We killed Iraqis? It's so normal, why even discuss it?

We killed Iraqis? It's so normal, why even discuss it?

Understanding the propaganda function of the mass media means understanding how emphasis, omission and tone are used to present a view of the world that favours powerful interests. In the early evening of 28 March, reports flooded around the world of the killing of 55 (actually 62) civilians in the al-Shula district of Baghdad. Hours later on BBC2, Newsnight's coverage consisted of a 45-second report by David Sells, 16 minutes into the programme - an average of less than one second per death.

Sells presented the slaughter as an Anglo-American PR problem. "It is a war, after all," he said blandly over footage of women wailing in grief. "But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds." We can imagine the reaction if Sells had presented the Bali bombing in the same way: "it is a terrorist campaign, after all", but the bombers' aim "is to win hearts and minds".

I asked George Entwistle, the editor of Newsnight, about the 45 seconds. "As a current affairs programme," he said, "we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical value - ie, can we take it on? We didn't feel we could add anything." Something of "analytical value" would perhaps have been found if the victims had been English or American. The ugly reality is explained by Noam Chomsky in his book Power and Terror: "If they do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it's so normal, why should we even talk about it?"

The media happily communicated, without challenge, Downing Street's claim that the market-place explosion might have been caused by a rogue Iraqi anti-aircraft missile. The Independent's Robert Fisk reported (and the BBC's Andrew Gilligan confirmed to me) the discovery of a missile fragment in the market place bearing two serial numbers: "30003-704ASB 7492" and "MFR 96214 09". ASB stands for Airborne Special/Combination Bombing Equipment - a system used by US jets, including the B-52. The "MFR" number can be traced back to the manufacturer, Raytheon, suggesting that it was a Harm (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) device, or a Paveway laser-guided bomb. An EA-6B "Prowler" jet was in action over Baghdad on 28 March and fired at least one Harm.

Apart from Tuesday's Newsnight, which MediaLens challenged to cover Fisk's find (we were the "source" that the presenters said had "advised" them on the meaning of ASB), the story has so far been all but ignored by the media.

Also on the 28 March Newsnight programme, Kirsty Wark interviewed General Sir Michael Jackson, the new Chief of the General Staff. "I began by asking him if coalition troops are really powerless to help civilians targeted by Iraqi forces in Basra," said Wark. The claim that civilians were being targeted was taken for granted, days after US/UK claims of an uprising in Basra, of heavy artillery being fired into crowds, and of a mass Iraqi tank attack had all been exposed as baseless.

The cumulative effect of such emphasis and omission is to persuade the public that the US/UK establishment is reasonable, rational, respectable and honest, while its enemies are lethally irrational and dishonest - worthy candidates, in fact, for a dose of "shock and awe".

David Edwards, co-editor of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)