An Exchange With The Independent’s John Rentoul

In the wake of the July 7, 2005 London bombings, the Independent’s John Rentoul commented:

“A Muslim friend of mine in the East End of London says that the sense of victimisation and injustice goes so deep among his fellow religionists that he sometimes despairs. ‘This all goes back to the burning of The Satanic Verses,’ he says. It was in 1988 that we should have realised that we were up against a culture – he doesn’t like the term ‘Muslim community’ – that tended to irrationalism and self-pity. Salman Rushdie did not create that culture, but he provided a focus for it and fed its sense of grievance.

“The Iraq issue serves much the same purpose today.” (Rentoul, ‘Islam, blood and grievance,’ The Independent, July 24, 2005)

According to Rentoul, then, the invasion of Iraq and the mass slaughter that followed was feeding irrational self-pity in Muslims. He added:

“The worst succour that the anti-war left in Britain can give to the terrorists, however, is to entertain the idea that there is a moral equivalence between the deliberate killing of civilians and the casualties of military action in Iraq. Of course, people who think the war was unjustified feel passionately about civilian deaths. But let us get two things straight. First, even Iraq Body Count, an anti-war campaign, puts the total attributable to coalition forces at under 10,000, rather than the figure with an extra zero that is the common misconception of anti-war propaganda. And second, the purpose of the invasion of Iraq, whatever you think of George Bush’s motives, was not to kill civilians.”

Noam Chomsky commented on the recurring theme of “moral equivalence” in a rare BBC interview:

“The term moral equivalence is an interesting one. It was invented, I think, by Jeane Kirkpatrick [former US ambassador to the United Nations] as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever.” (BBC Newsnight interview with Chomsky, May 21, 2004; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ programmes/newsnight/3732345.stm)

Rentoul’s “extra zero that is the common misconception of anti-war propaganda” had of course been provided by the 2004 Lancet study of mortality in Iraq, which estimated that 100,000 more Iraqis had died since the March 2003 invasion than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred. We were to believe that the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School, Columbia University, Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, and The Lancet (and its peer-reviewers) – the organisations behind the 2004 study – were all anti-war propagandists.

It is easy to understand why Rentoul would be so perturbed, now, by the suggestion that an additional “extra zero” should be added to the 100,000 figure – because it is now likely that one million Iraqis have died as a result of the war.

On April 4, we wrote to Rentoul in response to his piece, ’Truth and myth on the death toll in Iraq.’ (Independent blog, April 2; http://blogs.independent.co.uk/ openhouse/2008/04/truth-and-myth.html)

Hi John

Hope you’re well. You wrote on April 2:

“It is surprising, to put it gently, that the question of whether or not the 1 million figure is right arouses such little interest.”

You added:

“If a million people have died in violence in Iraq since the invasion, you might have thought this shocking enough for The Independent, or any other national newspaper, to report it when the survey was published in January. But there was nothing in the British press at all.”

In fact it’s not at all surprising. Typically, very little attention is paid in the Western media to the victims of Western violence. A study by the University of Maryland last year found that most Americans believed that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the invasion. That’s a reflection of media indifference. After all, a poll last year found that about half the American public were able to correctly identify the number of US soldiers killed. And how many people know that senior UN diplomats described US-UK sanctions on Iraq from 1990-2003 as “genocidal”? In 2006, Hans von Sponeck, the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad who ran the oil-for-food programme, wrote a book called A Different Kind Of War – The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq (Bergahn Books, 2006). The book describes in meticulous detail the complete US-UK indifference to the mass death caused by sanctions. The book has never been reviewed in the UK press. Again, that’s very standard.

You wrote

“One group that is certainly not interested is the absolutist opponents of the invasion, whose representatives will no doubt soon appear in the Comments below. For them, 1 million is a fact – indeed, it is an under-estimate – regardless of the evidence. Just as the invasion was a ‘crime’ based on ‘lies’, so the minimum death toll is the highest number that any remotely authoritative source has ever come up with. For some time that was The Lancet’s 655,000, and never mind that 54,000 of that was heart attacks, strokes and other illnesses, or that the survey methods had been challenged.”

Most legal experts are clear on the criminality of the invasion, and you’d have to have been living on Mars not to have noticed the lies. But who has asserted the 1 million figure as “a fact”? Certainly we at Media Lens haven’t. We have simply reported the most credible scientific advice on the most credible numbers. And as you know, science is not about offering certainty – it’s about offering the most reasonable view in light of the currently available facts.

Your link to the ‘challenge’ is to ’Data Bomb,’ by Neil Munro and Carl Cannon (http://news.nationaljournal.com/ articles/databomb/index.htm). It’s inappropriate to suggest that serious, peer-reviewed science by some of the world’s leading epidemiologists and published in the world’s premier science journal, has been “challenged” by a couple of hacks writing in a right-wing American magazine. The most serious charge involved Professor John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies (MIT). Munro and Cannon wrote:

“Tirman commissioned the Lancet II survey with $46,000 from George Soros’s Open Society Institute and additional support from other funders.” (Munro and Cannon, ‘Data Bomb,’ National Journal, January 4, 2008; http://news.nationaljournal.com/ articles/databomb/index.htm)

Tirman told us:

“Open Society Institute funded a public education effort to promote discussion of the mortality issue. The grant was approved more than six months after I commissioned the survey, and the researchers never knew the sources of funds. As a result, OSI, much less George Soros himself, had absolutely no influence over the conduct or outcome of the survey. This was told to the authors of the National Journal article at least twice. One must conclude that their misrepresentation of this—among many other issues—was intended to sensationalize their version of the story and color the readers’ opinion about ‘political bias.’ This is contemptible malpractice on their part. It is also a grotesque injustice to Mr. Soros, whose philanthropy has braced and enlivened whole regions of the world.” (Email to Media Lens, January 15, 2008)

Tirman commented elsewhere:

“I told this to Munro on the telephone and in an email. He nonetheless implied that Soros money had funded the survey from the start, possibly at Soros’ behest. That is a disgraceful lie, and Munro knows it.” (‘John Tirman on Munro and Soros,’ January 11, 2008; http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/01/ john_tirman_on_munro_and_soros.php)

You can see Tirman’s demolition of ‘Data Bomb’ (a truly awful article) here:

http://www.johntirman.com/ Bombs%20Away%20-%20a%20dull%20hatchet%20job.pdf

We offered an analysis here: All Smoke No Fire

By the way, I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that Les Roberts and co are “anti-war”. Most sane people are “anti-war”. Many scientists are also anti-malaria and anti-famine – it doesn’t stop them doing good science.

Best wishes

David Edwards

Rentoul replied the same day:

Mr Edwards
Grateful for the confirmation that you are not interested in the methodological basis of the Opinion Business Research survey either.
John Rentoul

We also responded on the same day:

Hi John

Thanks, that’s also an important subject. The Lancet authors seem to find corroboration in the ORB results. See here: www.medialens.org/downloads/pdfs/les_roberts_germany_briefing.pdf

My understanding is that ORB is a respected polling organisation used by the BBC and so on (of course we can argue about how respectable the BBC is).

I think we “generalists” need to be very careful before pronouncing on issues of epidemiological methodology – we have a habit of ending up in ditches in the way of Munro and Cannon. Curious that you would focus on finding confirmation of what I think on something I didn’t discuss in a fairly long email about what I do think on a variety of important issues.

I recommend you have a careful read of Tirman’s demolition of ‘Data Bomb’. Settle in with some tea and biscuits and really give it some thought – it might change your view on this issue. It’s vital that we examine the suffering we’ve brought to the Iraqi people as honestly and carefully as we can – it’s that suffering that really matters.

Best wishes


We have received no further response from Rentoul. John Tirman had previously posted a comment on Rentoul’s blog on April 2:

“Rendel [sic – Rentoul] misses a point all journalists do: the five surveys of mortality in Iraq show significant congruence. The Iraq Ministry of Health survey he cites (as a WHO survey) did estimate 151,000 violent deaths, but their data also shows more than 400,000 ‘excess’ deaths overall. Many experts see in the data tables evidence of ambiguous categories where those fearful of the Sadrist MoH interviewers would attribute deaths to ‘non-violent’ causes. In any case, the 400,000+ as of June 2006 would translate into 600-700,000 today. The MoH also could not survey 11% of its sample, because those places were too dangerous. It demonstrates not inconsistencies between the surveys, but, more important, just how difficult it is to do such surveys in Iraq, precisely because it is so violent.

“As for plausibility of the high mortality figures, consider this: five murders per day in the 80 ‘urban centers’ of Iraq (pop.>20k) would equal 730,000. The high deaths also track with what we know from many other conflicts regarding the ratio of displaced to death—that ratio is rarely more than 6-1, and there are 4.5 million Iraqis displaced from their homes. See analysis at http://mit.edu/humancostiraq


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to John Rentoul
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