Saturday, January 10, 2009

It is what they don't tell you ...

As we watch the newspapers - and media generally - turn themselves into proxies for the Hamas publicity machine, the flood of stories from Gaza is driving out other news. As important, the focus specifically on one main aspect of the current conflict, to the exclusion of much else, is completely distorting perception of the crisis. It is this "distortion by exclusion" which is as damaging as anything else the media does.

The phenomenon, though, is hard to pin down, as the reader looking for objectivity is being asked, effectively, to "prove a negative". It is very difficult to judge the media by what it does not say when, in the ordinary course of events, one cannot know what is not being published.

However, in my current researches for the book on Iraq, I have been working on the period around August/September 2006, compiling a narrative of events and then comparing it with what the British media was saying about the conduct of the British operation in Basra. In short, the media coverage was sparce, to the point of being non-existent. The only events guaranteed to gain coverage were the deaths of British soldiers. In between those events, coverage evaporated.

The net effect of this "distortion by exclusion" was that the metric by which the media measured the progress of the operation became the death of British soldiers. When none were dying, it was deemed to be "calm". When soldiers died, the media woke up and began crying "crisis". What I thought useful, therefore, was to publish an edited version of the account I have so far written - from 1 August to 28 September 2006 - which illustrates this point precisely.

Up to 1 August, for many months - almost completely unrecorded by the media, British bases in Basra had been sustaining near-continuous rocket and mortar attacks. So the narrative begins:

With the continuous mortar and rocket attacks on British bases, it was only a matter of time before a soldier was killed. That day arrived on 1 August when Cpl. Matthew Cornish, 1st Battalion, The Light Infantry was fatally wounded by shrapnel from a mortar bomb which landed within the perimeter of the Old State Building. Over the seven months that the Light Infantry were stationed at the OSB, through the summer of 2006, more than 114 mortar and rocket rounds and 47 Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) hit the compound. There were also more than 38 recorded "contacts" involving sniper and small arms fire, and four IED attacks on patrol vehicles. It was a minor miracle that there had been no deaths before Cpl. Cornish had been killed.

Unsurprisingly, given the paucity of publicity, there was no awareness back in the UK as to how bad the situation was becoming and, indeed, how the attacks against British forces were intensifying. A week after Cpl. Cornish had died, insurgents launched no less than nine Katyushas at Basra Palace. Three Iraqis, including a policeman, were then wounded by an IED in the north of Basra. The device had been intended for a British patrol. The next day, the insurgents fired three heavy 120mm mortar rounds and four Katyusha rockets into the Palace compound, claiming "direct hits" which sent plumes of smoke rising into the sky.

As an illustration of just how far the situation had deteriorated, on 16 August Sadr supporters from the Bani Asad tribe laid siege to the Basra government offices, lobbing mortar shells at the building and barricading nearby bridges. They took over parts of the building, killing four policemen and wounding five. The militia used this opportunity to attack the Light Infantry's base, the Old State Building. Major Head's B Company fought simultaneous battles, firing over 3,100 rounds in one hour and accounting for up to fifteen militiamen.

The attack on the government building was the tribe's response to the murder of one of their Sheiks. They were accusing the Fadhila members – from the governor's party - of his murder. The tribesmen also cut Route 6, the main road between Basra and Baghdad and threatened to kill police who entered their tribal area in the northern suburbs. Into deserted streets, the Iraqi Army deployed in force with armoured vehicles to "preserve order". The populace apparently was not, thereby, reassured, noted local media. British troops had to intervene in support of the Iraqi security forces before the siege was lifted.

By any measure, this was a significant event. With the ongoing mortar attacks on British bases, it confounded any suggestion that Basra was under control. As significantly, it demolished the official line that the Iraqi security forces were in any way effective, or could be relied upon. But not only was it fighting prowess suspect, its deficiencies in logistics were extremely troubling. These came to the fore on 7 July when a platoon of British soldiers had returned to its base after a combined stop and search operation in a remote desert region of Maysan province.

The base was shared with a unit from the Iraqi Army which then had not had food or water for 36 hours. The soldiers were becoming somewhat anxious, especially as their officers had left them, apparently in a bid to arrange a re-supply. When their officers had not returned, a group of between 10-15 armed Iraqi soldiers then approached the British platoon. After a confrontation, shots were fired over the heads of the British soldiers, the ringleader then acquiring a sniper rifle and firing around British soldiers, deliberately aiming to miss. One junior NCO, Cpl. Martin Caines, had exposed himself to the gunman and faced him down, for which action he was awarded the George Medal.

Nothing of this found its way into the media until March 2007, when it rated a brief mention in the local press. As for the Basra siege, this was covered by US media, the New York Times suggesting that it "underscored the tenuous grip the Iraqi government maintains even in regions not under the sway of Sunni Arab insurgents."

Unreported, the mortaring and rocketing of British bases went on and on, as did the fighting. Basra airport suffered a Kayusha attack on 21 August, and again on the 28th. In the latter incident, the rockets fell outside the base perimeter and did no harm. That day, it was almost 2003 all over again, when there had been major riots in the city centre. On 23 August, throngs of Shi'a demonstrators, "fed up with corrupt puppet regime and its skyrocketing prices, no electricity, no running water," chanted support for Saddam Hussain. The day before, oil company employees had gone on strike, halting oil shipments over demands for higher pay and profit sharing. Three years on, all that seemed to have changed was that the violence had got worse.

Just to emphasise that, two Iraqi "military intelligence elements" were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the Basra central town of Tannoma. The corpses of security men were found dumped by a roadside and a motorcycle bomb ripped through market in the al-Hayaniyah area of western al-Basra, a Sadr stronghold. Nine people were killed and 13 wounded.

Another British patrol vehicle was attacked on 30 August – an IED which left one soldier wounded and the vehicle damaged. And Des Browne got a welcome package when he visited Basra airport. The insurgents laid on a Katyusha firing demonstration for him. Shatt al-Arab Hotel took seven mortar rounds the next day. Eyewitnesses claimed violent explosions could be heard coming from inside the facility after the attack. It was on the receiving end of no less than 11 bombs on 1 September.

Mortar shells were still pounding the base intermittently, and the British were unable to halt the barrage despite their helicopter patrols of the area searching for the insurgents. They returned the next day, this time with Katyushas, sending ten of them towards the base, only to have them fall outside the perimeter, seriously injuring an Iraqi woman. The 4th September then saw another mortar attack.

For Gunners Stephen Wright and Samuela Vanua, both of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, this was a day that ended abruptly at about 1pm. It was also their last. In support of a Danish reconstruction team close to Ad Dayr, about nine miles north of Basra, both were killed in an ambush. Two more soldiers were injured - one seriously.

That day, a British soldier had also been killed in Afghanistan - and the media woke up. Patrick Cockburn, in The Independent explained how the "war on terror" had "fuelled resentment of the West and brought new levels of death and destruction." He also noted that, "It may be egocentric to write only of British dead. They are but a small percentage of the casualties in the multiple crises which are now cross-infecting each other in the Middle East."

In the main news section, its pages having been devoid of operational coverage of southern Iraq for many weeks, The Independent then remarked: "The latest deaths come after a period of relative calm for the British military …". There was the ultimate statement of ignorance. There had been "relative calm"? But that was the media's narrative, sustained only by the almost complete lack of reporting.

In that The Independent had no further comments on the following days, it is not untoward to aver that the "relative calm" resumed on 5 September. It was celebrated by the insurgents with the delivery - minus wrapping - of another six mortar bombs to Shatt al-Arab Hotel. Three missed their target, falling near an Iraqi police department. No damage was done.

In al Qurna on 6 September, about 50 miles north of Basra, Gunner Lee Darren Thornton – from the same Regiment as Gunners Wright and Vanua – experienced more of The Independent's "relative calm". He was fatally wounded by a gunshot when his unit came under fire near the building used to plan reconstruction.

Five Iraqi policemen shared some of that "relative calm" when they were wounded by an IED as they patrolled in their vehicle five miles west of Basra. British soldiers enjoyed even more of the "relative calm" when their base yet again came under attack from Katyusha rockets on 9 September. Ten days later, that "relative calm" extended to Basra airport, where three Katyusha rockets landed, and to central Basra, where a gunman was killed and a British soldier was wounded when a British vehicle patrol was involved in a firefight.

The "relative calm", in fact, was breaking out all over, embracing even the Iranian consulate - where two rockets struck the outer walls, damaging three police vehicles – and the British consulate at Basra Palace, which enjoyed a mortar barrage, adding to its growing collection of shrapnel and mortar damage. So calm was it there that a British spokesman would only admit that "this sort of attack happens from time to time, every four or five days."

As September wore on, still the "relative calm" - as far as the media was concerned - persisted. It spread on the 22nd to a translator working for the British, who was shot and killed after insurgents raided his home, and to Shaiba, which took five Katyusha rockets as opposed to the mere four that were fired at Shatt al Arab Hotel.

That day also an American contractor working for the US State Department was killed in Basra, in one of the rocket attacks. To maintain this "relative calm", the insurgents followed up the next day, with mortars on the market in Shiaba town, where British troops were occasionally allowed out to buy souvenirs, setting fire to four civilian cars and damaging a shop. The "relative calm" was reinforced with a Katyusha rocket fired on the town.

The next day, so intense had the "relative calm" become that only one bomb exploded next to a British patrol, on the main street in Basra running past the police headquarters, and only ten armoured vehicles had been despatched to the scene from Basra Palace.

That "relative calm" also applied to a sitation where routine patrols had been cancelled while British troops surrounded the main Sadr offices in Basra and searched several houses in the vicinity, confiscating some weapons. Also, in this "relative calm", a Danish serviceman was killed by an IED, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Danish Air Force. Eight others were injured, one severely. They had been in a three-car motorcade carrying nine members of a Danish Air Force unit assigned to protect diplomats from Denmark in southern Iraq. No diplomats had been travelling with the convoy.

Clearly, this must all have conformed with The Independent's definition of "relative calm" because neither it nor any other British media outlet bothered to report any of these events, even if the deaths of the Dane and the US contractor were carried by The New York Times and even the China Post. Never better illustrated was the metric by which the media measured the British occupation. In a period when a US contractor, an Iraqi translator working for the British and a Danish serviceman had been killed, the British media had no comment. The moment a British soldier was killed, the flood-gates opened.

That was a measure of the media. Its absence of reporting contributed massively to a totally distorted picture of what was going on - which had very significant political effects. But, it was not what they told us. It was what they didn't tell us.