Fake News and Failures of our Media

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M2 Hospital, Aleppo, last stop in ‘I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH’ at IWM London

Creative collective, Anagram, have devised an experimental ‘experience’ for visitors to IWM London to explore how and why we believe what we do, in the context of the Syria conflict. Through instructional audio, participatory exercises and displays, the visitor can take a journey, lasting 1 hour, around the museum whilst being challenged to question what they believe. The piece includes lighthearted exercises but culminates in entering a ‘news chamber’ of cacophonous news sources covering the 2016 siege of Aleppo and, finally, a model of a M2 hospital in Aleppo that was bombed several times by pro-government forces in 2016. ‘I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH’ is a ‘scratch’ visitor experience running until 17 September 2017 at IWM London.

‘Fake news,’‘alternative facts’ or ‘fog of war’ are hurdles to understanding conflict but there are journalistic principles available to the media to establish truthful facts and narratives. The real crisis in the mainstream media is not so much fake news, in the sense of wild mistruths, as a lack of will to scrutinise claims and report important and available facts that challenge power.

In the ‘news chamber’ at IWM London, various news footage loops of the 2016 siege of Aleppo are simultaneously shown on three walls of a small cabin. The broadcasts include online segments from shows on CNN, BBC, Russia Today (RT) and Al Jazeera. The effect is a shrill cacophony.

It is common practice to attack other nations’ media as being emotive and agenda-driven. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-backed media organisation had its offices bombed by US forces in both Afghanistan, in 2001, and in Iraq, 2003, with an Iraqi journalist dying. Whilst the US claimed that the broadcaster’s offices were not targeted, a leaked memo revealed that, in April 2004, George Bush raised with Tony Blair the possibility of bombing Al Jazeera’s head office in Doha, Qatar.

Whether the proposal was serious or not, Al Jazeera had angered the US by its coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths during the US-led invasion, particularly, the attack on Fallujah when 1,000 civilians are thought to have died. For reporting on the effects of strikes on civilians, the network was accused of working with terrorists by former US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld: “over and over again we’ve seen that Middle Eastern television channel Aljazeera that seems to have a wonderful way of being Johnny-on-the-spot a little too often for my taste.”

Al Jazeera’s crime was to examine the Iraq War critically, in contrast to the media sources that are often considered sober and serious. Whilst British government officials complained that the BBC was not pro-war enough, research has established that the BBC was one of the least critical channels and least vigorous in examining other perspectives during the Iraq War. In a study of the coverage in five countries, the Frankfurter Allgemeine found that the BBC devoted only 2 percent of its airtime to opponents of the war. This was the least out of all broadcasters, with ABC next at 7 percent.

The BBC was also less likely to quote independent sources, such as the Red Cross, during its coverage of the Iraq War compared to Channel 4, Sky or ITV, according to a study by Cardiff University. The BBC was found to have delivered the least reports on civilian casualties too. The study found that only Channel 4 could be relied upon to examine critically the claims of government sources, compared to the BBC, Sky and ITV that were much more accepting of official claims from the US and British.

A research study from the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds found that the Blair government’s claims on weapons of mass destruction was accepted in 54 percent of UK television coverage and 61 percent of press reporting. During the conflict, at least 80 percent of media reports quoted coalition officials.

Dr Piers Robinson, who led the study, told the Guardian, “Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive,” he said. “But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.”

Whilst broadcasters such as RT and Al Jazeera are condemned for having agendas – and, even bombed for it or have their journalists put in Guantanamo, our mainstream media mostly escape criticism for their great failures in journalistic standards that contributed to the drum-beat for war in Iraq on false pretences and the devastation that has followed.

Anagram’s ‘scratch’ visitor experience challenges us to question sources and highlights the complexity of the Syria conflict and navigating the coverage. Critically examining government assertions and to actively seek the analysis of dissidents and independent groups, such as NGOs, is the least that can be expected of a media organisation to help make sense of situations. Yet, our mainstream media often continue to fail in this regard.

It is useful to contrast the coverage of Syria with the silence on Yemen. The US and UK-backed Saudi onslaught on Yemen, in the war against the Houthis – who have also committed atrocities, has created a humanitarian crisis and mass cholera outbreak. Over 2,000 have succumbed to cholera in the country since its spread in April this year, with 500,000 cases as a result of lack of access to water and waste collection. Over 10,000 have been killed since Saudi Arabia began bombing the country to try and reverse the takeover of the country by Houthi rebels.

“Yemen’s health workers are operating in impossible conditions. Thousands of people are sick, but there are not enough hospitals, not enough medicines, not enough clean water. These doctors and nurses are the backbone of the health response – without them we can do nothing in Yemen. They must be paid their wages so that they can continue to save lives,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Here the issue is not so much fake news stories but widespread failure by the mainstream media to report available facts and focus on this story. The Yemen conflict and suffering is an inconvenient one for the UK because our government continues to enable the Saudi bombing. In July, a High Court ruling found that the UK was not acting illegally by supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons in the midst of the war on Yemen. This is despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has bombed schools, markets, hospitals, funerals and homes during its two-year assault, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In October 2016, the Saudis bombed a packed funeral hall in Sanaa, killing some 100 people and injuring 500, including children. A witness told HRW, “When I got there, there were more than 50 burned bodies, many where you can still tell the features, but half of their body was gone, half of their head was gone, but the others, it was very, very hard to tell who they were.”

The High Court, however, found, in July 2017 that there was not a “serious risk” that UK arms and equipment sold to Saudi Arabia will be used to commit “a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

The UK’s record in Syria is not impressive. Bashar al-Assad was invited to Buckingham Palace in 2002, when he was a ‘friendly’ dictator, and sold chemicals capable of being used for warfare. In the early stages of the uprising in Syria, which began in 2011, the UK, following the US, turned against Assad by siding with rebel forces. They assisted in the smuggling of weapons and ‘non-lethal’ equipment to rebel forces. This is despite knowing that prominent amongst the rebels were extremist groups closely associated with Al Qaeda – and despite the warnings of the UN that providing arms to one side would only increase the bloodshed.

The UK’s objective of toppling the Assad regime has now changed with the rise of ISIS in Syria. The UK’s primary involvement is now conducting airstrikes and training Kurdish Peshmerga and other groups fighting ISIS.

The UK’s role in backing and arming Assad before the 2011 uprising – and supporting the US’ renditioning of suspects to Syria for torture by Assad’s regime, are inconvenient facts – as is the support that the UK provided to extremist rebels fighting Assad. The UK’s role in the ongoing death and destruction in Yemen as a result of Saudi bombing and in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi to unleash civil war, lawlessness, flow of weapons and abuse of migrants in Libya are also inconvenient facts worth avoiding.

More than 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since January 2017 trying to flee conflict zones or economic strife – the majority travelling from the Libya. The European nations have reduced search-and-rescue missions arguing that to actively save lives is to incentivise trafficking. NGOs that have tried to fill the breach and save people from drowning are under attack from these same European states.

Dr Piers Robinson presents two strands of the supposed “fake news” crisis: “One strand of this debate has focused on the use of propaganda and deception by authoritarian and autocratic states outside the West. In particular, there has been substantial attention to the propaganda activities of Russia. Another strand of this debate, receiving far less attention amongst the mainstream, has emphasized the role of deception, manipulation and propaganda within liberal democratic states.”

Whilst decrying fake news, the mainstream media is, on the whole, failing to report on readily available facts and narratives that expose inconvenient truths about powerful factions in our own society. As George Orwell explained, certain stories are “kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.”



Further Information

1) Creative collective, Anagram, give their take on their new project at IWM London, running until 17 September, I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH (version 1) on their website.

2) Read an interview with Anagram by Aesthetica Magazine

3) Watch an interview with Anagram on the IWM website.

4) Reactions on Twitter:
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I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH runs until 17 September 2017 at IWM London.

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BBC Two: “The Iraq War: Regime Change” Review

Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, BBC 2 considers the question ‘how did the US and Britain become convinced that Saddam possessed WMDs?’ This is the tag line for part one, Regime Change, of the three part series produced by for-profit company, Brook Lapping Productions. It immediately reveals the programme producers’ (including a number of international media co-producers) underlying presumption – the US and Britain became convinced of WMD, rather than concocting the pretext.

Such a presumption of innocent intent on behalf of British and US leaders is hard to justify on the facts that have since been exposed. The programme largely gets around this problem by avoiding examining the evidence in any detail. There’s no serious consideration of the falsified British intelligence dossier. Instead, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Jack Straw, Colin Powell and various US and British advisers and officials appear to give their earnest accounts and the viewer is left to wonder who the insidious rogue forces were in the intelligence department that mislead their leaders so.

Perhaps the most glaring and blatant omission of the programme is the overlooking of the evidence of internal government documents that has since come to light. Take just one comment and consider the light it sheds on the intentions of the government: Peter Ricketts, Political Director of the Foreign Office, wrote to Jack Straw: “To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing… ‘regime change’, does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD…This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law.”

By failing to critically examine the evidence and, rather, filling the programme with self-serving comments of officials, with intermittent counter-claims from Iraqi officials, the programme depicts Blair, Cheney, Bush and Co. as embroiled in a confusing and somewhat ambiguous situation. From this perspective, as Lucy Mangan of The Guardian writes, it might be possible to sympathise, to some extent, with the aggressors:

“But whatever the – probably irrecoverable – objective truth of all the matters, the programme’s great service was to re-complicate the story and humanise it. Humanise it not in the sense of softening, excusing or making it more appealing, but in the sense of reminding us that our leaders are people and that even the most dramatic and far-reaching decisions are born out of a webby mass of opinion, estimates, best guesses, personal as well as political alliances, and trust misplaced and justified that gathers round a few granite chips of evidence and hard fact. You were left to feel horrified, sympathetic or some swirling mixture of the two as you chose.”

The programme downplays or, even, omits certain key facts. There is no mention of the illegal bombing campaign that Britain and the US were engaged in against Iraq well before the ground invasion in March 2003 or any official declaration of war. Such attacks and the threats of attack against a nation that did not pose a credible imminent threat clearly violated the UN Charter – as much as the ground invasion. But, as is typical of our media, international law is considered to be a compulsion on others, not our states. Jack Straw makes it quite clear in his comments that the British efforts to push for UN resolutions before invasion were attempts at mere legal cover. Blair could not go to war without a UN resolution on Iraqi weapons inspection because it would not have been seen as “lawful,” that is, British public opinion would absolutely not stand for it – not for any moral reason.

There is, inevitably, no mention of the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials in which Justice Robert Jackson, prosecuting, stated that “to initiate a war of aggression…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.”

Ten years after the invasion and with British and US troops withdrawn (though mercenaries and diplomats remain en masse), it is inevitable that the war could not be outright defended with any seriousness. The public knows too much. But, the bombardment of official statements in the programme somewhat drowns (or, ‘humanises’) some of the fundamental lies that has lead to untold death and devastation. Saddam Hussein had no links to Al Qaeda and no operable WMD. This was well understood in intelligence communities. Though admitting doubt about the accuracy of the claims, the programme does not try to investigate who was doing the deceiving that caused Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, to state in a memo “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of regime change, “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD”. Dearlove’s memo is not mentioned in the documentary. There is no mention that an invasion without self-defence or UN authorisation is a war crime.

Whilst giving plenty of platform to Blair and Co., as well, to a lesser degree, Saddam Hussein’s ex-officials, there is no room for historians or researchers who may have turned a critical eye on the subject matter. No room for reflective opinions of ordinary Iraqis (who have survived the ten-years of bloodshed) or anti-war activists, no room for anti-war politicians, except for a few lines from French officials about their encounters with the US.

The documentary is largely a public broadcast for the aggressors, on one side, and Saddam Hussein’s officials, on the other. Without much serious analysis from the producers, it should be no surprise that the result is a somewhat confusing and incomplete series of conflicting statements which does little to contribute to genuine understanding. To try and exonerate Bush and Blair as victims of intelligence misinformation seems to be the primary objective of this documentary.

The Poisonous Legacy of Arms Manufacturers: Iraqi Birth Defects and Cancers

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Bombs and bullets do not just kill and maim directly. They contain toxic metals such as lead, mercury and uranium which can contaminate the environment long after the guns have fallen silent. With sufficient contamination the miserable lives of the civilian population are cursed for generations to come with high levels of serious birth defects and cancer cases. This is what is happening in Iraq. Figures suggest that the rate of birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah surpasses those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after nuclear bombardment.

IWM’s commercial partner for the Annual Defence Dinner event, Chemring Group, is a producer of the detonating agent, lead azide – though it has only been an approved supplier to the US military since the end of 2012. According to their website, “Chemring Energetic Devices is now the only US based producer of this important primary explosive, which is used in a wide variety of US and NATO fuze and detonator assemblies.” The Joint Center of Excellence for Armaments and Munitions in the US says that lead azide is the most widely used high-explosive ingredient in US military munitions.

A lead azide safety data sheet produced by manufacturer DuPont warns,

“DuPont considers lead compounds to be potential developmental toxins and states that a woman of childbearing potential should be warned of the risks to an unborn child in operations involving exposure to lead and lead compounds.”

An unborn child may be at risk of permanent injury from a pregnant woman’s exposure to lead and lead compounds under conditions of exposure that would not be expected to cause adverse effects in the adult woman.”

“Epidemiology studies reported in the literature suggest an association of high blood lead levels with increased blood pressure, EKG abnormalities, increases in colon-rectal cancer and increased chronic renal disease. Although lead styphnate was not specifically indicated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), this organization has classified lead and lead compounds as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” on the basis of animal evidence.”

“No acceptable information is available to confidently predict the effects of excessive human exposure to Lead Azide. However, most azide compounds are moderately to highly toxic by interfering with cellular oxidative metabolism and by producing severe hypotension.”

Research in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Basrah, lead Dr Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, revealed “increasing numbers of congenital birth defects, especially neural tube defects and congenital heart defects. It also revealed public contamination with two major neurotoxic metals, lead and mercury. The Iraq birth defects epidemic is, however, surfacing in the context of many more public health problems in bombarded cities. Childhood leukemia, and other types of cancers are increasing in Iraq. Childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007. In 1993, the annual rate of childhood leukemia was 2.6 per 100,000 individuals and by 2006 it had reached 12.2 per 100,000.”

Al Jazeera reporter, Dahr Jamail, recently discussed the range of birth defects that doctors in Fallujah are facing: “It’s common now in Fallujah for newborns to come out with massive multiple systemic defects, immune problems, massive central nervous system problems, massive heart problems, skeletal disorders, babies being born with two heads, babies being born with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, cyclops babies literally with one eye — really, really, really horrific nightmarish types of birth defects.” The images that accompany Jamail’s report on Democracy Now speak for themselves.

Iraqi child with congenital birth defect

The British Ministry of Defence responded to a BBC investigation into the Iraqi birth defect and cancer crisis by saying that it would be “premature to suggest a link to any cause without reliable evidence.” The BBC investigation claimed, however, that an Iraqi governmental report does seem to establish a correlation between war and the epidemic but is currently being withheld from publication.

The BBC report by Yalda Hakim reveals that certain suspected toxic sites are blacklisted by the Iraqi government from outside investigation. We know that, as well as lead and mercury explosives, the US and UK used depleted uranium in their attacks. 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium, which is slightly radioactive, may have been fired in total in Iraq since 2003. The US also used the chemical weapon known as “white phosphorus” in their attack on Fallujah.

The evidence suggests a correlation between the deployment of toxic metal explosives by the invading forces, mainly US and British, and the tragedy of the rise in child cancers and birth defects in Iraq. Though, until fuller investigation is required. It is likely that toxic compounds such as lead azide were utilised and are contributing to the high levels of lead found in Iraqi children.

Chemring Group’s lead azide production was approved by the US Energetic Materials Qualification Board for US Department of Defense use in August 2012. This particular product of Chemring is unlikely, therefore, to have played, to date, a major role in the toxic poisoning of parts of Iraq and its people. However, according to this site, “Chemring Ordnance has been the sole source of US Government hand grenade fuzing for the last 35 years.” That is, the ignition mechanism that initiates the explosion. Moreover, the site explains, “Chemring Ordnance leads the way in the development of new 40mm ammunition and ordnance.”

To what extent munitions produced by BAE Systems or Boeing, two more of IWM’s partners, were used in the brutal onslaught of Iraq, we do not know.

To partner with arms manufacturers that supply invading forces, as well as authoritarian regimes, is to associate oneself with more than just war – but long-term devastation of environments and their people. Chemring’s lead azide will be put to use in future onslaughts; it will poison more mothers and devastate the health of children. The Imperial War Museum, like the rest of British society, should decide if it wants to be complicit in this.

Clip from Yalda Hakim’s BBC report:

The Victims of the Iraq Invasion

The Iraq invasion of March 2003 cannot properly be understood without examining the plight of the major victims – the Iraqi people and, additionally, the soldiers. It is true that some Iraqis consider themselves better off, especially amongst the Kurdish population who were targetted by the tyrant Saddam Hussein. However, the majority of Iraqis polled in 2011 said that they consider themselves worse off as a result of the invasion. This is indeed a very serious accusation considering the evils of the Hussein regime.

Are these the views of an ungrateful people – or do they have legitimate reasons to condemn their “liberation”? An estimated minimum of 123,000 civilian deaths in ten years gives us a clue. Over 2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or have fled abroad.

But, these are only numbers. A full understanding of the consequences of the invasion, war and occupation must look deeper. DemocracyNow, the New York based daily news show, hosted by Amy Goodman, devoted much of their shows last week to examine the horrific impact of the war on the victims. Each show from last week is a must watch for those unfamiliar with the victims of the violence.

Here are some excerpts from the weeks’ shows on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. The full DemocracyNow programmes are available in full on their website: http://www.democracynow.org/shows/2013/3

On Monday, March 18th 2013, Arundathi Roy, the renowned author and activist discussed the “psychosis” of US/British foreign policy. She expresses her anger and frustration that men like Tony Blair and George Bush continue to insist that the Iraq invasion was necessary despite the exposure of the pretexts for their war – and the horrific human cost.

 

On Tuesday, 19th, DemocracyNow reviewed a report on the costs of the Iraq War, including the huge death toll of civilians, soldiers, as well as the unprecedented financial cost. Raed Jarrar, Iraqi-American blogger went on to discuss these figures in the context of the sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion

On Wednesday, the show examined, amongst other things, the birth defect and cancer epidemic in Iraq caused by the use of certain metals, including uranium, in US munitions.

On Thursday, hosts, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, spoke to paralysed Iraq war veteran, Tomas Young, about his plan to end his life by ceasing his nourishment. Included in this interview are Young’s wife and carer, Claudia Cuellar, and Phil Donahue, the director of a film about Tomas Young called, Body of War.

On Friday, the US’ use of Iraqi militia to conduct its dirty work of torture and murder is examined through a review of an BBC Arabic – Guardian documentary: “Searching for Steele”.

Sean Smith: Iraq War Photographer

New exhibition at IWM North, Manchester, of Iraq War photographs by The Guardian’s Sean Smith. In this Guardian interview, Sean Smith discusses his experiences in Iraq.

“Marking ten years since the start of the 2003 Iraq War, a new photographic display by award-winning British war photographer Sean Smith reveals the collision of two worlds where local civilians and military personnel were forced to co-exist.

Smith documented the war in Iraq for The Guardian newspaper and these photographs were taken before, during and after the Iraq War. They will be exhibited in two displays, one inside and the other outside IWM North.

The display will reveal previously unpublished photographs, alongside Smith’s better known images from The Guardian’s coverage from Iraq.” (copy from iwm.org.uk)