Monday, August 14, 2006

Part 1 - Introduction

On 30 July 2006, at a time variously reported between 1 and 1.30 in the morning, an Israeli air strike (or strikes), launched on the southern Lebanese village of Qana, it was claimed, caused the partial collapse of a three storey residential building. In the basement were found the bodies of a large number of women and children and first reports from the scene indicated a death toll of sixty or more - many of them children. That figure was later drastically revised downwards to 28.

The name "Qana" had special significance as the village had been the location of a disaster in April 1996, ten years previously. Then, during an Israeli operation code-named "Grapes of Wrath", a UN-supervised building in the centre of the village had been shelled. This resulted in over 100 civilian deaths - an incident that was instrumental in precipitating the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Now, it looked as if history was repeating.

Curiously, though, despite the reports, the 2006 incident did not occur at Qana at all, but in a hamlet approximately a mile to the north of the village, called Khuraybah (also known as Al-Khariba). Nevertheless, it became "Qana" in most contemporary accounts. Hezbolla and its allies were quick to draw the historical parallels.

Addressing the account of events as dispassionately as possible, it is fair to say that no one can precisely determine what exactly transpired on and immediately before the raid, or in the hours immediately afterwards. There is no dispute that the hamlet was and is a Hezbolla stronghold (as indeed was Qana), and that the incident occurred at the height of hostilities between Israel and Hezbolla, effectively making the village part of a war zone. Since then, there has been no independent - or any - inquiry. There has been no forensic examination of the building to determine the cause of collapse, no post-mortems - that we know of - on the deceased, who have now been buried, and nothing like a judicial examination of evidence and witnesses that would draw out a proper and trustworthy account of events.

As to the relief efforts, details are still confused. According to documents released by the UN, the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) received reports of the incident at 7 am local time and ambulances were despatched immediately. They tried to reach the location of the building "via several access roads" but were unsuccessful "because of the mass of rubble... and the intensity of the bombardment". They stopped approximately 600 metres from the building and the relief workers proceeded on foot.

UNIFIL claims to have been informed of the incident at 8.15 and despatched two medical teams to the site at 9.45, which arrived respectively at 10.15 and 11 am. An engineering team arrived later, possibly around 2 pm. UNIFIL also reports that Lebanese police, civil defence and Army elements arrived at the site at 7 am but were unable to commence operations until 9 am "because of the ongoing aerial shelling". By happy coincidence, that appears to have been the time when the media started arriving.

In the hands of the media, the events were often described in highly lurid terms, most often conveying condemnation of Israel. However, in such incidents as major air crashes, we often hear caution expressed that we should wait for the outcomes of the investigations become coming to conclusions. Yet, in this analogous situation, in a context where Hezbolla have been known to exploit and even magnify incidents for propaganda purposes, the media were - just a few hours after the event - presenting their accounts as definitive statements of fact.

In being the custodian of the record, the media - especially in democratic countries which profess to have freedom of speech - have a special responsibility to report accurately, to which effect they rely on the professionalism and integrity of the journalists in the field who provide the words and images. In this instance - by comparison with the reporting of other incidents in less fevered atmospheres - the dogmatism and unwarranted certainty was jarring.

Furthermore, the images being presented by the media did not look right. At the time, this was no more than an impression, triggered by the frequent appearance of an image of one particular figure, characterised by his green helmet and orange high-visibility jacket. For obvious reasons, he was dubbed "Green Helmet".

On further investigation, "Green Helmet" appeared rather more often than was typical of any one figure in normal disaster reporting. Not only that, he appeared in a wide variety of poses, most often bearing dead children and not uncommonly displaying considerable emotion. To the jaundiced eye of this observer, they looked staged. If that was the case, then this was a very serious issue. It had to mean that the media, on which we rely so much, was presenting us - wittingly or unwittingly - with false images. And, as I wrote at the time, if you cannot trust the images, how can you trust the words?

As we looked further, another character came to prominence, a man clad in white tee-shirt and jeans. Again for obvious reasons - since his name was not revealed in any of the reports - he was dubbed "White Tee-shirt". His images too were prominent amongst those presented, usually portraying a man emoting strongly, while bearing a dead child. These too looked staged - the emotion was evident in such a variety of locations and circumstances that we had difficulty in believing it was spontaneous.

Accordingly, we decided to carry out an investigation - not into the events at Qana pertaining to the air raid. We have no view on these. Our investigation is exclusively confined to the events during the relief effort, to determine whether some had been staged for the benefit of the media (and for the propaganda purposes of Hezbolla). Also, we sought to determine whether the media had been complicit in any staging.

After three weeks of intensive work, with the active assistance and co-operation of the internet community - often called the "blogosphere" - we now believe we have enough evidence confidently to assert that many of the incidents recorded in visual form by the media were indeed staged. In fact, we feel we can go further. In our view, the bulk of the relief effort at Khuraybah on 30 July was turned into a perverted propaganda exercise. The site, in effect, became one vast, grotesque film-set on which a macabre drama was played out to a willing and complicit media, which actively co-operated in the production and exploited the results.

Within the overall conduct of the operations, there were many examples of this ghastly play-acting but, for convenience, we focused on four main groups of examples. Reflecting the dramatic intent of the progenitors, we have ordered them into "acts", with the divisions labelled as "scenes". The first of the four Acts records the actions of one of the central figures, "Green Helmet", parading the body of a dead baby. The second deals with secondary but nevertheless important characters, Red Cross workers. The record shows that they actively participated in the drama. The third identifies what became the major theatrical production of the day, displaying the thespian talents of both "Green Helmet" and "White Tee-shirt" in what we call the "camera runs". The fourth and final Act now comprises two parts. The first, courtesy of the German television station NDR, shows "Green Helmet" in the act of giving stage directions in another of his perverted productions. The second portrays the showman again setting up a camera scene.

If this is worrying enough, of greater concern has been the response of the media and, in particular, the news agencies which employed many of the photographers at Qana. Fronted initially by the Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of Associated Press, they issued an early denial without addressing any of the substantive issues we raised. Other media outlets have since joined the fray, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, through its web site editor, and the Washington Post.

Their tactics have been both predictable and wearyingly familiar. Instead of addressing our substantive points, they have concentrated on details, picking on our errors and false starts, arguing that such flaws irredeemably damage our case. Others have branded us "right-wing", "pro-Israeli" or simply "conspiracy theorists", as if that could explain away the evidence we have gathered.

Then, after we had assembled so much evidence that our case was becoming unarguable, Associated Press mounted a defensive propaganda campaign, issuing a release attempting to make out that "Green Helmet" was some kind of latter-day saint, the hero of Qana. Inexplicably, for photographs accompanying the release, AP chose to dress their hero in blue helmet and garb, which could only serve to confuse readers who were unfamiliar with the issue.

In response, we decided to draw together the totality of our evidence, which hitherto had been scattered throughout this site, and assemble it in one report, updating, expanding and clarifying our findings. We enlisted the assistance of the "blogosphere" and received an extraordinary level of support. This report, therefore, is as much the work of the internet community as it is of this author.

Our purpose in producing it is to provide evidence which will enable us to force the news agencies, and the media which rely on them, to recognise that the media conduct at Qana was unacceptable. And, inasmuch as this is an example of a much wider problem affecting the way the whole of the media operates, we wish to see them address the issues we raise and to reform their operations. Without that, we feel, there can be no trust in the accuracy, impartiality or professionalism of any of their output. This is not only a major inconvenience, but threatens the very health of our democracy. For, without objective reporting, there is only propaganda.

To draw attention to this, we have entitled our report, "The corruption of the media". Inevitably, given the continued cover-up by the media, it will also be known as "Qanagate".

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