“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims”, note Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast “those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy.”
Iraqis have the dubious distinction of being able to embody this truism about the Western corporate media within their own nation’s history. The 5,000 victims of Saddam Hussein 1988 chemical attack on Halabja only became a concern of the West when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Hussein became the new Hitler.
Fast-forward to 2006 and a peer-reviewed study is published in the Lancet medical journal estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the 2003 US-UK invasion and occupation. The deaths were a direct consequence of our own government’s actions. Therefore, as per Herman and Chomsky’s maxim, the UK government quickly moved to dismiss the study, with Tony Blair's official spokesperson arguing the figure was not accurate.
Les Roberts, the survey’s lead author, must have been puzzled. In 2000 he had conducted a mortality survey of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) using the same tried and tested methods he used in Iraq. Blair, along with many others, unquestioningly cited the results of the DRC survey on several occasions to push for action. In addition, a Freedom of Information request uncovered the fact the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor reported the Lancet study’s methods were "close to best practice" and the study design "robust".
As is depressingly normal in times of war, the media closely followed the Government’s lead and largely ignored the Lancet study. Instead the Iraq Body Count’s (IBC) much lower figure – currently standing at around 120,000 Iraqi civilian deaths – became the most frequently cited figure. Run by non-specialists, the IBC has severe limitations because it uses passive surveillance, counting violent civilian deaths from media reports, supplemented by hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures.
More generally, images of death and destruction from Iraq were kept to a minimum on our screens and in the pages of our newspapers. The Sun newspaper surely won the award for ‘Best Channelling Of Government Propaganda’ when it published the following headline on the day of the invasion: ‘The First “Clean” War: Civilian Deaths Could Be Zero, MoD Claims’.
Now, a new UK poll highlights the very real consequences of the media’s inability or unwillingness to honestly report the death toll from Iraq. According to the survey conducted by ComRes 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war. Amazingly, 59 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the war. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis.
The results are “a damning indictment of the UK corporate media system”, commented the internet-based media watchdog Media Lens. “This is not an aberrant result, an accident; it's a predictable result of a corporate media system that has evolved to deceive.”
For those interested in the topic a must read is John Tirman’s 2011 tome The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. As the person who commissioned the 2006 Lancet study, Tirman argues that the US public has been ignorant of, and indifferent to, the mammoth number of civilians the US military killed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Interestingly, he dismisses the argument that this indifference is connected to the mainstream media’s poor performance. Rather, he states that “greater information about” civilian deaths “does not change the dynamic of indifference” among the general public.
In contrast, Noam Chomsky argues the “citizens of the imperial power… do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know”. Indeed, why, if Western public opinion is unfailingly indifferent to the victims of Western foreign policy, does our government spend so much time and money on wartime public relations? “There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior officer told the Telegraph newspaper in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”
As long as governments work to keep the public in the dark, it is the job of progressives to inform, and hopefully anger, the general public about the destruction caused by Western military power around the world. The new ComRes poll is an essential tool in this on-going struggle against US-UK imperialism.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’ published by Peace News Press. firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.