A crime within a crime within a crime

“Death in Iraq. It is relentless and incessant.” [1] (Dahr Jamail, the last independent Western reporter in Iraq) [2]

In 2003 the US led invasion of Iraq underlined in no uncertain terms the limited reach of international law. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, “[the invasion of Iraq] was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.” [3]

That invasion and all the subsequent crimes within have amassed over 650,000 bodies, with one recent addition, the former leader of that country.

The Irish government has played no small part in those crimes. Shannon airport has been used for three years as a fueling point for US war planes and over 500,000 US troops have passed through it. [4] [5] This alliance with the ‘coalition of the willing’ [19 members of this illustrious group are no longer ‘willing’ to participate in ground operations] [6] was perhaps the inspiration for Minister Dermot Ahern’s ‘Third Phase’ in Irish Foreign Policy, ‘Active Neutrality’. [7]

The dominant media context

On 12 October 2006, a study of mortality developments in Iraq was published in British medical journal The Lancet. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their aim, to update the March 2003 – September 2004 study, proved truly shocking reading:

“[A]s of July, 2006, there have been 654 965 (392 979–942 636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2•5% of the population in the study area. Of post-invasion deaths, 601 027 (426 369–793 663) were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire.” [8]

I wrote to RTE’s News Editor, Michael Good, to ask whether RTE would be reporting on the issue. Having received no reply and witnessing no coverage, I wrote again the next day to RTE’s complaints office:

Dear Sir/Madam,

The Lancet has reported that “Since March 2003, an additional 2.5 percent of Iraq’s population have died above what would have occurred without conflict.” This translates to 655,000 dead Iraqis as a direct result of US led invasion. Ireland was used as a refueling point for the US war machine. Therefore the Irish government knowingly facilitated the illegal invasion and occupation of a foreign country.

The Chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Robert H Jackson stated: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Given the gravity of this information I was extremely surprised to witness the Irish news media’s coverage of this report. As far as I am aware RTE, the national broadcaster and to whom we pay our license fee, has not mentioned the report. Not even a peep.

Is there a specific reason for this?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning [Email, 13/10/06]

To my embarrassment I was to be informed the study had been reported ‘extensively’ a day earlier, though I could possibly be forgiven for missing it.

Dear Mr. Manning,

This story was covered extensively in yesterday morning’s “Morning Ireland”. [9]


Michael Good [Email, 13/10/06]

I responded again that day…

Dear Mr. Good,

Thank you for responding. I was unaware of this extensive coverage as I rarely listen to the radio. I rely heavily on RTE’s website and the frequent television news slots for information on local and world news.

It appears quite an oversight to restrict coverage of this shocking report to one 4 1/2 minute slot on a 2 hour morning radio show.

I have to say I am no less surprised at RTE’s failure to cover these findings.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning [Email, 13/10/06]

The 4.5 minutes of the 2 hour radio show, Morning Ireland, devoted to those 650,000 dead Iraqis consisted of an interview with John Simpson, the Foreign Affairs Editor for the BBC. A seemingly poorly chosen candidate for discussion of mortality studies given he appeared not to understand the results. He stated, “[there is a] huge variety in the possibilities of what it might be [the actual figure for mortality in Iraq] from about 450,000 to 700,000.”

From the report:

“In the news media coverage of the 2004 survey report, much was made of the wide confidence intervals, which is a statistical technique that was frequently misunderstood. With the much larger sample of the 2006 survey, the confidence intervals are narrowed significantly. For the single most important category—the total number of deaths by violence during the war—the confidence interval ranges from 426,369 to 793,663. That means that we are 95 % certain that the correct number is between those two, and 601,027, is the statistically most probable number. The likelihood that another number is the correct number decreases very rapidly as one moves up or down from the figure of 601,027.” [25]

“An additional 53,000 deaths due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care.” [Ibid]

The remainder of Mr. Simpson’s contribution was similarly weak. He said the figure is ‘enormous, but uncheckable’ and again ‘pretty uncheckable’, leaving us in no doubt as to his position on the subject. The RTE presenter* joined the chorus, ‘[it is] impossible to go around and check’.

Les Roberts, one of the study’s lead authors, pre-empted this form of criticism that same morning in an article by Andrew Buncombe and Ben Russell in the UK Independent, “Let’s have these people tell us what we have done wrong and what the true numbers are. Our study is pretty easy to verify. If they go to a graveyard in a small village and ask how many people are being put in the ground….” [10]

Seven days later, this extensive coverage was expanded in a Prime Time [19/10/06] [21] discussion between Mark Little and James Hider of The Times:

Mark Little: “Can you give us any objective assessment of just how many civilian casualties there have been in Iraq so far?”

James Hider: “Well that’s very difficult to say. There’s vastly differing numbers coming out. One organisation Iraq Body Count has put the number at 50,000, that seems quite a realistic if conservative amount. There was a report recently in the Lancet which was more or less an estimate based on random sampling which said up to 650,000 Iraqis may have died in the last three years. Certainly we’re seeing huge numbers of people being killed.”

Even in this passing reference the dominant media’s typical approach to reporting ‘contentious’ figures is apparent. Firstly, a lower estimate is required to give the Lancet an outlandish appearance, therefore Iraq Body Count is offered as the ‘realistic’ figure for civilian casualties. Yet no clarifiers or brief description of their methodology is required; no doubt because the smaller the figure, the smaller the contention. Consequently, important details are omitted, such as the fact IBC’s figures include only violent deaths reported in the “predominantly Western” media. [22]

UK based media monitoring organisation Media Lens noted in January 2006:

“On the rare occasions when the issue of civilian casualties is discussed in the mainstream media three words are invariably mentioned: Iraq Body Count (IBC).” [23]

Yet IBC admit their figures “can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.” [24] This raises serious questions about comments such as this from Rupert Cornwell of the Independent in August 2005, nearly a full year after the first Lancet study was published, “[IBC is] regarded as the most authoritative independent source on Iraqi casualties.” [23]

RTE transmit approximately 5 hours of news broadcasting through it’s television and radio media everyday, this is also supplemented through it’s substantial web presence. It is now over three months since this updated estimate was published, and this 4.5 minute interview on a morning radio show and one fleeting glance during a Prime Time discussion represents RTE’s ‘extensive’ coverage of those 650,000 deaths**.

The contentious and the uncontentious

An RTE report on the 17 October last, ‘Change to US strategy in Iraq is recommended’, read as if the study have never taken place. It read: “tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.” I emailed the RTE Online Editor, Bree Treacy, to suggest an alternative phrase: “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.” [18] [Email to RTE’s online Editor, 17/10/06]

RTE’s Online Editor, Bree Treacy responded:

Dear David

Thanks for your mail and your interest in the site. The section you referred to is re-edited copy from Reuters. There is contention about the number of civilian casualties in Iraq but we strive to be accurate with our News coverage and ‘tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed’ is accurate.

Thanks again for your interest.

Bree Treacy [Email, 18/10/06]

I replied:

Dear Ms. Treacy,

Thank you for responding.

However, I don’t see how the fact the text was copied from a Reuters piece is relevant to the issue. Contrary to your contention, there is no reasonable or scientific refutation of the study’s findings. The ‘contention’ you referred to is, as you are no doubt aware, politically motivated and should have no bearing on RTE’s responsibility to report the facts to the best of their ability. Also contrary to your assertion, the phrase ‘tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed’ is about as accurate as writing post 9/11, “tens of Americans have been killed.” The latter would never appear in a respectable newspaper and neither should the former.

I remain hopeful that you will address this inaccuracy.

Yours sincerely, [Email, 18/10/06]

Ironically, RTE has seen fit to report other figures compiled using essentially the same methods, and conducted by the same lead author in other less ‘controversial’ war torn regions, without any mention of ‘contention’:

“Congo’s elections, the first free elections in the former Belgian colony for more than 40 years, will hopefully put an end to Africa’s bloodiest conflict, a civil war that has killed 4 million people since 1998.” [RTE 2006] [11]

“The former Zaire is struggling to recover from a wider five-year war that at one stage sucked in six neighbouring countries and, according to an international aid agency, has killed up to four million people.” [RTE 2005] [14]

“around 4 million people have died from violence and disease in the Congo over the past five years.” [RTE 2003] [12]

“It is part of a wider war held responsible for millions of deaths in Africa’s third biggest country over the past five years.” [RTE 2003] [13]

“An estimated three million people, including many civilians, have been killed.” [RTE 2003] [15]

Media Lens reported in September 2005 with regards to the first Iraq study:

“Les Roberts says, the reaction could not have been more different [to the Congo study]: “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity.”” [16]

The media’s abject failure to highlight this obvious and yet extraordinary disparity signifies yet another home-run for the ‘local highschool team’.

A compromised medium

Professor Noam Chomsky gave a lecture in January of last year at University College Dublin, [Democracy Promotion: Reflections on Intellectuals and the State] I asked him:

“To what extent is the corporate media; The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Irish Independent etc complicit in Iraq’s illegal war, as a result of their inaccurate portrayal of the case for war and the resulting conflict?”

His response was:

“The US press, and I don’t think its different elsewhere. In fact the continent is often worse; German press, French press. The war in Iraq is described in the manner that some highschool newspaper would describe the local sports team. The framework of discussion is always ‘how well are we doing?’, ‘did the coach make a mistake?’, ‘should he have substituted another player?’, ‘can we do better next time?’

I have virtually never seen a departure from that framework in the Western press. It’s the way most totalitarian states describe their own atrocities. Within that framework you do get some criticism, but the framework itself is so totally distorted that you just can’t comment on it. And it’s true in case after case…The framework of discussion is so skewed, that even extremely good reporting, and it does exist, is within a framework that is imposing serious mis-impressions.” [17]

As media consumers we need not concern ourselves too much with the crimes of the ‘visiting teams’, such as despots Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-il. The dominant media has proved itself reasonably proficient in recalling their bad deeds (at times even exaggerating them). It is the crimes of our team and those of our allies that we must concern ourselves with. We must expose these crimes if we are to challenge those that seek to usurp democracy from the democratic.

It is argued that figures on the scale posed by the Lancet study are not necessary to brand the invasion of Iraq a tragedy. [19] [20] Though we would argue that, as allies of the criminals responsible, we should be concerned with the scale of this ‘supreme international crime’, and leave pity to those who have done all they can to end complicity in mass murder.

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE to ask why they continue to neglect those deaths which compromise Ireland’s neutrality and the world’s security.

RTE complaints complaints@rte.ie

Michael Good, RTE News Editor Michael.Good@rte.ie

Bree Treacy, RTE Online News Editor Bree.Treacy@rte.ie

Prime Time prime.time@rte.ie

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to editors@mediabite.org.

* Both Richard Downes and Cathal MacCoille present Morning Ireland.

** This is based on both RTE’s response to my questions and an extensive search of RTE’s website archive. It is not a full proof way of accounting for every possible mention of these figures due to the numerable possibilities in language variation. As recently as 31/12/06 RTE has reported tens, not hundreds, of thousands of deaths. [26] Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times interviewed on Drivetime 2/1/07 about the execution of Saddam Hussein said in passing that “no one expected that … there would be tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis dead.” [27] An RTE online report 11/11/06 suggested the death toll might be between “about 50,000” and “one disputed estimate … [of] 450,000.” [28]

1. http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/050306J.shtml
2. http://www.haleakalatimes.com/news/story2320.aspx
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661134.stm
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Governments’_pre-war_positions_on_

5. http://irishantiwar.org/images/mid_section_content/mAKE_sHANNON_A5.pdf
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multinational_force_in_Iraq#Fewer_than_100_soldiers
7. http://www.fiannafail.ie/policy_page.php4?topic=175&id=6405
8. http://www.thelancet.com/webfiles/images/journals/lancet/s0140673606694919.pdf
9. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1012/morningireland.html
10. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/politics/article1842559.ece
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0930/print/congo.html
12. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0609/congo.html
13. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/1007/drcongo.html
14 .http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/0225/congo.html
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003 /0624/congo.html
16. http://www.zmag.org/Sustainers/Content/2005-09/27edwards.cfm
17. http://www.ucd.ie/news/jan06/011306_chomsky.htm
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1017/ iraq.html
19. http://www.iraqbodycount.org/press/pr14.php
20. http://www.village.ie/world/middle_east/iraq_body_count_disputes

21. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1019/primetime.html
22. http://reports.iraqbodycount.org/a_dossier_of_civilian_casualties_2003-2005.pdf
23. http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060125_paved_with_good.php
24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6045112.stm
25. http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/stuff_for_blog/iraq1.pdf
26. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1231/iraq.html
27. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0102/drivetime.html
28. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1111/iraq.html

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