Wednesday, 11 September 2013

War deaths in Iraq - what the BBC don't Trust us to know

Further to my complaint over BBC coverage of Iraq war deaths, its Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser, Leanne Buckle, has advised against the matter being presented to the BBC Trust for full consideration.
Here's an abbreviated copy of her letter, the Trust's own acceptance of her findings, and my own response to the Trust.
As intimated, the point of pursuing this is not in any expectation of its acceptance, but to help highlight the BBC's blatant evasions over Iraq war death figures and the institutional gatekeeping that passes for an 'independent' complaints procedure.
I hope readers find it informative.

BBC Trust
British Broadcasting Corporation
180 Great Portland Street
London W1W 5QZ
T. 020 3214 4994

Mr J Hilley

Email: [...]

Our Ref: 2222439

Date 10 September 2013

Dear Mr Hilley

‘Iraq 10 years on: in numbers’, 20 March 2013, BBC News website 

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust about the above article. I am very sorry that you were unhappy about elements of this online article and that you feel the BBC has not given you a proper response to your complaints.

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s Trustees for them to reach a final decision. I and an Independent Editorial Adviser have read the article and the correspondence that has already passed between you and the BBC. If you want to find out more about how the complaints system works – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the web link:

I should explain that the Trust does not take every appeal that comes to it. In deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the complaint and only ones that stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases that do not stand a realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives more information about this.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I do not believe your appeal should be put in front of Trustees. The BBC’s journalists and programme-makers are expected to work to a high standard; those standards are set out in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines1 which underpin all BBC output. I have looked at your appeal in relation to those Guidelines. This means I have assessed if the points you have raised can be judged against the standards set down in the Guidelines. I have attached a summary of your appeal as well as the reasons behind my decision with this letter.


If you disagree with my decision and would like the Trustees to review it, please reply with your reasons by 24 September 2013 to the Complaints Advisor at or at the above address. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one document if possible.

Correspondence that is received after this date may not be considered as part of your request for a review of the decision. If, exceptionally, you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your original letter of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their November meeting. Their decision is likely to be finalised at the following meeting and will be given to you shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your case will be given to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle

Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

Annex 1: Appeal and decision

‘Iraq 10 years on: in numbers’, 20 March 2013, BBC News website

The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:

The Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises "a matter of substance".
This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach of the Editorial Guidelines. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to consider the appeal.


This appeal related to the use by the BBC of figures calculated by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) 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.

The complainant appealed to the BBC Trust on 19 July 2013, saying 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 Iraq Body Count (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 wished to cite 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 wished to cite 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.

Decision of the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser

The relevant correspondence was reviewed by the Trust Unit and an independent editorial adviser, and they also read the article in question, which is at Annex 2. 

In reviewing the complaint, the Senior Editorial Complaints Adviser (the Adviser) took into account all the relevant Editorial Guidelines ( and, in particular, those concerning Accuracy and Impartiality.

[Relevant Guidelines cited here.]

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.  

[Parts of the article re-stated here.]

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 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 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, shown above, 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’ "10 years after" report on Iraq had used a similar graphic, with figures sourced to IBC, and that it was "standard" for the Guardian, Independent, and "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 reminding the Trust about the BBC’s role in promoting education and learning, and 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.

Therefore, 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.


Dear Christina Roski
(Complaints Adviser)

Thanks for your letter from the BBC Trust with regard to my appeal.

Here is the letter I wish to submit to the Trust in further consideration of my complaint.

To BBC Trust

Ref: 2222439
11 September 2013

Dear Trust

Leanne Buckle's letter and your upholding argument is yet another small masterclass in BBC evasion. Not entirely original in its dissembling. But 'admirably' brazen in its crafted circumvention of a central issue.

That issue: how can the BBC justify the selective and continuous use of data which vastly understates the death figures in Iraq, thereby serving an establishment purpose?

The answer, of course, is in the question. And the nature of your complicit response bears witness to the essential reliability of the Trust in dismissing not only the complaint but any notion that your decision could be part of system-protecting process.

Indeed, it all rather confirms Chomsky's landmark response to Andrew Marr:
How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are...  
I don’t say you’re self-censoring - I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.
And there, in a nutshell, is the work of the Trust: a gatekeeper proclaiming purely 'objective' credentials while exercising safely subjective judgement over what can be allowed as valid complaint matter.   

The idea that the BBC could not display, cite or include the other data suggested is simply ludicrous.

And yet the claim is peddled that "in practical terms it would have been very difficult for the graphic, shown above, 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."

Your particular focus on the '10 years after' piece is, in itself, a standard deceit, diverting discussion from the particular issue of why the BBC has selected IBC as a main source across all its output.

Nor does the wider usage of IBC across other major media absolve the BBC from it own particular responsibility to offer a varied and impartial range of information and opinion. 

You also assert that the Middle East Editor made the decision to adopt IBC. Perhaps so. But where is the editorial-making evidence for this?  I'm sure viewers would be very interested to know more specifically how this decision was arrived at.

Again, we may invoke the likely 'safe editorial hands' process. But, in the interests of transparency, are we not entitled to a closer and more detailed account of who was involved in that decision and how it was determined?    

You also 'acknowledge' the ComRes poll, yet provide not a single word on how the BBC's selective use of IBC has helped contribute to the massive lack of public awareness noted in that poll.

On every count, on every aspect of my enquiry, the BBC has failed to justify its principal use of IBC or explain its own part in keeping people so uninformed about the Iraq death toll.  

I formally request that the Trust look again at this complaint and consider my further argument for a review of your decision.

However, I'd like to make clear that the essential purpose of this complaint is not to seek or expect a favourable ruling. It's to help illustrate the BBC's institutional bias and the very ways in which that bias is exemplified by the complaints process.

As evidenced in Leanne Buckle's advice, and your endorsement of it, there is no likely chance of any senior BBC official accepting my points or anyone at the Trust permitting or upholding such a complaint. To do so would be to concede that the absence of non-IBC data was part of a conscious effort to mask the much more damning reality of Iraq war deaths. And that would be an effective admission of institutional bias. 

Nonetheless, I consider any further evaluation of this issue, your probable rejection of it and my continued highlighting of that exchange to be in the public interest.

I look forward to your further comments.

Yours sincerely
John Hilley


Reply received
11 September 2013:
Dear Mr Hilley

Thank you for your response to Leanne Buckle’s letter regarding your request for an appeal to the Editorial Standards Committee.

As you have challenged the decision not to proceed with your appeal we shall provide the Committee with your appeal, the letter from Leanne Buckle and your challenge below of the decision not to proceed. Your full correspondence will be available to the Committee if they wish to refer to it.

The Committee will then take a decision on whether it will proceed to hear your complaint on appeal. This will be done at the Committee's next meeting, on 3 October 2013. When the minutes from this meeting have been ratified at the Committee’s November meeting I will write again to inform you of the Committee's decision.

Yours sincerely
Christina Roski
Complaints Adviser, BBC Trust Unit


Michael Stephenson said...

Powerful stuff John.

Truthful reply:

"We at the BBC believe that the British public want to be presented with a self image that is flattering, and part of that flattering self image involves believing that they are informed and caring people, which is the only reason we report on the deaths of Unpeople during our colonialist excursions at all.

We believe people like you John are just an aberration, most people just want the spoils of Empire with non of the guilt."

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Michael. Yes, indeed. It's really quite staggering to think about the BBC's key part in serving to disguise the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of people.

Anonymous said...

Sadly most people really don't seem to be interested in the truth, they are more interested in fantasy, they want to know who is going to win X Factor, whats going to happen in the next episode of Coronation Street, or what Paris Hilton wore last night.

People dying in Iraq or elsewhere is an abstract alien concept to them, except when it's someone dying on the streets of London and therefore clearly extremely important and more newsworthy than over 100,000 dying in Iraq.

Human lives clearly are given wildly different values worldwide but I never seem to find any comment on discussion pertaining to that.

Keep up the good work.

Anil Netto said...

Well done, John. Keep exposing their instuitional bias for everyone to see.

John Hilley said...

Thanks Anil. Your own resilient efforts in such matters are greatly appreciated.

Anon, thanks too. Yes, the great pecking order of human lives and relative indifference to others' suffering.

All of which confirms the massive daily propaganda process serving to keep us in a state of selfish isolation.

And yet, for all that, the wide resistance to war on Syria is an encouraging sign that people, even in their inward lives, do increasingly recognise and reject the mendacious media-fed agenda of the warmongers and their spurious claims to 'humanitarian intervention'.

wargabebas said...

Why should this surprise us? The BBC censor board sits in Tel Aviv. And along with it, Reuters and AP too. Rubbish all of them.

John Hilley said...

I assume you're speaking figuratively?

The important thing to note here is the greater reticence of the BBC in openly challenging either the foreign policies/war practices of the British state or its core allies, with particular editorial sensitivity reserved for Israel.