Raw power in the media

Observations on Iraq (2)

News media switch effortlessly between rational and propagandist modes of reporting. Thus Channel 4's Gary Gibbon asserts, reasonably, of the crisis in Ukraine: "In public, everyone is pleading with the Ukrainian authorities to show restraint. In private, they are pleading with President Putin because he calls the shots." In this case, hidden agendas are explored, the word "realpolitik" is used - there is serious, probing investigation. A week earlier, Julian Rush, also of Channel 4, asked how many refugees returning to Fallujah would think the destruction "has been a price worth paying for democracy".

America's army has so far lost 1,200 troops killed in action in Iraq, with ten times that number wounded, at a cost of $200bn (£104bn). I asked Rush how, given the price paid, we are to take seriously the claim that the world's superpower will allow genuinely democratic elections in January. In other words, how are we to believe that Iraqis might be allowed to elect a government actively hostile to all further US involvement in the country?

Rush wanted to know why I was asking, but otherwise refused to comment.

While it's fine to seek the power behind the throne in the Ukraine, Iraq is another matter. Anna Ford declared on the BBC lunchtime news: "Iraq's prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has said he has given American and Iraqi forces the authority to clear Fallujah of terrorists." Seven times in the same programme, the BBC suggested that Allawi was the final authority ordering the attack - obfuscating propaganda of the crudest imaginable kind.

In the Guardian, Rory McCarthy reports that four "security contractors" working for a UK firm have been killed by "the extremist Ansar al-Sunna army", the same group that claimed responsibility "for massacring" 12 Nepalese construction workers in August. McCarthy goes on to report that the US army's Olympia task force are still "clearing out houses" in Fallujah. Elsewhere, Muhammad al-Nuri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Crescent, estimates that more than 6,000 were killed in Fallujah, reporting that the number of dead bodies in the streets makes it difficult to move around the city. The Red Crescent president, Dr Said Ismael Hakki, says: "There are no houses left in Fallujah, only destroyed places. I really don't know how the people will return to the city."

But the Olympia task force is not described as "an extremist army", and is accused of "massacring" no one. In the Guardian, Luke Harding writes blandly of the US "push into Fallujah", and of "America's biggest military adventure since Vietnam". But then the Guardian is "not in the business of editorialising [its] news reports", as its foreign editor, Ed Pilkington, told MediaLens.

As the slaughter approached its climax in Fallujah, the BBC chose to make human rights abuses in Sudan the lead story. While Iraqi doctors lay dying with their patients in a bombed-out clinic, Jack Straw was respectfully invited to comment on the situation in Darfur. Feargal Keane reported the tear-gassing of civilians and the tearing down of refugee shelters by police. Keane did not mince his words: "This was a day when the Sudanese government showed the face of raw power, when the international community was left powerless, and the most vulnerable, defenceless."

Imagine the BBC saying this of the British and American governments' far worse atrocities in Fallujah.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org