Saturday, December 23, 2006
RAPID RESPONSE MEDIA ALERT: THE LIBERATED AND THE DEAD, The BBC On The Haditha Massacre
The title of the BBC news report was suitably ‘balanced‘: ‘Iraqi Deaths.’ Not ‘American Massacre,’ or ‘American Massacre Of Iraqi Civilians.’
News anchor George Alagiah introduced the piece:
“The US military is preparing to announce charges against a group of marines accused of killing Iraqi civilians. More than 20 people, some of them children, died in Haditha a year ago. But it’s not clear whether they were killed deliberately.”
In May, the New York Times reported that the slaughter was "methodical in nature". (Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt And Richard A. Oppel Jr., 'Military Expected to Report Marines Killed Iraqi Civilians,' New York Times, May 25, 2006)
The Los Angeles Times reported that many of the victims were killed "execution-style," shot in the head or in the back. A US government official accepted that the US marines had "suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results". (Tony Perry and Julian E. Barnes, 'Photos Indicate Civilians Slain Execution-Style,' Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2006. See Media Alert: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060530_silence_in_the.php)
Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the Haditha killings a "terrible crime". (‘US Marine captain to face Haditha charges - lawyer,’ Reuters, December 19, 2006)
But for BBC TV news “it’s not clear” whether the old men, women and children were killed deliberately by American troops.
Washington correspondent Matt Frei’s report began with footage of a military ceremony:
“The US marine corps - square-jawed embodiment of a proud military tradition. So how does this fit in? November 2005, the aftermath of a massacre in Haditha. 24 civilians were slaughtered - the oldest was in his seventies, the youngest three.” (Matt Frei, News at Six, December 21, 2006)
This immediately contradicted Alagiah’s introduction - according to Frei it was a massacre, the deaths +were+ deliberate. The report showed archive footage of the massacre’s sole survivor, twelve-year-old Safa Younis. Frei commented: “She survived by playing dead next to her sisters’ bodies.”
Frei translated Younis’ testimony: “US marines knocked on our door. My father opened it and they shot him dead. Then they went from room to room.”
“Haditha was and is a wasteland of insurgent violence. What triggered the shooting spree in 2005 was the death of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, killed after the marine‘s convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.”
This is standard for BBC reporting. Western crimes do not take place in villages and towns, in homes where people live and love and grieve. They take place in “wastelands” filled with murderous savages who have no right to defend themselves against our violence. And as is perennially true of reporting from Palestine, the violence of the West and its allies is always “triggered”, is always a response to “their” violence.
Emphasising the point, Frei interviewed Jesse Grapes, former commander of Kilo Company - the unit accused of the massacre. Grapes was clearly not of the “wasteland”. He was resplendent in smart suit with a US flag draped in the background. Grapes said of Terrazas:
“One of those guys with a million dollar smile. You know, always positive no matter how harrowing the situation. Always hard-working, would do anything that you asked him to do. And you lose someone like that it causes despair.”
Frei’s commentary continued: “But did despair spawn murder?”
Imagine for a moment if the BBC had been reporting the massacre of 24 British or American old men, women and children by Iraqi troops under Saddam Hussein, or al Qaeda fighters under Osama bin Laden. Would the former commander of the unit charged with the atrocity be invited to explain the suffering and despair that drove his men to kill innocent civilians? Would he be allowed to speak without any challenge from the reporter, without even the mildest of rebukes?
And would footage of a mother embracing one of the accused be shown, as happened next in Frei’s report? A US marine was shown in uniform in Haditha and then hugging and laughing with his family. His mother asked: “You been good?“ The soldier replied: “Ah, I try to be.“
This was Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, accused of one charge of murder involving unpremeditated killings of three males in a house.
This was followed by an interview with Sharrat’s father, who wept as he spoke:
“Justin told me, ‘Dad, it’s better that we’re fighting in Iraq, in the sands and the streets of Iraq, than in the streets of America.’ And I hope these people understand what these guys are going through.”
Can we possibly conceive of this kind of sympathetic coverage being afforded to ‘enemy’ troops accused of the massacre of British or American civilians? Would comparable words from the father of the ’enemy’ accused be deemed actually monstrous in this case? And, again, there was no journalistic challenge, no balancing commentary to clarify that, by broadcasting these comments, the BBC was not intending to justify or excuse what had happened.
Frei‘s conclusion was almost as remarkable:
“Whatever the charges today, Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask: How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?”
With 655,000 Iraqis lying dead after nearly four years of war, with one million Iraqi civilian dead after 14 years of US-UK sanctions, Frei can suggest that, only now, with this incident, does the question finally arise of how Americans have ended up killing Iraqis.
On the same day that Frei made his comments, Helen Boaden, director of BBC news, wrote to a Media Lens reader:
“I think the key point that I would make in response is that it is not for the BBC to take a view about the legality of the war in Iraq... it is not for the BBC to take a stance on the issue.” (Email to Media Lens, December 21, 2006)
Are we to believe, then, that Matt Frei is not taking a view, not taking a stance, in describing the American armies in Iraq as “liberators” and the Iraqi people as “liberated”?
We are at a crossroad this Christmas. As a society and as individuals we are
entering a period of time in which technology, politics, law, morality and
wealth all collide, collapse and engulf each other. The battle lines have
been drawn and it is going to be a tough fight. We have to ask ourselves,
"When I've left this battle, what legacy will I leave for those who follow?"
Since the beginning of history, in our quest for understanding, the human
species has tried to manipulate its environment in order to shape it into
something it can grasp. Something not ephemeral but something real and
To that end we have gotten out of bed and gone to toil in fields, factories
or offices. We have found some expression of love and made children we hope
one day will inherit the world we are trying to recreate. We have tried to
better our economic or whatever status in the token system we live under. We
have participated in joint, volunteer endeavours with colleagues, neighbours
and friends. We have died asking ourselves, "what did this all mean?"
Who was it that said, "peace is a messy business"? We are, supposedly,
entering into the season of peace and goodwill. A time where we stop for a
moment and reflect on the year past and try and define our hopes and
aspirations for the year hence. For some this year, this quiet time will be
like a dry sponge soaking up their souls and draining them of emotion. They
are the ones who will, this Christmas, not be able to share a future with
their loved ones.
As a species we have advanced to the point, technologically, where we can
shoot missiles hundreds of miles and never have to witness the rendering of
a human bodies to atomised pieces. Technological advances also allow us to
sew up the holes in bodies where limbs used to attach. We have evolved
politically to the point where we have abdicated personal responsibility for
the direction our society takes and the collective decisions it makes to
hand picked individuals who will only represent the party ideology they
These same ideological adherents then find themselves locked into a system
that exists for its own protection and therefore ensures that it controls
the ability to sanction those who dissent from its goals. These laws are
promulgated in the name of 'morality' or 'values' or 'the Australian way of
life' when in reality they are nothing of the sort. The ability to carry out
these reactionary programs is supported by the sweat of our brows as they
claw from us taxes, charges, fees, levies and tolls.
My country has become infected with a virus that is spreading virulence
unknown and unseen in previous times. We are being betrayed by ourselves and
have accepted a collective self-delusion so grand it threatens to swallow us
In my country, as I grew up in the 60's and 70's, I heard about the great
vastness of the land. I was told, "get a trade son and you'll work till you
retire". I was able to travel with school friends who were Greek, Dutch,
Italian, Lebanese and German without fear or consideration of race. Sure, we
Protestants hated the Catholics, but we knew they were going to hell anyway.
And I think it was the day I realised the absurdity of this particular
ideology that I began to reflect on the real world around me.
Catholic, 'Asian', Afghan, Muslim. It doesn't matter what the label is we
use to classify the individual or their group, all of us carry baggage that
prevents us from totally being able to 'connect' with the stranger. It is
this baggage that causes us to fear what might occur if "they" took over.
This is the terror of the Old World. In our New World, this one being
shaped, in part by us, is one in which there is no effort being made to
unpack the baggage but, in fact, to stuff much more baggage into it!
The same technologies used by rescue workers to rescue to blokes from deep
under the cold Tasmanian soil is used to locate other men whose fate is
sealed in a 'bunker buster'. The politics of loathing concoct the orders to
carry out this abysmal act. The legal fallacies of "we will decide who comes
to this country and the conditions under which they come" are still used in
an attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
I find it ironic that after all the history of the human race that precedes
us, we are entering a time in which, for all our technology, laws, politics,
moral philosophy and ability to create wealth, we will, collectively, spend
this Christmas in a far more fearful and timid state than I can remember. So
I ask you, for whom are we making the world safe from terror? Certainly not
the children of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger,
Sudan, Palestine or, so it seems, the children who play on backyard swings
in the suburbs and towns in Australia.
Two paths are before us in 2007. On the first we face a potential reality
that is more harsh, more extreme and more isolating than any previous time
we have known. On the second we can create a much better reality. One in
which justice, fairness, creativity and love prevail. If, in our endeavours
we willingly work for the first, why is it we are not willing to work even
harder for the second? Both are possibilities and the first, at this time,
seems likely to prevail. However, if you, like me, are not content with
blindly accepting the status quo and are feeling the rub of those baggage
straps digging into your shoulders, then could I suggest you join in the
great struggle to overthrow our fears and terrors.
Finally, in offering you my Season's Greetings could I suggest that, for one
meal this festive season, you set one extra place at your table. That empty
place can be your symbol of unity with all those families who this year will
spend Christmas without a loved one. You can read into that act any other
symbolism you want.
Whether its for those killed by US, British or Australian bombs in far off
lands, or soldiers killed by resistance fighters, or young men and women
killed in car accidents in your town, or the victims of drug overdoses in
the back streets of your city or death by old age surrounded by family and
friends, it's not really important. The point is to remember that death
comes to us all eventually. It's really about what we do in this life that
is important and it is the lingering effects of the deeds we do in this life
that will be our legacy.