Paved With Good Intentions: Iraq Body Count
On the rare occasions when the issue of civilian casualties is discussed in the mainstream media three words are invariably mentioned: Iraq Body Count (IBC).
IBC describes itself as a project which maintains “the world’s only independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention by the USA and its allies.”
IBC is often described as an “anti-war” website -- the home page shows an ominous photograph of a Stealth bomber dropping a stick of bombs. The words above the picture were spoken by General Tommy Franks: “We don’t do body counts.” Below, we find US General Mark Kimmitt's advice to Iraqis who see TV images of innocent civilians killed by coalition troops: “Change the channel.”
This does indeed suggest an intense critical focus on suffering caused by British and US forces.
IBC is important, not least because it is often cited as a source in high-profile British and American media. Writing in The Independent, Washington editor Rupert Cornwell observed that IBC is “regarded as the most authoritative independent source on Iraqi casualties”. (Rupert Cornwell, “Debate rages over number of civilians killed in conflict,” The Independent, August 17, 2005)
The IBC website reports:
“It has been a heartening feature of the IBC project that press interest in our work has been wide-ranging and sustained. TV and radio broadcasters have included ABC (USA) News, CNN International, the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, National Public Radio (USA), Pacifica, and many regional and community stations.”
The list of media mentions recorded at the site continues for some 30 pages.
IBC is also important because its figures for civilian deaths in Iraq have been used by the British and American governments, and by the media, to attack or dismiss higher estimates in other studies. An editorial in the Washington Times, for example, noted that the October 2004 Lancet report estimated 100,000 excess civilian deaths, adding:
“At the time, the British research group Iraq Body Count had placed the number of confirmed deaths reported in the media at around 15,000 -- probably a low estimate, but not by a factor of six.” (Leader, “The Lancet’s Politics,” Washington Times, June 23, 2005)
Political editor John Rentoul wrote in The Independent on Sunday: “even Iraq Body Count, an anti-war campaign, puts the total attributable to coalition forces at under 10,000, rather than the figure with an extra zero that is the common misconception of anti-war propaganda”. (Rentoul, “Islam, blood and grievance,” The Independent on Sunday, July 24, 2005)
In October 2004, The Guardian reported the British government’s response to the Lancet report:
“The foreign secretary, Jack Straw... said the figure was very high, and that the website Iraq Body Count, relying on western press reports, had put the death toll at 16,000.” (Patrick Wintour and Richard Norton-Taylor, “No 10 challenges civilian death toll,” The Guardian, October 30, 2004)
Certain To Be An Underestimate -- The Self-Correcting Media
IBC is clear that there are inherent problems with its methodology. In response to the Lancet study, IBC pointed out:
“We have always been quite explicit that our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording.” (PR 10, November 7, 2004)
But this humility is not consistently expressed. IBC’s website also makes quite grand claims: “if journalism is the first draft of history, then this dossier may claim to be an early historical analysis of the military intervention’s known human costs”.
So what are the sources behind the database informing this “early historical analysis”? IBC reveals that these are “predominantly Western,” with the “most prevalent” being “the major newswires and US and UK newspapers.”
In its report “A dossier of civilian casualties 2003-2005,” IBC noted that just three press agencies -- Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and Reuters -- provided one-third of all stories. Reliance on Western media is not deemed a problem, however, because they’are unlikely to suppress conservative estimates which can act as a corrective to inflated claims”.
The report added:
“We have not made use of Arabic or other non English language sources, except where these have been published in English. The reasons are pragmatic. We consider fluency in the language of the published report to be a key requirement for accurate analysis, and English is the only language in which all team members are fluent. It is possible that our count has excluded some victims as a result.” (Ibid)
This is a remarkable explanation for such a serious omission, particularly in light of the immense media attention afforded to the IBC figures.
The website adds:
“The project relies on the professional rigor of the approved reporting agencies. It is assumed that any agency that has attained a respected international status operates its own rigorous checks before publishing items (including, where possible, eye-witness and confidential sources). By requiring that two independent agencies publish a report before we are willing to add it to the count, we are premising our own count on the self-correcting nature of the increasingly inter-connected international media network.”
This is an admirable focus on the need for verification. However, as discussed, “the international media network” is heavily dominated by Western media in the IBC database -- the idea that these media are “self-correcting” is flatly contradicted by media reporting on every conflict involving Western interests since 1945. Indeed, the notion that Western media exercise “professional rigor” is absurd. Noam Chomsky has explained the reality:
“The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, 1992, p.79)
As we have discussed in previous alerts, from its inception at the start of the 20th century, “professional” journalism has been inherently and massively biased in favor of powerful vested interests. It is exactly these interests that have so much at stake when civilians are being killed abroad. It is in exactly this situation that the mainstream media become willfully blind, willfully naïve, and in fact function as a propaganda system for state-corporate power.
Not only is IBC’s surveillance-based total for Iraqi civilian deaths one of the most widely cited by journalists, it is also the lowest. Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet report, told us last year:
“There are now at least 8 independent estimates of the number or rate of deaths induced by the invasion of Iraq. The source most favored by the war proponents (Iraqbodycount.org) is the lowest. Our estimate is the third from highest. Four of the estimates place the death toll above 100,000. The studies measure different things. Some are surveys, some are based on surveillance which is always incomplete in times of war. The three lowest estimates are surveillance based.” (Roberts, e-mail to Media Lens, August 22, 2005)
Whereas the Lancet report estimated around 100,000 civilian deaths in October 2004, IBC reported 17,000 at that time. The Lancet authors found:
“Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.”
Indeed 84 percent of the violent deaths were reported to have been caused by the actions of “coalition” forces and 95 percent of those deaths were due to air strikes and artillery.
By contrast, fully one year later, the Daily Telegraph reported that IBC had evidence that 26,000 to 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the war started in March 2003:
“Of those, about 9,000 were reported to have been killed by the US military itself.” (Oliver Poole, “Victims of insurgents in Iraq top 26,000,” Daily Telegraph, October 31, 2005)
In response, IBC pointed out, “it is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media... our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording.” (Iraq Body Count, Quick FAQ and Press Release, 7th November 2004)
But as we will see, the problem is not merely that there are “gaps in reporting,” but that there are gaps of a particular kind.
Senior figures from Jack Straw to George Bush have been quick to point the public in the direction of IBC and its figures. The Guardian reported last December:
“In a speech in Philadelphia on Monday, George Bush finally put a figure on the number of people killed in Iraq: 30,000. Since the US-led invasion, Bush said that ‘30,000 have died, more or less‘, a toll that includes both Iraq civilians and US troops.” (Luke Harding, “The question: Is Bush's Iraq death toll correct?,” The Guardian, December 14, 2005)
“Other non-governmental organisations, though, suggest that Bush may have got it right. An independent watchdog group, Iraq Body Count, estimates that up to 30,892 Iraqis have died, a figure based on media reports.”
Remarkably, Harding seemed to believe that Bush might not have based his figures on IBC’s. IBC responded to a related error in Harding’s article:
“Incidentally, if George Bush has used our numbers for his ‘30,000, more or less’ death toll of ‘Iraqi citizens’ then he has misapplied them: ours is a count purely of non-combatant deaths and does not, for example, include Iraqi soldiers killed during the invasion nor other combatants thereafter.” (Letter, Hamit Dardagan, Co-founder, Iraq Body Count, The Guardian, December 16, 2005)
Harding’s claim that “up to 30,892 Iraqis have died” was simply false.
But it is a claim regularly repeated across the media. Thus the Financial Times:
“The 30,000 estimate falls within the range compiled by Iraq Body Count, a group that tracks the number of Iraqis killed from media reports. It estimates that between 27,383 and 30,892 Iraqis have lost their lives in violence related to the invasion.” (Demetric Sevastopulo, “Bush acknowledges about 30,000 Iraqis have died,” Financial Times, December 13, 2005)
In December the Independent on Sunday made fleeting mention of Iraqi casualties in its review of 2005:
“Death toll in Iraq war stands at 30,000 Iraqis, 2,140 US soldiers and 97 British service personnel.” (Independent on Sunday, December 18, 2005)
This was clearly a reference to the IBC total -- for civilians, not all Iraqis. But anyway, as we have seen, the IBC figure is selective in its sources, is the lowest estimate of eight serious studies, and relies on “professional rigor” in the Western media that does not exist. As we will also see, realities on the ground in Iraq cast real doubt on the value of IBC’s methodology and numbers.
Part 2 will follow shortly...
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The first Media Lens book, Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media, is now available (Pluto Books, London, 2006). Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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