Exchange With the BBC’s Director of News

“These are the stories that will continue to emerge from the rubble of Fallujah for years. No, for generations…”
(Dahr Jamail, independent reporter in Iraq)

Heavily Conditioned Sensitivity

Traditionally, Western journalists give massive emphasis to acts of violence committed by official enemies of the West, while lightly passing over Western responsibility for often far more extreme violence. As Robert Fisk has noted:

“The atrocities of yesterday – the Beslan school massacre, the Bali bombings, the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001, the gassings of Halabja – can still fill us with horror and pity, although that sensitivity is heavily conditioned by the nature of the perpetrators. In an age where war has become a policy option rather than a last resort, where its legitimacy rather than its morality can be summed up on a sheet of A4 paper, we prefer to concentrate on the suffering caused by ‘them’ rather than ‘us’.” (Fisk, ‘When weeping for religious martyrs leads to the crucifixion of innocents’, The Independent, 26 March, 2005)

By contrast, the journalist Dahr Jamail recently interviewed an Iraqi doctor from Fallujah who describes atrocities committed by US forces during their assault on that city last November. The doctor, now a refugee in Jordan and speaking on condition of anonymity, insists his testimony is backed up by video and photographic evidence.

According to the doctor, during the second week of their attack US forces “announced that all the families [had] to leave their homes and meet at an intersection in the street while carrying a white flag. They gave them 72 hours to leave and after that they would be considered an enemy. We documented this story with video – a family of 12, including a relative and his oldest child who was 7 years old. They heard this instruction, so they left with all their food and money they could carry, and white flags. When they reached the intersection where the families were accumulating, they heard someone shouting ‘Now!’ in English, and shooting started everywhere.” (Jamail, ‘Stories from Fallujah’, 8 February, 2005)

A surviving eyewitness told the doctor everyone in the family was carrying white flags, as instructed. Nevertheless, the witness watched as his mother was shot in the head and his father was shot through the heart by snipers. His two aunts were also shot, and his brother was shot in the neck. The survivor stated that when he raised himself from the ground to shout for help, he too was shot in the side. The doctor continued: “After some hours he raised his arm for help and they shot his arm. So after a while he raised his hand and they shot his hand.”

A six year-old boy was standing over the bodies of his parents, crying, and he too was shot.

“Anyone who raised up was shot,” the doctor said, adding that he had photographs of the dead and also of survivors’ gunshot wounds.

Grisly Accounts – A Few Questions For The BBC

On 15th February, Media Lens contacted the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, and asked whether the BBC was investigating these specific allegations of US atrocities. Her response came via a BBC spokesperson:

“The conduct of coalition forces has been examined at length by BBC programmes, and if justified, that will continue to be the case.” (Email from BBC Press Office, 23 February, 2005)

In a follow-up query sent on February 25, we asked which BBC programmes had addressed the conduct of “coalition” forces in Fallujah, including the above evidence of war crimes. Our email was ignored.

Meanwhile, further evidence of US war crimes continued to emerge. Aljazeera reported on March 3:

“Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, said that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujah.”

The official reported evidence that US forces had “used… substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city.”

Fallujah residents described how they had seen “melted” bodies in the city, indicative of usage of napalm, a lethal cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel that incinerates the human body. (‘US used banned weapons in Fallujah – Health ministry’, 3 March, 2005, http://www.aljazeera.com/cgi-bin/news_service/middle_east_full_story.asp?service_id=7216)

Claims are one thing, but can these allegations be corroborated? 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 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, 17 March, 2005, http://www.independent.com/cover/Cover956.htm)

We pressed Boaden to explain why the BBC news had devoted so little attention to these repeated allegations of US atrocities, or to the evidence of the use of banned weapons in Fallujah. Boaden responded:

Dear David Cromwell,

Thank you for your latest e-mails to me and my colleagues. Our bureau in Baghdad and our defence correspondent are aware of the particular claims to which you refer. Naturally, independent verification of these reports is vital – and, as you know, our movements within Iraq are severely restricted for security reasons. However, Fallujah is an ongoing issue and our team in Baghdad are constantly talking to contacts about what happened there and are assessing all the information they receive. Our World Current Affairs teams are also looking into a range of related issues.

Regarding the allegation that the Americans used internationally banned weapons during the assault on Fallujah, one of our correspondents who was an “embed” with the US troops in Fallujah said that he saw no evidence of the use of such weapons and that there was never any reference made to them at the confidential pre-assault military briefings he attended. Paul Wood also says: “The character of the fighting that I saw was bloody, old-fashioned clearing of houses and buildings street by street, block by block, the kind of fighting which is done with little more than an M16 and a handful of grenades. It doesn’t make sense to use mustard gas, nerve agents, other chemical agents or nuclear devices — to quote the Al Jazeera story — in such a small space also occupied by your own forces.

The Americans certainly did possess terrifying weapons, such as 155mm artillery, or M1 A1 Abrams tanks, and I questioned the Marines about the use of such powerful arms in an area which might still contain civilians. But I repeat the point made by my editors, over many weeks of total access to the military operation, at all levels, we did not see banned weapons being used, deployed, or even discussed. We cannot therefore report their use. Of course, we keep an open mind and will always investigate, and report, any hard evidence which comes to light.
Yours sincerely,
Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News

(Email to Media Lens, 7 March, 2005)

We replied two days later:

Dear Helen Boaden,

Many thanks for responding; it’s much appreciated. I am pleased to hear that the BBC is pursuing vigorously the mounting evidence of US atrocities in Fallujah.

There are a couple of points about your response I would like you to clarify, please. You say that the BBC had “total access to the military operation, at all levels”. Would you please justify this claim.

Secondly, you have marked your response as “private, not for publication”. What is in it that you do not want brought to public attention?

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

best wishes,
David Cromwell (Email, 9 March, 2005)

Boaden replied:

Thank you for your further email. We treat correspondence as private as a rule and have concerns about distortions arising if we are quoted out of context. If you wish to publish our responses, please go through the BBC’s press office.

In response to your query, Paul Wood says that total access meant that he was never stopped from going into any meeting he asked to go into. He was embedded at battalion level but , for instance, he did show up several times (and film) at the colonel’s morning meeting with senior staff, where orders were given out.

Paul says, ” Most importantly, I also attended the eve of battle briefing for the battalion, at which there were slides and folders with “Top Secret” stamped all over them.

“At this briefing, we were given exactly the same information as the officers who were about to command the Marines in battle. We knew what they knew. There was incredibly sensitive information, such as the latest satellite imagery of the insurgents and the distilled “humint” or human intelligence, such as it was, on the insurgents’ movements and strength. We were, of course, covered by the rules of the embed, which were particularly strict about operational security. That meant I couldn’t go on air with the battle plan before it started, or at any stage go into details about the exact rules of engagement. Total access also meant access on the ground, going out with individual patrols, hearing the orders as they were given out, seeing how they were implemented. “

Paul Wood believes that if the US military were going to use banned weapons the troops would have to be briefed in advance. At the meetings he attended there was no such briefing. Paul stresses that the point about these kinds of banned weapons is that they do not discriminate between friendly and enemy forces. That means you have to make sure your troops know and you have to make sure they have the necessary NBC kit.

Paul says, “We would have seen the Americans in full NBC kit, much as they were when they fought their way up to Baghdad in March 2003. That is why I just don’t think it plausible that these weapons were used. “

Compellingly, Paul Wood has had meetings with the relevant specialists at Human Rights Watch, who have been very tough on the US military as regards abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul asked them specifically about banned weapons in Fallujah.They said they had heard the claims, had made some [sic] investigations, and had found no evidence that such weapons had been used. They also found the idea implausible for the reasons Paul states above. He also says that HRW had seen no evidence of napalm use — nor the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons claimed [sic] by Al Jazeera and Media Lens.

Yours sincerely,
Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News

(Email, 17 March, 2005)

Media Lens then replied:

Many thanks for your latest email. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to send it.

Your response does not support your earlier assertion that the BBC “had total access to the military operation, at all levels”. I note that you have, in fact, backed down from that claim given that you state that it means simply that Paul Wood “was never stopped from going into any meeting he asked to go into.” That is not at all the same thing. Also, Wood says that he “attended the eve of battle briefing for the battalion”. What evidence does he have that this was the only such briefing?

Are you aware that US marines have, in fact, already admitted that they have used an upgraded version of napalm? (Andrew Buncombe, ‘US admits it used napalm bombs in Iraq’, The Independent on Sunday, 10 August, 2003). The upgraded weapon, which uses kerosene rather than petrol, was deployed when dozens of napalm bombs were dropped near bridges over the Saddam Canal and the Tigris river, south of Baghdad. As 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.”

Also, you will be aware that BBC Worldwide Monitoring has picked up multiple media reports of US use of poisonous gas in Falluja. For example, this item dated 2 March in the Lexis-Nexis database:

“Text of report by Abd-al-Hamid Abdallah in Baghdad headlined ‘Occupation forces use apple-scented poisonous gas against residents of Al-Fallujah’ carried on Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah web site on 28 February.

“Sources from Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars who have recently visited Al-Fallujah say the occupation forces used poisonous gas against the inhabitants of the city in the last couple of days.”

If BBC Worldwide Monitoring is relaying such reports, why is the BBC not ever referring to them in its news bulletins? You refer to HRW who had “made some investigations”. How comprehensive were they? What about the investigations and reports made by Iraqi medical staff and Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry? Why have you dismissed those? This would appear to contravene BBC producers’ guidelines on balance, fairness, accuracy and impartiality.

Re: atrocities carried out by US forces. Are you aware of 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, Week final supplement, Feb 26, 2005? Excerpt:

“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)

Why are such tragedies given such scant coverage, if any, by BBC news? Would you please retract your assertion that claims of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons use have been made +by+ Media Lens. That is incorrect. We are asking the BBC to report such claims; an entirely different matter.

I am pleased that we are able to undertake a polite, civilised and rational exchange of views. Could you please explain why this cannot appear on the BBC website – for example on your Newswatch pages? Failing that, Media Lens would be pleased to host this exchange at our own website.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

best wishes,
David Cromwell
Media Lens (Email, 21 March, 2005)

Within four hours we received the following abrupt dismissal:

Dear David Cromwell

Thank you for your further email. However, I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose.

Yours sincerely
Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News

(Email, 21 March, 2005)

We at Media Lens do not know whether US forces have used banned weapons in their attack on Fallujah. However, it is remarkable that the BBC is, in effect, suppressing repeated and persistent reports of their alleged use. Even more depressing is the failure of the BBC to convey the sheer scale of the horror inflicted upon Iraqi civilians. Dahr Jamail notes:

“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’, 16 December, 2004)

A report on Fallujah presented to the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by the Baghdad-based Studies Center of Human Rights and Democracy appeals 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’, 26 March, 2005, http://www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/

We understand that lack of security means there are severe difficulties in reporting from Iraq. But as independent reporters like Dahr Jamail and Mark Manning have shown, it +is+ possible to obtain detailed testimony relating to possible war crimes in Fallujah – testimony that surely merits discussion. The BBC’s grievous omissions highlight, once again, its longstanding complicity in Western mass violence.


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, BBC news director:
Email: [email protected]