Tipping the balance west

“They are prisoners of their own assumptions. There is this assumption that western power is being used benevolently for the good of mankind and this colours all reporting.” [David Miller, the Glasgow Media Group] [1]

In 2003 a group of researchers at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies conducted two studies of the UK media’s reporting of the Iraq war [‘Shoot First and Ask Questions Later’ and ‘To Close for Comfort?’] [2]. They found that the mainstream media, and in particular the highly regarded BBC, had been ‘too sympathetic’ to the government line. Professor Justin Lewis commented that “far from revealing an anti-war BBC, our findings tend to give credence to those who criticised the BBC for being too sympathetic to the government in its war coverage. Either way, it is clear that the accusation of BBC anti-war bias fails to stand up to any serious or sustained analysis.” [3]

The study’s authors were careful to clarify the nature of bias exposed:

“During the war, television coverage helped create a climate in which pro-war positions became more relevant and plausible. This was not the result of crude forms of bias, but the product of news values which privileged certain assumptions and narratives over others.” [4]

It is this privilege of certain assumptions and narratives that allows a conflict of logic and disparity of principle to exist whereby the BBC can on the one hand be concerned with Russian media taking an unashamedly pro-government line, and yet see little problem in regurgitating their own government’s line:

“Digital broadcasting and the internet are sweeping away the limitations of the analogue world and weakening the grip of many though not all repressive regimes. Even so, there’s still plenty to concern us all: The recent Russian elections saw many broadcasters taking an unashamedly pro-government line. [Mark Byford, BBC Acting Director-General, 2004] [5]”

As outlined in our previous MediaShots there is a valid case to be made that RTE, the Irish public service broadcaster, has not fared much better in its reportage of the Iraq conflict. Given the enormity of the consequence, it is a great pity this type of study can only be carried out in retrospect.

Reporting Iraqi deaths – Banal, becoming wearisome

A recent and fairly innocuous RTE online news article entitled ‘US attack in Baghdad leaves 14 dead‘ read as follows:

“At least 14 people have been killed and nine wounded in a US air strike in Baghdad. The attack in western Mansour district of the capital, a stronghold of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, destroyed several houses. The US military has launched a series of operations, including air strikes against what it calls rogue elements of the Mr Sadr’s Mehdi Army. It says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supply weapons and training. Iran denies the charge.” [6]

Relatively speaking, this represents just another inconsequential report of the death of 14 more Iraqis. It simply adds to the innumerable pile of other reports detailing just a fraction of Iraqi deaths – over 1.2 million, according to a recent report by British polling agency Opinion Research Business (ORB) [7] – an inconvenient fact still to be reported by RTE, despite numerous emails. Yet even in the most banal of reporting obvious inadequacies and inaccuracies become apparent. This particular report falls short in two regards: a) it is a report on deaths in Iraq yet includes no Iraqi perspective be it of local officials or residents, and b) it relies completely on the official US perspective for context.

We wrote to RTE.ie editor Bree Treacy to question this lack of contextual substance.**

Dear Bree Treacy,

With reference to RTE News online article ‘US attack in Baghdad leaves 14 dead’, would it be possible to add the official Iraqi statement on the incident? To report an incident such as this using only the official US position appears a little odd, and perhaps misleading.

Agence France-Presse reported: “US combat helicopters and tanks bombarded a Baghdad neighbourhood in pre-dawn strikes on Thursday, killing 14 sleeping civilians and destroying houses, angry residents and Iraqi officials said. Amid the rubble of one house was a mattress covered in blood with human body parts scattered about. Neighbours said a family of six had been killed in the house, including a 12-year-old girl.” [8]

RTTNews reported: “”The attacks on the houses took place while people were sleeping. There were no clashes. The area had been quiet,” said an interior ministry official on conditions of anonymity. “Two to five houses were destroyed. Among the wounded are several women,” the official said.” [9]

I think you’ll agree these official statements and eye witness accounts are in direct conflict with the official US account, and are therefore something RTE readers should be aware of.

Thanks for your time.

Regards,

David Manning [Email, 6th September 2007]

We received the following response a day later:

The RTÉ report you refer to (http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0906/iraq.html) was not written from a US statement or based on US accounts. It was taken directly from AFP – which in turn had taken its information from named Iraqi government officials. All foreign news copy (when not from RTÉ correspondents) is based on AFP or Reuters wire sources.

We had access to both sections of text quoted in your email, however it is RTÉ policy not to base news stories on the accounts of ‘angry residents’, unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity’. The lack of verifiable information in this case was the reason the news story you refer to was so short. Accurate reporting of the incident was our first priority and that is why we omitted information (however dramatic) that could not be attributed to an official source. I hope this clarifies things, thank you for your interest in the website.

Regards

Ray Donoghue, Senior Journalist, RTE [Email, 7th September 2007]

RTE’s policy appears quite straightforward then, it implies that all ‘angry residents’ and anonymous officials are unreliable sources of information. Contrastingly, statements by ‘disinterested’ parties such as the US military go unquestioned.

We responded the next day:

Dear Ray Donoghue,

Thanks for the quick response. You write that the report was ‘not written from a US statement or based on US accounts’ and yet the report states: “The US military has launched a series of operations…against what it calls rogue elements of the Mr Sadr’s Mehdi Army.” and “It says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supply weapons and training.” Both these statements, forming the only context, are from an official US perspective.

It is unusual that on the one hand RTE has reservations about quoting the accounts of understandably ‘angry’ residents and yet sees no issue with endorsing the unsubstantiated US allegations of Iranian complicity in insurgent violence.

Your explanation for lack of reference to other conflicting accounts: ‘it is RTÉ policy not to base news stories on the accounts of ‘angry residents’, unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity” strikes me as unfair given the obvious dangers of speaking publicly in Iraq at present. RTE has in the past had no qualms about basing news stories on the accounts of unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity’; therefore I see no reason to make an exception in this instance. For example:

“An unnamed US official is reported to have said that more than 600 insurgents have been killed in the battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah.” [10]

“A US army helicopter carrying 15 people has been reported missing near Fort Drum, New York, a military official has said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are few details on the circumstances surrounding the UH-60 helicopter. ‘It is missing,’ the official said. ‘There were 15 people on board.” [11]

“A defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pictures matched those gathered by the US military two years ago as part of its investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.” [12]

“One defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the idea would be to create ‘a momentary overlap’ of at least a brigade, or roughly 3,500 troops.” [13]

“A US official, speaking to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said the intelligence was obtained through satellite photographs.” [14]

“A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier confirmed reports in leading US newspapers that the Bush administration was preparing to issue an executive order blacklisting the group in order to block its assets.” [15]

It seems the implementation of RTE’s policy in this case has been unfair to both the subject and the readers. I am still hopeful RTE can redress this issue.

Kind regards,

David Manning [Email, 8th September 2007]

That RTE’s editorial policy can be manipulated to endorse certain anonymous officials and not others poses serious problems for journalists striving to offer balanced and impartial accounts to readers.

We have had no further response from RTE and there has been no amendment to the ‘offending’ article. Apparently, reporting death in Iraq has become wearisome.

Feeding the machine

For over a year now reports and statements have been ‘leaked’ from Washington, alleging Iranian complicity in attacks within Iraq. Little convincing evidence has been offered to support these claims, yet they continue to be issued, and continue to be communicated uncritically by the mainstream media. This leads to another important aspect of this report, though it is by no means unique in this respect – while the US military appear to have killed 14 people, they are still given the opportunity to shift the blame. In this case, the blame is shifted to Iran. Interestingly, the AFP report RTE based its report on contains no mention of Iran.

In the last month RTE has published 7 separate articles which lay the blame for deaths and ‘destabilisation’ in Iraq at Iran’s door.* The source of these allegations remains constant:

“The US military accuses the Quds Force (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) of training, funding and arming Iraqi extremists to launch attacks on its troops in the country.” [16]

“Mr Bush had last night said that he had authorised his military commanders in Iraq to confront what he called ‘Iran’s murderous activities’ in the country.” [17]

“Washington has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of being involved in destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, charges Tehran has strongly denied. Critics of the US, however, believe it was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to its destabilisation.” [18]

“The US military claims that such special groups of Iraqi extremists are trained, armed and funded by Iran’s elite Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic republic’s Revolutionary Guard. The military accuses these groups of directing attacks against US-led troops and inciting sectarian violence in Iraq. Iran has strenuously denied the accusations.” [19]

“A US General has claimed that Iran has increased supplies of weapons to Shia militias in Iraq…Iran denies any role in Iraq and says the US invasion in 2003 is the cause of sectarian strife.” [20]

“The US has criticised Iran’s role in Iraq and accuses it of backing and arming Shia militias, which carry out attacks on US forces and Iraqis. The charges are vehemently denied by Iran.” [21]

This claim and counter claiming raises quite complex issues in terms of balance. The credibility of statements by the Iranian government is undermined by its commitment to violating its own citizens’ basic human rights. The disturbing reality of Iran’s human rights record therefore has an implicit and unavoidable effect on readers’ perception of any denial of foul play. On the other hand, the US position remains ‘The Shining City Upon a Hill’ despite the immediacy of evidence to the contrary. [22]

Consequently, statements by Western officials are blessed with a more favourable starting point. We tend to want to believe our representatives have honourable intentions; to believe otherwise would undermine the very idea of democracy. Thus as far as balance is concerned, claim and counter claim both by Western officials provides the most level playing field.

David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, had this to say to the Financial Times on the subject of Iranian complicity in Iraq’s violence:

FT: What do you think of Iran’s complicity in attacks on British soldiers in Basra?

DM: Well, I think that any evidence of Iranian engagement there is to be deplored. I think that we need regional players to be supporting stability, not fomenting discord, never mind death. And as I said at the beginning, Iran has a complete right, and we support the idea that Iran should be a wealthy and respected part of the future. But it does not have the right to be a force of instability.

FT: Just to be clear, there is evidence?

DM: Well no, I chose my words carefully…

FT: I know, but I’m now asking you.

DM: Well as you know, we are very careful about what we say about these things. [23]

Seen in this much ignored context, the US allegations should appear to the experienced journalist as at least dubious, if not suspicious. The context of this incident would become massively altered by simply offering the same quality of opinion in both claim and counter claim. For instance, the article could have feasibly read: “The US military says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supplying weapons and training. However David Miliband the British Minister for Foreign Affairs has been careful to downplay this claim.”

But this is of course irrelevant. Just because the US military makes a claim shouldn’t make it newsworthy. Certainly, the context of its use in the previous articles is counterintuitive:

“Washington has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of being involved in destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, charges Tehran has strongly denied. Critics of the US, however, believe it was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to its destabilisation.” [18]

In allowing Washington to set the agenda and to exclusively define the context, RTE has put itself in a position which forces it to essentially turn the reality of the situation on its head in order to apply ‘balance’. It is an uncontroversial fact that the US-led invasion of Iraq was responsible for the destabilisation of the country and potentially the region, yet RTE are forced to devalue the fact in the interests of contrived ‘impartiality’ by re-badging this manifest state of affairs as a claim assigned to a ‘critic’.

The present push by the US military to blame Iran for fomenting violence in Iraq is designed a) to shift the focus of attention; b) to shift responsibility for its own belligerence and c) to ‘demonise’ Iran. In relaying these ‘official’ statements so uncritically and with little regard for their basis in fact RTE are creating “a climate in which a pro-war position becomes more relevant and plausible.” The potential consequences of this are obvious.

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE to ask they provide a more balanced account of the current stand-off with Iran.

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

Joe Zefran, RTE.ie News Editor Joe.Zefran@rte.ie

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

Ray Donoghue, Senior Journalist, RTE Ray.Donoghue@rte.ie

Complaints at RTE, complaints@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.

* It should be noted that RTE’s website represents only a small fraction of its overall output, there are numerous radio and television news programmes transmitted daily.

** Correction: Joe Zefran is RTE.ie News Editor, Bree Treacy is now RTE.ie Entertainment Editor.

1. http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=4691
2. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/en/school/39/313.html
3. http://ukwatch.net/article/propaganda_and_the_bbc
4. http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/pmt/exhibits/1810/GWTV.pdf
5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/speeches/stories/byford_gladstone.shtml
6. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0906/iraq.html
7. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-fg-iraq14sep14,
1,1207545.story?coll=la-news-a_section&ctrack=1&cset=true
8. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070906/wl_afp/iraqunrest
9. http://www.nasdaq.com/aspxcontent/NewsStory.aspx?cpath=20070906%5 CACQRTT200709060431RTTRADERUSEQUITY_0173.htm &
10. http://www.rte.ie/news/2004/1111/iraq.html
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0311/usarmy.html
12. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0215/abughraib.html
13. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0727/baghdad.html
14. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0227/korea.html
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0815/iran.html
16. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0905/iraq.html
17. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0829/iraq.html
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0815/iran.html
19. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0813/iraq.html
20. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0812/iraq.html
21. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0808/iraq.html
22. http://www.originofnations.org/books,%20papers/quotes%20etc/

Reagan_The%20Shining%20City%20Upon%20A%20Hill%20speech.htm

23. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b9b5b078-2…0779fd2ac.html

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