Saturday, 30 March 2013

Iraq death figures - exchange with Jon Snow

To Channel 4 News and the BBC asking them to explain and amend their use of Iraq Body Count death figures in reports and presentations.
To Channel 4 News
presenters Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy:
Dear Jon and Krishnan,
I wonder if Channel 4 News would care to review what appears to be its selective use of Iraq Body Count (IBC) figures for civilian war deaths in Iraq.
The problem is discussed here, with reference to a particular Channel 4 News report on Iraq:
As noted, the following suggests a simplified alternative which, rather than IBC's limited and misleading count, offers a more informed and balanced range of figures:
Civilian war deaths in Iraq
Iraq Body Count (IBC)
(till Dec 2012)
110,937 - 121,227
Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey
(March 2003 - end of June 2006)
Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey
(August 12–19, 2007)
Source: Wikipedia
I'd be most grateful for your thoughts on replacing sole reference to IBC with this fairer and more viewer-serving graphic.
Kind regards
John Hilley
Reply from Jon Snow:
Thanks is eternally controversial..from my own experience reporting in Iraq the IBC count has always seemed very low..I try not to use it....The Lancet figure may be more truthful...I doubt we can be more accurate in reality than say that credible sources believe more than half a million died and at least four million were displaced.
Thanks for your wishes,
Hi Jon
Many thanks for replying. It's very much appreciated.
I also appreciate your open acknowledgement that the IBC count "[seems] very low", your reticence about using it and that the Lancet figure "may be more truthful".
Alas, the report referred to specifically didn't offer viewers any information on those more "credible sources" indicating, at least, over half a million dead.
Which returns us to the original question of what specific undertaking Ch 4 News might give in replacing the IBC count with a more informative set of figures. Any further thoughts?
Kind regards
Also sent:
Hi Jon,
Another contributor at the Media Lens message board makes this further vital point:
"Perhaps it should also be pointed out that The Lancet and others are cited without reservation on other issues (I think mass-killings in Congo is an example). Hence, for the sake of not just balance but consistency too, news broadcasters should necessarily be citing other estimates (e.g. Lancet) too."
Kind regards
No further response, as yet, received.
To BBC (via online complaints form):
I'd like to request that the BBC end its selective use of Iraq Body Count (IBC) when denoting civilian war deaths in Iraq.
The issue of BBC bias towards IBC and the false impressions it serves is discussed here.
As noted, the following suggests a simplified alternative which, rather than IBC's limited and misleading count, offers a more informed and balanced range of figures:
Civilian war deaths in Iraq
Iraq Body Count (IBC)
(till Dec 2012)
110,937 - 121,227
Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey
(March 2003 - end of June 2006)
Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey
(August 12–19, 2007)
Source: Wikipedia
Please consider replacing sole reference to IBC with this fairer and more viewer-serving graphic.
The use of IBC as an 'authoritative' and singularly-mentioned figure is widespread across the BBC, which suggests that a specific executive/editorial decision has been taken in this regard.
I'd like to see any copy or/and details of that decision-making process.
As the BBC's own charter/editorial guidelines specify a requirement to be neutral and impartial, I look forward to a fairer presentation of this key information. If such an alteration is not undertaken, I intend to seek a ruling on this matter from the BBC Trust.
For the purposes of this complaint, I cite the following online report and its singular, biased use of IBC figures:
Iraq 10 years on: In numbers
I look forward to your reply.
John Hilley
It's also worth recalling here that in 2007 the BBC's own World Service obtained restricted government information denoting advice from a senior MoD adviser that the Lancet study was "robust":
"Asked by officials to comment on the survey, the chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Roy Anderson, concluded: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to 'best practice'." He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study"."
This confirmation of authenticity further undermines the BBC's ongoing omission of the Lancet study and the use of IBC as its sole or principal source.
Getting the BBC to concede any of these points is, of course, interminably difficult. As many who have used the BBC's labyrinthine complaints system may attest, the prospects of receiving any official acknowledgement of bias, imbalance or breach of guidelines is unlikely. But, as ever, one useful purpose of the exercise is to further highlight that very process of evasion and denial. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Iraq death figures - simple and balanced

How often are we still seeing media outlets use a specious, low-ended figure for civilian war deaths in Iraq?

For example, last week's Channel 4 News '10 years after' report on Iraq (featuring stories of UK military victims) showed a graphic from Iraq Body Count (IBC) with its figure of 111,827 civilian deaths.

The standard presentation of IBC figures by the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Channel 4 News and almost every other 'authoritative' news outlet allows for a gross understatement of fatalities.

And it's that simple viewer/reader familiarity with IBC which represents such stark and effective propaganda.

Given the 'moderate number of deaths' message conveyed by IBC's figure, and the obvious interests that serves, it's unlikely that this selective source will be replaced by media like the BBC.

So, perhaps there's a need to press for an equally simplified set of words stating the actual range of figures.

How hard would it be for the BBC, Channel 4 or any other media organisation to source, write and put out something as simple and informative as this:
Civilian war deaths in Iraq

Iraq Body Count (IBC)
(till Dec 2012)
110,937 - 121,227

Lancet/Johns Hopkins survey
(March 2003 - end of June 2006)

Opinion Research Business (ORB) survey
(August 12–19, 2007)

Source: Wikipedia  
This doesn't tell the viewer everything, of course. But it does offer a fair summary of the available information.

While varying issues of methodology and application remain to be understood (as in the distinction between IBC's limited count procedure and the Lancet/ORB epidemiologist-based estimations of all war-related mortality) this kind of graphic, at least, permits the simple, straight message of a credible body of research pointing to much higher figures than that suggested by IBC.

And why, after all, should IBC's figure be deemed more credible than the peer-reviewed Lancet studies, (generally viewed as a 'highly prestigious' place to be published) or that of ORB, a much-used polling/research-based organisation?

Given their own proclaimed codes of 'balance' and 'impartiality', the BBC have a particular obligation to reflect such differentiation in their reports, graphics and other presentations.

Some may say that, whether 100,000, 650,000 or 1,000,000, a terrible crime has been committed, all such losses are appalling and that we needn't dwell on the actual numbers.

Yet, how easily that denies the rights of those mass victims, their families and humanity at large, while allowing the convenient impression, for the perpetrators, that a 'minimal war' has been waged with 'limited' casualties. As in any conflict, there's an ethical duty to establish the actual extent of the killing in Iraq, as well as the mass refugee crisis, social breakdown and wider suffering that's gone with it.

Ongoing efforts to expose the political and media disguising of Iraq's fatality figures are also important in serving to limit the potential for further murderous 'interventions' and pretence death counts.


* Please see/support this "campaign to raise funds for a poll of the UK public to discover estimates of Iraqi deaths since 2003".

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Greenwald challenges Guardian over Chomsky smears

In an honourable article, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald has challenged another key Guardian piece over its smearing of Noam Chomsky.

In denouncing the 'interview'-based report by Aida Edemariam, Greenwald has, effectively, rebuked the Guardian itself over such crude and shallow output.

Greenwald states:
"One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, "style" and even mental health of those who challenge them.
He goes on:
"This method is applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent against the society's most powerful factions and their institutions.
And, as Greenwald reminds us:
"Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky."
Greenwald summarises Edemariam's charges against Chomsky:
"Chomsky is a sarcastic, angry, soporific, scowling, sneering self-hating Jew, devoid of hope and speaking from hell, whose alpha-male brutality drives him to win at all costs, and who imposes on the world disappointingly crude and simplistic arguments to the point where he is so inconsequential that one wonders whether he has ever changed even a single thing in his 60 years of political work."
And, while acknowledging Edemariam's more complimentary references to Chomsky's life and work, Greenwald concludes that:
"the entire piece is infused with these standard personality caricatures that offer the reader an easy means of mocking, deriding and scorning Chomsky without having to confront a single fact he presents."
Edemariam is, of course, still only one other Guardian writer, so Greenwald's criticisms, one might argue, doesn't mean the Guardian itself is culpable in smearing Chomsky. Yet, it's notable that Edemariam seems sufficiently confident of editorial approval to be writing such pieces, particularly after the Guardian's last disgraceful savaging of Chomsky in the paper's infamous Emma Brockes article.

In this regard, the Guardian does have some core responsibility for Edemariam's piece, giving Greenwald's denunciation of it more serious weight.

With the same presumed approval, Edemariam has authored other such character-assaulting pieces, perhaps most notably on the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward after his alleged 'anti-semitic' comments on Palestine-Israel and Jews.

Admirably, following Edemariam's article, Chomsky himself defended Ward, completely rejecting such charges.

The cultivation of Greenwald's own particular autonomy at the Guardian, meanwhile, is now quite fascinating to observe. Again, some might argue that, just like Edemariam's 'freedom to comment', so do we have Greenwald's 'freedom to disagree' - all serving to enhance the Guardian's proclaimed  'openness'.

Yet, this has to be seen in the context of Greenwald as a 'prize catch' for the Guardian, with its specific eye on generating a US online readership, a corporate-driven strategy which involved the Guardian agreeing to give Greenwald complete editorial control over his own output at the paper. It also serves to shore-up the Guardian's claim to being a seriously 'radical-reforming' organ.

In practice, the Guardian has a news reportage dominated by dutiful lobby correspondents like Michael White and Ewen MacAskill, an editorial output infused with Alan Rusbridger's Oxbridge sensibilities and a comments section crowded with liberal favourites like Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Simon Tisdall, Rory Carroll, Marina Hyde and Aida Edemariam, all running character pieces praising or excusing 'our' elite while attacking and smearing people like Assange and Chavez - a treatment which, as Greenwald suggests, is "applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent".

Notable as they are, the only two regular counter figures at the Guardian, Greenwald and Seumas Milne, still plough limited, if encouraging, furrows against that dominant, power-serving output.

Which makes Greenwald's noble defence of Chomsky against such standard Guardian abuse all the more welcome.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Panorama, Peter Taylor and other journalist 'fools'

Panorama's special edition The Spies Who Fooled the World is a typically contrived BBC pitch that, while claiming to show a tangled web of deceit over the war in Iraq, still absolves both the intelligence establishment and political leaders of outright blame.

Presenter Peter Taylor's report is part of a wider, well-crafted BBC narrative on 'regrettable' actions: the 'mistaken' rush to war, the intelligence 'oversights' and political 'errors' that allowed it, and, once commenced, the tactical 'miscalculations' made in its prosecution.

Taylor reports how Western intelligence followed spurious informants, doubting their information, yet came to use it as the basis for war in Iraq. In essence, we were 'hoodwinked' through a chain of 'calamitous' intelligence calls and political 'misjudgements'.

Yet, contrary to Taylor's line, most of the world was never fooled by these 'sources', the intelligence chiefs who cultivated them or the politicians who sought to trick us all with their deceitful spin.

Nor, as evidenced by the mass anti-war protests, was the world entirely taken-in by all the slavish media outpourings pressing us into war.

So, it comes as a notable 'admission' that Taylor was himself 'fooled' by Blair.

Replying to messages from a contributor at the Media Lens message board, Taylor states:
"For your information, at the time I believed what the Prime Minister said, not having the knowledge that I have now. I suspect there are many like me." (20 March 2013)
It's a revealing, yet not entirely surprising, claim of 'veiled ignorance'.

One suspects that there are, indeed, many journalists like Taylor still using this shallow excuse of believing Blair's claims in the 'absence' of alternative information. We know, for example, that flagship Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman also accepted without question Colin Powell's spurious war pitch to the UN.

And yet, in the approach to war there was a wealth of credible information casting massive doubt on the West's charges of Iraqi WMD, notably from key on-the-ground weapons inspectors and monitors like Hans Blix and Scott Ritter. Why was so much of their assessment ignored or marginalised?

Besides the automatic 'instincts' that, instead, draw journalists like Taylor to official 'sources', what might we say, then, about their own 'limited intelligence' in supposedly 'falling' for Blair's crass distortions?

Consider, after all, that Taylor, veteran of many reports into black operations in Northern Ireland, is hailed as, perhaps, the BBC's most 'intelligence-savvy' investigator. Could someone of his 'deep understanding', in all seriousness, have bought such facile claims?

A more intelligent reading of Taylor's apologia is that such journalists are not 'duped' but constrained from following any reading that might lead dangerously beyond the official script. Thus, they reflexively place their trust in 'our' leaders, 'our' system of governance and 'our' media's capacity to hold it all to account.

They may still endeavour to 'expose' certain elite manipulations, deceits, even outright lies, but the default response is to believe in the ultimate decency and enlightened intentions of 'ours'.  And when working for the BBC, that means a particular respect for safe establishment boundaries.

When further asked about taking Blair's claims at face-value, Taylor responded:
"To end this conversation. I believed him at the time – September 2002 – but now know, as do we all, that he was wrong. I do not believe he deliberately lied. I agree with what Lord Butler said in the programme, that he misled himself."
Precisely how, one wonders, might Blair have "misled himself"? On what basis can Taylor assert such inner understanding of Blair's thinking? Isn't it so very trusting of Taylor to endorse Lord Butler's protective claim and conclude that Blair didn't actually lie?

Even the military-siding Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, now claims to have little doubt about this question, having also admitted to being 'duped' by Blair and British intelligence:
"Before 2003 I wrote many times in these pages that Britain should have nothing to do with a recklessly irresponsible American Republican adventure in Iraq. But then I read the government’s report on Saddam’s weapons. I felt that this had to be believed, and an invasion reluctantly supported. My wife Penny, who never swallowed Blair and Campbell’s claims, argued bitterly with me. I said pompously: ‘It’s impossible that the Government and the Secret Intelligence Service would lie to us about something this big.’ I was as wrong as I could be. Blair, Campbell and Scarlett made fools of many of us. What seems to make it all much worse is that they got away with it."
Denouncing the celebrity reception now enjoyed by Blair and key accomplices like Campbell, Hastings now wants to say it clearly to Blair: "You lied, you lied, you lied."

And yet, again, what can we say of this apparent 'loss' and sudden 'recovery' of journalistic alertness? Tragically for Iraq and its decimated people, belated 'honesty' can't quite make up for a servile unwillingness to question power when it really matters. 

It seems reasonable to assume that many journalists have no particular or special ability to read such situations. But the more basic point is their ready conformity to standard reporting of them. And this includes the current 'confessions' of 'once-fooled' journalists, a now safe, self-indulgent, 'from-a-distance' retrospective which can speak of 'errors' past but rarely of the system itself that keeps many of them still 'believing' that the war was all just a ghastly set of 'mistakes'.          

This circumvention of blame involves a prudent silence on two other awkward issues: the extent of Iraqi deaths, including the pre-war sanctions that were already ravaging the population; and the complicit role of the media itself, notably its liberal arm, in ignoring such suffering, rationalising the case for war and continuing to protect Blair thereafter. 

Thus, Hastings is conveniently less expressive on these core questions, animated mainly about 'our' country's losses. Again, such reticence to engage these issues suggests the base truth that most journalists instinctively understand the career 'foolishness', the real mistake, for them, in 'deviating' from a safe, moderated reportage.

Notably absent in either Taylor's Panorama package or the angry lament from Hastings is any reference to the million Iraqi deaths denoted in the Lancet studies or the media's selective repetition of 'presentable' figures like Iraq Body Count's 100,000 or under.  

All the rational evidence before the invasion showed that Blair was scheming with Bush to oust Saddam in pursuit of Iraq's oil, a brazen imperialist enterprise which, with a million UN-estimated deaths already from sanctions alongside the million more from war, represents the greatest mass killing of modern times.

So, what faith should the public now place in 'fooled' reporters like Taylor who, having 'trusted' Blair, are still engaged in trying to fathom his 'mistakes' rather than his crimes?

Despite the wealth of information that was always available to journalists, both before and during the invasion, it's telling that so many 'duped' ones like Taylor are still prominently here now, ten years on, 'informing' us of all the 'lamentable errors' that were made.

Spinning this line, the politicians and intelligence heads that led us to war can be presented as 'foolish', even 'duplicitous', but never truly calculating, and certainly never criminal.

Yet, alert to so much past distortion, many won't be fooled again by such media subterfuge.

Like Blair and the intelligence chiefs, Taylor is, ultimately, no fool. Nor can we assume that, as said of Blair, he was misled or that he misled himself.

Rather, like so many other journalists who now find themselves on the provenly 'wrong side of history', Taylor's Panorama film is a not-so-foolish exercise in damage limitation, a sly revisionism that seeks to mitigate and excuse the judgements of Blair and his cabinet, the intelligence elite, the BBC and, not least, power-serving journalists like Taylor himself.  

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

New press regulation won't curtail liberal media deceit

Much proprietorial indignation and editorial concern has been expressed over new powers about to be granted to an 'independent' press regulator.

Yet while the post-Leveson deal struck by the three main parties and pressure group Hacked Off gives seeming protection against unreasonable or invasive reportage, it's a sideshow to the greater issue of liberal media distortion and the system-sustaining function of papers like the Guardian.

Indeed, it's darkly ironic of the liberal press's own sense of self-importance that, while welcoming the new regulator, it still considers any such scheme a worrying constraint on its own 'vanguard' role against powerful politicians and media owners. 

Typically, the Guardian's Polly Toynbee has been 'handing out' medals to Miliband for leading the charge against Cameron and the press barons, to Clegg for joining with him and to the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times for supporting their endeavours against the wrath of the Sun, Mail, Express and tabloid others.

Also commending Tory rebels and the campaigning Hugh Grant, Toynbee applauds this alliance for pushing Cameron, fearful of a Commons defeat on the issue, to drop his outright rejection of regulation.

Toynbee herself revels in the role of high liberal protector here, berating the hypocrisy of Sun editor Trevor Kavanagh and his associates who have been quoting lofty statements on the loss of core freedoms. In righteous denunciation, Toynbee asserts:
"They set a raucous rightwing news and opinion agenda that distorts the balance of public debate and warps the broadcasters' search for the centre ground."
Thus, we have Toynbee 'guiding us back' towards that 'balanced debate', a 'proper centre-grounded' discussion on press 'rights and responsibilities', proclaiming an outcome that all, Cameron included, can now say will protect the public from unwarranted intrusion.

So, who would reasonably deny that, championed by the likes of Toynbee, a victory of sorts has been realised for public protection from wilful hacking and other personal invasions?

Certainly, those for whom the price of such 'securities' come at the cost of serious free speech. And, as the shadow of state authoritarianism looms ever darker, this is a concern that can't be ignored. 

And yet, it's here we see crusading liberals not just chiding Kavanagh et al but pitching their own righteous roles as principled proponents of moderated freedoms.

While acknowledging the need for new press regulation after the hacking scandals, many liberal editorials have been asking readers if they really want a censored press, one that would, for example, have placed restrictions on reporting the Savile issue.

The Independent, thus, urged a week before the agreement:
"Britain needs a media watchdog that protects individuals and press freedoms alike. That means the industry building bridges and hammering out a compromise – and doing so in public."
And of the actual outcome:
"Given the behaviour of parts of the press over the past few years, and given the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint a judge to shine so unflinching a light on it, something akin to what was agreed yesterday was always the probable outcome. It is not perfect, from the press perspective. But it could have been worse. Now, all the press must put the posturing and face-saving behind it, accept the new system and move on. Most importantly, we must begin to rebuild public trust in journalism."
All seemingly noble, cathartic and cooperative words. Yet, like most of the liberal press, these are stunningly posturing reactions from an organ which has shown little interest in moral, accountable journalism.   

How many of these liberal papers have been seriously reporting the higher, hideous behaviour of this country's politicians and their darkest war crimes?  More particularly, how many are actually campaigning to have the perpetrators indicted? And, testing the real reach of a free and courageous press, how many journalists and editors are ready to discuss the media's complicity in these matters across their own 'freedom-serving' pages?

In a model discussion of Iraq and media servility, the latest Media Lens alert notes, in particular, how the Guardian, Independent and other liberal organs slavishly editorialised 10 years ago in favour or rationalisation of the war, and, even after all the deceit and carnage, still came to protect Blair and his circle.

While Murdoch covets freedom to print celebrity voyeurism, character stripping and other tittle-tattle, 'qualities' like the Guardian warn about the possible spiking of more critical news and comment. While the Guardian seem reconciled to the new regulatory arrangement, underpinned by Royal Charter rather than primary legislation, they maintain 'misgivings' over the potential curtailment of investigative journalism.

Again, all seemingly honourable. But consider that these warnings come from a paper that has launched every kind of personal slur against Julian Assange, that, through reporters like Rory Carroll, have demonised and caricatured Hugo Chavez  and, as noted, has used every opportunity to protect Blair and his coterie.

It's also the same newspaper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, who told how he had forewarned David Cameron about his involvement with Andy Coulson.

Is that the proper role of a 'vanguard, power-monitoring' newspaper? Or does it indicate the kind of political-media clubability that, like this new regulatory agreement, keeps the whole system of power smoothly functioning?

Good media, bad media? Good club, bad club? Good regulation, bad regulation?

The most subtle and effective propaganda is not that which proclaims the 'truth', but that which purports to set the 'choices'; to define the very terms of debate.

Thus, are we fed this narrative-setting 'dilemma' between personal privacy or press freedoms, a liberal tugging of 'morals' and 'rights' which, conveniently, never pulls towards any critical questioning of the corporate-driven media itself.  

Hence, we have Toynbee, in good-media persona, pitching the Miliband-Clegg-Guardian-Indy axis against that of Murdoch, the Mail and sleazy right wing others - a queasy, self-acclaiming posture we saw all throughout Leveson.    

And, in complementary form, Toynbee, Rusbridger, Miliband, Clegg and Hacked Off can all say that Leveson, a strangulated, gentlemanly 'inquiry', was ultimately successful in its remit, findings and recommendations. 

Thus, the liberal media 'debate' becomes a system-reinforcing exercise in itself: authenticating the 'consultative', 'reforming' capacities of token inquiries; praising the parliamentary class for navigating these 'difficult' negotiations; and back-slapping the liberal media for bringing all the 'essential' questions to public light.   

No more effective propaganda boost could the establishment wish for.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Free speech? How insulting

Here's an illuminating tale of state punishment creep from Bethan Tichborne who was convicted for saying that David Cameron "had blood on his hands".

Bethan, a teacher working with disabled children, was arrested, beaten by police and subsequently fined by District Judge Tim Pattinson after protesting the large number of people now dead as a result of the disability cuts enforced by Cameron and his government.

Judge Pattinson said her comments could "hardly be more insulting to anyone, whether a politician or not".

One can, of course, see the particular hurt, distress and career worry Mr Cameron must have felt over such insults. And how reassuring to have this judge's objective and impartial sentencing on such matters. To think of the whining ingratitude of people like Tichborne after all the cost-saving fatalities Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne (with the caring help of ATOS) have helped deliver for the country. Despite all those now dying through the loss of life-sustaining benefits, we just can't have these misguided protesters and other moaning malcontents going around besmirching the good name of our esteemed leaders.

It's rumoured that Tony Blair is greatly encouraged by the ruling and may now use it to sue the many millions who have caused him similar emotional upset and career embarrassment with their scandalous accusations that he's a liar, a money-making opportunist and a war criminal.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Pope Francis and Latin America - identities past and present

Whatever the wider reasoning of cardinals in Rome for the elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis I, it's an appointment of vital significance for Latin America, the world's largest Catholic-populated region.

In particular, the conclave's selection of Bergoglio raises two key questions: one about his past 'pastoral' identity, and a second about how his political identity might now be felt across Latin America.
The first relates to his alleged involvement with the Argentinian junta during its 'dirty war' against leftist dissidents, most notably, for Bergoglio, his alleged complicity in the regime's 1976 abduction of two leftist Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, both, as noted at the Guardian:
"seized by navy troops in the slums of Buenos Aires and held and tortured for five months at the ESMA camp, a navy base in the capital where 5,000 people were murdered by the military junta."
The second issue concerns Bergoglio's populist conservatism and how his elevation may be read as an effort to stem the rise of leftist social movements, much of it closely linked to liberation theology, across Latin America. 
In a revealing interview, Horicio Verbitsky, the Argentinian journalist, head of human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies and author of El Silencio - charting Bergoglio's associations with the junta between 1976-83 - has spoken to Democracy Now about both issues.
Before outlining the claims of the book, Verbitsky offers his primary view of the new pope: 
"The main thing to understand about Francis I is that he’s a conservative populist, in the same style that John Paul II was. He’s a man of strong conservative positions in doctrine questions, but with a touch for popular taste. He preaches in rail stations, in the streets. He goes to the quarters, the poor quarters of the city to pray. He doesn’t wait the people going into the church; he goes for them. But his message is absolutely conservative."
Verbitsky goes on to discuss the documents he found in the course of his research, incriminating Bergoglio in the surrendering of the two Jesuit priests to the military:
"The first document is a note in which Bergoglio asked the ministry to [renew] the passport of one of these two Jesuits that, after his releasing, was living in Germany, asking that the passport was renewed without necessity of this priest coming back to Argentina. The second document is a note from the officer that received the petition recommending to his superior, the minister, the refusal of the renewal of the passport. And the third document is a note from the same officer telling that these priests have links with subversion—that was the name that the military gave to all the people involved in opposition to the government, political or armed opposition to the military—and that he was jailed in the mechanics school of the navy, and saying that this information was provided to the officer by Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial superior of the Jesuit company. This means, to my understanding, a double standard. He asked the passport given to the priest in a formal note with his signature, but under the table he said the opposite and repeated the accusations that produced the kidnapping of these priests."
Despite strong denials from Bergoglio and new dismissals by the Vatican, both priests,Verbitsky claims, confirmed their accounts of torture and collusion to him, Orlando Yorio, who died in 2000, adding that Bergoglio was party to his interrogation, and Francisco Jalics, still in a German monastery, now reconciled and reticent about pursuing any further case against Bergoglio. 
News of Bergoglio's election has sparked much recrimination from many of the families of those tortured and disappeared. Others rationalise Bergoglio's position during the period as 'pragmatic engagement' of the regime rather than outright collaboration. Yet they also concede that he made no courageous effort to defend the priests or voice strong opposition to dictator Jose Rafael Videla. It's a rancour that also affects Bergoglio's relations with Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who has appeared keen to assist those still in pursuit of those linked to the junta.  

Whatever efforts made by the Vatican and general media to dismiss or excuse Bergoglia's guilt or involvement, such complicity is unlikely to be erased or forgotten, a shadow over his papacy which prompts further suggestions of his appointment as an establishment populist.  
Democracy Now presenter Juan Gonzalez goes on, in this regard, to ask Ernesto Seman, an academic historian and former reporter in Argentina, about contextual similarities between the elevation of John Paul II and Francis I:  
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about that, precisely, and the parallels, it seems to me, in terms of the cardinals selecting John Paul II, when he was elevated to pope, he coming out of Poland, where there was a Solidarity movement and in opposition to the previous government, that, in essence, his elevation helped to fortify that movement. I’m wondering whether there’s some parallel now with the changes in Latin America now to the elevation of a very conservative cardinal from that region, might help to bolster forces that are opposed to continuing this enormous change that’s occurring in Latin America.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: You might say so. The problem that you have there is to what extent that’s going to make the gap between the church and the Catholic followers even deeper. In the case of Argentina and some of the social issues that happened over the last decade, you see that in a country that 75 percent of people consider themselves Catholic, has been a strong support to some of the social decisions made by the Kirchner administration that Bergoglio opposed. The last and most important one was the same marriage law—that is, matrimonio igualitario in Argentina, egalitarian marriage.
Bergoglio's opposition to Kirchner on doctrinal issues is not, of course, atypical of wider feelings among the church's cardinals. Like most, he is rigidly opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and homosexual relationships - though has, apparently, advocated greater tolerance for the latter.

But the cardinals' choice of Bergoglio also appears to favour the promotion of a politically-moderated social conservatism, particularly for Latin America, in opposition to liberation theology and its associate social movements. Internal to this is the Vatican's negation of Latin American priests working in the same brave, community spirit as Oscar Romero, Bishop of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 by a CIA-backed death squad. 
In these regards, it's telling how much political and media praise Bergoglio has enjoyed in the days of his papal ascendancy compared with the widespread castigation of Hugo Chavez following his death. While Bergoglio approves a kind of 'spiritual' social justice tied to charitable awareness, Chavez championed revolutionary social justice underpinned by decisive economic transformation.
Reflecting popular celebration in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio's appointment would appear to confirm a continuity of his affable persona, the much-noted 'common man'. Yet, on both doctrinal and social positions, none of that appears to include any kind of radical agenda. And it's the latter which, in particular rejection of anything Bolivarian, is certain to endear him to Washington and the wider Western elite.  
His arrival, for Latin America, even the 'Catholic world' at large, may provide some soothing objections to the harshest neoliberalism while still holding to a conservative market-determinism. As with the Obamafication of politics and social hopes in the US, one might see this as a certain Francisification of social expectations in Latin America. Like 'brand Obama's' pacification of a poor, notably black, underclass, none of Bergoglio's pastoral pacifying of social discontent, again in contrast to that proclaimed by Chavez, will be unwelcome by Wall Street, the IMF or their corporate-vested associates.      
As Democracy Now further enquire of the pope's personality and political persuasions:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you have any expectations that, now that he’s been elevated to pope, that he may have some change in his perspectives on some of these issues? Or do you expect him to maintain the same populist conservatism that you say have marked his rise through the church hierarchy?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: I do believe that he is a man—he is the man he is, and he will not change. His first days as a pope show perfectly this attitude of humility. He refused the limousine and took the bus. He asked the people to pray for him, instead of praying him for them. These kind of gestures would be common in his tenure as a pope. And it’s possible that he would be revered by the masses because of this different attitude that seems more democratic and less monarchical than that of the former Benedicto XVI.

But in doctrinary questions, he would be tied to conservative [ideas], and this is the thing that I wait. And I believe that he can play, concerning Latin America and the populist governments of the region, the same role that Pope John Paul played against East Europe during the first years of his tenure.
AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky, do you think that Cardinal Bergoglio would have become Pope Francis if he hadn’t played the role he did during the dirty wars, if he had sided with these two Jesuit priests, who were speaking up for the poor at the time and who were great proponents of liberation theology?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was against liberation theology. He was a man, during his tenure in the Jesuit company—the publication of the Jesuit company are full of articles, of pieces, against liberation theology. Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor.
Assaulted by the vast issues of Vatican corruption, paedophilia and other sex scandals, the Catholic hierarchy may now be trusting in the new sweep and renewing force of this incoming pope.

And yet, despite all the celebratory theatre and promoted profile of the political 'outsider', Pope Francis also carries with him this dark, past baggage of insider complicity in regime terror.

It also remains to be seen whether Bergoglio's seeming humility and ease among the marginalised might translate into any more meaningful agenda for social reform.

Perhaps 'repentance', if not confession, of an identity past might be offered up in more evangelical opposition to the unholy junta of Washington and Wall Street.

Yet, for those across Latin America and elsewhere struggling to escape the ravages of neoliberalism and working in liberationist hope of a Chavez-style participatory democracy, there's still little to be inspired by in Bergoglio's words or actions.

Verbitsky's last line here is worth holding to: "Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor."

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Iraq and the BBC - 'success or failure'?

Here's a seemingly instructive, compassionate and moving story from the BBC's Kevin Connolly on the suffering victims of Iraq.

Connolly takes us through the terrible pain and disfigurement of US bombing victim Marwa Shimari, her heroic struggle to make a life and the empathy he himself feels for her.

Marwa, just twelve on that fateful day in 2003, lost her right leg. Her sister, Adra, eight, was killed in the bombing.

Expressions of anger towards their Western attackers are noted in the words of an admirable German writer and former politician who gave generously in money and other support in helping Marwa to recover.

Connolly also couples Marwa's story with the near-death experience of US bomber pilot Captain Kim Campbell, still traumatised by her service in Iraq:
"She was brave and resourceful but war is an arbitrary and fickle business - if the ground fire that hit her aircraft had been just a few feet to the right or the left then all that courage and resourcefulness might have counted for nothing. The truth is that Kim Campbell was lucky. Marwa Shimari was not."
He might also have said, more explicitly, that Kim Campbell was part of a criminal bombing campaign, while Marwa Shimari was a direct victim of that crime.

Connolly's compassion for victims like Marwa may be genuine, an expression of basic humanity, but it's also superficial in its resistance to the actual truth of the West's invasion and mass murder.

Aside from the article's shameful evasions on the overall death toll in Iraq - likely to have been in excess of a million victims - Connolly also resorts to this kind of crude distortion:
"It is part of Iraq's tragedy that its oil wealth could easily have been spent on providing top-class hospitals as good as those of Switzerland or Germany or the US. But of course it wasn't. The ramshackle health system provided under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein couldn't cope with the flow of casualties."
As Media Lens asked of this remark:
"Do you think Connolly has any idea what the 1991 Gulf War and US-UK-led sanctions from 1990-2003 did to the Iraqi health service?" (ML message board, 12 March 2013.)
There's also classic understatement from Connolly on the depth of opposition to the West's invasion and killing:
"The Iraq war had always been controversial in Europe - even in Britain which was part of the coalition that sent troops to fight. That political scepticism - and a profound sense of shock at the devastation that modern warfare brings - quickly translated into an impulse to do something to help the people of Iraq." (Italics added.)
Remember, this was a war defiantly opposed by millions on the streets of Britain, Europe and across the world.

And with this vacuity of facts and absence of blame, Connolly's concluding words on the invasion underline his betrayal of Marwa and the suffering others of Iraq:
Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, there is a huge temptation to try to judge whether the intervention was a success or a failure - a temptation to which we are certainly not immune.

And it is possible to make a couple of simple observations about how life is returning to the streets of Baghdad, where there are new restaurants and new car showrooms, and a new sense of normality in many places, much of the time.

But judging the outcome of military interventions like the allied invasion of 2003 will take many years. Certainly far more than 10.
A "success or a failure"? How many times have we heard that queasy, power-supporting question posed by liberal-leaning journalists, especially from the BBC?

The very premise behind such comments suggest that while reporters like Connolly may feel compassion for victims like Marwa, they are also deeply complicit in mystifying and disguising the true, premeditated nature of the West's "intervention" and the specific crimes of the perpetrators.

It needn't take ten minutes, never mind ten years or more, to work out the simple truth of an historic war crime. But Connolly hides behind a deceitful BBC 'etiquette' of 'impartial' reflection and supposed 'balance', never once, clearly and unequivocally, denouncing the guilty.

Compassion for victims like Marwa require more than human sympathy, empathy or elucidatioin of their suffering. It requires the courage, the journalistic integrity, to say on their behalf, and in a spirit of proactive care, that Blair, Bush and the rest of their murderous circle are directly responsible and should be on trial for high war crimes.

Ten years on, as the rest of its feeble, apologetic coverage has shown, the BBC is still in complicit denial of such basic truths.

The Western powers and their corporate clients didn't 'fail' in Iraq, they did precisely what they intended and got all the essential things they went after, including the murder and chaotic disintegration of a society.

As with Connolly's lame, liberal and ultimately mendacious pondering on the West's "success or failure" in Iraq, neither should this article on that country's suffering people be judged a "success or failure". It's actually a journalistic disgrace and a moral crime in itself.

Monday, 11 March 2013

BBC-speak and an antidote from Thomson

Another neat example of state and service media speaking as one voice on the selective denunciation of murder.

In reporting the execution of seven foreign construction workers in Nigeria, one British, at the hands of Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Bidalis Sudan (Ansaru), the BBC gave headline prominence to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, announcing that:
Mr Hague condemned the killings as "an act of pure, cold-blooded murder".
And with that headline delivery, the BBC's Security Correspondent Frank Gardner elaborated on the perpetrators, a splinter faction of "violent Islamist group Boko Haram", itself a franchise of Al-Qaeda.

Charting the escalation of its campaign in Nigeria, Gardner concluded:
"It's clear that Al-Qaeda's terror tactic of kidnapping for propaganda has spread south from the Sahara to take root in Nigeria."
What wasn't clear from the BBC's coverage or Gardner's 'analysis' was any key context for this upsurge: notably, the backlash against Western interventionist forces and the murderous conditions they have helped promote in states like Algeria, Mali and others in the region.

While the origins and 'motivations' of Ansaru were noted by Gardner, any headline message that their violence is largely in response to the West's own violent engagement across Africa was carefully elided, particularly in Gardner's 'specialist' summations on the main news bulletins.

Gardner's labelling of 'violent Islamic fanatics' may seem reasonably accurate to many viewers - how attuned we now seem to such banner media language. And who, in true humanity, could not share in simple sympathy for the victims or feel appalled by the killings?

Yet, imagine Gardner or any other mainstream correspondent speaking of Blair, Bush, Cameron or Obama as 'violent Western fanatics', or asking us to consider their executive orders as "[acts] of pure, cold-blooded murder".

Consider the possibility of Gardner offering background detail not just on the "violent Islamist group Boko Haram", but the 'violent expansionist force, Nato'.

The very idea of calling Nato something like 'the terrorist arm of Western governments' seems utterly unthinkable for most reporters - and, largely because of that, for most of the public.

So, it's heartening to come across a notable journalist saying almost these precise words.

In a short but commendable Channel 4 blog piece, chief correspondent Alex Thomson provides that very rarest of mainstream media offerings: serious criticism of selected, loaded and plainly biased media language.

In particular, Thomson asks, who gets to decide the difference between "murder" and "killing"?:
An old debate given new life this morning by a curious tweet from an experienced BBC Correspondent commenting on the latest killings in Afghanistan. Killings…note that word. 
Curious because he describes the deaths of children and civilians as “murder”.

It’s an odd word to choose and in the context of a war fought by some Afghans against foreign occupation, a loaded one. In the context of any war, a loaded one.

Murder is a crime. Killing is an act of war. You do not find the BBC calling NATO’s latest killing of women and children in Afghanistan “murder”.


So it underlines the need for careful and more objective terms when covering the brutal business of premeditated killing – aka warfare. The NATO drone operator in the Nevada desert is just a[s] much a premeditated killer as the insurgent suicide bomber pressing the button on Kabul’s ever-congested Jalalabad Road or wherever.
Again, remarkable comment, indeed, given the almost blanket absence of journalists able to even comprehend calling our state leaders and their operatives things like "premeditated killers".

Thomson goes on to question the selective application of that other media favourite, "militant":
Of course the debate goes further. “Militant” is routinely used in the mainstream media to describe people (usually Muslims at the moment) killed by the west.

But if the reporter sees these people as “militants” what does that say about the reporter’s position on the story? Well it says they have one for starters – and it’s broadly sympathetic to western extra-judicial killing.

The word implies some kind of justification for targeting; acceptance at face value of what’s being spun; and just a hint thereby that the target is slightly dehumanised in the word – a ‘militant’, not a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and militant to whom?
And, with the standard synonym for "militant" being "terrorist", who, Thomson asks, should get to apply that designation:
It goes more widely. Are the founders of Israel “terrorists”? Or Nelson Mandela and the ANC? Or the French government blowing up Greenpeace’s ship in a New Zealand harbour? Or the British colluding with Loyalist killers? Or Mossad killing its enemies across the globe? Or the Americans in Iraq? Or…? Or…?
Of course, what's published at a Channel 4 blog piece, even by that outlet's chief correspondent, still lacks the mass exposure of BBC headlining and the staged 'gravitas' of 'security' correspondents like Gardner.

But, perhaps encouraged by such pieces and, inter alia, the maturing of an alternative, independent media that's forever speaking such rational truths, a few other journalists may now feel a little less inhibited in calling Western invasions, drone attacks and other such aggressions the murderous terror acts they really are.