Monday, August 6, 2007

BBC falls for the old 'civilian casualties' routine

Most people agree that civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are a bad thing. US and coalition forces go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties. But the BBC loves civilian casualties. The BBC eats, sleeps and drinks civilian casualties. To paraphrase Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, the BBC has a hard-on for civilian casualties.

Sometime last Thursday Nato attacked a gathering of senior Taleban leaders. This is how the BBC reported the story. Note the opening paragraph:

About 50 Afghan civilians have been wounded in an air strike by US-led forces on a group of Taleban leaders holding a meeting in Helmand province.

This information isn't attributed to anyone. It's reported as a fact, not a claim, and the story goes on to suggest that Nato killed and wounded dozens of innocent people in the process of killing three Taleban.

However, an update on this story from Reuters – which isn't normally shy about criticising US and Nato forces – suggests that few, if any civilians were killed in the attack, and up to 150 bad guys were. The Reuters report adds that most of the wounded brought to local hospitals were men of fighting age, and none were women. A Nato press release tells the same story, and also illustrates the lengths to which Nato went to establish whether civilians had been injured in that attack.

From a strictly journalistic standpoint it would have made more sense for the BBC to wait another day and provide a more accurate account, but in its eagerness to put out a story that was damaging to Nato, the BBC was happy to report claims of mass civilian casualties without waiting for corroboration. The BBC hasn't as yet seen fit to update the story, presumably because it doesn't fit the narrative.

This isn't the first time the BBC has unquestioningly reported exaggerated claims of civilian casualties. Back in June it carried a report of 20 headless bodies being found in Iraq; the story was later proved to have been fabricated, but the BBC, to the best of my knowledge, didn't retract its report. And almost everyday it carries unsubstantiated claims of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan; sometimes these reports will be accurate, but often they're simply enemy propaganda which the BBC and other MSMers are only too happy to broadcast.

Our soldiers and airmen go to extraordinary lengths to avoid causing civilian casualties, often at great risk to their own safety. However, civilians are sometimes killed, especially when the enemy makes a point of hiding among them, and when they are it's important to put those deaths into context – what you won't learn from the BBC is that most weeks Nato is killing hundreds of Taleban in Afghanistan.

Getting accurate reports out amid claim, counter-claim and deliberate attempts to spread misinformation is hard, but it's time the BBC stopped reporting rumours and started reporting the facts – and the good news as well as the bad.

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