The BBC On The Haditha Massacre

The title of the BBC news report was suitably ‘balanced’: ‘Iraqi Deaths.’ Not ‘American Massacre,’ or ‘American Massacre Of Iraqi Civilians.’

News anchor George Alagiah introduced the piece:

“The US military is preparing to announce charges against a group of marines accused of killing Iraqi civilians. More than 20 people, some of them children, died in Haditha a year ago. But it’s not clear whether they were killed deliberately.”

In May, the New York Times reported that the slaughter was “methodical in nature”. (Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt And Richard A. Oppel Jr., ‘Military Expected to Report Marines Killed Iraqi Civilians,’ New York Times, May 25, 2006)

The Los Angeles Times reported that many of the victims were killed “execution-style,” shot in the head or in the back. A US government official accepted that the US marines had “suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results”. (Tony Perry and Julian E. Barnes, ‘Photos Indicate Civilians Slain Execution-Style,’ Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2006. See Media Alert: Silence in the Service of Power)

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the Haditha killings a “terrible crime”. (‘US Marine captain to face Haditha charges – lawyer,’ Reuters, December 19, 2006)

But for BBC TV news “it’s not clear” whether the old men, women and children were killed deliberately by American troops.

Washington correspondent Matt Frei’s report began with footage of a military ceremony:

“The US marine corps – square-jawed embodiment of a proud military tradition. So how does this fit in? November 2005, the aftermath of a massacre in Haditha. 24 civilians were slaughtered – the oldest was in his seventies, the youngest three.” (Matt Frei, News at Six, December 21, 2006)

This immediately contradicted Alagiah’s introduction – according to Frei it was a massacre, the deaths +were+ deliberate. The report showed archive footage of the massacre’s sole survivor, twelve-year-old Safa Younis. Frei commented: “She survived by playing dead next to her sisters’ bodies.”

Frei translated Younis’ testimony: “US marines knocked on our door. My father opened it and they shot him dead. Then they went from room to room.”

Frei continued:

“Haditha was and is a wasteland of insurgent violence. What triggered the shooting spree in 2005 was the death of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, killed after the marine’s convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.”

This is standard for BBC reporting. Western crimes do not take place in villages and towns, in homes where people live and love and grieve. They take place in “wastelands” filled with murderous savages who have no right to defend themselves against our violence. And as is perennially true of reporting from Palestine, the violence of the West and its allies is always “triggered”, is always a response to “their” violence.

Emphasising the point, Frei interviewed Jesse Grapes, former commander of Kilo Company – the unit accused of the massacre. Grapes was clearly not of the “wasteland”. He was resplendent in smart suit with a US flag draped in the background. Grapes said of Terrazas:

“One of those guys with a million dollar smile. You know, always positive no matter how harrowing the situation. Always hard-working, would do anything that you asked him to do. And you lose someone like that it causes despair.”

Frei’s commentary continued: “But did despair spawn murder?”

Imagine for a moment if the BBC had been reporting the massacre of 24 British or American old men, women and children by Iraqi troops under Saddam Hussein, or al Qaeda fighters under Osama bin Laden. Would the former commander of the unit charged with the atrocity be invited to explain the suffering and despair that drove his men to kill innocent civilians? Would he be allowed to speak without any challenge from the reporter, without even the mildest of rebukes?

And would footage of a mother embracing one of the accused be shown, as happened next in Frei’s report? A US marine was shown in uniform in Haditha and then hugging and laughing with his family. His mother asked: “You been good?” The soldier replied: “Ah, I try to be.”

This was Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, accused of one charge of murder involving unpremeditated killings of three males in a house.

This was followed by an interview with Sharrat’s father, who wept as he spoke:

“Justin told me, ‘Dad, it’s better that we’re fighting in Iraq, in the sands and the streets of Iraq, than in the streets of America.’ And I hope these people understand what these guys are going through.”

Can we possibly conceive of this kind of sympathetic coverage being afforded to ‘enemy’ troops accused of the massacre of British or American civilians? Would comparable words from the father of the ‘enemy’ accused be deemed actually monstrous in this case? And, again, there was no journalistic challenge, no balancing commentary to clarify that, by broadcasting these comments, the BBC was not intending to justify or excuse what had happened.

Frei’s conclusion was almost as remarkable:

“Whatever the charges today, Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask: How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?”

With 655,000 Iraqis lying dead after nearly four years of war, with one million Iraqi civilian dead after 14 years of US-UK sanctions, Frei can suggest that, only now, with this incident, does the question finally arise of how Americans have ended up killing Iraqis.

On the same day that Frei made his comments, Helen Boaden, director of BBC news, wrote to a Media Lens reader:

“I think the key point that I would make in response is that it is not for the BBC to take a view about the legality of the war in Iraq… it is not for the BBC to take a stance on the issue.” (Email to Media Lens, December 21, 2006)

Are we to believe, then, that Matt Frei is not taking a view, not taking a stance, in describing the American armies in Iraq as “liberators” and the Iraqi people as “liberated”?


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.

Write to Matt Frei at the BBC
Email: [email protected]

Write to Helen Boaden, Director of BBC News
Email: [email protected]

Write to Peter Horrocks, Head of BBC TV News
Email: [email protected]