On April 28, BBC online published an article by David Fuller titled, ‘Virtual war follows Iraq conflict,’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4951320.stm)
The article discussed challenges made by Media Lens and others to the website Iraq Body Count (IBC) which had released a “rebuttal“ of criticisms the previous day (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/editorial/defended/).
Fuller’s article represents the first substantial coverage the BBC have afforded Media Lens and is the most distorted and damaging smear of our work to appear over the last five years.
The report began with about the most basic factual error that can be made about the topic, with Fuller asserting:
“IBC compiles a list of all violent deaths in Iraq reported in the media since the outbreak of the war.”
In fact IBC only records civilian deaths reported by the media.
Other basic errors followed. Fuller claimed:
“The Lancet study is the highest estimate available.”
Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet report, told us last year that his report was the third from highest out of eight studies.
Fuller also asserted that the Lancet report “dealt with a relatively small sample”.
This is a standard journalistic error that we have repeatedly challenged in earlier alerts. (See: Lila Guterman’s excellent article: ‘Researchers Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why It Was Ignored,’ The Chronicle Of Higher Education, January 27, 2005;
Fuller also claimed of the Lancet report:
“Their central estimate of 98,000 has been used to suggest IBC’s count is out ‘most likely by a factor of five or ten‘”.
Again, we have repeatedly provided the evidence that this is not merely a central estimate – as journalists often claim – it is the most likely correct number. It is also, again, considered the most credible number by leading experts in the field (Ibid).
Honed in America – Media Lens And The Far Right
Fuller’s article was published on the BBC’s Newsnight website. Over the last nine months, we have repeatedly been invited to appear on Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news programme. We have refused to appear, a national scandal to which the BBC website has devoted two separate pages:
‘Why won’t Media Lens appear on Newsnight?’ (April 27, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4944880.stm)
‘Should Media Lens be allowed NOT to come on Newsnight?’ (April 25, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/paulmason/2006/04/should_Media Lens_be_allowed_no.html)
Last week we were invited again, twice – we again refused. The Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, wrote to a Media Lens reader:
“Is it really reasonable for an organisation which seeks to have its views taken seriously to refuse to have anything to do with [our] programme which seeks those views?… I think – and many of those who’ve messaged Media Lens seem to agree – that it’s time to get over the conspiracy theories and start engaging with entirely legitimate views in an important debate.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, April 26, 2006)
The same day, the editor assured us that any concerns we might have about BBC bias were ill-founded, and that we would be treated fairly by Newsnight.
Two days later, Fuller’s article appeared – a perfect chance to put the BBC’s bona fides to the test.
Fuller claimed that Media Lens and IBC are engaged in “a furious debate”, a “war of words”, but made clear that this is a one-sided war: “any media organisation that now quotes certain figures is bombarded with emails”.
On one side of this “war“, we were told, is the IBC website, “a tiny operation run by respected anti-war activist Professor John Sloboda and his colleagues“ – Sloboda being someone who “felt morally obliged, as a member of one of the societies responsible for the war, to set up the project”.
On the other side, is Media Lens, “IBC‘s attackers“, who have been whipping up “a maelstrom of criticism and vitriol”. No mention was made of whether we are respected.
Fuller added: “For a man who feels deeply opposed to the war, John Sloboda has found these attacks very painful“. Sloboda was quoted:
“‘There’s the emotional wearing down of having to deal with fifteen or twenty of these nasty or hostile or frightening emails every day. It makes you physically ill.’”
It couldn’t be clearer, then, who is the victim and who the victimiser in this “war of words”.
Fuller was accepting at face value Sloboda’s depiction of our work. In his interview, Sloboda claimed:
“Some people have pointed out that the tactics they [Media Lens] are using are very similar to the tactics that have been very well honed by the far right in America. Bombarding with hostile emails, a character assassination – these techniques have been honed to perfection since the McCarthy times in the 50s.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4950254.stm)
“They published this really nasty piece about us on their website, quoting from the letters we’d sent them, pulling them out of context, distorting them, adding ad hominem arguments on top. their motives were never pure from the very start. they sent us this innocent-sounding letter already knowing their intention was to destroy us.”
Remarkably, Sloboda even said:
“What’s most chilling is if you look at people’s allegiance to much more dangerous causes than either of our critics are adopting. This is also the mindset that draws angry young men towards terrorism. And it’s ultimately self-destructive.”
In fact our “tactics” are those honed by Amnesty International and, in particular, the US media watch site Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Curiously, Newsnight’s own editor, Peter Barron – having himself been repeatedly targeted for destruction by McCarthyite proto-terrorists – wrote:
“Another organisation that tries to influence our running orders is Media Lens… In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4426334.stm)
In the appendix to their “rebuttal”, IBC published a number of examples of “smears and misrepresentations” and “anti-IBC hysteria“. Here are two examples provided:
“But if you think that you can give a realistic picture through IBC’s numbers, you must be living in another World… The refusal of IBC to answer the many questions coming from many sides is outrageous. The Iraqi civilian deaths are not private property of Iraq Body Count.” (Posted by ‘gabriele’, 5/4/06)
“It is bad enough to the Iraqi people to have so much suffering; to ignore their suffering compounds the errors made in Iraq Body Count.” (Email to IBC from ‘Sarah Meyer’, posted by Media Lens editors, 14/3/06)
This is pretty typical of the language used in the many emails copied to us. In judging the language and tone, we need to recall the seriousness of the issue at hand – our democratic responsibility for the mass death of Iraqi civilians. We need also to consider the importance of our moral obligation to establish the truth of how many people have been killed. And we need to consider that there has been virtual silence on this issue over the last three years. That there is not more frustration and anger than this is a real tribute to the people who care enough to write the emails we have seen.
There is also the issue of moral consequences. Like it or not, IBC’s low figures, flawed methodology and lack of caveats have been exploited by hawks seeking to underplay the catastrophe inflicted on Iraq by Britain and America. Challenging and exposing this media propaganda can have very real impacts for the people of Iraq, and for future potential victims in countries like Iran and Venezuela.
Furthermore, however much IBC may have disliked the emails they have received – a discomfort we find can be relieved by hitting the ‘delete’ button – the fact is that this debate has generated widespread discussion both in Britain and in the United States on the issue of civilian deaths. This, in the context of the previous deafening silence, is an extremely positive result. Mainstream journalists are now printing IBC’s low 38,000 figure but sometimes noting that it has been challenged. And as we have seen, however awful the performance, the BBC has now discussed the Lancet report in detail, and linked to articles by Lila Guterman, Stephen Soldz and even our own Media Alerts. This would previously have been unthinkable.
And what is the alternative to inviting readers to contact and debate with journalists and others, as even mainstream newspaper blogs now regularly do? Are we to understand that the public should be discouraged from becoming involved in politics? Should they sit quietly on the sidelines while self-designated editors at IBC and Media Lens do all the talking? What could be more absurd? We are, ourselves, members of the public!
How can less debate on the vital issues of our time – issues that determine the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of people – be preferable to more debate? How can this be justified on the basis of the hurt feelings of individuals who have freely chosen to step into the political arena in discussing literal life and death issues? If the choice is between silence or hitting the delete button and ignoring what has been written, then that is no choice at all.
“Media Lens’ principal targets are the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent, organisations that they say are particularly dangerous as they claim to be independent or unbiased.”
To someone unfamiliar with our arguments – most of the BBC audience – the idea that the BBC and Guardian are “dangerous” is the worst kind of paranoid nonsense; the kind of idiocy that “attackers” of a “respected“, morally obligated professor might believe.
Fuller wrote of Media Lens: ”Its editors say the western media routinely cover up or decline to report atrocities by coalition forces”.
This is false. As we have stated many times, we are +not+ proposing a cover up or conspiracy of any kind. Instead, we have pointed to a complex range of non-conspiratorial political, economic and military factors mitigating against honest and accurate reporting from Iraq. The idea that we are proposing a media “cover up” and “refusal to report” presents us as crude conspiracy theorists, which we are not.
Fuller then comments: “IBC say these criticisms show a ‘complete ignorance of the way the media works‘”.
We agree with IBC – but these are not our criticisms.
Fuller suggests that we believe: “that the absence from the IBC database of records of large numbers of Iraqi civilians killed by coalition airstrikes in early 2005 proves that it is a partial count“.
How could a mere absence of data +prove+ anything? This is what we wrote of the IBC database:
“The dramatic absence of examples of mass killing by US-UK forces suggests that the low IBC toll of civilian deaths in comparison with other studies is partly explained by the fact that examples of US-UK killing are simply not being reported by the media or recorded by IBC.”
The Neutral BBC – A Tragicomedy
Fuller’s article was timed to coincide with the release of IBC’s “rebuttal” of criticism made by us and others (imagine a BBC article timed to coincide with the release of one of our Media Alerts!).
Also timed to coincide with the release of this “rebuttal” and the BBC article, has been the launching of a Keystone Cops-style propaganda campaign on the Media Lens website waged by up to four IBC personnel. The unsubtle goal has not been to engage in genuine dialogue or discussion – something IBC has consistently rejected – but to enhance the performance of their “rebuttal”.
In the midst of this campaign, the author of the BBC’s article – David Fuller – began posting on our message board. He wrote of Media Lens:
“Your output has an effect – the effect I saw on IBC was not a positive one. That made it a valid story to cover.” (Posted, Media Lens message board, May 1, 2006)
This at least explains the manifest bias of Fuller’s article – the BBC approached the story from a pre-determined, biased perspective. Indeed it was precisely the perceived negative impact of our criticism of IBC that “made it a valid story”. Maintaining strict BBC impartiality and balance, Fuller explained:
“John Sloboda is STILL getting vitriolic attacks from people allied to ‘your cause’. I fully understand that you urge politeness and that you are not personally responsible for writing any hostile emails.
“But this is a message to any ‘lurkers’ who may write such emails. Please stop, it’s utterly pointless, nasty and destructive. He is a good man. If you want an outlet for your anger, send them to me instead.”
In another post, Fuller described how Media Lens has inflicted “three months of emails calling him [Sloboda] a war criminal…”, with Sloboda “subjected to months of continual email abuse… What possible good except bitter spite can there be to still send him nasty emails?”
As discussed above, this is nonsense. Recall that this is a ‘neutral’ BBC journalist whose name also appears at the top of the BBC article, from which readers have been linking to our website in large numbers to read these comments.
The same day, Fuller discussed one of our Media Alerts:
“Will anyone here put their hand up and agree that the first ‘BBC Demonise Iran’ media alert… is at best an incomplete and at worst totally distorted piece of criticism – as it pulls the story entirely out of context”. (Posted, Media Lens message board, May 1, 2006)
Fuller himself describes this, again publicly on our board, as: “My attack on the editors.”
We wrote to the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron:
“We know you’ve received a large number of emails in response to our Media Alerts – perhaps you’ll agree with us that this is an outrageous depiction of the kind of emails our readers send. There is occasional abuse – something we strongly discourage – but almost all the emails sent to IBC that we’ve seen have been polite and rational.
“But we have to ask you, Peter, doesn’t Fuller’s article and smears on our message board make a complete mockery of the idea that the BBC, and Newsnight, are interested in giving us a fair hearing?” (Email to Peter Barron, May 2, 2006)
After all, imagine a BBC reporter who had written a news article about some powerful company, or a major political party, then visiting that organisation’s website to describe their work as “totally distorted” and the impact of their efforts “pointless, nasty and destructive“. It is of course completely unthinkable.
Might makes right – it also defines who is and is not fair game.
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 Steve Herrmann, the BBC’s online editor:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Newsnight editor Peter Barron
Email: [email protected]
Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news:
Email: [email protected]