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Do some deaths matter more than others?

category international | arts and media | other press author Tuesday January 23, 2007 14:01author by David Manning and Miriam Cotton - MediaBiteauthor email editors at mediabite dot org Report this post to the editors

Hiding the Cost of War

While the idea of comparing one gross act of terrorism to another gross act of terrorism seems as odious a comparison as any, there is nevertheless an appropriate comparison to be drawn where one gross act of terrorism is a direct precursor to the second. And when two acts of terrorism are the defining moments of the century in terms of Western foreign policy, comparison becomes an urgent necessity.

On September 11 2001 2,973 innocent people were killed (another 24 remain listed as missing) when two airliners (United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11) were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City by a group of terrorists. These facts are uncontroversial, though the reasons behind them have given rise to what amounts almost to an industry of speculation and theory. [1]

While the human cost of this act of terrorism cannot be measured by simply counting the bodies in the rubble, we can at least estimate the number of people’s lives immediately affected by this crime. We could do no less than record their deaths in history.

The historical record now rightly accounts for each of these souls - there is no news organisation or book that doesn’t clearly state the cost, and the Irish media are obviously no exception. An RTE report on the 8th January 2007 concerning the sentencing of a man linked to the events of 9/11 read, “Mounir El Motassadeq, a member of a group of radical Arab students in Hamburg who helped organise the 2001 attacks, is one of only two men convicted of involvement in the plot which resulted in the death of nearly 3,000 people in the US.” [2]

The straightforwardness and triviality of this observation may seem pointless, but the moral obligation to count the dead, and even more so the dead whose blood is on our own hands is not always so clear as it ought to be – and certainly not if we are relying on the mainstream media in Ireland. We have had some interesting responses in our attempts to tackle them on why it is that the media has overlooked persuasive evidence of a shocking toll of death and carnage in Iraq.

As readers of Indymedia will be well aware, on the 29th of October 2004 the British medical journal the Lancet published the findings of a cluster sample survey conducted in Iraq in order to compare mortality during the period of 14•6 months before the US-led invasion with the 17•8 months after it. The study found approximately 100,000 more deaths than expected, with violence being the primary cause.

David Manning wrote to RTE at the time in order to ask why they preferred not to report these facts [3], and relied instead on the much lower figure offered by media monitoring group Iraq Body Count (IBC). An unnamed person from RTE’s foreign desk responded:

“We do not consider the Lancet report a realistic way of calculating the figures as it is based on a sample and extrapolates from this.

We appreciate that more civilians have died but with no reliable means of counting them we use the Iraq Body Count figures instead.” [4]

It was evident from these few words that almost no consideration had been given to the findings, and even less effort expended in trying to understand the science behind them. It appeared that there were people who didn’t deserve to be remembered by history.

With this in mind, please find below a critical analysis of RTE’s second ‘failure’ to report Iraq’s dead:

A crime within a crime within a crime

"Death in Iraq. It is relentless and incessant." [1] (Dahr Jamail, the last independent Western reporter in Iraq) [2]

In 2003 the US led invasion of Iraq underlined in no uncertain terms the limited reach of international law. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, “[the invasion of Iraq] was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal." [3]

That invasion and all the subsequent crimes within have amassed over 650,000 bodies, with one recent addition, the former leader of that country.

The Irish government has played no small part in those crimes. Shannon airport has been used for three years as a fueling point for US war planes and over 500,000 US troops have passed through it. [4] [5] This alliance with the ‘coalition of the willing’ [19 members of this illustrious group are no longer ‘willing’ to participate in ground operations] [6] was perhaps the inspiration for Minister Dermot Ahern’s 'Third Phase' in Irish Foreign Policy, ‘Active Neutrality’. [7]



1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11,_2001_attacks...ities
2. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0108/motassadeq.html
3. http://toirtap.blogspot.com/2006/03/give-or-take-260000...ments
4. http://toirtap.blogspot.com/2006/04/rte-finds-lancet-un....html

Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org/
author by David Manning - MediaBitepublication date Wed Jan 24, 2007 16:44author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Dear Mr Collins,

Thank you for your email about war casualty figures from Iraq.

There is no easy answer to this issue. We have discussed it at our editorial meetings and I have been in correspondence with Mr Manning about the debate. He does agree with our response and I suspect you will not either.

There are no accurate or official figures for the number of civilians killed in Iraq because of the situation there. What is clear is that the number is very high and I don't think anyone watching our output could be unaware of this. But it is impossible to get exact figures. In general our policy is not to report on figures of this kind as a fact but credit them to the organisations who supply them. We try to explain that these figures are claims rather than proven facts. The Lancet figures are an extrapolation from a sample rather than an actual body count.

I understand your frustration. I have no doubt that the actual figure is higher than many of the estimates that have been quoted. I would like to assure you that RTE has not made a decision to under-report the number of people killed in Iraq. We do not seek to broadcast only lower or less accurate figures of those killed in Iraq. We are open to receive reports from all organisations regarding reports of the number of people killed in Iraq.

This is a complicated issue and we will keep it under review. Overall we have tried to report on the situation in Iraq as fairly and comprehensively as conditions allow. In particular Richard Downes, who has visited the region many times over recent years, has in my view done some excellent reports - often under very difficult and dangerous conditions. At the moment it is our view that it is not safe to send anyone to Baghdad. We did (reluctantly) send Richard in an "embedded" capacity with US and British troops. He was able to bring back material that would otherwise have been impossible to get, but journalistically it is not an ideal way to operate. Again we will be keeping the situation under review.

Thank you for taking the time to write to us.

Yours Sincerely,

Michael Good

Managing Editor

RTE News


Dear Mr Good cc David Manning, mediabite

Like many I rely on RTE for news, and was dissapointed that RTE news did not highlight or subsequently use the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health figures on Iraqi dead published in the Lancet last October. Given the general scientific acceptance of the methods used in this study, high interest in the war, and general use of such studies in many other contexts as highlighted in Mr Mannings article in mediabite.org, it is worrying to me that RTE has not quoted them authoritatively at the time and in any subsequent reference to this war.

It looks to me, and I will be glad to be proven wrong, as if RTE has made a decision both to underreport these figures and to 'prefer' less accurate but lower figures. Certainly relying on John Simpson to interpret them for Irish listeners is not the same thing as reporting them fully, directly and accurately without bias. Would you consider changing the way the figures for war dead are reported, and using these lancet figures in future broadcasts?

Yours Sincerely

Tony Collins



Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org/
author by Jimpublication date Wed Jan 24, 2007 16:51author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The only reason why the US public have turned against the Iraq War is because approx 3,000 soldiers have died.If the death toll remained around the 100+ toll at the time that Dubya landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier and declared "Mission Accomplished" it is quite likely that the US public would still be flushed with pride to this very day.
Bush and co and the right in America convinced themselves that Saddam had WMD.
Gradually they realised they were fooling themselves but they jumped aboard a new justification:
cutting and running will not leave a stable Iraq behind but rather a new base for terrorists - so they have to stay or there will be new 9/11's - costing (wait for it) US deaths.
The Democrats led by Hillary Clinton are only against the war because they believe as do more and more of the American public that a continuing American presence in Iraq means increasing terrorism and (wait for it) US deaths as a result.

So in Americans eyes - the most right wing and the most leftist American - from Dubya himself to Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore - what matters, what is more valuable is American lives.

US lives are more important than Iraqi lives.

Same in World War 2, American only entered the war when Hawaii was attacked and US lives were lost. The Americans stopped fighting when Germany was defeated and abandoned the lives of Eastern Europeans who had fought Hitler to the tender mercies of Stalin - because US lives were more valuable.

author by Ed Geinpublication date Wed Jan 24, 2007 16:57author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Having observed the world from a safe distance, it's clear to me that Bush sees himself as a Roskolnikov figure but on a grander scale. He sees the deaths in Iraq as being a necessary 'evil'. I mean, though they're bing killed, they're Iraqis and if the job is done properly, then does it really matter how many are killed?

author by David Manning - MediaBitepublication date Wed Jan 24, 2007 19:22author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Jim I wrote about the media's penchant for emphasizing the value of coalition troops lives here:


As for RTE's response:

There definitely appears to be a sliding scale of 'reliability' when it comes to reporting Iraqi mortality, with the lower figures being high at the top in terms of reliability and the Lancet being rooted to the bottom of the table.

This, all in the face of scientific reason and historical precedence (Congo study anyone?), yet unsurprisingly coinciding with government's support.

In fact the response shows a lack of understanding of the scientific methods employed. Les Roberts responded to an Independent reporter in September 2005:

"Many people, like Ms. Dejevsky, have used the word extrapolation to describe what we did. When I hear people use that word they mean what is described in my Webster's Unabridged: '1. Statistics. to estimate the value of a variable outside its tabulated or observed range.' By this definition and the one I hear used by everyone on this side of the Atlantic, we did not extrapolate. We did sample. We drew conclusions from within the confines of that universe from which we sampled. Aside from a few homeless and transient households that did not appear in the 2002 Ministry of Health figures or households who had been dissolved or killed since, every existing household in Iraq had an equal chance that we would visit them through our randomization process.


Further response here:


Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org
author by Jimmy from Ballygomartinpublication date Thu Jan 25, 2007 11:51author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Jim could you tell us a little more about these East Europeans who had fought Hitler but subsequently were persecuted by Joe Stalin.

author by Ed Geinpublication date Thu Jan 25, 2007 11:59author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Just curious....are these eastern europeans, that were abandoned by the americans, the Yugoslavs?

If so, then their row with Stalin was a different matter altogether and not something spawned from WW2

author by David Manning and Miriam Cotton - MediaBitepublication date Thu Jan 25, 2007 16:56author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Dear Mr. Good,

We have read your response to a MediaBite reader regarding our MediaShot 'A crime within a crime within a crime'. Thank you for taking the time to address this issue. We very much appreciate it.

However, from our point of view, and those of others, we can ask only that you apply the same journalistic consideration, supported by scientific counsel, to the Lancet figures for Iraq as you applied to those published by the IRC for Congo. Which is to say that you were clearly confident about relying on identical methodology to that used in the Lancet's study in Iraq, and by the same team, in that instance.

As we have pointed out in our MediaShot, the US and UK government - and Bush and Blair themselves - have also previously relied on - and quoted - figures based on the same methodology without misgiving.

Could it be that the highly controversial nature of the Iraq war is a factor in your reluctance to apply a similar regard for the research methods in both cases? It would appear from the present disparity that you, and your editorial staff, have found reasonable contention where none exists.

The fact that your stance serves to lessen the crimes of the coalition invaders and in turn their allies, Ireland included, is regrettable. And if anything, the lower figures which you are prepared to specifically mention have less scientific validity to them, in the opinion of many qualified observers. At the very least, surely viewers are owed even handed treatment of lower and upper figures. Perhaps you would consider noting in your reports - given it is a straightforward fact, that the Lancet methodology has been accepted and by whom?

With thanks and best wishes,

David Manning &
Miriam Cotton

Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org
author by Noelpublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 14:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Lancet report has been discredited and debunked, with most believing the IBC figure of 15,000 to be closer to the true numbers of dead.
Although the methodology of the Lancet poll is standard - findings showing a possible lower and upper figure of 8,000 or 194,000 are too vast to be credible.

Also, the report was based on a flawed assumption. The extrapolation was based on 7.9 deaths per 1000 assuming the pre-war death rate was 5 per 1000. Most commentators believe the pre-war figure to be far higher than 5, with some even suggesting 8.1 deaths per 1000.

The insistence on citing 100,000 deaths instead of the more credible 15,000 is a ghoulish tactic which the anti-war movement should reconsider.
It's not as if 15,000 is a small number of innocent dead.

author by redjadepublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 14:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

'The Lancet report has been discredited and debunked'

Debunked by who? Cite a source please.

'with most believing the IBC figure of 15,000 to be closer to the true numbers of dead.'

Iraq Body Count currently says 54,432 - not 15,000.
read: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/

And, George W Bush disagrees with you Noel, he says the number is around 30,000.

'THE PRESIDENT: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.'


Why is it that the remaining (there aren't many left, are there?) Pro-Iraq War warriors cannot do the simplest of research before they post a reply?

author by Ed Geinpublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 15:43author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Will there be any good films spawned from the Iraq War?

Vietnam had some classics. Probably the best movies.

WW2 had some gems too....even 'Escape To Victory'!

Even the first Iraq war had a film (Three Kings).

I could go on and on.


author by David Manning - MediaBitepublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 16:15author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Noel, you may find the answer to some of the 'questions' you pose here...


Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org
author by Noelpublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 16:29author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The figure of 15,000 I quoted was from IBC at the time of the Lancet report.

My point was not to understate fatalities - but to point out the own goal which the anti-war movement scores by seeming to relish the highest possible number of deaths.
If they were to quote more credible figures - such as IBC - their argument would be less easily sidetracked or dismissed as showboating. The IBC figure of 15,000 was horrific enough without having to latch so readily onto a contentiously compiled report which was seen as politically motivated.

Pro-Iraq war warrior?? Jesus, I'll be called a fascist next.

author by Miriam Cotton - MediaBitepublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 16:31author email mcotton at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Excerpt from transcript of radio interview

“LES ROBERTS: …I just want to say that what we did, this cluster survey approach, is the standard way of measuring mortality in very poor countries where the government isn’t very functional or in times of war. And when UNICEF goes out and measures mortality in any developing country, this is what they do. When the U.S. government went at the end of the war in Kosovo or went at the end of the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. government measured the death rate, this is how they did it. And most ironically, the U.S. government has been spending millions of dollars per year, through something called the Smart Initiative, to train NGOs and UN workers to do cluster surveys to measure mortality in times of wars and disasters.
So, I think we used a very standard method. I think our results are couched appropriately in the relative imprecision of [inaudible]. It could conceivably be as few as 400,000 deaths. So we’re upfront about that. We don’t know the exact number. We just know the range, and we’re very, very confident about both the method and the results. “


"JUAN GONZALEZ: Les Roberts, I would like to ask you something about the methodology of the study. Clearly in Iraq, as in most wars of this type, the level of violence is uneven across the country. It might not necessarily even correspond to the population densities of different areas. What was the methodology that you used to select the particular clusters that you chose?

LES ROBERTS: Sure. That’s a great question. And you’re right. In Iraq, there is a huge difference in death rates between, for example, the Kurdish north, which is relatively safe, and the Sunni Triangle, where the death rates are extremely high. And what we did was we got a population estimate of every government, from the Iraqi government, and we randomly allocated these 50 clusters that we were to go visit proportional to the population in each of those governments, so that, if in the Kurdish north there is only 20% of the population living in the couple safest provinces, we would naturally end up with a sample that’s 20% or so from that zone. And then, once we had picked that we were going to visit two or three neighborhoods in a certain governance or province, we would then make a list of all the villages and towns and cities, and again randomly pick one of those to visit, so that big places had a larger chance of being visited than smaller places. And then, finally, when we got down to the village level or to the section of a city, we would pick a house at random, visit it and the other 39 houses closest to it to grab a cluster of 40 houses. And luckily, in the analysis, we can sort of look at how much variation there was between clusters. And when we reported this, we didn’t say it was 655,000 deaths. We said it was 655,000 deaths, and we’re 95% sure it’s between about 400,000 and 950,000. And that range of imprecision is capturing that variance between neighborhoods that you described, some places having a lot of violence, and some not. So there is less than a 2 percent chance that the number is well below 400,000. So, you know, it’s not precise. It’s incredibly hard to do this kind of work in times of war, and I think that this is awfully good, given the conditions. "

Related Link: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/10/12/145222
author by redjadepublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 16:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

'Even the first Iraq war had a film (Three Kings).'

Three Kings was an excellent movie, IMO. The sub-plot about the Shia was almost prophetic considering events these days.

But as you said 'the first Iraq war had a film' - One serious one, at least. Maybe Chuck Norris or someone did another? I don't know.

Don't look to Hollywood for the next great war flick - I'd say look at YouTube or BitTorrent to find it.

and don't expect it to have the PC pro-peace message we'd all like, either.

check out
Live from Iraq
and http://4th25.com/gallery.php

Also read
Your Guide to Soldier Videos from Iraq

US Soldiers Iraq can 'Be The Media' too
US Soldiers Iraq can 'Be The Media' too

author by David Manning - MediaBitepublication date Fri Jan 26, 2007 18:05author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Noel, thanks for explaining further your argument. Though you do realise that IBC's methodology is simply a count of deaths reported by 'predominantly' Western media?

IBC themselves admit their count is not a true reflection of total deaths:

"We've always said our work is an undercount, you can't possibly expect that a media-based analysis will get all the deaths. Our best estimate is that we've got about half the deaths that are out there."

“Our maximum therefore refers to reported deaths, which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.”

"Assuming even the most pessimistic outturn for violent civilian deaths, our database must include a substantial proportion of all victims, certainly not less than 25%, probably significantly more than half."

If you provide a reasonbale refutation of the Lancet's study's findings your argument might carry more weight.

The rest of the piece referenced above deals with your criticisms in more detail:


Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org/
author by davekeypublication date Mon Jan 29, 2007 01:59author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"These facts are uncontroversial, though the reasons behind them have given rise to what amounts almost to an industry of speculation and theory. [1] "

It may be uncontroversial that planes hit the building, but anyone who looks into the overwhelming evidence that they came down in a controlled demolition very quickly realizes it to be true. The industry of speculation and theory cannot be dismissed so lighty when it includes demolition experts, engineers, scientists, politicians (including the ex German minister) as well as Hollywood actors sticking their neck out to highlight the issue. It soon becomes laughable that 16 terrorists with plastic knives hijacked 4 planes and successfully flew 3 of them into buildings, all orchestrated from a cave in Afghanistan. You couldn't make this stuff up.

author by M Cottonpublication date Mon Jan 29, 2007 09:52author address author phone Report this post to the editors


We are not making a judgment one way or another about how the towers came down. All we are saying is that they did and that there has been a lot of debate about it. But that isn't the focus of our MediaShot. What we are talking about is the reluctance/refusal of the mainstrem media to report the true extent of the death and destruction as it relates to the Iraqi people as a consequence of the US/UK invasion - despite the availability of reliable evidence to show that it has been much greater than the IBC estimates.

author by Miriam Cottonpublication date Wed Feb 14, 2007 09:47author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"The government in Iraq claimed last month that since the 2003 invasion between 40,000 and 50,000 violent deaths have occurred. Few have pointed out the absurdity of this statement.

There are three ways we know it is a gross underestimate. First, if it were true, including suicides, South Africa, Colombia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia have experienced higher violent death rates than Iraq over the past four years. If true, many North and South American cities and Sub-Saharan Africa have had a similar murder rate to that claimed in Iraq. For those of us who have been in Iraq, the suggestion that New Orleans is more violent seems simply ridiculous."

Full text: http://www.mediabite.org/messageboard.html

author by David Manning - MediaBitepublication date Tue Mar 20, 2007 23:44author email editors at mediabite dot orgauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

After months of waiting, and numerous hopeful complaints, RTE finally reference the second study into Iraqi mortality published by the Lancet. Though the reporting borders on irreverent, and while these deaths are only mentioned in passing, with no effort expended in attempting to discuss the implications of 650,000 deaths, this is massive turn around for an organisation that had up until now almost refused to even acknowledge the study's existence.




All use the 'disclaimer' - 'anywhere between 50 and 650 thousand'.

Related Link: http://www.mediabite.org
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