Are Afghan lives worth just $2,500?

Compensation system speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

On 10 February -- as 15,000 US and Nato troops prepared for Operation Moshtarak -- the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, announced what he called a "fair and just" revision to the UK's military compensation scheme. The BBC reports that, under the new rules:

One-off awards will increase by an average of 30 per cent, while the rule limiting payouts to the first three injuries per incident will be scrapped.

What this means in real terms is that a soldier who was seriously injured in a conflict situation would now receive up to £1.5m in financial support over a lifetime.

The reforms are likely to cost the MoD tens of millions of pounds, but the change is long overdue. They follow much-criticised attempts by the Labour government to reduce the payouts to two wounded soldiers in 2009 -- a move in sharp contrast to Gordon Brown's professed attitude to honouring our troops (his sentimental descriptions of Wootton Bassett as "a symbol for the whole nation's . . . remembrance", etc).

Ainsworth's timing was strategically sound. The first stage of Stanley McChrystal's campaign involved more than 1,000 UK troops; the stakes -- and risks -- were high. So far, 552 UK service personnel have been badly injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hundreds more have died.

Although progress is being made in paying compensation to British soldiers, the same cannot be said of the frankly disrespectful sums being offered to bereaved families in the war zones.

In early 2004, Amnesty International organised a campaign urging its members to protest directly to Tony Blair about the killing of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist, at the hands of UK forces in Basra. Mousa -- who, it transpired, was the son of an Iraqi police colonel -- was reportedly restrained, hooded, and then kicked repeatedly, even as he begged his attackers to stop because he could not breathe. The British army later produced a death certificate stating that he had died of asphyxiation.

The MoD's initial response was to offer Mousa's relatives a paltry £4,500, with the proviso that its troops could not be held responsible for his death. After an inquiry, the then defence secretary, Des Browne, admitted to "substantial breaches" of the European Convention on Human Rights in Mousa's killing, and agreed to raise the payout to over £2.8m.

Today, civilian deaths are worryingly commonplace. On 22 February, 27 Afghan civilians were killed in a US and allied air strike that destroyed a convoy of vehicles heading towards Kandahar. The use of US air power has been curbed, yet the value placed on Afghan and Iraqi lives is clearly nominal.

In cynical efforts to mitigate the backlash surrounding such lethal attacks, the US army has devised a new compensation system that covers deaths, injuries and damage resulting from coalition operations. The Associated Press reports that the death of a child or adult is valued at just $2,500, and serious injuries (including loss of limbs) at $1,500.

That a damaged or destroyed vehicle would fetch $2,500 -- the same amount as a dead son or daughter -- speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

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Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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