Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Compassionate independence - should we be bothered?

As 2013 comes to a close, a gathering question for the year to come. 

Independence for Scotland: why bother?

2014 will bring all the same problems of brutal war, corporate rampaging, economic austerity, mass poverty and climate calamity. Amid all these global crises, what possible case can be made for a small entity like Scotland seeking separation? Isn't it so parochial? What's the point?

Well, here's a useful motive to consider.

Independence is not just about being 'free' of an England, a United Kingdom, a Union, a parliament, a flag, a national anthem and all the other ersatz iconography of statehood - those political fixtures and fittings which help maintain the elite artifice of 'togetherness'.

It's about seeking the compassionate society. 
In practical terms, it's about finding another direction, using this rare opportunity as a potential opening to real political, economic and social alternatives; a small but bold effort to craft a meaningful 'state' of release from harsh market life and the deepening vicissitudes of neoliberalism that lock human beings into a lifetime of worry, servitude and dependency.

It's also, however seemingly token, a way of advancing viable alternatives to corporate-driven warmongering, deranged nuclear weaponry and climate-killing policies. 

But isn't this all so overwhelming, beyond our reach to do anything about? Why even think there's any point or purpose in supporting independence to such effects? Why bother?  

This encouragement to apathetic resignation and dutiful acceptance is an essential part of Project Fear. Rather than lamely ask 'why bother?', why not welcome the chance to act, to care, to be compassionately bothered?

We've seen much media-fuelled fearmongering over 'issues' like borders, currencies, the 'loss of identity' and so on. Bother to ask yourself: are these really such insurmountable obstacles, unresolvable situations or terrifying scenarios? Are such changes and modifications likely to create chaos and anarchy?

Not only is this kind of 'debate' intended to frighten and perplex, it's, like so much ruling-class narrative, meant to disempower, to crush the public's expectations and hopes of a better society, any wished-for fuller existence. As Chomsky so often says, it's about authority reinforcing the vital notion of political helplessness.

All of which fuels our insecurities and fears of upsetting the status quo. Even many of those proposing independence are stuck in this narrowly-mired 'better together/apart' exchange, fixated on often petty minutiae.

What's never discussed here is the idea of independence in pursuit of the radically compassionate 'state'.

This is not just about promising things like better childcare and pensions. It's about finding a whole new moral engagement, about trying to construct the happier, healthier, enlightened community, something much more progressively ambitious for our children, old folk and most vulnerable, something which bothers about true compassionate interventions both within and beyond Scotia land. 

Beyond the bulk of White Paper policies and transitional arrangements, it's also an opportunity to promote and write our own constitution, rather than leaving it to a political class still potentially beholden to all those 'neoliberal realities'.

It's worth remembering here that all the major establishment institutions - financial, political and media - are very bothered about the prospect of any such alternative model, hence their vociferous opposition and spin. 

As more and more are battered by austerity and a rigid financial governance underwritten by the City of London, the question thus becomes: can we really afford not to be bothered?    

Greatly bothered by imperialism and capitalist denigration of society, the legendary Scottish internationalist John Maclean was also still bothered enough to support an independent socialist Scotland. I'm with Maclean.

Vote 'no' in 2014, if you please. But don't do it on the spuriously-spun 'worries' and siren claims of Project Fear.

And if you vote 'yes', please do so in the serious hope of building a politics of compassion, a state of mind, a state of kind, which cares primarily for people and planet rather than flags and anthems.

A happy and compassionately bothered new year to you all.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Mandela coverage - the urgent need for corporate-free media

As Nelson Mandela is finally laid to rest, it's worth reflecting not only on an historically significant figure, but the crucial truths an international media has sought to bury.

And, in the wake of that relentless distortion of Mandela's life and cause, it's an urgent reminder of the need for a radical new media, completely released from the constraints of corporate control. 
The treatment of Mandela's death and memorial has shown just what a vital service state-corporate journalism performs in disguising systemic crimes, whitewashing elite offenders and mythologising those deemed useful to that selective narrative.

Or, rather, it's shown precisely none of this to a public massively smothered by political and media groupthink.  
Notable here has been the focus on Mandela's 'capacity for forgiveness', an honourable character trait, of course. Yet, as pinpointedly shown by Media Lens, 'emotionally potent over-simplifications' have been used here to twisted effect. Thus:  
"many journalists have rightly praised Mandela's forgiveness. But the state-corporate system also has a generous capacity for excusing torturers, dictators, terrorists, and even former enemies like Mandela - anyone who serves the deep interests of power and profit in some way."
So, while in life and death Hugo Chavez - whose revolutionary movement sought to resist Western-corporate dictate - was damned and derided as an egotistical tyrant, Nelson Mandela - whose African National Congress embraced that neoliberal agenda - was 'forgiven' and hailed as a saintly liberator.  
Another welcome antidote to this choice media adulation can be found in Greg Palast's fine dissection of the rampant hypocrisy and 'dollification' of Mandela, laying bare the real story of how, beyond the standard media narrative, his 'triumph' over political apartheid came at the cost of a continued and deepening economic apartheid.

Like Media Lens, Palast also corrects the much-vaunted line on Mandela's 'ready forgiveness':
"The US and European press have focused on Mandela's saintly ability to abjure bitterness and all desire for revenge, and for his Christ-like forgiving of his captors. This is to reassure us all that "good" revolutionaries are ones who don't hold anyone to account for murder, plunder and blood-drenched horror - or demand compensation. That's Mandela in his Mahatma Gandhi doll outfit - turning the other cheek, kissing his prison wardens."
While duly noting his great humanitarian capacities and promotion of civil resistance, Palast reminds us of the considerable threat of force, including Cuban military backing, that Mandela and the ANC had marshalled against the regime by the crisis point of apartheid. Seeing both the economic and political writing on the wall, the regime was compelled to cultivate an inner ANC cabal, which, as Palast laments, were all-too-ready to accept its 'terms of surrender': in essence, political office in exchange for economic control.

Almost nothing of this forceful side, dirty realpolitik and sellout to neoliberalism has been covered by a media dutifully absorbed by the great celebritisation of Mandela and a who's who of memorial-grasping elites.  

Thus, we had Obama's 'wondrous' speech, Cameron's gushing praises, tittle-tattle over their 'selfies', Bush and Bono posing together like saintly partners, and, of course, Blair, the perennial interloper, treated as some grand visiting ex-statesman. A crass assembly of warmongers and 'war-on-wanters' mixing in self-serving 'homage'.     
At the graveside we had the media lauding of billionaires Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey, while thousands of impoverished black South Africans watched from afar and beyond security cordons.  
At no point did a mainstream, or most liberal, media consider any of this intrusive spectacle odd, distasteful or conveniently distracting from the real story of continuing poverty and oppression.  

Other fine expositions on the great hypocrisy and economic apartheid came from dissident writers like Jonathan Cook, as with Media Lens, echoing John Pilger's long-standing articles and films on the Mandela mythology and great ANC sellout.
While any critical appraisal of Mandela and his legacy emerged mainly via an alternative media, the Guardian's Seumas Milne was a lone kind of dissenting voice amid the sentimental liberal chorus. Predictably, no one deemed that 'anomaly' worthy of critical comment.  Nor, indeed, did Milne.  
All of which confirms the media's own systematic role in perpetuating power through journalistic compromise, and the need for a serious media alternative.

In covering Mandela and the coverage of Mandela, did any of our 'searching' media even consider the kind of 'contract' with power it has also slavishly conceded to?    

The relinquishing of powers under the Freedom Charter by the ANC to an international business elite may be said to parallel the way in which so many 'left liberal' writers have reached an all-too-easy accommodation with their corporate media masters.

Yes, the proprietors and executive editors have said, you can have your 'critical' columns, which we can use to 'dollify' our own 'crusading' image, proving our own 'radical' purpose. You can have the role of 'internal dissident', which we will hail - all safely surrounded, of course, by multiple other safe and on-message writers - while we get to run our corporate operations. 

Deal done: you have your 'status', we have the profits, you get to say your token, 'controversial' piece, we get to say it's proof of a 'challenging' media.
And so, like the pernicious lie of a 'free South Africa', we have the fiction of a free and liberating media, all overseen by the real sovereignty of establishment interests and corporate forces.

A good example of compromised media can be seen in the current spiking of Whose Sarin? by Seymour Hersh, a landmark article alleging US manipulation of intelligence over chemical weapons in Syria and Obama's efforts to fabricate a case for intervention.

Hersh is a renowned Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with a fine track record of insider sourcing and damning exposes. Yet, none of this, it seems, could persuade our 'best radical' media - New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian or Independent - to run or support this key story.

While it now seems safe to note that Mandela's arrest had, all along, been assisted by the CIA, the idea of exposing dark US intel in present situations like Syria appears much more problematic for editors.     
This is not conspiracy. It's, more prosaically, a process of 'inside understanding', of what's deemed 'respectably radical' and 'safely publishable' - an editorial/journalistic subservience which Hersh himself recently damned and, in seeming 'respect to open comment', was published by the 'quality' media he criticises. 

Yet, that 'openness' is permissable because, unlike Hersh's more explosive claims of Western subterfuge over Syria, such comment is still deemed 'safely abstract', perhaps even the outpourings of a 'loveable media relic'.

Unlike the sanctification of Mandela's past life, or even token exposure of the dark cave-in to apartheid, any media amplifying of such current and contentious indictments brings much more immediate risks of elite exposure - and the corporate media's own part in marginalising it.

And so the media play of 'good guys' and 'bad guys', 'rogue' states and 'liberated' states, 'demons' and 'icons' continues. 
Already, Nelson Mandela and South Africa is a media story past, the job of contextualising and appropriating this 'icon' done.

As the curtain comes down on the great media circus, a select version of events behind Mandela's life, struggle and passing have been dutifully distilled and recorded for public consumption. And a crucial part of that distortion and charade involves the media's own power-serving role as chroniclers of the deception.

This is the enduring reality of how media linked into any state body or commercial web will always be potentially compromised, a timely reminder of the need for a true, unfettered journalism entirely liberated from corporate ownership, funding or other hidden alignments.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela - appropriation of an icon

Nelson Mandela died last night.

RIP Tata Mandina.
His iconic part in bringing down South Africa's apartheid regime needs little elaboration. Watching Mandela emerge that momentous day in 1990 from years of penury remains one of the most abiding reminders that brutal oppression can be overcome.

But it's also a now more sobering reminder that true liberation involves the release of people from even higher forces of oppression.     

Today, Mandela's and South Africa's 'long walk to freedom' has been deeply compromised by the ANC's short stroll to neoliberal sellout.

It may seem somehow inappropriate at this sad moment to 'sully' Mandela's reputation with such truths. Yet, reflecting Mandela's own resistance to the system of apartheid, rather than any given leader of it, it's appropriate, likewise, that no one figure, however heroic, should be used to disguise any other oppressive system that comes to replace it.        

As John Pilger recently asserted, 'Mandela's greatness is assured, but not his legacy'. 

While a new black elite luxuriate in gated mansions, a still massive black underclass languish in abject poverty, excluded by an economic system deeply subservient to the global corporate order.

Following the recent murder of thirty four miners by South African police, Pilger reiterated his thoughts on the "illusion of post-apartheid democracy" and "the new worldwide apartheid of which South Africa is both an historic and contemporary model"; an abandonment of true economic liberation to the demands of privatisation and forces of international capital:   
Enveloped in the hot air of corporate-speak, the Mandela and Mbeki governments took their cues from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. While the gap between the majority living beneath tin roofs without running water and the newly wealthy black elite in their gated estates became a chasm, finance minister Trevor Manuel was lauded in Washington for his "macro-economic achievements". South Africa, noted George Soros in 2001, had been delivered into "the hands of international capital".
Amid the official eulogies, little of this inconvenient reality is up for discussion, conveniently lost in the narrow narrative of South Africa's 'great democratic emancipation'. 

Thus, an on-message media has seamlessly prioritised and approved those 'free world' voices so eager to mark and laud Mandela.

Between glowing commentaries on his life and struggle, the BBC has carried studious tributes from every other world leader, past and present, all desiring some association with the 'Mandela brand'.  

Barack Obama spoke of Mandela as a crucial formative influence, his conviction, incarceration and inspirational words helping to form Obama's own 'conviction' politics. Visiting Robben Island recently and posing inside Mandela's cell, Obama also spoke of Mandela's fortitude in the face of harsh imprisonment. This from the man still refusing to shut down Guantanamo and directing a murderous drone war.

David Cameron and William Hague have also issued unctuous statements on Mandela's passing, their cloying words still trying to deflect the shame of Thatcher's denunciation of Mandela and the ANC as criminal terrorists.

Predictably, Tony Blair has also 'honoured' Mandela, 'generously' recognising their 'disagreements' over Iraq, Afghanistan and other 'interventions'. Little, of course, will be made of Mandela's resolute denunciation of US/UK-led wars, or support for Palestinians, as the media continue their choice presentations. 

And so it goes on, every part of the establishment, every warmonger, every political wannabe grasping to the safe Mandela lore, many 'belatedly' finding their 'role' in the 'anti-apartheid cause'. 

Where do we see the same championing of the Palestinian cause, the castigation of 'friendly' apartheid states like Israel? The sins of Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and De Klerk can now be safely exposed, but not, it seems, those of Ben Gurion, Sharon, Barak and Netanyahu. 

As the presidents, prime ministers, princes and royals prepare for Mandela's great funeral, consider just how suitable most of them are to be 'mourning' such a man. 

How easily, too, the patronage and words of such figures have displaced any true debate on Mandela's politics or associations to those like Ronnie Kasrils, Joe Slovo and other ANC subversives.   

This is the context within which Mandela has been adopted and sanctified; a 'safe' story and selective hagiography which can whitewash 'Mandela-moment' elites and harness liberal emotion over the evil of South African apartheid while avoiding much more awkward questions on its now imposed place in the global corporate apartheid.       

Nor, as Jonathan Cook writes, is it disrespectful to Mandela and his huge achievements to see the ways in which he became appropriated and neutralised: 
First, he was forced to become a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility. Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was forced to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.
In reflecting fondly on Nelson Mandela, this huge and defining figure, with his humanitarian gift for just forgiveness and reconciliation, we should remember the considerable 'walk' still facing impoverished South Africans, the dark collusion of their government and the ways in which this hypocritical deification of Mandela obscures the ongoing struggle to break the higher chains of oppression. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Feeding the hate: Tom Harris MP vilifies the Roma

The shrill and dangerous castigation of Roma and other East European migrants continues with a nasty polemic from Glasgow South MP, Tom Harris.

I'd say Harris was 'my MP', being a constituent of said electoral area. But, in effect, I am without one, 'disenfranchised', choosing not to recognise or seek the usual 'services' of a parliamentarian who voted for the mass slaughter of Iraq and has been so relentless in his attacks on asylum seekers
Still supporting war criminal Tony Blair to this day (Twitter bio: 'Proud Blairite'), Harris, as prior correspondence shows, is also a long-standing apologist for Israel's occupation and crimes.

The problem in this case isn't just Harris's amplification of residents' fears, it's his promotion of irrational suspicion and effective hatred of an entire people.

Just in case we don't recognise his 'rational' side, Harris commences his piece with this faux 'acknowledgement' of 'worthy' immigrants:  
Do I need to add all the usual caveats and qualifications before I continue? Okay, let's get it over with: the vast majority of immigrants from all over the world make a massively positive financial as well as personal and cultural contribution to the UK. Britain is far better off today than it would have been without immigration. Okay? Can I continue now?
And continue he does, with reactionary gusto, turning constituents' reported concerns into a sharp indictment of Roma 'lifestyle':     
...filthy and vastly overcrowded living arrangements, organised aggressive begging, the ghetto-isation of local streets where women no longer feel safe to walk due to the presence of large groups of (workless) men, the rifling through domestic wheelie bins by groups of women pushing oddly child-free prams, and a worrying increase in the reporting of aggressive and violent behavior in local schools.
It's not that we should be blind to difficult conditions and tensions; they are patently obvious to most residents and observers of Glasgow's south-side Govanhill area, an historic locale for multiple races of economic migrants and conflict-fleeing peoples: Irish, Jews, Pakistanis, Poles, Slovakians, and, soon to come, perhaps, more Romanians and Bulgarians.
What's problematic is the pernicious categorisation of those deemed 'wholly responsible' for the hostility and social decay - just as the Irish once were - a targeted rhetoric that recognises neither the wider economic/social context of such migrants' arrival, or the need for constructive action to improve the situation for all concerned.  
While many front-line social agencies in Glasgow and other migrant-receiving cities have learned the benefits of patient and careful nurturing of mixed-race communities, Harris offers only inflammatory words, generating even greater fear and alienation:        
In the meantime, my constituents become angrier and more resentful, because the lives they have worked so hard to build for themselves and their families are being impinged upon by people whose culture, way of life and attitude to authority and those around them are utterly alien. [My emphasis.]
Again, whatever concerns some people may have over the social effects of new immigration, what's achieved by such spurious denigration of an entire culture?    
Again, bear in mind, this coming from someone who endorsed the murderous invasion of Iraq, with mass war crimes like Fallujah, devastating an entire people, culture and way of life.
With no apparent remorse over his part in that vast atrocity, Harris is still only concerned with what 'dangers' present themselves at 'our' door: it "would be absurd to claim that all foreign cultures are beneficial to the UK."
He cites here as an "extreme example: female genital mutilation." Why this particular, lone example? No doubt because it helps reinforce the heavily-implied distinction between 'our essentially good' cultural practices against 'their generalised bad and barbaric' ones.

All of which feeds the standard framing on the Roma's supposed 'cultural propensity to criminality', rather than generations of persecution, poverty and forced movement.  The current crackdown against Roma groups over 'baby-stealing' is but another facet of that false cultural determinism.  

A useful antidote to Harris's bleak fearmongering can be found in Peter Ross's more people-engaging view of the Roma and life around Govanhill, recognising not only the economic/cultural complexities and problematics of a highly-fluid community, but also that which binds and connects people, however adversarial their situation:
The first Roma in Glasgow were asylum seekers from Slovakia, escaping racial hatred. Most, now, are economic migrants, coming from villages in the region of Michalovce. In Glasgow, they have found casual work in potato and chicken processing factories, though, increasingly, jobs are hard to come by. Romanian nationals have very restricted access to the benefits system, and there is anecdotal evidence that some Roma from that country, now living in Govanhill, cannot afford to feed themselves and thus go through the bins of private residences and shops, looking for food.
In seeking understanding of the Roma's street presence, Ross speaks with Marcela Adamova, "a 32-year-old Roma woman who came to Glasgow five years ago from Pavlovce nad Uhom, a town in eastern Slovakia. She works as a Roma support worker with Oxfam and runs Romano Lav, a community group."
The Roma are the most visible ethnic group, due to their habit of standing around outside chatting on street corners in largeish numbers, some even after darkness has fallen. There is nothing sinister in this; it is a cultural practice from back in the villages, but many locals feel suspicious and sometimes intimidated. “I hear some racist remarks, you know, ‘All these gypsies living in Govanhill are not bringing anything to society’,” says Adamova. “But the racism is not so strong as in Slovakia.”
Nor, again, is there any denial here of the social dereliction and ethnic tension:  
Govanhill would not be to everyone’s taste. It is a district of old four-storey tenements, from which satellite dishes sprout like fungus. Fly-tipping is endemic, and it is quite common to see people sifting this mess, looking for anything they can use. There is poverty and overcrowding; you hear about 14 people in two-bedroom flats. The area, too, has a reputation for violence and theft. Serious violent crime incidents are reported to be 59 per cent above the Scottish average, though police insist the crime rate is, in fact, falling and that, given the high population density, there is actually less villainy than they would expect.
Recognition without castigation. Why can't Harris, at least, adopt a similar tone?

Ross concludes with a hopeful message from Donegal man Tony Mai Gallagher, 71, a patron of nearby Kelly's bar for many a year: 
“We’ve got to be gentle with them, because when we came in, people weren’t too gentle to us,” he says. “Let’s just hope our new neighbours, our New Irish, settle in just as fast as we did. Harmony is what we need.”
Laudable words, indeed.

We needn't be misty-eyed here in romanticising the problems in Govanhill and other such places. There are all-too-visible issues and anxieties on display, confirming an urgent need for wholesale socio-economic assistance. Yet, beneath all of this fear and distrust there's also the capacity for basic human connection.  
In dark contrast, people like Tom Harris spread only more negativity, fear and antagonism.

Such language also keeps people attuned to the perpetual myths and fallacies over immigration numbers and costs, notably the 'expected flood of welfare-seeking' Romanians and Bulgarians from 2014

Even the neoliberal Economist dismiss the hype behind such changes, "suggest[ing] that immigration is more a problem of perception than of reality." 

Yet, even these kind of clarifications lack something more elementary: compassionate concern. What, more fundamentally, should we be saying about the very presentation of an issue that routinely starts from the question 'what will they contribute' rather than 'what can we do to help'?

None of this is of seeming significance to Harris, who appears more intent on feeding animosity than helping people build bridges, more concerned with defending neoliberal politics than denouncing them as the prime reason behind Govanhill's social tensions, just as they are in the places such people come from in often desperate and disappointing search of something better.        
The growing persecution and terror of Roma people across Eastern Europe, as alarmingly seen in Hungary, should be a warning to all politicians and media here who peddle such populist poison.

Meanwhile, beyond Tom Harris's malicious columns and fake calls for 'serious debate' on immigration, take heart from the Roma children of Govanhill as they voice their small desire to be wanted, secure and happy.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

BBC's selective use of Iraq war death figures - Trust's final ruling

The BBC's Editorial Standards Committee has issued a final ruling on my appeal regarding the BBC's selective use of Iraq Body Count figures.

Every stage of this complaint has seen tortured excuses deployed by the BBC. This is yet another classic piece of institutional evasion.

[22 November 2013]
Dear Mr Hilley
The Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) has considered your request for an appeal to the BBC Trust and I attach a copy of its decision taken from the ratified minutes of the ESC’s meeting on 3 October 2013.

The Committee’s decision is final and will be published in the next edition of the Editorial Standards Committee’s bulletin at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/our_work/complaints_and_appeals/editorial.html on 3 December 2013.
[Further advisory information.]
Yours sincerely
Christina Roski
Complaints Adviser

“Iraq 10 years on: In numbers”, BBC News website, 20 March 2013

The complainant asked the Editorial Standards Committee to review the decision of the Trust Unit that the complainant’s appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration by the Committee.

Appeal to the BBC Trust
The complainant wrote to the BBC Trust following the decision of the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, BBC News, not to uphold his complaint regarding the use by the BBC of figures calculated by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project when referring to the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. In his complaint to the BBC, the complainant had stated that he considered the figures provided by IBC were misleading and had been selected by the BBC because they reflected:
  “…UK/US war killing in its least damaging light” 
The complainant considered this was inaccurate and resulted in bias. He said that “no serious or satisfactory consideration” of his concerns had been offered at the previous stages of his complaint. His points and questions included the following:   
* The BBC was consistently inaccurate and biased in its coverage of civilian war deaths in Iraq because of its frequent reliance on IBC figures, which were “limited and misleading.”
* To improve balance, the BBC could cite other sources and their respective data (which suggested much greater numbers of deaths), in addition to the IBC figures. Why had the BBC not done this?
* Who at the BBC had made the editorial decision to adopt IBC as a principal source and how had that decision been arrived at?
* For the purposes of the complaint, he cited the online article “Iraq 10 years on: In numbers” as an example of the biased use of IBC figures, specifically the section headed “Violence” and its associated graphic.

* He also cited a recent survey by a market research company, in support of his appeal, which suggested “a shocking absence of … public awareness” in relation to the “true scale of war-related deaths” in Iraq. He reminded the Trust of the BBC’s public education role in this respect.
The Trust Unit’s decision

The Trust’s Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (“the Adviser”) replied to the complainant
explaining that the relevant correspondence and the article in question had been reviewed by the Trust Unit and an independent editorial adviser, and she did not consider that the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success. She did not propose to proceed in putting the appeal to the Editorial Standards Committee of the Trust.

In reviewing the complaint, the Adviser took into account all the relevant Editorial Guidelines (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines) and, in particular, those concerning Accuracy and Impartiality.

The Adviser noted that the complainant’s appeal was principally couched in general terms relating to an alleged BBC practice of virtually exclusive reliance on Iraq Body Count figures in its overall reporting. However, she noted that, for the purposes of the complaint, the complainant wished to cite the online article, “Iraq 10 years on: In numbers”, published on the BBC News website on 20 March 2013, to illustrate his concerns. The Adviser, therefore, focused on this article in her review of the complaint.

The relevant section of the article in question included the following:

US and other coalition troops remained in Iraq in a combat role until 2010, as security operations were gradually handed over to Iraqis.

Deaths per week

Some 4,488 US service personnel died in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on 19 March 2003, according to the latest figures from the US Department of Defense. British forces lost 179 personnel. But tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have also died since 2003 as a result of sectarian killings and a violent insurgency.

The Iraq Body Count organisation, which cross references reported deaths with official figures, says 4,571 civilians were killed in 2012, bringing the number of civilian deaths since March 2003 to between 112,017 and 122,438. The spike in numbers for 31 August 2005 represents the deaths of about 1,000 people in a stampede of Shia pilgrims on a river bridge in Baghdad. Witnesses said panic spread over rumours of suicide bombers.

Iraq Body Count says the most sustained period for high-level violence was from March 2006 to March 2008, when sectarian killings peaked and some 52,000 died.

‘The country remains in a state of low-level war, little changed since early 2009,’ says the organisation, ‘with a “background” level of everyday armed violence punctuated by occasional larger-scale attacks designed to kill many people at once.’”
The Adviser noted that the context of the article was set out in the introductory sentence of the piece as follows:
“Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq – how much has changed? We look at the numbers behind the country that is still emerging from conflict.”
The article, she noted, then went on to look at figures relating to Iraq’s economy, technology, refugees and displaced persons, food, human development, and, as set out above, violence. The text under all these headings, she further noted, sought to compare Iraq’s position in 2003, at the point of the invasion, with the country’s situation 10 years later. The Adviser noted that, in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines on Accuracy, the sources for all the information collated in the article were given.
In the case of the section on violence, the Adviser noted that a consistent run of figures for those years was clearly required to assemble a graphic to illustrate civilian deaths. She noted that it had been explained by the BBC at previous stages of the complaint that the IBC figures, which have been produced on an ongoing basis over the years, were considered by the BBC’s Middle East Editor to be appropriate in this case.
The figures were clearly sourced to IBC in the article, she noted, and a brief summary of the methodology for collecting the figures was given:
“The Iraq Body Count organisation, which cross references reported deaths with official figures…”
The Adviser noted that the complainant suggested that using two other sets of data, in addition to the IBC figures, would have resulted in a “fairer and more viewer-serving graphic”. She noted that the complainant said these figures were from a Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey covering the period March 2003 to the end of June 2006 and from an Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey in August 2007.

She further noted that the following had been explained by the BBC at Stage 1:
“The Iraq Body Count is the only organisation to offer an actual count covering the period since the US-led invasion. Other organisations seek to estimate the death toll at particular points in time, using statistical and sampling techniques.”
The Adviser also noted the response from the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, BBC News, at Stage 2, which expanded on this point:
“As previously explained, what matters here is the pattern over a number of years. Other agencies cannot provide this information so the Middle East editor felt that IBC was the right source in this instance. Using other studies as well – based on different methodologies – would have been pointless and confusing for readers.”
The Adviser agreed with that view and considered that in practical terms it would have been very difficult for the graphic to have incorporated three sets of data, all for different periods and collected in different ways, in a way that was meaningful for the audience.

The Adviser appreciated that the complainant felt strongly that IBC figures vastly understated the numbers of civilian casualties, compared with the other surveys he had cited, and she noted that the complainant had made the following allegation at Stage 1:
“It’s clearly evident that the BBC has selected IBC’s data because it reflects UK/US war killing in its least damaging light. Your every excusing word makes the BBC complicit in disguising that crime.”
She considered it unlikely that the Trustees would agree with the complainant that this motivation was “clearly evident” from the selection of data for the article in question, and she noted that the complainant had not provided evidence to support this allegation at any stage of the complaint.

The Adviser also thought it likely that the Trustees would wish to take into account that the BBC was not isolated in its citing of IBC data, and that many other reputable organisations also cited IBC where appropriate. She noted that the complainant had acknowledged this in his blog which stated that the Channel 4 News’s “10 years after” report on Iraq had used a similar graphic, with figures sourced to IBC, and that it was “standard” for “almost every other ‘authoritative’ news outlet” to use IBC figures.

The Adviser fully appreciated that reporting on civilian casualties in any conflict situation was fraught with difficulties. She noted that the BBC had explored these issues in various articles over the years, and these articles had been cited at earlier stages of the complaint.

She considered Trustees would be likely to conclude that it was for the BBC to make an editorial judgement about the use of data in this particular article and there was no evidence this had not been done within the Editorial Guidelines.

The Adviser noted that the complainant had repeated his request to be informed about who at the BBC had made the decision to use IBC as a source. Her view was that the Trustees would consider this had been answered at Stage 2 by the Head of Editorial Compliance and Accountability, and that, in this particular case, it was the Middle East Editor who had considered IBC was the most appropriate source.

The Adviser thanked the complainant for forwarding the weblink to the ComRes survey on public perceptions of the Iraqi death toll.

The poll appeared to suggest that 66 per cent of those questioned in May 2013 thought there had been fewer than 20,000 deaths (of both combatants and civilians) as a result of the 2003 invasion. She noted that this figure was hugely at variance with even the IBC figures quoted in the website article in question (112,017-122,438 civilians), which the complainant had said were themselves vastly understated.

For the reasons set out above, the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser considered there was no reasonable prospect of the Trustees finding the article had been in breach of the Accuracy and/or Impartiality Guidelines, and the appeal would not, therefore, be put before the Trustees.

Request for review by Trustees

The complainant requested that the Trustees review the decision not to proceed with his appeal. He said that the reply had circumvented a central issue, which was:
“how can the BBC justify the selective and continuous use of data which vastly understates the death figures in Iraq…?”
He said that the BBC’s particular focus on the “10 years after” piece was diverting discussion from the particular issue of why the BBC had selected IBC as a main source across all its output.

The complainant also argued that the wider usage of IBC across other major media did not absolve the BBC from its own particular responsibility to offer a varied and impartial range of information and opinion.

With regard to the Adviser’s response that the Middle East Editor made the decision to adopt IBC, the complainant asked where the editorial-making evidence was for this. The complainant thought the question would be likely to “invoke the likely ‘safe editorial hands’ process”.

But, in the interests of transparency, he asked whether the BBC audience should be “entitled to a closer and more detailed account of who was involved in that decision and how it was determined”.

He noted that the Adviser acknowledged the ComRes poll, but did not say how the BBC's selective use of IBC had contributed to the massive lack of public awareness noted in that poll.

The complainant considered that on every aspect of his complaint, the BBC had failed to justify its principal use of IBC or explain its own part in keeping people so uninformed about the Iraq death toll.

The Committee’s decision

The Committee was provided with the complainant’s appeal to the Trust, the response from the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser and the complainant’s letter asking the Committee to review her decision. The Committee was also provided with the article in question.

The Committee noted the complainant’s concern about the BBC’s use of IBC statistics when reporting on civilian war deaths, which he believed understated the death figures in Iraq.

The Committee noted that although the complainant was concerned about the use of IBC figures in BBC reporting generally, he cited the “Iraq 10 years on” article as an example of his concerns.

However, the Committee also acknowledged the complainant’s response that “the BBC’s particular focus on the ‘10 years after’ piece was, in itself, a standard deceit, diverting discussion from the particular issue of why the BBC had selected IBC as a main source across all its output”.

The Committee was of the view that the Trust Unit’s response to the complaint, as well as previous responses from the BBC Executive, had included clear and detailed reasons for the use of IBC figures more generally as well as in relation to the specific article cited by the complainant. The Committee noted in particular the reasons put forward at Stage 1 of the complaints process:
“The Iraq Body Count is the only organisation to offer an actual count covering the period since the US-led invasion. Other organisations seek to estimate the death toll at particular points in time, using statistical and sampling techniques.”
And at Stage 2:
“As previously explained, what matters here is the pattern over a number of years. Other agencies cannot provide this information so the Middle East editor felt that IBC was the right source in this instance. Using other studies as well – based on different methodologies – would have been pointless and confusing for readers.”
The Committee noted the Adviser’s statement that the BBC was not isolated in its citing of IBC data, and that many other reputable organisations also cited IBC where appropriate.

The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that this was an underestimate and that he felt this point had not been addressed by the Adviser. However, the Committee felt it had been explained to him that the BBC had addressed the difficulty in reliably assessing numbers of deaths in other articles and in this article had both sourced the data and explained the methodology.

The Committee also noted his concern that the public’s knowledge of the level of deaths was poor.

The Committee also noted that in the ComRes poll cited by the complainant 66% thought that fewer than 20,000 had died. Trustees noted this was significantly lower than the IBC figure. The Trustees did not accept that the use by the BBC of figures from the IBC could be responsible for the low figure for deaths in the ComRes poll given the figures were different and given the many other factors that would affect the public’s understanding.

The Committee agreed it would be likely to conclude that there was no reasonable prospect of success for the appeal on the grounds of a lack of accuracy or impartiality in relation to the BBC’s use of IBC data, either generally or in the specific article cited by the complainant.

The Committee acknowledged that the complainant would have liked to know more about the editorial process which led to the BBC Middle East Editor’s decision to use IBC data, but the BBC was under no obligation to provide this. The Committee did not believe any evidence had been presented which would lead it to conclude that editorial decisions had not been made in accordance with the Editorial Guidelines.

The Committee therefore decided that this appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration.

As repeated throughout these postings, it was never expected that this complaint/appeal would be upheld. The point of raising such questions and publishing the BBC's responses has been to illustrate the process of establishment bias and Kafkaesque obfuscation. 

While the BBC Trust, Committee and other dutiful apologists twist and evade the issue, their vital gatekeeping has helped hide and 'erase', at least, many hundreds of thousands of deaths from public consciousness, as so damningly indicated by the ComRes poll.

The apparent reason for ignoring other key studies is that they "would have been pointless and confusing for readers." We can but acknowledge our lowly intellect and deep gratitude for such  direction and concern.

Despite multiple requests for specific information on how and why IBC was selected as a main source, the BBC has refused to answer. As the ruling dismissively states: "the BBC was under no obligation to provide this."

A last appeal to any journalists, editors or media 'insiders' possibly disturbed by such pontifications or simply exercised by conscience. At some point, a decision was taken within the BBC's editorial hierarchy to adopt Iraq Body Count, effectively excluding much more damning evidence of war fatalities. What useful light might you, or knowing others, shed on that determination and how it has helped maintain this gross distortion?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Nun-speak, none-speak - Jones, Scahill and Stop the War

There's been significant fallout over a forthcoming Stop the War conference, after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones threatened to withdraw unless Syrian-based nun Mother Agnes was removed from the invited list of speakers.

As noted in a brief announcement from StW, she has now stood down, registering her disappointment and hope of future engagement.

It was notable that both Scahill and Jones announced their objections to her inclusion following tweets from Muhammad Idrees Ahmad and his Pulse media site urging them not to participate.

Ahmad and Pulse have denounced Mother Agnes as an Assad collaborator and propagandist, charges she and varied supporters have strongly rejected.

Beyond obvious war crimes on all sides, doubts and questions over responsibility for many atrocities in Syria remain, as detailed even in major Western intel. So, it's not unreasonable that Mother Agnes's claims should be subject to the same caution and scrutiny.

Yet, who, we may ask, are the more wilful propagandists here for war and increased suffering in Syria?

Ahmad/Pulse have been strident critics of the "anti-imperialist left's" 'dogmatic' opposition to Western intervention and 'disregard' for suffering Syrians.

In a piece for Al Jazeera US outlining the political and humanitarian ramifications of non-intervention, Ahmad concluded that an:
"externally imposed solution is less egregious than dooming Syria to prolonged war."
Ahmad has also used the self-proclaimed 'take-down' of David Bromwich to amplify his wider charge of left 'Monsterphilia'. Bromwich's response includes a measured dismissal of Ahmad's distorted language, while repeating his warning against any more disastrous US/Nato interventions like Libya.

A similar call for an "externally-imposed solution" is evident in this piece from Nott George Sabra [sic], a figure endorsed by Ahmad:
The anti-war movement in the West got what it wanted: the war in Syria grinds on without the involvement of the only force capable of ending the bloody stalemate, the U.S. military [my emphasis].
Should we accept such invocations of US military force? Is this the only way of ending the bloodshed? Are we to believe these 'humanitarian' voices for Syria? And, if not, what does it say about their denunciation of figures like Mother Agnes as 'propagandists' and 'regime apologists'?

StW are mistaken in succumbing to apparent pressure from Jones and Scahill over this issue. Mother Agnes may, indeed, be a defender of Assad. But she shares that view with a decisive section of Syrian society who either support his government in this civil war or, despite his oppressions and crimes, fear and reject the greater threat of Western-supported/jihadist forces fighting to replace him. Whatever the authenticity or otherwise of her claims, is there not a reasonable case for hearing such voices?

StW speaker Tariq Ali articulates a more nuanced view of the Syrian conflict - clearly rejecting Assad, but also seeing the vital political complexities and external forces driving imperialist and sectarian interests - and is still routinely castigated by Pulse et al for doing so. Is he also to be dropped from the panel as an 'Assad apologist'?

More particularly for an anti-war body, whatever questions may hang over Mother Agnes's position, involvement and accounts, there's little to indicate her actual promotion of war, something that distinguishes her from those like Ahmad with their encouragement of an "externally-imposed solution" and urgings of US 'capability'.

Despite the withdrawal of Mother Agnes, Ahmad and Pulse still have Stop the War in their sights, insisting that she would have remained as a speaker if not for Scahill and Jones:
@STWuk Had it not been for @jeremyscahill & @OwenJones84's principled stance, you won't have considered disinviting her. Kudos to them.
— PULSE (@im_PULSE) November 17, 2013
This may, indeed, have been the case, with StW feeling more worried about 'losing' Jones and Scahill than Mother Agnes - though, even with Mother Agnes relinquishing her invite, StW could have stated unequivocally that she still had a right to speak.

But the Pulse charge against StW and its presentation of the issue is motivated by much darker intent, as indicated in this further tweet:
@alexhiniker It matters how they are presenting it. Since @STWuk shares much of Mother Agnes's politics. Both have repeatedly blamed victims
— PULSE (@im_PULSE) November 16, 2013 [My emphasis.]
This is the repeated mischief from Ahmad/Pulse that StW not only support/excuse Assad but, more perniciously, that such left opponents of Western intervention have "repeatedly blamed [the] victims".

The intellectual dishonesty, indeed mendacity, of this line should need little elaboration. Yet, its crassness is equalled only by the vitriol behind its relentless delivery.

Did it ever occur to Ahmad and Pulse that the very act of opposing yet another aggressive Western intervention is a humanitarian act in itself, serving to prevent more victims - even if it cannot halt the existing suffering or resolve the civil war?

That should be reasonably obvious. But it gets in the way of Ahmad's cynical contrivance that the 'Monsterphile left' is not only blind to civilian suffering in their 'obsessive hatred' of Western imperialism, but that they are also guilty of blaming the Syrian people for their enduring misery.

Thus, Ahmad's strident denunciation of StW (at Facebook):
If you want to find the armpit of humanity, visit London on November 30 and attend this International "antiwar" Conference. [My emphasis.]
It's notable here that while Ahmad/Pulse have been resounding in their praise for Jones's and Scahill's actions, they have been contrastingly silent over their continued participation, minus Mother Agnes, in this "armpit" assembly.

In pursuit of serious explanations, Joe Emersberger has asked Scahill to defend his position on Mother Agnes. Beyond lame replies, no reasoned account has, as yet, appeared.

Interventions Watch also ask why Owen Jones would take moral umbrage over the presence of Mother Agnes while sharing panels and platforms with Labour elites who took primary roles in the mass crime against Iraq and the vital propaganda that accompanied it.

These are questions that Jones regularly evades and dismisses, ones that have been wilfully unaddressed by an entire liberal-left media, of which he's now a prominent, prestigious part.

Thus, for example, can Alastair Campbell appear on Question Time, write like a feted guest at the Guardian, host Have I Got News For You and give Humanitas lectures at Oxford.

How can someone so directly involved in spinning the lies for the slaughter of so many people be accorded that kind of indulgent protection? Precisely because, while ever-ready to denounce foreign despots and their apologists, so many left-liberals see no equivalence, or worse, with 'our' criminal leaders and propagandists.

Beyond the controversy of 'nun-speak', might that StW gathering find serious time and able guests to press people like Jones and Scahill on this much more vital issue of liberal-left 'none-speak', with its calamitous licence for mass Western warmongering?


Great comment piece here from Jonathan Cook: