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[casi] The BBC's John Sweeney On "The Pilger-Baathist Line"

02nd July 2003

Media Lens Alert: Manufactured Controversies

The BBC's John Sweeney On "The Pilger-Baathist Line"

The 'Nut' Theory Of Dissident Journalism

Because dissident arguments are almost never seen in the mainstream media,
they often strike the reader as surprising and even shocking. A close friend
commented to us recently:

"If what you say is true and credible experts have been saying for a long
time that Iraq has no significant WMD capability, how can it be that I
didn't see this possibility mentioned +anywhere+ in the media before the
war?" (Friend to Media Lens Editors, The Giddy Bridge public house,
Southampton, May 17, 2003)

The confusion is understandable. Two possible conclusions are suggested:
either shocking dissident revelations are a sign of some kind of systemic
suppression of information - but how would that work? - or the dissident
journalist is some kind of nut with a chip on his or her shoulder.

At first sight, the 'nut' theory is attractive, but the key to making a
rational decision is to look beyond dissident arguments to the sources
informing them - how credible are they? If it turns out that these weird
ideas are rooted in real evidence and authoritative opinion, then we might
be on to something.

It is significant, then, that the standard mainstream response to dissident
arguments is 1) to ignore dissident sources altogether, suggesting that the
arguments originated solely with the dissident - and 2) to ascribe them to a
thoroughly disreputable source. The Observer's Nick Cohen provides an
example of the first tactic:

"I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose
a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of
thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a
prison state (don't fret, they'll get there)." (Cohen, 'Blair's just a Bush
baby', The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The key words: "they claim". We can almost imagine Chomsky and Pilger pacing
up and down in an 'anti-American' frenzy when the idea suddenly came upon
them: 'Of course, mass deaths as a result of sanctions!'

An example of the equally deceptive second tactic is provided by the BBC's
Ben Brown:

"He [Saddam Hussein] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens
to near starvation - pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and
despairing mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which
he'll now have to give up." (Ben Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)

Obviously, if the claim were Saddam's alone, it would have zero credibility
(in which case, of course, it would not even be discussed by the likes of
Brown). If the original claim is made by someone credible and then
+repeated+ by Saddam, is it honest and unbiased journalism to ignore the
credible source and to cite the incredible repetition?

The "Pilger-Baathist Line"

One of the more spectacular examples of this kind of propaganda was provided
in a recent article by John Sweeney in the Spectator. In it, Sweeney uses
both of the strategies outlined above to smear John Pilger:

"For years John Pilger - 'one of the world's most renowned investigative
journalists', it says on the back of his latest book - has been insisting
that the West, not Saddam, is to blame for the crisis in Iraq's public
health; that 5,200 Iraqi children were dying every month; that Western
depleted-uranium weapons were to blame for an epidemic of cancers; that
sanctions crippled Iraq's doctors. Funnily enough, Pilger's journalism
echoed what the Baathist regime wanted people to hear." ('The first casualty
of Pilger... John Sweeney says that John Pilger blames the Americans alone
for birth defects in Iraq, and overlooks evidence that implicates Saddam
Hussein', The Spectator, June 28, 2003,žion=current&issue=2003-06-

In an earlier Observer article, Sweeney located a different source for the
mass deaths argument, describing: "Saddam's efforts to portray... children
as victims of Western sanctions, which he claims have cost hundreds of
thousands of young lives." (Sweeney, 'How Saddam 'staged' fake baby
funerals', The Observer, June 23, 2002)

Sweeney was honest enough to point out in the Observer article that the
claims on the mass death of Iraqi children were not simply cooked up by
Pilger, or by fellow human rights campaigner, Saddam Hussein:

"In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a
retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The
projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime
that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by
Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet."

We sent Sweeney's Observer article to Hans von Sponeck, who had run the UN's
oil-for-food programme in Iraq. Von Sponeck's response was damning:

"Sweeney's article is exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian,
double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its
own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A
journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international
researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important
figures. Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but
ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data
analysis exactly because they did not want to politicize their work... This
article is a very serious misrepresentation." (Email to Media Lens Editors,
June 24, 2002)

Von Sponeck felt sufficiently moved to write to Sweeney directly:

"Dear Mr. Sweeney, I have always held the 'Observer' in high regard. I am
therefore even more taken aback by the article you have written on Iraq in
which you consider the mortality figures as Iraqi propaganda. Unfortunately
it is very difficult to get any statistics on Iraq which are as rigorously
researched as would professionally be desirable. This includes the available
mortality figures. You are, however, very wrong in your assessment of the
UNICEF analysis.

UNICEF, of course, cooperated with the Government but methodology of
analysis and the findings is UNICEF's. A large team of UNICEF professionals
subjected the data to rigorous review to avoid what you have not avoided and
that is a politicization of statistical material. This is not professional
and disappoints. Why did you not consult with UNICEF/Baghdad and New York
before you wrote your article? I am sure you did not want to play into the
hands of those who want to find reason to discredit every effort that tries
to portray the enormous damage that sanctions have done to Iraq in addition
to the damage the Iraqi civilian population has experienced from within. But
this is exactly what you have done, making a difficult situation even more
difficult. Regards, Hans von Sponeck" (Forwarded to Media Lens, June 25,

Sweeney uses the corruption of the Iraqi Ministry of Health to attack what
he outrageously describes as "the Pilger-Baathist line" in his Spectator
article. He reports the views of two doctors interviewed by him in Iraq:

"They damned the health ministry under Saddam as a corrupt and brutal
instrument of state oppression. They said that many medicines had been held
back in warehouses. The ministry was trying to make healthcare worse in
Iraq, the goal being to blacken the name of UN sanctions, which Saddam
detested as a brake on his power. The fewer drugs, the worse the equipment
and the more dead babies, the better it was for the regime. Any Iraqi
doctors who didn't toe the line were punished."

To be sure these views are worthy of consideration. But whereas Sweeney is
willing to present sources for his own arguments, he offers none that might
lie behind "the Pilger-Baathist line". Adnan Jarra, a UN spokesperson in
Iraq, told the Wall Street Journal last year:

"The [oil-for-food] distribution network is second to none. They [the
Iraqis] are very efficient. We have not found anything that went anywhere it
was not supposed to." (Quoted, Anthony Arnove, 'Iraq: Smart Sanctions and
the US Propaganda War', ZNet Commentary, May 21, 2002)

Tun Myat, the administrator of the UN oil-for-food programme, said in an
interview with the New York Times:

"I think the Iraqi food-distribution system is probably second to none that
you'll find anywhere in the world. It gets to everybody whom it's supposed
to get to in the country." (Ibid)

Denis Halliday, who set up the UN's oil-for-food programme in Baghdad, has
said there was no evidence of the cynical withholding of food and medicines
by the Iraqi government:

"There's no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has
reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by
the government in Baghdad... The Secretary-General would have reported that.

We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been delays
there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the Iraqi
government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders - $5
million of aspirins or something - to some small company that simply
couldn't do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months
maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions
Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe
ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth,
knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use.
Those nine then go ahead - they're ordered, they arrive - and are stored in
warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be
used because they're waiting for other components that are blocked by the
Sanctions Committee." (Interview with David Edwards, March 2000,

Sweeney continues:

"In Victorian London the biggest killer was not the absence of medicines. It
was unclean water, untreated sewage and uncollected rubbish. In Saddam's
Iraq dirty water, untreated sewage and uncollected rubbish from the Shia
slums of Baghdad and Basra were state policy for a regime that earned $12
billion in oil revenue every year. Yet Pilger makes no mention of Saddam's
neglect of public health. Why?"

The claim that Iraq's collapsed infrastructure is the result of wicked
"state policy" is foolish and merely capitalises on the endless demonisation
of Saddam Hussein. In 1991, UN Under Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari
reported the effects of bombing during the 1991 Gulf War, describing the
"near apocalyptic" state of Iraq's basic services. "Iraq has for some time
to come been relegated to a pre-industrial age", he wrote, "but with all the
disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and
technology." (New York Times, June 3, 1991)

The key point - ignored by Sweeney - is that the restriction of resources as
a result of sanctions made the large-scale reconstruction of this
infrastructure impossible. In March 1999 an expert 'Humanitarian Panel'
convened by the Security Council concluded the UN's 'oil-for-food' programme
could not meet the needs of the Iraqi people, "regardless of the
improvements that might be brought about in the implementation of" the
relief programme. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness website, March 2002:

The Panel continued:

"Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about - in terms of
approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding
levels - the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be
met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]... Nor was the
programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people... Given the
present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its
rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme." (ibid)

Their conclusion being that:

"The humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the
absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be
achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts".

In other words, regardless of Iraqi "state policy", Iraq was condemned to
chaos and suffering by the US-UK stifling of the economy through sanctions.
Sweeney rejects, and/or ignores, all this as part of "the Pilger-Baathist

A Disgrace To Journalism?

Sweeney continues:

"That the cancer rates from 1991 onwards are the fault of the West's
depleted-uranium weapons alone was one of Saddam's central messages."

Sweeney again uses the trusty intellectual sleight of hand - if Saddam is
the only source for a claim, it must be ridiculous.

Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium
Project, who was tasked by the US department of defence with organising the
DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War, is himself ill:

"I am like many people in Southern Iraq. I have 5,000 times the recommended
level of radiation in my body. The contamination was right throughout Iraq
and Kuwait. With the munitions testing and preparation in Saudi Arabia,
uranium contamination covers the entire region... What we're seeing now,
respiratory problems, kidney problems, cancers, are the direct result of the
use of this highly toxic material. The controversy over whether or not it's
the cause is a manufactured one; my own ill-health is testament to that."
(Quoted, Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2002, p.48)

According to Rokke, a former professor of environmental science at
Jacksonville University, the US and UK have covered up the hazards, despite
the rising death toll among allied troops who fought in the Gulf from
illnesses linked to DU exposure, including Gulf War syndrome. Rokke says:

"DU is the stuff of nightmares. It is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for
4,500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and
short-term memory damage. In semen, it causes birth defects and trashes the
immune system." (Quoted, ibid)

Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at City University of New York, has

"Ultimately, when the final chapter is written, DU will have a large portion
of the blame [for health problems in Iraq]." (Scott Peterson, 'DU's fallout
in Iraq and Kuwait: a rise in illness?' The Christian Science Monitor, April
29, 1999)

Siegwart-Horst Gunther, a German epidemiologist and president of Yellow
Cross International, set up to protect children's health, said his studies
in Iraq since 1991 had led him to believe that contact with DU weapon debris
was linked to "sharp increases in infectious diseases and immune
deficiencies, Aids-like syndromes, kidney disorders and congenital
deformities". (Richard Norton-Taylor, 'Uranium shells warning for Kosovo
alternative maybe: MoD accused of hiding truth', the Guardian, July 31,

Against this serious scientific evidence, Sweeney proposes his own theory
involving Iraqi chemical weapons:

"Mustard gas - sulphur mustard - is carcinogenic and mutagenic. That is,
sulphur mustard causes cancers, leukaemias and birth defects. The children
of Iranian soldiers who were gassed by Saddam's men have developed terrible
cancers and birth defects. No depleted-uranium weapons were used on them.
The children of Halabja, the Kurdish town gassed by Saddam, have developed
cancers and birth defects. Again, no depleted uranium was used on them."

Sweeney quotes Pilger to the effect that US chemical warfare in Vietnam
caused an increase in cancers. Sweeney then reports that a journalist,
Gwynne Roberts, dug up soil in Iraq in 1988 which was found to contain
traces of mustard gas. Beyond this he presents no credible sources, hard
facts, or research, in support of his claim. Instead he cites two opinions -
his own and Roberts':

"Roberts's view, like mine, is that - without letting the West off the hook
on the question of depleted uranium - the contribution that Saddam's
chemical weapons may have made to the Hiroshima Effect should be seriously

Sweeney's conclusion, based on this evidence:

"To omit the possibility that some of the cancers were caused by Saddam's
chemical weapons is to misrepresent the facts. To imply by that omission
that depleted uranium is solely responsible for the cancers and birth
defects in Iraq as he does in his book, his film and in the Daily Mirror is
a disgrace to journalism.

I accuse John Pilger of cheating the public and favouring a dictator."

But as Sweeney himself writes, the effect of chemical weapons "should be
seriously investigated" - clearly indicating that it has not been
investigated. In other words, as he himself makes clear, there are no facts
to misrepresent.

This is the depressing level of rational thought in a mainstream media
system protected from almost all serious criticism: it is "a disgrace to
journalism" to omit to mention hypothetical facts which a journalist happens
to believe would be revealed and would be important if the issue were ever
seriously investigated. This is remarkable.

Unfortunately, Sweeney has form. In responding to an earlier response of
ours to an article he had written, Sweeney responded:

"I don't agree with torturing children. Get stuffed."
(Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002. See: 'Media Alert: John Sweeney
Of The Observer And The BBC on Mass Death In Iraq', June 24, 2002'. Also,
John Sweeney Responds on Mass Death in Iraq and On', June 28, 2002,


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for
others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to
maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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