September 6, 2005
An Exchange Between The Independent's Mary Dejevsky And Lancet Author Les Roberts
"It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces." (Les Roberts, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health)
As a test of the independence and honesty of the mass media, few tasks are more revealing than that of reporting our own government's responsibility for the killing of innocents abroad. In an age of 'converged' political parties and globalised corporate influence, few establishment groups have any interest in seeing such horrors exposed, while many have much to lose. Corporate journalists are therefore subject to two very real, competing pressures:
1) the moral, human pressure of reporting honestly our responsibility for mass killing, and
2) state-corporate pressure and flak punishing dissent and rewarding servility to power.
The results tell us much about the moral and political health of our media and our democracy.
On July 20 an article by Terry Kirby and Elizabeth Davies in the Independent noted that a November 2004 report in the Lancet had estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at nearly 100,000, but that the methodology "was subsequently criticised". (Kirby and Davies, 'Iraq conflict claims 34 civilians lives each day as "anarchy" beckons,' The Independent, July 20, 2005)
The report in question was produced by some of the world's leading research organisations - the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Columbia University, and Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University - and was published in one of the world's most prestigious science journals - The Lancet. We were therefore keen to know which criticisms Kirby and Davies had in mind. We wrote to the Independent and Kirby replied on July 22:
"So far as I am aware, the Lancet's report was criticised by the Foreign Office." (Kirby to David Edwards, July 22, 2005)
Also on July 20, an Independent editorial claimed that the Lancet findings had been reached "by extrapolating from a small sample... While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted". (Leader, 'The true measure of the US and British failure,' The Independent, July 20, 2005)
We challenged the Independent's Mary Dejevsky, senior leader writer on foreign affairs:
"What is the basis for the claim that the sample was 'small'? The report authors told me that the sample was standard for research of this kind, so that 'we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!'"(David Edwards to Mary Dejevsky, July 21, 2005)
Dejevsky responded on August 10:
"personally, i think there was a problem with the extrapolation technique, because - while the sample may have been standard for that sort of thing - it seemed small from a lay perspective (i remember at the time) for the conclusions being drawn and there seemed too little account taken of the different levels of unrest in different regions. my main point, though, was less based on my impression than on the fact that this technique exposed the authors to the criticisms/dismissal that the govt duly made, and they had little to counter those criticisms with, bar the defence that their methods were standard for those sort of surveys.
regards, mary" (August 10, 2005)
We responded on August 18:
"Thanks, Mary. You say that 'personally' you 'think there was a problem with the extrapolation technique' because while the sample was standard it was 'small from a lay perspective'. Your argument then is that the problem with the extrapolation technique was that people like you had a problem with it because the sample seemed too small. That's a deeply shocking response from a senior journalist writing in a serious newspaper about such an important report. We are talking about +our+ responsibility for the mass death of civilians, after all.
"Should the methodology not be judged by the standards of science and reason rather than some ill-informed 'lay perspective'? Why on earth would we judge anything of importance by the standards of an ill-informed view?
"Your claim that the authors had little with which to counter criticism is flatly false. I can send you many powerful replies provided to us by the report authors in response to a range of (mostly trivial) criticisms we found in the media.
Dejevsky replied the same day:
"thanks - i obviously sounded more off-hand than i intended. i just feel that extrapolation may be entirely sound when you can project over relatively uniform areas (subject, geographical whatever), but that - common sense suggests - it will be less reliable when the situation is so uneven, as in iraq. this may be unjust and ill-informed, and maybe the arguments from the report's authors were not sufficiently aired because they were - in effect - suppressed. if you have some of the counter arguments i would be interested to see them (beyond the defence that the methodology is standard, tried and tested etc).
"incidentally, i think it is absolutely legitimate, and right, for journalists to apply a common sense standard to scientific arguments and methods. we should have been far more exacting over the intelligence methodology that gave us saddam's wmd, for instance. all the best, mary" (August 18, 2005)
This was a challenge we had to accept. We were disturbed by Dejevsky's response and were keen to know what the team behind the Lancet report would make of it. We contacted Les Roberts, a world renowned epidemiologist and lead author of the report. Roberts responded on August 22 with an email which he asked us to forward to the Independent:
"Dear Mr. Kirby and Ms. Dejevsky,
"I was disappointed to hear that you felt our study was in some way dismissed by Jack Straw's anemic response to our report in the Lancet last November. Serious reviews of our work and the criticisms of it were run in the Financial Times, the Economist, the Chronicle of Higher Education (attached above) and the WSJ [Wall Street Journal] Online on August 5th. Closer to home, John Rentoul of the Independent solicited a response to the Jack Straw letter last Nov. 21st and we responded with the attached letter [Not provided here]. I am told that it was printed by your paper.
"Many people, like Ms. Dejevsky, have used the word extrapolation to describe what we did. When I hear people use that word they mean what is described in my Webster's Unabridged: '1. Statistics. to estimate the value of a variable outside its tabulated or observed range.' By this definition and the one I hear used by everyone on this side of the Atlantic, we did not extrapolate. We did sample. We drew conclusions from within the confines of that universe from which we sampled. Aside from a few homeless and transient households that did not appear in the 2002 Ministry of Health figures or households who had been dissolved or killed since, every existing household in Iraq had an equal chance that we would visit them through our randomization process.
"I understand that you feel that the sample was small: this is most puzzling. 142 post-invasion deaths in 988 households is a lot of deaths, and for the setting, a lot of interviews. There is no statistical doubt mortality is up, no doubt that violence is the main cause, and no doubt that the coalition forces have caused far more of these violent deaths than the insurgents (p<.0000001).
"In essence this is an outbreak investigation. If your readers hear about a sample with 10 cases of mad cow disease in 1000 British citizens randomly tested, I am sure they would have no doubt there was an outbreak. In 1993, when the US Centers for Disease Control randomly called 613 households in Milwaukee and concluded that 403,000 people had developed Cryptosporidium in the largest outbreak ever recorded in the developed world, no one said that 613 households was not a big enough sample. It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.
"The comments of Ms. Dejevsky regarding representativeness '(it seemed small from a lay perspective (i remember at the time) for the conclusions being drawn and there seemed too little account taken of the different levels of unrest in different regions. my main point, though, was less based on my impression than on the fact that this technique exposed the authors to the criticisms/dismissal that the govt duly made, and they had little to counter those criticisms with, bar the defence that their methods were standard for those sort of surveys.)' are also cause for concern because she seems to have not understood that this was a random sample.
"By picking random neighborhoods proportional to population, we are likely to account for the natural variability of ethnicity, income, and violence. Her words above strongly suggest that the Falluja numbers should be included, rather than being used to temper the results from the other 32 neighborhoods. Please understand how extremely conservative we were: we did a survey estimating that ~285,000 people have died due to the first 18 months of invasion and occupation and we reported it as at least ~100,000.
"Finally, there are now at least 8 independent estimates of the number or rate of deaths induced by the invasion of Iraq. The source most favored by the war proponents (Iraqbodycount.org) is the lowest. Our estimate is the third from highest. Four of the estimates place the death toll above 100,000. The studies measure different things. Some are surveys, some are based on surveillance which is always incomplete in times of war. The three lowest estimates are surveillance based.
"The key issues are supported by all the estimates that attribute deaths to the various causes: violence is way up post-invasion and the Coalition is responsible for many times more deaths than are the insurgents. The exact number is less important that these two indisputable facts which helps us to understand why things are going badly and how to fix them.
I hope these thoughts are helpful.
Perhaps most damning in Roberts' reply - in light of media criticism of the Lancet's alleged exaggeration of civilian deaths - was his refutation of the claim that the uneven levels of violent unrest in Iraq compromised the accuracy of the figures. In fact the study not only accounted for this variability, it erred on the side of caution by excluding data from Fallujah where deaths were unusually high. Moreover, other violent hotspots - such as Ramadi, Tallafar and Najaf - were all passed over in the sample by random chance. This suggests that the actual total of civilian deaths is likely to be higher than 100,000. Indeed, it would make far more sense for the media to be criticising the report authors for under-estimating the number of deaths.
We wrote to Dejevsky asking if she had received Roberts' response. She replied on September 1:
"yes, and i understand the arguments. but i stick to my position that extrapolation, however scientific and well-thought through is no substitute for real figures. i know that the 'real' figures here do not exist, but i still think that extrapolation has obvious drawbacks which lay the resulting figures open to question - and therefore vulnerable to govt spokesmen who seek to discredit them. incidentally, my view on extrapolation is really neither here nor there. my chief objection to it is, as i have just said, that it lays the figures themselves open to question by those who have an interest in discrediting them.
all the best, mary"
Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic media study, Manufacturing Consent, commented on this latest response:
"Massive incompetence in support of a war-apologetic agenda. Dejevsky objects to the figures because they are vulnerable to discrediting for reasons that make no sense. I wonder if she finds sampling discreditable in all cases." (Email to Media Lens, September 1, 2005)
This is something we were keen to find out by examining media responses to other cases of sampling (see below and Part 2).
The Puzzled Epidemiologist
It is understandable that Roberts was puzzled by Kirby's and Dejevsky's responses. After all, in 2000 Roberts began the first of three surveys in Congo for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in which he used methods akin to those of the Iraq study. Roberts' first survey estimated that an astonishing 1.7 million people had died in Congo over 22 months of armed conflict - on average 2,600 people were dying every day. The IRC's president, Reynold Levy, put the figures in perspective:
"It's as if the entire population of Houston was wiped off the face of the Earth in a matter of months." (Hrvoje Hranjski and Victoria Brittain, '2,600 a day dying in Congolese war,' The Guardian, June 10, 2000)
As Roberts says, the reaction could not have been more different:
"Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity." (Quoted, Lila Guterman, 'Researchers Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why It Was Ignored,' The Chronicle Of Higher Education, January 27, 2005; http://chronicle.com/free/2005/01/2005012701n.htm )
Indeed, within a month of Roberts' IRC report being published, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that all foreign armies must leave Congo, and later that year, the United Nations called for $140 million in aid to the country, more than doubling its previous annual request. Citing the study, the US State Department announced an additional $10 million for emergency programmes in Congo.
In his October 2001 speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair said the international community could resolve many of the world's worst conflicts:
"It could, with our help, sort out the blight that is the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where three million people have died through war or famine in the last decade." ('Part one of the speech by prime minister, Tony Blair, at the Labour Party conference,' The Guardian, October 2, 2001)
The three million figure was produced by Roberts' study using essentially the same methodology employed in Iraq. And yet, in rejecting the Lancet report out of hand, Blair told parliament:
"Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is." (David Hughes, 'No inquiry into Iraq death toll, says Blair,' Daily Mail, December 9, 2004)
Foreign secretary Jack Straw said the Government would examine the Lancet figures "with very great care," adding, "it is, however, an estimate that is not based on standard methodology for assessing casualties". ('This week's big issues: New attack on Blair's Iraq policy,' The Independent, December 5, 2004)
Like so much that Straw says, this was simply untrue.
Blair's press spokesman said the government had a number of "concerns and difficulties" about the methodology used, Patrick Wintour and Richard Norton-Taylor reported in the Guardian:
"'The findings were based on extrapolation and treating Iraq as if it were all the same in terms of the level of the conflict,' he said of the study published in the Lancet. 'This is not the case.' (Patrick Wintour and Richard Norton-Taylor, 'No 10 challenges civilian death toll,' The Guardian, October 30, 2004)
Then, by way of a classic example of media propaganda, Wintour and Norton-Taylor presented the government's concocted 'controversy' as genuine:
"The controversy about the study largely turns on whether the sample size of 7,800 people used by the team of US and Iraqi academics was sufficiently large, and whether the 33 neighbourhoods chosen were representative of the rest of the country."
This, again, was false. In reality, there was and is no real controversy about the size of the sample among scientists and serious commentators. Michael J. Toole, head of the Center for International Health at the Burnet Institute, an Australian research organisation, said:
"That's a classical sample size." Researchers typically conduct surveys in 30 neighbourhoods, so the Iraq study's total of 33 strengthens its conclusions. "I just don't see any evidence of significant exaggeration," Toole added. (Cited, Guterman, op. cit)
David R. Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, said surveys of this kind always have uncertainty because of sampling and the possibility that people gave incorrect information about deaths in their households. However, Meddings added:
"I don't think the authors ignored that or understated. Those cautions I don't believe should be applied any more or any less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease." (Ibid)
The Independent helped fuel the myth of a controversially small sample:
"The Lancet said the research was based on a sample of fewer than 1,000 Iraqi households but said the findings were convincing." (Colin Brown, 'Blair petitioned to set up inquiry into Iraqi war dead,' The Independent, December 8, 2004)
The media also made much of a comment printed in the Washington Post by Marc E. Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, who said of Roberts' figures: "These numbers seem to be inflated." (Guterman, op. cit)
This was reported in the British media. Unreported anywhere, as far as we can tell, is the fact that Garlasco has since admitted that he had not read the Lancet paper at the time and calls his quote in the Post "really unfortunate". Garlasco says he told the reporter:
"I haven't read it. I haven't seen it. I don't know anything about it, so I shouldn't comment on it." But "like any good journalist, he got me to." (Ibid)
The large gap between the Lancet estimate and that of Iraq Body Count - a constant feature of press coverage - is also not controversial. John Sloboda, a professor of psychology at the University of Keele, and a co-founder of Iraq Body Count, says his team's efforts will inevitably lead to a count smaller than the actual figure because not every death is reported in the news media.
Dr. Woodruff said, "Les [Roberts] has the most valid estimate." (Ibid)
Dr. Toole agreed: "If anything, the deaths may have been higher [than the Lancet study's estimate] because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died." (Ibid)
Journalists, however, know better. Roger Alton, editor of the Observer gave us his view of the Lancet report:
"I find the methodology a bit doubtful..." (Email to Media Lens, November 1, 2004)
David Aaronovitch, then of the Guardian, told us:
"I have a feeling (and I could be wrong) that the report may be a dud." (Email to Media Lens, October 30, 2004)
Perhaps Aaronovitch's "feeling" is a close relation of Dejevsky's when she writes "I just feel" the "extrapolation technique" is unsuited to a situation as "uneven" as Iraq.
MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
September 6, 2005
MEDIA ALERT: BURYING THE LANCET - PART 2
We learn some ugly truths when we compare the media response to Les Roberts' report on Iraq with the response to his earlier work in Congo.
In our analysis we found that in both the US and the British press, news reports initially presented the estimates of 100,000 deaths in Iraq and 1.7 million deaths in Congo without critical comment. The difference lies in the days, weeks and months that followed. Whereas the Congo figures and methodology were accepted without challenge, the Iraq figures and methodology were subjected to steady, withering criticism by both politicians and journalists (with rare defences in comment pieces by, for example, Seumas Milne and Terry Jones in the Guardian).
Interestingly, we have found that the right-wing British press appears to have been marginally more rational and honest in its news reporting on the Iraq figures than the so-called liberal press. For example, the Times wrote of the Lancet report in November 2004:
"While doubts have been cast over some of the report's findings... If anything, researchers appear to have erred on the side of caution, opting to omit all data from Fallujah, where the mortality rates were significantly higher." (Sam Lister, 'Body-count report makes a mockery of Labour's "passion" for statistical analysis,' The Times, November 23, 2004)
The Financial Times even managed to make the obvious point we are making in this alert:
"This survey technique has been criticised as flawed, but the sampling method has been used by the same team in Darfur in Sudan and in the eastern Congo and produced credible results.
"An official at the World Health Organisation said the Iraq study 'is very much in the league that the other studies are in ... You can't rubbish (the team) by saying they are incompetent'". (Stephen Fidler, 'Lies, damned lies and statistics,' Financial Times, November 19, 2004)
By comparison, reports in the 'liberal' press have tended to be more sceptical of the Lancet estimates and more respectful of government criticism. For example, foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent on Sunday:
"The Iraqi Body Count figure is probably much too low, because US military tactics ensure high civilian losses. American firepower, designed to combat the Soviet army, cannot be used in built-up areas without killing or injuring many civilians. Nevertheless a study published in The Lancet, estimating that 100,000 civilians had died in Iraq, appears to be too high." (Cockburn, 'Terrified US soldiers are still killing civilians with impunity,' The Independent on Sunday, April 24, 2005)
Consider the logic - one estimate is "probably much too low" because the American army uses powerful weapons designed for Cold War combat. That is considered a serious response to one serious study. Another study "appears to be too high", presumably because American weapons are not +that+ powerful. One can only feel for epidemiologists like Les Roberts who have to read these comments on their work.
"Stunning" But "Sound" - Media Response To The Congo Methodology And Numbers
On June 9, 2000, the Washington Post and New York Times both reported the figure of 1.7 million dead in Congo without challenge. The Guardian did the same on June 10. The New York Times's 'Quotation Of The Day' on June 9 read:
"'Men with guns come and wreak havoc on a very regular basis. Those men cause more death by making people flee their homes than actually by shooting or slitting throats.' Les Roberts, supervisor of a survey that attributes 1.7 million deaths in eastern Congo to two years of war."
The Guardian reported: "a new survey by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) sheds light on what is happening across this vast country. The New York-based IRC estimates that 1.7m people have died from the war in the northern and eastern provinces alone in the past two years." (Hrvoje Hranjski and Victoria Brittain, '2,600 a day dying in Congolese war,' The Guardian, June 10, 2000)
On June 24, a Washington Post editorial observed:
"The Roberts estimate is, of course, a rough one. Nevertheless, the report deserves to be taken seriously as the first comprehensive attempt to establish the dimensions of the crisis." (Leader, 'Catastrophe in Congo,' Washington Post, June 24, 2000)
In April 2001, Karl Vick of the Washington Post described updated IRC figures for Congo (approaching three million dead) as "stunning" such that they "beggar belief even among some war zone demographers". Vick cited the reaction of Jeff Drumtra, a researcher for the US Committee for Refugees:
"One doesn't know what to do with that kind of estimate except reach down and pull your jaw up off the floor." (Vick, 'Death Toll in Congo War May Approach 3 Million,' Washington Post, April 30, 2001)
Vick continued: "Independent experts who have reviewed both IRC reports say the surveys appear to be sound." He cited a Western medical epidemiologist with long experience in humanitarian emergencies:
"'My personal belief is these numbers are the absolute best that could be done in the circumstances, and there's absolutely no reason to believe any bias of any kind has found its way in.'"
On May 10, 2001, the Washington Times reported IRC estimates as fact and sympathetically interviewed Les Roberts, asking him questions such as: "How does this disaster compare in scope and scale to other African crises?" and "What can be done?". (Didi Schanche, 'War deaths on "horrifying" rise, IRC says,' Washington Times, May 10, 2001)
The New York Times wrote in April 2002:
"To policy makers, humanitarian workers or journalists working in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the hardest things to find is a reliable number... Because of the scarcity of numbers here, those that do exist tend to be more politicized and less scrutinized than they are elsewhere." (Norimitsu Onishi, 'African Numbers, Problems and Number Problems,' New York Times, April 18, 2002)
Of Roberts' Congo figures, however, the New York Times concluded: "The agency's figures have been well accepted."
The Guardian reported updated IRC figures in April 2003:
"A total of 4.7 million people have died as a direct result of the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war in the past four and a half years, according to a report released today by the International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency."
The article added:
"With a margin for error of 1.6m - a standard proportion is applied to areas too dangerous for researchers to reach - IRC admits its estimate is approximate. Yet few aid workers in eastern Congo doubt that a total death toll of 4.7m is possible.
"'With an almost complete lack of medical care, as well as food insecurity and violence over a vast area, this number does not seem exaggerated,' said Noel Tsekouras, the UN humanitarian coordinator for eastern Congo." (James Astill, 'Away from the worlds gaze 4.7m die in Congo,' The Guardian, April 8, 2003)
We found literally dozens of examples of this kind. Even though the estimates of death in Congo clearly astonished even experienced observers of the conflict, the media reported the figures with essentially zero mention of any concerns about the validity of either the numbers or the methodology.
"Egregious Politicization" - Media Response To The Iraq Methodology And Numbers
Consider by contrast a June 23, 2005 editorial in the Washington Times in response to the Lancet report. The paper lamented an instance of "egregious politicization of what is supposed to be an objective and scientific journal". The editors explained:
"We're referring to the Lancet's role in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with a cynical 'study' of deaths in the Iraq war in October. The study, led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, purported to show that nearly 100,000 deaths had resulted from the Iraq war. But as it turned out, Mr. Roberts used less-than-ideal methods and then overstated his results, possibly by a factor of two or three."
Echoing the remarkable comments made by the Independent's Mary Dejevsky about the lack of "real" figures, the editorial continued:
"The method for this study - looking at population figures and surveying a few thousand Iraqis to ask how many deaths they'd heard of - abstracted the question and avoided the hard work of actually documenting the deaths." (Leader, 'The Lancet's Politics,' Washington Times, June 23, 2005)
Following the standard misrepresentation, the Washington Times added:
"In any event, the fine print showed the study didn't really even conclude 100,000 deaths occured. It actually concluded that casualties were somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. At the time, the British research group Iraq Body Count had placed the number of confirmed deaths reported in the media at around 15,000 - probably a low estimate, but not by a factor of six."
The conclusion was calculated to be as damning as possible:
"Does the publication of one politically motivated study mean the entire product of a journal is suspect? Of course not. But it rightly raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic and showed that even the most esteemed and avowedly apolitical institutions can be suspectible to hijacking."
In December 2004, the Washington Times wrote:
"Or how about the constantly cited figure of 100,000 Iraqis killed by Americans since the war began, a statistic that is thrown about with total and irresponsible abandon by opponents of the war. That number, which should be disputed at every turn by those who care about the truth of what is going on in Iraq was derived from a controversial study by the British journal of medicine the Lancet. It is five to six times higher than the highest estimates from other sources of all Iraqi deaths, be they military or civilian. The Lancet study relied on reporting of deaths self-reported by 998 families from clusters of 33 households throughout Iraq, a very limited sample from which to generalize.
"As the Financial Times reported on Nov. 19, even the Lancet study's authors are now having second thoughts." (Helle Dale, 'Biased coverage in Iraq,' Washington Times, December 1, 2004)
The New York Times quoted Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, who said the Iraq Body Count figures were within the realm of reason: "We've used their data before. It's probably not too far off, and it's certainly a more serious work than the Lancet report." (Hassan M. Fattah, 'Civilian Toll in Iraq Is Placed at Nearly 25,000,' New York Times, July 20, 2005)
In Britain, the pro-war Observer noted that the Lancet study "was published soon before the US election, bringing accusations that the respected journal had become politicised. Journalist Michael Fumenton [sic] of the US-based TCS [Tech Central Station] website called it 'Al-Jazeera on the Thames'."
Reporter Jamie Doward added:
"The report's authors admit it drew heavily on the rebel stronghold of Falluja, which has been plagued by fierce fighting. Strip out Falluja, as the study itself acknowledged, and the mortality rate is reduced dramatically." (Doward, 'Death in the desert: Why I was right on the 100,000 dead,' The Observer, November 7, 2004)
This foolish rendering of the report was corrected in a 97-word paragraph in the paper one week later ('For the record,' November 14, 2004), which noted that Falljuah had in fact of course been stripped out. But the correction was low-profile and the damage had been done.
In the Guardian, professor of mathematics John Allen Paulos wrote:
"Given the conditions in Iraq, the sample clusters were not only small, but sometimes not random either... So what's the real number? My personal assessment, and it's only that, is that the number is somewhat more than the IBC's confirmed total, but considerably less than the Lancet figure of 100,000." (John Allen Paulos, 'The vital statistics of war,' The Guardian, December 16, 2004)
We were unable to find a single example anywhere in the British or US press of a commentator rejecting the Congo figures and offering their own "personal assessment" in this way.
In an article entitled, 'We should be counting the dead in Iraq, but let's not get the figures out of proportion like this,' the Independent on Sunday's chief political commentator and Blair biographer, John Rentoul, demonstrated standard media ignorance in discussing the Lancet's 100,000 figure:
"However, this number is only the central point of a range that extends from 8,000 to 194,000. This huge disparity was mocked ignorantly by one American commentator as 'not an estimate, it's a dartboard'. It was also defended, equally ignorantly, by the editor of The Lancet, who said: 'It's highly probable the figure is 98,000. Anything more or less is much less probable.' Both wrong. What the figures say is that there is a 95 per cent chance that the true figure lies between 8,000 and 194,000... It is statistically respectable, which is why The Lancet article passed its peer reviews, but it produces estimates hedged about with great uncertainty.
"And there are good reasons for thinking that the true figure is towards the lower end of The Lancet's range." (Rentoul, 'We should be counting the dead in Iraq, but let's not get the figures out of proportion like this,' December 10, 2004)
And there are good reasons for questioning Rentoul's objectivity. Writing in the wake of the July 7 London bombings, Rentoul wrote:
"The worst succour that the anti-war left in Britain can give to the terrorists, however, is to entertain the idea that there is a moral equivalence between the deliberate killing of civilians and the casualties of military action in Iraq."
He added that, "even Iraq Body Count, an anti-war campaign, puts the total attributable to coalition forces at under 10,000, rather than the figure with an extra zero that is the common misconception of anti-war propaganda". (Rentoul, 'Islam, blood and grievance,' The Independent, July 24, 2005)
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School, Columbia University, Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University, and The Lancet, being, we must presume, anti-war propagandists.
Writing in the New Statesman, Peter Wilby notes that Rentoul "has written a reverential biography of Tony Blair, and even the former Guardian (now Times) columnist David Aaronovitch must concede to him the palm for unstinting support of new Labour". (Wilby, 'To judge from my e-mails,' New Statesman, September 5, 2005)
No small achievement.
Conclusion - A Striking Example
Regardless of the rationality or facts of the matter at hand, when the US and British governments rejected the Lancet's 100,000 figure as wildly exaggerated and flawed, the US and British media simply fell into line. But flawed methodology cannot be the determining factor, because the same media entities expressed zero dissent in response to the same lead researchers using the same methods in Congo.
The difference in media performance is clearly explained by the stance of power - the establishment on which the media system depends and of which it is a part. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more striking example of how the mass media act as a propaganda system for these interests.
Given the extraordinary gravity of the issue - our governments' responsibility for the illegal killing of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians - it is also hard to imagine a more appalling journalistic failure and betrayal.
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