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Journal of Peace Research award December 15, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality.
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The Journal of Peace Research Article of the Year Award has gone to Neil F. Johnson, Michael Spagat, Sean Gourley, Jukka-Pekka Onnela & Gesine Reinert for ‘Bias in Epidemiological Studies of Conflict Mortality’ (Journal of Peace Research 45(5): 653–663).

This is the “main street bias” (msb) research which highlighted problems with a variant of cluster-sampling methodology used to estimate mortality from the Iraq war/occupation (in the study by Burnham et al, published in the Lancet journal, 2006).

According to the jury who awarded the prize, the peer-reviewed study on msb:

…provides an important advance in the methodology for estimating the number of casualties in civil wars. The authors show convincingly that previous studies which are based on a cross-street cluster-sampling algorithm (CSSA) have significantly overestimated the number of casualties in Iraq.

Several of my friends and colleagues have been (over-)protective of the Lancet study ever since George Bush ignorantly declared that its methodology was “not credible”. I hope they’ll come to realise that the business of importing epidemiological techniques into conflict-zone research on violent deaths (for which they were not originally designed) has a long way to go. And that research such as the above should be seen as part of the much-needed scientific progress in this area, not as another “enemy” of the antiwar cause.

Full reply to Medialens December 5, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Medialens.
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The following is my reply to the editors of Medialens, after their “Alert” [of 4/12/08] attacked this blog. [See, also, George Monbiot's reply to Medialens]

Dear David and David,

The way I read your Alert [4/12/08] is as follows: you start with an attempt at character assassination, then you target George Monbiot with a guilt-by-association line. And this is in response to a one-line question posed by George on your message board? The whole alert reeks of defensiveness.

You also state that I’m “wrong on every level”, but in fact you refute none of my points (the best you can manage is your assertion that I “misrepresent” you at one point – which I dispute). More on that below.

At the top of your alert, before providing any argument, you set the tone by writing of me: “he has smeared us whenever and wherever he can across the web”. That’s a serious charge, but you provide no examples, no evidence of these “smears”. Instead, you mention my piece which criticises your alert on Nick Davies and his book, Flat Earth News. But you provide no direct link – you link instead to your own forum, which has a link to another message board, on which my piece can be found. (So, with some effort, your readers can check whether I’m really “smearing” you or just criticising you).

My blog contains a lot of criticism of Medialens (although not as much as Medialens’s rather obsessive criticism of Monbiot). If it’s true that I “smear” you “whenever and wherever” I can, then presumably my blog should be full of those “smears”. It’s odd, then, that you cite none, particularly as you seem to use my blog as part of your guilt-by-association attack on Monbiot.

You first attempt a “substantial” criticism with the following:

“In other words, Shone’s claim that we ‘stress that journalists should “subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism”‘ in the alert is simply false – we said no such thing. He misrepresented what we wrote. In our experience, this is a standard Shone tactic. It is also something you could easily have checked.”

This is pretty staggering given that the words “subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism” are a direct quote from your alert. And that elsewhere you’ve written: “What we’ve said is that we think dissident journalists can and should do more to draw attention to the failings of their host media in those media and outside.” That’s fairly typical of your output. Of course, you often qualify such remarks (as you qualified the above) by adding that there are taboos and constraints which make “criticising the host media” risky and difficult. But you don’t argue that journalists shouldn’t *try* (even though it might ultimately be unsuccessful). It seems a bizarre, and rather defensive, overreaction, therefore, for you to describe my statement as “simply false” and as a “misrepresentation”. (I note that someone has made a similar point on your message board).

You’ve previously accused George Monbiot of being “unwilling to criticise the Guardian’s role in limiting public understanding of our government’s responsibility for crimes against humanity” (Alert, 10/12/02). Is that not a way of saying that you think George *should* be more willing to criticise the Guardian (in a more “serious and sustained” way)? Or are you playing some semantic game, in which you don’t actually mean what you appear to say?

Moving on, you don’t attempt to refute my claim that “in a single Guardian article (The Lies of the Press), Monbiot wrote more words criticising the Guardian than Medialens wrote criticising the New Statesman in their entire run of NS columns.”

Instead, you write “We did criticise the New Statesman while we were writing for them (2003-2005) both in the magazine and in media alerts”.

But the example you provide is one of the two that I’d included in my word-count comparison. There are only two cases of your NS column being critical of the NS. I cited both. You quoted the longer one (brief though it was). The other is as follows: “The fallout from the Hutton report, John Kampfner notes in the New Statesman, is ‘a tragedy for investigative journalism’ as, pre-Hutton, the BBC was ‘beginning to ask searching questions’. Nothing could be further from the truth”. (NS, 23/2/04)

And that’s it for your entire run of NS columns. It’s not surprising then that you’d concentrate on your alerts instead, even though they were largely irrelevent to the points I made (the one exception being my observation that you didn’t issue an alert over the NS’s Iraq special edition). The comparison in my blog was between your NS column and Monbiot’s Guardian column. This was for the very good reason that your criticisms of Monbiot mostly concern his Guardian column.

An interesting part of your alert is where you claim that your NS columns, although not directly critical of the NS (except for the above two exceptions) are “implicitly criticising almost everything the magazine said” (since they were about “corporate media propaganda”). Of course, you could use the same logic to claim that almost every Monbiot column “implicitly” criticises the Guardian, since they address aspects of the power structure of which the media is an integral part. In fact, this perspective would save you a lot of trouble, as you wouldn’t have to criticise Monbiot so much. Unfortunately, however, the bottom line for Medialens is your own narrow criteria and your own particular semantic interpretations, which you seem to dictate that everyone else must accept.

It’s great, by the way, that you issued a few alerts critical of the NS while you were writing for them (although irrelevant to the particular points in my blog entry, as I’ve noted). And it’s interesting that you think your May 2005 alert may have been “the last straw” as far as the NS was concerned (you state that Kampfner rejected your next submission). Have you checked this interpretation of events with Wilby and Kampfer? Could there not be other reasons for your regular column coming to an end?

At this point in your alert, you quote me as saying: “In other words, Medialens were concerned about holding onto their column. Direct ‘full-frontal’ criticism of the NS would endanger that.”

What you fail to mention is that I was commenting on your own remark concerning your NS column, “one might get away with the kind of full-frontal assault you’re suggesting once, but probably not more than once” – given by you in February 2005 as one of the reasons for not devoting a NS column to criticism of the NS Iraq special edition.

If you now say that you weren’t concerned about holding onto your column, then I accept this “in good faith”, but it doesn’t change the fact that in February 2005 you stated, as a reason for not launching a “full-frontal assault” on the NS, that you would probably lose the column as a result.

You also stated at the time (immediately after your NS “full-frontal” comment) that, “By contrast, when appearing in the Guardian we felt it was important for us to draw attention to the Guardian’s failings no matter what the consequences were”.

This clearly demonstrates that you were concerned about the “consequences” of criticising the NS too strongly from within your NS column. Or at least that’s how you felt at the time.

Talking of your Guardian piece, it’s at this point in your alert that you describe my actions as “shameful” (which at least provided some unintended humour to lighten the otherwise defensive tone of your alert). You wrote:

“It is telling, in fact shameful, that Shone, who claims to be so meticulous, forgot to mention the far more pertinent example (certainly from your point of view): our record of criticising the Guardian in and out of the Guardian.”

Of course this is completely irrelevant to any points I made in my blog. Your Guardian piece was strictly a one-off. It was never intended to be a column, as far as I’m aware. So how is this remotely comparable to the risk of losing a regular column – which is the underlying issue touched upon in my blog?

Finally, you refer to my comment: “One wonders why Medialens were so hostile towards Milne”. You quote this out of context. It wasn’t referring just to your NS comment about Milne (about his “gall”, etc), but also to the various comments you made about Milne on your message board at that time (a few of which I noted in the footnotes of my blog).

It’s also interesting that you again present yourself in a heroic light over the fact that the Guardian (I assume you mean Milne or Rusbridger or both?) stopped returning your emails. It’s as if we’re meant to infer that this was due to your “risky” action of criticising the Guardian from within a Guardian article (after you’d agreed with Milne on this), when obviously it could be for other reasons.

To conclude, you’ve not really addressed my main points, let alone refuted them. The best case you can make is that I “misrepresented” you over the “subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism” line. That’s not much of a case, with respect.

Your character assassination looks to have been more successful though, judging from the amount of abuse I’m receiving on your message board. One post states that I’m a “jumped up little amateurish twerp”. I thought that your board guidelines required posters to be civil and respectful. If you’re looking for real “smears”, look no further than your own message board whenever unapologetic critics of Medialens are discussed.

Since you don’t allow me to post on your message board, I’d be grateful if you would be courteous enough to post this email in its entirety. I’m copying it to George Monbiot, and hoping that George will gently prompt you to post it if you’re reluctant to do so.

Best wishes,

Robert Shone

Medialens, Monbiot, Wilby, Milne November 28, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism, Medialens.
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[Update: George Monbiot's reply to Medialens
concerning this blog post - Robert Shone]

Medialens stress that journalists should “subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism” (see footnote 1). They’ve attacked Guardian columnist George Monbiot for not being more critical of the Guardian.(2) Yet, in a single Guardian article (The Lies of the Press), Monbiot wrote more words criticising the Guardian than Medialens wrote criticising the New Statesman (NS) in their entire run of NS columns.(3)

A striking example of Medialens’s double standards occurred in early 2005.The NS published a special “Iraq” edition to coincide with the “first” “democratic” elections in Iraq. Its general tone was establishment-friendly, eg:

“The democracy the Iraqis are about to get will be infinitely preferable to Saddam’s odious tyranny.”

“The first democratic elections in Iraq’s history ought to be an occasion for celebration…”

“If they get a measure of democracy, at least something will have been salvaged. Why begrudge them that?”

(Leader, New Statesman, 31 January 2005)

This seemed a good opportunity for Medialens to practise what they preached. They’d already criticised the media (but not the New Statesman) for being “almost unanimous in describing the elections as democratic and free” (NS, 24/1/05). Now they could use their NS column to criticise the magazine and its editor, Peter Wilby.

In fact, Medialens went uncharacteristically quiet at this point. No criticism of the NS in their remaining NS columns (and no “alerts” prompting readers to complain to Wilby). The Medialens editors were asked (on their message board) why they didn’t devote a column to criticising the NS on this matter. They responded:

The New Statesman column is a tiny window of opportunity (600 words every 3 to 4 weeks, at £60 a time, by the way) for us to raise important media issues [...] one might get away with the kind of full-frontal assault you’re suggesting once, but probably not more than once. (Medialens editors, Medialens message board post, February 2005)

In other words, Medialens were concerned about holding onto their column. Direct “full-frontal” criticism of the NS would endanger that. Their concern was understandable, although they’d previously asked George Monbiot if he’d considered resigning as Guardian columnist in protest at the Guardian’s performance over Iraq (Alert, 2/12/02). Presumably it didn’t occur to the Medialens editors to ditch their own column over the NS’s performance.

There’s a further twist to this “remarkable” hypocrisy. The Guardian’s comment editor, Seumas Milne, put the NS to shame by writing perhaps the only UK mainstream piece which portrayed the Iraqi “democratic” elections as a sham. You’d think Medialens would’ve approved, but Milne’s article committed the sin of not criticising the Guardian. David Edwards (Medialens co-editor) promptly wrote a letter to the Guardian complaining about it, and then criticised Milne in his NS column:

The Guardian comment editor, Seumas Milne, has even had the gall to complain that the elections “are routinely described by the BBC as Iraq’s first free and democratic elections”.

How convenient to take a free shot at the media’s favourite punchbag, when not just Milne’s own paper, but his entire industry, is pumping out exactly the same crass propaganda. (Medialens editors, New Statesman, 24 January, 2005)

This was just one week before the NS “Iraq” special edition which “pumped out” more of this “crass propaganda” – at which point the Medialens editors apparently decided to be less vocal on the issue. One of Medialens’s rationalisations for not criticising the NS was as follows:

But the NS really is small beer, we’ve generally used our precious 600 words every 3 or 4 weeks to take on much bigger media and issues. (Medialens editors, Medialens message board post, February 2005)

So, Seumas Milne was judged by Medialens to be higher than the NS in the hierarchy of “serious wrongdoers worthy of Medialens’s criticism”? It’s curious that apart from a different emphasis on criticising the media, Medialens’s NS column (24 Jan 2005) is very similar to Milne’s Guardian column (13 Jan 2005) – the same Tony Blair quote in the opening paragraph, exactly the same points about elections conducted by puppet regimes, the Fallujah refugees unable to vote, government crackdowns on al-Jazeera and press, the absence of monitoring by election observers, etc.

One wonders why Medialens were so hostile towards Milne [the Medialens editors continued their rant on their message board, accusing Milne of taking "risk-free swipes" at the BBC, and of having a "superficial" output compared to John Pilger's, etc(4)]. Even allowing for Medialens’s particular focus on “failings of the liberal media” it seems a strange overreaction.

Footnotes:

1. The exact wording from their Alert (3/5/03) is: “The astonishing result is that we know of not one journalist writing in the mainstream willing to subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism”. Elsewhere, they’ve written: “What we’ve said is that we think dissident journalists can and should do more to draw attention to the failings of their host media in those media and outside.” (Medialens message board, February 2005) – note added 7/12/2008

2. For example, the Medialens editors accuse Monbiot of being “unwilling to criticise the Guardian’s role in limiting public understanding of our government’s responsibility for crimes against humanity” [Alert, 10/12/02]. Recently, they’ve written that Monbiot “continues to be used as a fig leaf to cover the Guardian’s failure to challenge power” [Alert, 26/11/08]

3. I found only two cases (27/10/03, 23/2/04) of Medialens criticising the NS in their run of NS columns. Both very brief (total word-count of criticisms = 108). Monbiot’s criticism of the Guardian in his Guardian article is 116 words long.

4. The Medialens editors wrote: “You can’t possibly compare Milne’s occasional, superficial comments on the media with [Pilger's] body of really excellent work challenging the system.” (Medialens message board post, 21 January 2005)

Medialens’s embarrassing archive (part 7) – betraying Monbiot November 15, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens.
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In 2003 George Monbiot wrote privately to the editors of Medialens about his colleagues at the Guardian. The Medialens editors decided to broadcast this to the world (“In private, Monbiot has talked very differently of a cell of hardcore reactionaries on the Guardian…”). Monbiot wasn’t pleased, and responded:

Finally, you ask me “what is your view of the Guardian’s reporting on Iraq?” Last time I gave you my opinion on the Guardian’s coverage, I asked you to treat it in confidence. You betrayed that confidence. (George Monbiot, email to Medialens, October 14 2003)

Spanish Inquisition

The reply, in turn, from Medialens to Monbiot sounds almost comical in a Pythonesque way:

Your silence in response to our question about your views on the performance of the Guardian is remarkable. You say we betrayed your confidence. Even if true, that would hardly justify not speaking out honestly now on such an important issue. (Medialens alert, 28 October 2003)

A poster to the Medialens message board probably best summed up this embarrassing episode:

Monbiot spoke candidly in private with the Daves [Medialens editors Edwards & Cromwell] about his own working environment on the understanding that they would respect his confidence. But they ratted on him instead, paraphrasing his remarks about his employers on the internet, although there was no value whatsoever to publishing the source of remarks of that kind, except to their own attempt to batter him [Monbiot] into a recantation and the barely disguised slightly sadistic satisfaction of hurting him personally and claiming to be doing so for the public good. They had, they said, not only the moral right but the moral obligation to trick Monbiot in this low down dirty way, in disregard of the consequences to him, because clearly George Monbiot has no right to decide for himself what he wished to say in public – the editors, who are divinely inspired, will make those decisions for themselves and for everyone else… (Molly, Medialens message board, 3 February 2005)

Misrepresenting “science” November 8, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens, Project Censored.
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“Over One Million Iraqi Deaths Caused by US Occupation” (Project Censored)

“I don’t believe there is any consensus that the number is that high” (David A. Marker, chair of the American Statistical Association’s Scientific and Public Affairs Advisory Committee, and author of the ‘Methodological Review’ [of the Lancet 2006 study])*

Anyone who consults the available research will recognise that there’s no scientific consensus supporting the “one million deaths” claim, but several influential websites (Project Censored, Just Foreign Policy, Medialens, etc) present it as if there is a supporting consensus.

Medialens, for example, write that “1.2 Million Iraqis Have Been Murdered” (subheading in their 18/9/07 alert) – although in a later article, they deny promoting the figure as if it were factual:

But who has asserted the 1 million figure as “a fact”? Certainly we at Media Lens haven’t. We have simply reported the most credible scientific advice on the most credible numbers. And as you know, science is not about offering certainty… [Medialens, email to John Rentoul, 4 April 2008]

Of course, this is disingenuous. Medialens have not “simply reported the most credible scientific advice”. They’ve reported one peer-reviewed study (and one unrefereed poll)** and ignored (or overlooked) at least five peer-reviewed studies (plus several critical reviews by leading researchers).*** And all the research they’ve ignored (or overlooked) coincidentally does not support their statement that “1.2 Million Iraqis Have Been Murdered”.

Curiously, Medialens also write: “It seems clear that the Lancet figure of 655,000 deaths, although now a year out of date, was accurate”. Clear to whom? Few “credible” scientific researchers share Medialens’s “certainty” over the accuracy of this figure. Most in fact are honest enough to admit they are unclear over the real number of deaths.

* Email from David Marker to me (6/11/08). I’d asked him if he was aware of any scientific consensus supporting the “over one million deaths” claim.
** Medialens cite the Lancet 2006 study (peer-reviewed) and the ORB poll (which isn’t peer-reviewed science).
*** For example see Leading researchers disagree with Project Censored.

Medialens’s embarrassing archive (part 6) November 4, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens.
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—Offending the wrong people—

Medialens’s fourth “alert” attacking Iraq Body Count begins as follows:

Noam Chomsky once observed: “If you are not offending people who ought to be offended, you’re doing something wrong.”

One indication that the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project is doing something wrong is that it is deemed, not merely inoffensive, but is eagerly embraced by people who really ought to be offended…

Medialens used the same Chomsky quote to attack BBC’s Adam Curtis (whose series, Power of Nightmares, had been widely praised). It’s notable that Medialens don’t apply the same logic (that if you receive establishment praise, you’re doing something wrong) to themselves. In fact, Medialens tend to boast about the establishment praise they receive. For example, even though they believe that BBC2′s Newsnight is “complicit in war crimes”, they never tire of telling readers that Newsnight editor Peter Barron said something flattering about them. Here’s what Barron said:

David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the [Medialens] site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right. (Peter Barron, BBC2 Newsnight editor, Nov 2005)

Perhaps Medialens should work harder to live up to the Chomsky quotes with which they attempt to ridicule others. They’re certainly offending a lot of people (eg George Monbiot, Nick Davies, Stephen Soldz), but not the ones who really “ought” to be offended. The Observer’s foreign affairs editor (who opposed the war) described Medialens’s campaign against IBC as “deeply vicious”.

…………….

Medialens’s embarrassing archive (part 5) November 3, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens.
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Medialens prompts its readers to send emails to journalists and others. The Medialens editors then copy the “best” of these emails to their message board, partly to show how rational, coherent, informed and polite their readers are. (They once wrote that their readers’ emails were “awesomely polite”).

An example is given below. It was an email sent to Iraq Body Count (in response to a Medialens “alert” on IBC). It’s fairly typical, and carries the seal of approval of the Medialens editors (who posted it).

It’s also so incoherent and irate that I’ve added a brief translation, to save you the strain of extracting meaning from the static.

First, here’s the email:

Dear Sirs,

I must say I am shocked after reading the Media Lens investigation into your reported figures, not so much by their apparent inaccuracy, but by the fact that you are not fighting your corner! I would expect you to loudly and angrily protest that your figures are indeed accurate and explain why. If you cannot do this then should be utterly ashamed of yourselves. Instead you are mumbling about changing things in the future. Why are you even bothering? If you can’t (or more likely won’t) produce even approximately accurate figures, what is point of continuing? To put it bluntly, you’ve been rumbled, but instead of closing down the site, or updating and explaining the gross inaccuracy of your figures, you’re just carrying on as normal. History doesn’t record what the Emperor did when it was obvious he was naked, but I bet he didn’t carry on with the procession.

Shame on you.

Martin Gibbons
(Posted by Medialens editors to the Medialens message board, 14/3/06)

Here’s my condensed translation:

Dear Sirs,

Your figures are apparently inaccurate.
I would expect you to loudly and angrily protest that your figures are indeed accurate and explain why.
Instead of explaining the gross inaccuracy of your figures, you’re just carrying on as normal.

Shame on you.

Mr Gibbons provides no examples of any figures, so it’s difficult to judge their accuracy or inaccuracy.* But as the Medialens editors explained, it’s really remarkably shameful that IBC didn’t interrupt their work on Iraqi deaths to provide a full response to Mr Gibbons’s “rational questions”.

*None of the studies on Iraqi deaths provide “accurate” estimates of the total killed. Unlike Medialens and their followers, most experts in the field have no problem with IBC’s figures, or the way they’re presented (as an incomplete count). For example, Beth Osborne Daponte (the renowned demographer), writes that “Perhaps the best that the public can be given is exactly what IBC provides – a running tally of deaths derived from knowledge about incidents.”

Medialens’s embarrassing archive (part 4) November 1, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens.
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“There is no ‘campaign’, Bob”

Medialens have always denied running a campaign against Iraq Body Count (IBC). After several months of this “not-a-campaign”, a Medialens reader suggested it should be ended. The Medialens editors replied:

There is no “campaign”, Bob – certainly not one owned or directed by us. (Medialens editors, Medialens message board, 30 May 2006)

Then a Medialens supporter replied, with some understatement:

Editors, I’m afraid I’d have to disagree [...] – it very much does seem that you’re waging some sort of campaign against IBC and their volunteer staff. (SueC, Medialens message board, 30 May 2006)

I listed (17/10/06, PoV site) some of the elements of this not-a-campaign, mostly from the Medialens message board. (Some are documented by IBC [eg p36-38]). For examples/sources of the others, please contact me):-

  • [The multiple Medialens "alerts" targeting IBC].
  • The vicious smears about IBC “aiding and abetting in war crimes”, etc.
  • The insinuations that IBC don’t “care” about the suffering of Iraqis.
  • The slurs that they “bask in the glow of war apologists”, etc.
  • The discrediting of [IBC's John] Sloboda by digging up old pieces quoted out of context.
  • The suggestions that IBC “shut down”.
  • The insinuations that they were behaving in a “suspicious” way.
  • The claims that they were “deliberately” letting their work be “misused”.
  • The accusations of “complicity” in mass slaughter.
  • The nasty personal insults (examples available on demand).
  • The unsupported claims that IBC are “cosy with” military/intelligence.
  • The claims that IBC were “assisting the US government”.
  • The moral sermonising “the honourable thing to do…”.
  • The accusation that IBC “undermined” the work of others.
  • The insinuations about careerism (while Roberts ran for Congress).*
  • The endless parade of misinformed falsehoods and distortions.**
  • The guilt-by-association bullshit.
  • The endless stuff about “you’ve been rumbled”, etc.
  • The claims that IBC “actively endorsed” misquotes of their work.
  • The errors (admitted, too late in the day, by Les Roberts).***
  • The absurd credentialism (“he’s only a guitarist”).
  • The personal character assassinations of John Sloboda.
  • The smears about propaganda for war criminals.
  • The surreal insistence of peer-review for IBC’s defense of itself against against the above.

By April 2006, there was no doubt that we were witnessing a full-blown smear campaign – prompted, directed and encouraged by the Medialens editors. A few dissenting posts to the Medialens message board expressed it well:

Any passing martian who drops in on this board must, by now, be under the impression that IBC declared war on Iraq, invaded the country and now occupy it since more venom has been directed at [IBC's] John Sloboda and his team than at those who are responsible for the disaster there. (SueC, Medialens message board, 9 April 2006)

And another:

…as I watch the [Medialens] editors in a thread above trying to apply the moral screws on their opponent [IBC] again, I don’t think that’s [conciliatory gestures] going to happen any time soon. (finn mccool, Medialens message board, 30 May 2006)

Others have been critical of Medialens’s campaign. Peter Beaumont of the Observer described it as “deeply vicious”. Robin Beste, of Stop The War coalition, wrote of his impression “that IBC was being excessively hounded” (in an email cc’d to me, 28/3/06).

Medialens’s embarrassing archive (part 3) October 29, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality, Medialens.
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Presumably anxious to present their campaign (against IBC) in a positive light, the editors of Medialens (in late March 2006) took credit for a claimed amendment to a BBC web page. And they generously acknowledged the help of their supporters in this supposed achievement by announcing:

“Well done everyone” (Medialens editors, Medialens message board, March 2006)

But the amendment that Medialens took credit for (a note about limitations of IBC’s approach) was entirely imaginary. As was pointed out to me at the time, the BBC page hadn’t changed since it was first published on 14 December 2005, more than a month before Medialens began their campaign. (The only changes were the updated numbers and a note about morgue figures which were recently added). Oops.

Medialens were rather less vocal over a clear example of the failure of their campaign. They’d hoped to inform the media and others that IBC’s figure was an incomplete count and not a “total” estimate (as IBC themselves have always made clear). Disappointingly, not even Les Roberts or Gilbert Burnham (co-authors of the Lancet 2006 study) got this right. In a prominent article for Slate magazine, Roberts and Burnham made the “shameful” error (Medialens had been condemning journalists in strong terms for making precisely this error):

“President Bush stated that 30,000 ‘more or less’ had died. The president’s estimate roughly matched the estimates of Iraq Body Count, which derives its total by monitoring newspaper reports of violent deaths. Today, IBC estimates there have been 45,000 to 50,000 violent deaths.” (Slate, 20 November 2006)

Medialens have always been quiet about this.

Misrepresenting Iraq Body Count October 22, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq, Iraq mortality, Media watchdogs.
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Note: An extended, updated version of this post
was published as a
featured article by ZNet.

David Edwards and David Cromwell (editors of Media Lens) have published several articles attacking Iraq Body Count (IBC). Their claims have been widely circulated as part of a sustained, vigorous (and at times aggressive) campaign against IBC. But Media Lens’s case against IBC is riddled with errors, and is discredited by recent research (WHO/IFHS, CRED, etc).

Basic errors by Media Lens

• One of the main premises of Media Lens’s campaign against IBC is that “IBC is not primarily an Iraq Body Count, it is not even an Iraq Media Body count, it is an Iraq Western Media Body Count” (Media Lens 14/3/06, my emphasis).

This is entirely false. IBC use non-Western media sources and non-media sources (eg hospital, morgue and NGO data). They monitor 72 major “non-Western” media on a daily basis, along with 120 “Western” sources. (IBC)

Many incidents/deaths in IBC’s database are from the major wire agencies. This merely reflects the fact that, for example, Reuters covers by far the highest percentage – approximately 50% of documented incidents, compared to 35% from Al Sharqiyah TV (another IBC source), and much lower coverage by other media sources, “Western” or “non-Western” (IBC). Note also that at the level of reporting utilized by IBC, the dichotomy of “Western” vs “non-Western” is false, as agencies such as Reuters employ (for example) Iraqi journalists in covering Iraqi incidents (“We mainly use local reporters, Arab reporters can go out and talk to people” – Reuters’ Baghdad bureau chief).

• In their first article targeting IBC, Media Lens wrote:

“Whereas the Lancet report estimated around 100,000 civilian deaths in October 2004, IBC reported 17,000 at that time.”

This is incorrect in two ways, and is typical of the lack of thoroughness in Media Lens’s research. First, the Lancet study didn’t estimate “civilian” deaths as Media Lens claim (its estimate includes “combatants” as well as civilians). Second, IBC record only violent deaths, so the comparison should be between 57,600 and 17,687 (57,600 being the Lancet study’s estimate of violent deaths, according to Lancet co-author Richard Garfield). But even that isn’t comparing like with like, since IBC do not include combatant deaths, whereas the Lancet study does.

• One of Media Lens’s main claims is that IBC captures only “5-10% of the true death toll”. One can see immediately that this isn’t supported by their comparison of Lancet 2004 and IBC. (IBC’s count of violent civilian deaths is 30% of Lancet 2004′s estimate of total violent deaths. In other words, IBC is capturing much more than 30% of the “true death toll” of violent civilian deaths, given Lancet 2004 as a measure).

(It’s interesting to note that later estimates, eg from IFHS and CRED, show that IBC is capturing at least around a third of violent civilian deaths – contrary to the claims of Media Lens. An earlier estimate, from ILCS, shows IBC capturing well over a half of violent civilian deaths.)

Latest errors by Media Lens

Media Lens continue their attack on IBC in a more recent article, Iraq Body Count: “A Very Misleading Exercise”. This contains several misrepresentations and errors, which I list below:

1. Media Lens write: “IBC’s response to the suggestion that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths has been, in effect, ‘Prove it!’”

This is plainly false. IBC have always stated that “many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.” Media Lens are aware of this (they’ve quoted IBC’s statement) and cannot claim ignorance.

2. Media Lens: “It is striking that IBC link to a high-profile media report that so badly misrepresents its figures”.

This is misleading. The purpose of IBC’s link (titled “Lists of victims or victim categories to signal the pervasive impact on every sector of Iraqi society”) is to provide an example of how media have used IBC’s data on individual victims (see lower section of the cited article, which is clearly titled “Victims’ Stories“).
Whether Media Lens’s assertion that the article “misrepresents” IBC figures has any merit or not is irrelevant to the point of the link. IBC doesn’t endorse misrepresentations of its figures.

(Given Media Lens’s advocacy for the Lancet studies on Iraq mortality, it’s “striking” that they fail to mention a similar misrepresentation of IBC’s figures by the Lancet study’s authors, in an article for Slate magazine: “Today, IBC estimates there have been 45,000 to 50,000 violent deaths”).

3. Media Lens: “Whereas IBC have responded vigorously, indeed tirelessly, in responding [sic] to the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies…”

In fact IBC released only two documents commenting on Lancet 2006 (both mildly critical) and one on Lancet 2004 (uncritical):

http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/beyond/lancet100000/
http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/beyond/reality-checks/
http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/beyond/state-of-knowledge/ (only part of this document deals with Lancet 2006).

That Media Lens is now condemning IBC for “responding” to the Lancet studies is itself an ironic turn of events. One of the main complaints of Media Lens’s earlier articles targeting IBC was that IBC were “Refusing to Respond”.

medialens_ibc_01

— Medialens alert, 14 March 2006—

4. Media Lens: “It was [Marc] Herold’s Afghan Victim Memorial Project that inspired John Sloboda to set up IBC. Herold’s ‘most conservative estimate’ of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from American/NATO operations is between 5,700 and 6,500. But, he cautions, this is ‘probably a vast underestimate’
[...] There is no reason to believe that the application of the same methodology in Iraq is generating very different results.”

Again this is mistaken and misleading. IBC use the same general approach as Marc Herold has used for Afghanistan, but they don’t use the same methodology. One of three reasons listed by Herold in support of his comment in the same article is that his count includes civilian victims directly killed by US/NATO bombings and military action, while excluding victims of the Taliban or other perpetrators. IBC of course includes killings by any perpetrators in Iraq. There are several other differences in the methodologies, and there are also reasons to believe the approach in Iraq is generating somewhat different results than in Afghanistan. But it is unlikely that Media Lens have looked into the matter in enough depth to know the reasons. They have not looked into the matter closely enough even to know that there are differences in the methodologies, or even to know that it is not Herold’s “Afghan Victim Memorial Project” (begun in 2004) that inspired IBC, but rather his “Daily Casualty Count of Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombing” – begun in 2001), two wholly different projects.

In any case, Herold has now written to ZNet stating that the paragraph written by Edwards and Cromwell has inaccuracies which need to be corrected, and that the inference drawn from it regarding IBC is unwarranted.

5. Media Lens: “…what IBC is doing to promote or reduce the confusion”.

This is an unworthy insinuation, suggesting IBC are “promoting” confusion, but providing no examples of this.

6. Media Lens: “Well, the bureau chief of one of three Western media agencies providing a third of IBC’s data from Iraq sent this email to a colleague last year (the latter asked us to preserve the sender’s anonymity)”.

Media Lens also cited an “anonymous epidemiologist” in their earlier pieces targeting IBC. It was noteworthy then, as it is now with this anonymous “bureau chief” and “colleague”, that these unnamed sources weren’t able to send their comments directly to IBC (who would, of course, have treated them in confidence), or stand behind them publicly. In effect it amounts to 3rd-hand rumour-mongering.

7. Media Lens: “…a new ORB poll revealing that 1.2 million Iraqis had been murdered since the 2003 invasion”.

This is inaccurate. ORB estimated 1.2 million murders. They did not “reveal” any number of actual murders. Note also that the ORB poll wasn’t peer-reviewed science. According to ORB’s publicity literature, the person conducting ORB’s poll, Munqith Daghir, began his polling career in 2003, with little in the way of formal training or field experience. The ORB poll doesn’t have the scientific standing of major studies such as ILCS, which Media Lens failed to mention.

8. Media Lens: “Why is it important for IBC [...] to challenge the methodology and conclusions of epidemiological studies published in the Lancet…”.

IBC didn’t “challenge” Lancet 2004 (see IBC’s uncritical press release on Lancet 2004), so Media Lens are incorrect to write “studies” (plural). And other leading researchers besides IBC have expressed scepticism over the Lancet 2006 estimates: Jon Pedersen of the UNDP Iraq study, demographer Beth Osborne Daponte, Fritz Scheuren, a past president of the American Statistical Association, Professor Hans Rosling and Dr Johan Von Schreeb at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Oxford physicists Neil Johnson and Sean Gourley, Debarati Guha-Sapir, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), among many others.

9. Media Lens: “Secondly, while IBC’s self-described task does indeed require only “care and literacy”, does not the task of challenging peer-reviewed science published by some of the world’s leading epidemiologists require very much more? Does it not, in fact ‘require statistical analysis or extrapolations,’…”.

In fact, it does not require “statistical analysis” to observe that the Lancet 2006 figure implies that half a million death certificates are missing. It does not require “extrapolations” to observe contradictions in the accounts of the Lancet 2006 team’s description of sampling, or to note that the sampling methodology as published wouldn’t give you “random” street selection. You don’t need “world’s leading epidemiologists” to appreciate how important random sampling is.

Conclusion

The rhetorical basis of Media Lens’s campaign against IBC is: “how dare these data collectors tirelessly and vigorously criticise an epidemiological study”. It’s a weak and misleading argument, and an appeal to crass credentialism. It’s noteworthy that Media Lens don’t apply the same credentialist standards to the ORB poll which they endorse (and which, as noted above, is not peer-reviewed science). It’s noteworthy also that (to date) Media Lens have ignored a large body of science (from leaders in the fields of demography and epidemiology) which tends to support and confirm the data collected by IBC.

Bear in mind that Media Lens went as far as writing (in a letter to New Statesman magazine, 16/10/06) that, “to our knowledge, IBC has not been able to demonstrate support for its methods from a single professional epidemiologist”. Presumably they weren’t paying attention to the views of leading epidemiologists such as Debarati Guha-Sapir, Olivier Degomme, Mohamed M. Ali, Colin Mathers, J. Ties Boerma, etc.

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