In Media Lens ALERTS 2015
One of the defining features of the corporate media is that Western crimes are ignored or downplayed. The US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on the night of October 3, is an archetypal example.
At least twenty-two people were killed when a United States Air Force AC-130 repeatedly attacked the hospital with five strafing runs over the course of more than an hour, despite MSF pleas to Afghan, US and Nato officials to call off the attack. The hospital’s main building, which contains the emergency operating room and recovery rooms, was heavily damaged. Dave Lindorff noted:
‘the hospital was deliberately set ablaze by incendiary weapons, and the people inside not incinerated were killed by a spray of bullets and anti-personnel flechettes.’
‘The AC-130 gunship is not a precision targeting weapon, but a weapons system designed to spread death over a wide swath.’
Shockingly, MSF had already informed US military forces of the precise coordinates of the hospital in order to prevent any attacks. Indeed, the hospital is:
‘a well-known and long-established institution with a distinctive shape operating in a city that until recently was under full [Afghan] government control. That the US/NATO command did not clearly know the function of that structure is inconceivable.’
MSF were unequivocal in their condemnation of the American attack. The hospital was ‘intentionally targeted’ in ‘a premeditated massacre’. It was, they said, a ‘war crime’. The organisation rejected US assurances of three inquiries – by the US, Nato and the Afghan government. Instead, MSF demanded an independent international investigation.
In the days following the attack, the US changed its official story several times. At one point, as Glenn Greenwald observes, the dominant narrative from the US and its Afghan allies was that the bombing had not been an accident, but that it had been justified because the Taliban had been using the hospital as a base; an outrageous claim that MSF vehemently rejected. It was even reported that an American tank had later forced its way into the hospital compound, potentially destroying evidence of the war crime that had just taken place.
Yes, the bombing was reported in the ‘mainstream’ media; sometimes with harrowing footage of ruined hospital corridors and rooms. Hospital beds were even shown where patients had burned to death. But the US bombing did not receive the extensive headline coverage and editorial outrage that it deserved.
If you are unsure of that, just imagine the response of the British media if it had been a Russian gunship that had bombed a hospital with the loss of 22 lives, despite pleas from doctors to call off the attack. Western leaders would have instantly condemned the Russian bombing as a ‘war crime’, and the corporate media would have taken their lead from the pronouncements coming out of the offices of power in Washington and London.
By contrast, we have not found a single editorial in any UK national newspaper condemning the US bombing of the hospital or calling for an independent investigation. This is one more example of the dramatic subservience of the corporate media to the state and indeed its long-term complicity in state crimes against humanity.
In the meantime, with nothing to say on Kunduz, the Guardian has found space to publish editorials onhoverboards and the Great British Bakeoff, as well as Guardian editor Katharine Viner’s ‘grilling’ of George Osborne at the Tory party conference. To compound the paper’s ignominy, it still proudly carries Tony Blair in its Comment section where it describes him merely as ‘a former British prime minister’, rather than the notorious and unpopular war criminal he so clearly is. That accurate description is only emphasised by the weekend’s revelations of a memo written by Colin Powell, then George Bush’s US Secretary of State, that Blair had pledged his support for a US invasion of Iraq fully one year in advance, even while telling Parliament and the country that a ‘diplomatic solution’ was still being sought.
On BBC News at Ten on October 15, 2015, BBC North America correspondent Jon Sopel told viewers over footage of the ravaged Kunduz hospital that it had been ‘mistakenly bombed by the Americans’. Not intentionally bombed, as MSF were saying, but ‘mistakenly bombed’. BBC News were thereby adopting the Pentagon perspective presented earlier by General John Campbell, the US senior commander in Afghanistan, when he claimed that:
‘A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility’.
In fact, the US has done so before, many times. In November 2003, the first target of the huge American ground assault on Fallujah, following several weeks of bombing, was the city’s General Hospital. This was a ‘war crime’, Noam Chomsky noted, and it was even depicted on the front page of the New York Times, but without it being labelled or recognised as such by the paper:
‘the front page of the world’s leading newspaper was cheerfully depicting war crimes for which the political leadership could be sentenced to severe penalties under U.S. law, the death penalty if patients ripped from their beds and manacled on the floor happened to die as a result.’
Going further back in time, US veterans of the Vietnam war have reported that hospitals in Cambodia and Laos were ‘routinely listed’ among targets to be struck by American forces. In 1973, Newsweekmagazine quoted a former US army intelligence analyst saying that:
‘The bigger the hospital, the better it was’.
And now, in the case of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Associated Press reported that:
‘US analysts knew Afghan site was hospital’.
Moreover, it has since emerged that the American crew of the AC-130 gunship even questionedwhether it was legal to attack the hospital.
Our repeated challenges on Twitter to Sopel and his BBC News editor Paul Royall were ignored. Is this really how senior BBC professionals should behave when publicly questioned about a serious breach of impartiality? Simply deign not to answer?
However, one of our readers emailed Sopel and did extract a remarkable response from the BBC North America correspondent which was kindly forwarded to us.
Sopel wrote in his email:
‘At this stage whether the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz was deliberate or accidental is the subject of an investigation – and I know there are doubts about the independence of the inquiry – but what it most certainly WAS was mistaken. Given the outrage the bombing has provoked, the humiliating apology it has forced the US into, the PR disaster it has undoubtedly been, how can anyone describe it as anything other than mistaken? If I had used the word accidentally you might have had a point.’
But this is, at best, disingenuous nonsense from Sopel. Most people watching his piece, and hearing him say that the hospital had been ‘mistakenly bombed by the Americans’, would have assumed he meant that the Americans had not intended to bomb the hospital rather than that bombing the hospital was misguided.
As we saw above, the notion that US forces did not know the target was a hospital is the Pentagon propaganda claim, and is not the view of MSF. Moreover, it contradicts the evidence that was both available at the time of Sopel’s BBC News report and what has since come to light (that the US aircrew actually questioned the legality of the strike on a hospital). Christopher Stokes, general director of MSF, told Associated Press that the US bombing was ‘no mistake’.
‘The extensive, quite precise destruction of this hospital … doesn’t indicate a mistake. The hospital was repeatedly hit’.
The rest of Sopel’s remarks in the exchange are irrelevant (the bravery of war journalists), verging on cringeworthy (his proud support of MSF with a standing order).
Sopel’s attempt to exploit ‘the outrage’, ‘the humiliating apology’ and ‘the PR disaster’ to justify his use of ‘mistakenly bombed’ is desperate sophistry. Is he really trying to say that a war crime is ‘mistaken’ because it is a ‘PR disaster’, requiring a ‘humiliating apology’?
Perhaps the airstrike was a ‘mistake’ in much the same way that the killing of eight Afghan schoolboys by US-led troops in 2009 was a ‘mistake’? This was a ‘mistake’ that Nato brushed away with payments of $2,000 for each dead child, in a kind of macabre ‘fire sale’.
Perhaps the airstrike was a ‘mistake’ in much the same way as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the eyes of Bridget Kendall, the BBC diplomatic correspondent. She declared on BBC News at Six:
‘There’s still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?’ (BBC1, March 20, 2006)
That the Iraq invasion was, in fact, an illegal and immoral war of aggression – indeed, the ‘supreme international crime’ judged by the Nuremberg standard of war crimes – was not a permissible description for BBC News.
But that is the ideological norm shaping corporate media output and ‘mainstream’ debate. Western political and military leaders may occasionally make ‘mistakes’ or ‘disastrous miscalculations’. But their essential intent is always honourable: to ‘keep the Taliban at bay’ (Sopel again), to destroy Islamic State or to ‘bring peace to the Middle East’.
We asked John Pilger to comment on Jon Sopel’s report for BBC News and his subsequent remarks on email. Pilger told us (via email, October 19, 2015):
‘Serious journalism is about trying to set the record straight with compelling evidence. What is striking about Jon Sopel’s report is that he offers not a glimpse of journalistic evidence to support his assertion that the US attack on the hospital was “mistaken” – thus calling into question facts presented by MSF: facts that have not been refuted and he makes no attempt to refute. Neither is the dissembling by the US military challenged by Sopel. Instead, he is “certain” the attack was mistaken. What is the basis of his “certainty”? He doesn’t say; and he clearly feels under no compulsion to say. Instead, in full defensive cry, he tells us what an experienced frontline reporter he is, implying that his word is enough. Well, I have reported more wars than Sopel has had White House briefings, and I know – as he knows – that journalism of this kind is no more than a feeble echo of the official line. He does reveal his agency by telling us – quite unabashed — that President Obama has “very little option” but to continue his campaign of destruction in Afghanistan. Some might call this apologetics; actually, it’s anti-journalism.’
Perhaps it is not surprising that the header photo at the top of Sopel’s Twitter page should show him listening respectfully to US President Obama. The tragic irony is that Obama, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has just committed a war crime in bombing Médecins Sans Frontières, the 1999 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
If you decide to contact a journalist in response to our alert, please keep the tone civil. We do not condone abusive language.
Jon Sopel, BBC North America correspondent
Paul Royall, editor of both BBC News at Six and News at Ten
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