to them in its news bulletins?
Demolishing Human Rights
You refer once again to an unnamed “senior researcher” at HRW who had “made some inquiries, but did not have any evidence to substantiate the allegations.” As we have already mentioned to you, Joe Stork of HRW in New York told us: “we [HRW] have not been able to investigate Falluja-related allegations regarding possible use of prohibited weapons, and therefore we are not in a position to comment on allegations that they have been used. In that regard, I am mystified by the PW [Paul Wood] story citing HRW as saying that we ‘had made some investigations and found no evidence’ [i.e. your Newswatch article]. Perhaps Paul can shed some light here.”
So far, neither you nor Paul Wood have shed light on this discrepancy in HRW testimony. Therefore, the BBC’s firm assertion that HRW found no evidence of use of banned weapons in Fallujah after conducting “some inquiries” is simply inaccurate. It is surely incumbent upon the BBC to investigate the discrepancy in HRW statements, and to correct the false impression generated by your Newswatch article and Paul Wood’s reporting.
Even more damaging to your expressed commitment to “responsible journalism” is the BBC’s failure to convey the sheer scale of the horror inflicted upon Iraqi civilians. Dahr Jamail, an unembedded journalist in Iraq, reported of the US assault on Fallujah in November 2004:
“The military estimates that 2,000 people in Fallujah were killed, but claims that most of them were fighters. Relief personnel and locals, however, believe the vast majority of the dead were civilians.” (Jamail, ‘An Eyewitness Account of Fallujah,’ December 16, 2004, www.dahrjamailiraq.com/hard_news/
In an article in the Guardian, Jamail noted that refugees from Fallujah told him that “civilians carrying white flags were gunned down by American soldiers. Corpses were tied to US tanks and paraded around like trophies.” (Jonathan Steele and Dahr Jamail, ‘This is our Guernica,’ The Guardian, April 27, 2005)
Why do BBC news editors consider Dahr Jamail’s reporting unworthy of interest?
American documentary film-maker Mark Manning recently returned from Fallujah after delivering medical supplies to refugees. Manning was able to secretly conduct 25 hours of videotaped interviews with dozens of Iraqi eyewitnesses – men, women and children who had experienced the assault on Fallujah first-hand. In an interview with a local newspaper in the United States, Manning recounted how he:
“… was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops. Manning said he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja [November 2004] that described American forces deploying – in violation of international treaties – napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and ‘bunker-busting’ shells laced with depleted uranium. Use of any of these against civilians is a violation of international law.”(Nick Welsh, ‘Diving into Fallujah,’ Santa Barbara Independent, March 17, 2005, www.independent.com/cover/Cover956.htm)
Why do BBC news editors consider Mark Manning’s documentary evidence of US atrocities unworthy of interest?
A report on Fallujah presented recently to the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by the Baghdad-based Studies Center of Human Rights and Democracy appealed to the international community:
“What more tragedies are the international bodies waiting for in order to raise their voices demanding to stop the massacres and mass killings of the civilians?”
The report warns that “there are mass graves in the city” and “the medical authorities and the citizens could not find the burial ground of 450 bodies of the citizens of Fallujah that the American occupation forces have photographed and buried in a place that is still unknown.” (SCHRD, ‘Report on the current situation in Fallujah,’ March 26, 2005, www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/
Why do BBC news editors consider the testimony of Baghdad-based human rights groups, such as SCHRD, unworthy of interest?
There are other reports of atrocities carried out by US forces. Take, for example, a newspaper interview with two men from Falluja – physician Mahammad J. Haded and Mohammad Awad, director of a refugee centre – in the German daily Junge Welt, on February 26, 2005. Mr Awad said:
“I saw in Falluja with own eyes a family that had been shot by U.S. soldiers: The father was in his mid-fifties, his three children between ten and twelve years old. In the refugee camp a teacher told me she had been preparing a meal, when soldiers stormed their dwelling in Falluja. Without preliminary warning they shot her father, her husband and her brother. Then they went right out. From fear the woman remained in the house with the dead bodies. In the evening other soldiers came, who took her and her children and brought them out of the city. Those are only two of many tragedies in Falluja.” (International Action Center, ‘Fallujah was wiped out,’ www.iacenter.org/jc_falluja.htm)
Would you please issue a clarification of your account of the BBC’s dealings with Human Rights Watch on your Newswatch site?
Would you please address the issue of brutal force and atrocities against civilians by US forces on your Newswatch site, and in the main BBC news bulletins?
The BBC’s silence on these matters is a serious dereliction of your public service requirements. It is all the more stark when weighed against your channelling of US-UK propaganda (the infamous 45-minute warning, the ‘dodgy’ dossiers, the supposed presence of WMD in Iraq, the US-UK quest for a “diplomatic settlement” etc.) in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation. The BBC was leading news bulletins with these erroneous items, month after month, despite the glaring lack of proof of their authenticity. Contrast this with your assertion that: “you can be certain that if we had proof of [US war crimes], it would be leading every bulletin.” Why have you, in fact, overlooked the ample evidence of such atrocities?
We look forward to a reply that substantively addresses the above points.
David Cromwell & David Edwards
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC news
Email: [email protected]co.uk
Ask why the BBC is failing to cover the many reports of alleged US war crimes in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq.
Copy your emails to the following:
Pete Clifton, BBC news online editor
Email: [email protected]
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Email: [email protected]
Michael Grade, BBC chairman
Email: [email protected]