Public ignorance over Iraq carnage largely due to media blindness

When countless journalists refuse to take responsibility for accurately reporting on the reality of wars in Iraq, Syria or Libya, it’s unsurprising that the effect on civilians can be so easy ignored. Medialens explains:

Last month, a ComRes poll supported by Media Lens interviewed 2,021 British adults, asking:

‘How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?’

An astonishing 44% of respondents estimated that less than 5,000 Iraqis had died since 2003. 59% believed that fewer than 10,000 had died. Just 2% put the toll in excess of one million, the likely correct estimate.

In October 2006, just three years into the war, the Lancet medical journal reported ‘about 655,000 Iraqis have died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation, which is equivalent to about 2.5% of the population in the study area’.

In 2007, an Associated Press poll also asked the US public to estimate the Iraqi civilian death toll from the war. 52% of respondents believed that fewer than 10,000 Iraqis had died.

Noam Chomsky commented on the latest findings:

‘Pretty shocking. I’m sure you’ve seen Sut Jhally’s study of estimates of Vietnam war deaths at the elite university where he teaches. Median 100,000, about 5% of the official figure, probably 2% of the actual figure. Astonishing – unless one bears in mind that for the US at least, many people don’t even have a clue where France is. Noam’ (Email to Media Lens, June 1, 2013. See: Sut Jhally, Justin Lewis, & Michael Morgan, The Gulf War: A Study of the Media, Public Opinion, & Public Knowledge, Department of Communications, U. Mass. Amherst, 1991)

Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at Channel 4 News, has so far provided the only corporate media discussion of the poll. He perceived ‘questions for us on the media that after so much time, effort and money, the public perception of bloodshed remains stubbornly, wildly, wrong’.

In fact the poll was simply ignored by both print and broadcast media. Our search of the Lexis media database found no mention in any UK newspaper, despite the fact that ComRes polls are deemed highly credible and frequently reported in the press.

Although we gave Thomson the chance to scoop the poll, he chose to publish it on his blog viewed by a small number of people on the Channel 4 website. Findings which Thomson found ‘so staggeringly, mind-blowingly at odds with reality’ that they left him ‘speechless’ apparently did not merit a TV audience.

Les Roberts, lead author of the 2004 Lancet study and co-author of the 2006 study, also responded:

‘This March, a review of death toll estimates by Burkle and Garfield was published in the Lancet in an issue commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion. They reviewed 11 studies of data sources ranging from passive tallies of government and newspaper reports to careful randomized household surveys, and concluded that something in the ballpark of half a million Iraqi civilians have died. The various sources include a wide variation of current estimates, from one-hundred thousand plus to a million.’

Roberts said of the latest poll:

‘It may be that most British people do not care what results arise from the actions of their leaders and the work of their tax money. Alternatively, it also could be that the British and US Governments have actively and aggressively worked to discredit sources and confuse death toll estimates in hopes of keeping the public from unifying and galvanizing around a common narrative.’ (Email to Media Lens, June 12, 2013. You can see Roberts’ comments in full here)

Indeed, the public’s ignorance of the cost paid by the people of Iraq is no accident. Despite privately considering the 2006 Lancet study ‘close to best practice’ and ‘robust’ the British government immediately set about destroying the credibility of the findings of both the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies. Professor Brian Rappert of the University of Exeter reported that government ‘deliberations were geared in a particular direction – towards finding grounds for rejecting the [2004] Lancet study without any evidence of countervailing efforts by government officials to produce or endorse alternative other studies or data’.

Unsurprisingly, the same political executives who had fabricated the case for war on Iraq sought to fabricate reasons for ignoring peer-reviewed science exposing the costs of their great crime. More surprising, one might think, is the long-standing media enthusiasm for these fabrications. The corporate media were happy to swallow the UK government’s alleged ‘grounds for rejecting’ the Lancet studies to the extent that a recent Guardian news piece claimed that the invasion had led to the deaths of ‘tens of thousands of Iraqis’.

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