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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A Lynching at the BBC

Sometimes I write up a post, and then I find that Lileks is writing about the same thing. Quite frankly, this happens way too often to be coincidence. James Lileks comes to me in dreams, smoking cigarettes and coating my cerebellum with a dark, sticky film. STOP IT, JAMES!

It happened again today. Fortunately, there was really not much overlap in the two posts, about the comments BBC readers/viewers had regarding the Jessica Lynch rescue story.

You get off easy this time, James.

Begin original post:

For my money, the most interesting thing about this BBC story---which says that the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch was staged, that there was no opposition at the hospital and that the soldiers fired blanks---is the comments it has provoked.

The comments fall into basically three categories. The first are those who urge a bit of caution on the BBC story---there are only a relative handful of these. About a third of these are indignant at the BBC for daring to air this story. The worst (which I include as my token effort toward "balance") is this one:

Jessica Lynch is our treasure and everybody involved with getting her back should be honoured not ripped apart.
Joe Parks, USA

And may I say, bleah.

The second class of comments are from Americans saying, "Thank God for the BBC! Any American with any brain cells---which is only me, and a couple of my friends---knows the American media is filled only with lies, Lies, LIES! And government propaganda!":

Thank God for the BBC. You don't know how your helping to keep the sanity of us Americans who have braincells. Everytime one of my fellow citizens falls for these Hollywood movie stunts, I fell like strangling them. The US Media needs daily humilation doses. Thank you for helping.
Joan Ranade, USA

Huh. Guess I didn't really have to make up a silly, hysterical example; Ms. Ranade already provided us with one. Here's another in the same vein:

This is news, but not terribly shocking. Any intelligent American will balance US reports against non-US news and make a rationale decision - with little weight to be given to the US gov't. Most Americans, however, are not intelligent and prefer to accept everything which is easy and spoon-fed.
Michael DiPresso, NYC, USA

The third major group of comments comes from people wetting themselves over anything that will confirm their bad opinion of the Bush administration and the US in general. I offer this fine, if rather extreme, example:

This fabricating the news of Private Lynch's rescue is just another incident in which the Bush administration and its appointees control information. Making the military heroic is one way to make the American public more accepting as the Bush gang continues to turn the country toward military governance. And the American people are so busy cheering, they don't see what's truly happening.
Sandra Carrubba, USA

Now, one thing that crops up again and again is the absolute confidence of most of the commenters that the BBC can have no agenda of its own---no bias, conscious or not. Apparently it can't even make a mistake. Anything the US government or the military says is probably lies, but the BBC is beyond reproach:

What is worrying here is some of the comments by our American friends. If they question the validity of the BBC, their only ally, then what hope does other media in the world in questioning USA foreign policy, and states for that matter? This report seems to be the only the tip of the iceberg.
Mark, Glasgow, UK

There are many more comments, some of which seem to be coming from an alternate universe. For example:

...No-one who watched the coverage of the war could have been in any doubt that, from its very outset, all the news the public was issued with was heavily biased towards the coalition.
Richard, UK

But if I had to pick only one comment that sums it all up, I think it would have to be this one:

I think those who question the accuracy of John Kampfner's account of the Jessica Lynch rescue are rather missing the point. The bigger picture was the impossibility of getting anything like honesty or objective fact out of the military and political administration.

It is not about who did what, or who is telling the truth, but that the press has access to the facts to enable us to make our own minds up. This, as Kampfner's excellent work illustrated, was continuously refused every day in Doha.
I Ginsberg, UK

See, it doesn't matter if the BBC's report is correct or not, the real story is the fact that the government constantly lies. And if it should turn out that the BBC's story is 100% fabrication, and the military's version is 100% correct, well, we can't let that alter our conclusion that the government is always lying. No matter what the pesky "facts" of the matter---our prejudices are confirmed!

Now, among all these comments---which are chosen for publication by the BBC---comments along the lines of Warren "Wilbur" Smith's, which goes into technical details about the improbability of blanks being used, seem to be conspicuous by their absence. The comments page has not been updated in at least a day, even though I could not find a notice saying that the comments are closed (the BBC usually announces when this has happened). The commenting form is still there at the bottom of the page.

Smith also has a post commenting on this Guardian article, also by Kampfner, which contains essentially the same info as the BBC piece. If the dreaded Blogger Archive Bug strikes, here's Smith's home page.

And in this CNN story, Kampfner "defends" his story. (Note: the picture caption calls Kampfner "Kampener", and that's the way it's spelled in the URL, too.) When asked directly about the Iraqi doctor's statement that the US troops had used blanks, Kampfner says, "Well, that is his contention," making it seem as if he was merely reporting what he was told. Except that he has built an entire story---an entire scandal---around basically that point.

The other elements of Kampfner's article were the story about the ambulance (supposedly, the Iraqi doctor had tried to get her to the Americans in an ambulance, which was then fired on at a checkpoint, and was forced to return), and Lynch's wounds (the doctor said she did not have gunshot or stab wounds). The CNN interview says that they reported the ambulance story long ago (I never heard it), and many sites carried multiple and conflicting reports about whether Lynch had stab or gunshot wounds (I still don't know the truth of this). Those are hardly news, and are really only damning if you assume that the rescue mission was entirely staged; the blanks are the smoking gun, if you will, of that theory.

(Actually, I believe that Kampfner's BBC piece implies that the doctor had arranged with the Americans to deliver Lynch ["Two days before the snatch squad arrived, Harith had arranged to deliver Jessica to the Americans in an ambulance."], and that they shot at her ambulance either due to incompetence, or---more in keeping with the tone of his story---because they'd decided they'd rather stage a dramatic "rescue". I don't know if that's what Kampfner means to imply, or whether it's just sloppy writing or editing.)

In the CNN interview, Kampfner says:

The British were worried about the Lynch episode, but they saw this more in general terms. They were worried about the entire U.S. media operation.

The man behind the scene sent a long a letter to Blair's head of strategy, Alex Campbell, setting out in quite considerable detail his misgivings about the way the Americans conducted the whole media operation from Doha.

At the same time, in our film, the British military spokesman, who figured very much in BBC, CNN and all international broadcasters' coverage of the war, told us on camera that he was deeply unhappy with the American media handling, and he said to us, there were two different styles of media management. There was the American one and the British one, and I was pleased to be part of the British one.

And that to me, that's a pretty damning indictment.

Note the shadowy "man behind the scene". Behind what scene? Where? He seems to be describing some sort of British official, but who he is or what office he's with is completely unknown. Also unknown is just what, exactly, he or any other British official was unhappy with. It's all very vague, and (dare I say it? dare! dare!) McCarthyesque.

I will also point with great glee to the notion that a Briton claiming to be pleased to be part of a British, rather than American, operation is somehow a "damning indictment" of the American way of doing things. In my experience, the British seldom recognize the concept of different-but-equal. Either you do things the British way, or you're doing them wrong. (And when it comes right down to it, even when those colonial johnnies do things the British way, they still can't get it right.)

And that's even without noting that it would be extraordinary indeed for a British officer to say he'd rather be part of the American operation, and vice versa.

In conclusion, let me remind you of the BBC's preferred way of dealing with the military, which is to emit "questions" in the form of propaganda statements that could be later re-worded into things like, "The general denied reports of 5 million dead in Umm Qasr alone."