Two days after a gunman shot dead 32 students and staff at an American college, Virginia Tech, on April 16, a series of car bombs killed more than 200 people in Iraq causing one of the highest death tolls since the war began. In a single attack, 118 people died in a car bomb explosion in the Shi’ite neighbourhood of Sadriya. Channel 4 news commented:
“Such ghastly numbers do also put the tragedy in Virginia into some sort of perspective.” (Snowmail, April 18, 2007)
But in fact this was not the case for most journalists. Indeed a largely unspoken question hung over media reporting that week: Why did the deaths of American students and staff matter so much more to the British media than the deaths of six times as many Iraqi men, women and children?
Whereas the carnage in Iraq disappeared from media reports the following day, the killings in Virginia continued to receive saturation coverage all the way to the end of the week. An April 25 media database search found that the killings in Sadriya had been mentioned in just 12 British national media press articles, while Virginia Tech had been mentioned in 391 articles. In the US press, Sadriya was mentioned in 16 articles – mentions of Virginia Tech, unsurprisingly, exceeded the capacity of the search engine, recording “More than 3,000 results.”
Attempting an explanation, BBC radio presenter Jeremy Vine suggested that the difference with Virginia Tech was that “it happens every day” in Iraq (The Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 2, April 19, 2007). But this is surely to reverse cause and effect – the slaughter in Iraq is able to happen every day +because+ it elicits minimal political or media concern. Can we even conceive of the level of reaction if Virginia Tech-scale death tolls occurred in the US or UK every day, as they do in Iraq? The coverage would be enormous, as would be the media and political pressure for something to be done to stop the killing.
But in the media reaction to events in Iraq there is barely a hint of the desperate need for a change of course, for some kind of initiative to solve the problem. There is almost no serious discussion of how British and American troops might be replaced by a genuinely international peacekeeping force, or of the need for peace talks between the various warring factions in Iraq. One would think such options were completely impossible. For the press, they are all but unthinkable. Instead, the sending of an additional 20,000 US troops – the famous “surge” – was complacently presented as a positive and hopeful initiative, even though the consequences for the civilian population were certain to be grim. On February 5, the Daily Mail reported:
“Unlike previous strikes in Baghdad there will be no areas off limits. Analysts believe that hand-to-hand combat is inevitable and large numbers of civilian casualties are expected.” (‘US gears up for Battle of Baghdad,’ Daily Mail, February 5, 2007)
The frequency of atrocities in Iraq cannot be the cause of media indifference for the simple reason that the indifference existed from the very start of the war. On March 28, 2003, 62 civilians were killed by an American bomb in the al-Shula district of Baghdad – one of the first mass killings of the war. Newsnight’s coverage of the atrocity on the BBC that night was limited to a 45-second report – less than one second per death. Unlike Virginia Tech, we did not learn about the family backgrounds, hopes and dreams of the Iraqi victims – we did not see their photographs or watch interviews with their bereaved families.
We asked George Entwistle, then Newsnight editor, why his programme had only spent 45 seconds on the tragedy. He responded: “As a current affairs programme we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical value; i.e., can we take it on? We didn’t feel we could add anything.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 31, 2003)
Something of “analytical value” would of course have been found if the victims had been British or American.
George Bush said the US was “shocked and saddened” by the killings at Virginia Tech. He added: “Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community.” (‘President Bush Shocked, Saddened by Shootings at Virginia Tech,’ April 16, 2007; www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases /2007/04/20070416-2.html)
Mainstream commentators failed to ask the glaringly obvious question in response: What about the Iraqi schools and colleges that should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning?
Last December, a conference in London organised by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, reported that since the war began in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi academics have been kidnapped or murdered – thousands more have fled for their lives. In January, the Iraqi Ministry of Education reported that just 30 per cent of Iraq’s 3.5 million school-aged children were attending classes. Earlier this month, a survey by the Iraqi Ministry of Health found that about 70% of primary school students in a Baghdad neighbourhood were suffering symptoms of trauma-related stress such as bed-wetting or stuttering. (Dirk Adriaensens, ‘Iraq’s education system on the verge of collapse,’ The BRussells Tribunal, April 18, 2007; www.brusselstribunal.org/Academics170407.htm)
The Cost Of Doing Business
The reality of the Western attitude to Iraqi civilian casualties was exposed by a military investigation published last summer into the November 2005 massacre of 24 civilians, among them 11 women and children, in Haditha, western Iraq. The report was never made public because of ongoing criminal investigations of three Marines on murder allegations and four officers who allegedly failed to look into the case.
Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell’s 104-page report on Haditha, obtained by the Washington Post last month, found that officers may have deliberately ignored reports of the civilian deaths to protect themselves and their units from blame. Bargewell commented on the culture of killing:
“Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get ‘the job done’ no matter what it takes. These comments had the potential to desensitize the Marines to concern for the Iraqi populace and portray them all as the enemy even if they are noncombatants.” (Josh White, ‘Report On Haditha Condemns Marines; Signs of Misconduct Were Ignored, U.S. General Says,’ Washington Post, April 21, 2007)
“All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics.”
Camilo Mejia, a US infantry veteran who served briefly in the Haditha area in 2003 commented on the Haditha massacre: “I don’t doubt for one moment that these things happened. They are widespread. This is the norm. These are not the exceptions.” (Paul Harris, Peter Beaumont and Mohammed al-Ubeidy, ’US confronts brutal culture among its finest sons,’ The Observer, June 4, 2006)
Tragically, the military indifference to Iraqi civilian suffering is reflected in the media. The latest revelations from the Bargewell report have so far received two mentions in major US newspapers. The truth is not allowed to interfere with the preferred view expressed by Diana West in the Washington Times in January. West noted that insurgents in Baghdad’s Haifa Street “keep returning to fire at American and Iraqi troops from positions in high-rise buildings”. She commented:
“Is it just me, or does anyone ever wonder why, if pacifying Baghdad is so darn vital, those buildings are still standing?
“It is the great irony of our time that even as our stone-age enemies seek to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible, we in the postmodern West seek to inflict none.” (West, ‘In limbo on Iraq; Both Bush and Democrats are wrong,’ Washington Times, January 26, 2007)
The Bargewell revelations have received no mentions at all in the British press – a media that also prefers to talk in terms of US-UK ’good intentions’, ‘mistakes‘ and ‘blunders‘. Thus Max Hastings in the Guardian on Iraq:
“Rationally, we know that Bush and Blair want virtuous things for the country: democracy and personal freedom. Yet so incompetent has been the fulfilment of their policies on the ground that the leaders of Britain and the US now possess no more credible mandate than that of Iraq’s local mass murderers.” (Max Hastings, ‘Bush and Blair have forfeited the moral authority to hang Saddam,’ The Guardian, November 6, 2006)
Thus Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer:
“The mistake that mattered most was one colossal strategic blunder. George Bush waged a war without having an effective plan for winning the peace.” (Rawnsley, ‘The ideals worth rescuing from the deserts of Iraq,’ The Observer, May 28, 2006)
Mistakes and blunders are fine topics for discussion – institutionalised criminality and brutality are not. Focusing on the latter promotes attempts to fundamentally alter the status quo. But the key task of elite journalism is to present the way things are as being pretty much how they ought to be. Radical change and public interference are not at all in the interests of a highly privileged media arm of corporate domination.