Saturday, December 10, 2005

Webb, wrong yet again

On Wednesday evening, in a radio report about Condoleeza Rice's announcement regarding the use (or lack thereof) of torture on terrorists outside of the US, BBC's Five Live radio had Justin Webb on to clarify things for its audience. During the course of his report (about 1 hour 35 minutes into the show) Webb was asked:
How has this announcement gone down in Washington?
Webb responded:
Never mind Washington, look across the United States. All the polls suggest that Americans do not want people to be tortured in their name.
This is a classic example of why the BBC in general, and Webb in particular, simply cannot be trusted to report the news factually. Just one day before Webb's report, an AP-Ipsos poll was released which showed that 61% of Americans supported the use of torture on at least "rare" occassions. Back in November, a Newsweek poll (scroll down) showed that 58% of those polled said they would support torture if it might lead to the prevention of a terrorist attack.

As I must say so often when it comes to Webb, he is either deliberately deceiving his audience, or he is plainly incompetent. The fact that the BBC continues to employ this man and allow him to pontificate on issues in America says a great deal about the BBC's institutional commitment, or rather lack thereof, to truth and accuracy.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Guardian breathes new life into Sheehan mania

After having been used by the media to liven up the otherwise monotonous days of August down in Crawford, Texas, and with her extended 15 minutes of fame rapidly coming to an end in the US, Cindy Sheehan has apparently decided to seek out an environment a bit more amenable to her publicity seeking ways by making the trek across the ocean, arriving here in Britain yesterday. Not surprisingly, The Guardian’s Duncan Campbell did not waste any time at all in obliging, conducting an interview with her in a taxi on her way to London from the airport. (I wonder who picked up the taxi fare.)

The article is, naturally, a complete puff piece, turned over primarily to Sheehan’s own views with nary a word of criticism or contrary point of view to be heard. Campbell certainly show no interest in challenging her bizarre take on things. But he can’t even get the simplest facts correct. He begins the sympathetic portrayal of Sheehan by describing her as “a housewife and a mature student.” Well, let’s see: she’s spends most of her time at protests rather than at her house; she’s no longer a wife;according to Campbell himself her “campaigning work leaves her no time for anything else,” which presumably includes enrollment in any class that would qualify her as a “student”; and she engages in the most unserious, childish rants against the president. She is, on the other hand, a ripe old 48 years old, so perhaps Campbell was just using euphemism to avoid describing her as “middle aged”. We’ll give him a dubious pass on “mature”.

Of course, given that Sheehan’s rise to prominence has come primarily through the exploitation of her soldier son’s death in Iraq, Campbell would be remiss if he did not engage in at least a little exploitation of his own. Hence he opens his piece by introducing us to young Casey.
When Casey Sheehan joined the army in May 2000, he was assured that he would never see combat. Four years later, he was killed in Iraq.
And, just in case you didn’t get the point, Campbell reiterates it later:
Her son Casey signed up in the final months of the Clinton era, at a time when there seemed to be little possibility of war in foreign fields. "His recruiter told him that even if there was a war, he would never see combat because he had scored so high in the entrance exam - he'd only be in a support role," says Cindy.
Ah yes, poor Casey was lied to, and he paid the ultimate price for that lie. Trouble is, the facts sort of get in the way of that narrative. This is a classic case of The Guardian lying through omission.

The truth, according to a David Gelertner article in the LA Times, is that Casey’s obligation to the army ended in 2004, with him alive and well, despite the war having been going on for the better part of a year. He then took it upon himself to voluntarily re-enlist, in full knowledge of the on-going situation in Iraq and that he would most likely be sent back there. He then was sent back as a mechanic attached to an artillery division…or, put another way, in a non-combat “support” role. When a convoy was attacked in Sadr City, Casey volunteered to go on the rescue mission, despite having no formal obligation to take on that combat role. And it was on that mission that he was, sadly, killed.

In other words, Casey Sheehan exhibited all of the virtues that mark the best of a military hero. Yet, rather than celebrating him as the hero he was, Campbell and The Guardian instead choose to paint him as nothing more than a witless victim from beginning to end…a victim of his recruiter, of Bush, of the nation.

Cindy Sheehan, at least, has the fact of her obvious grief at losing a son to explain her tenuous grip on reality. How Campbell excuses his shoddy reporting and his exploitation of Sheehan’s grief, I don’t know.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Today was a momentous day in history

Did you know that today, December 8, is the 14th anniversary of the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, and hence the official end of the Cold War? On this day in 1991, national political leaders from the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics issued a joint declaration that the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States. Thus ended the longest military and ideological struggle that Britain and America had ever been involved in. And yet today, less than two decades later, it is barely recalled.

Although the BBC does not find the fact to be as notable as the introduction of television cameras into the House of Lords (or, in fact, notable at all), I think it is worth reflecting today not only on the demise of the single greatest and longest standing threat to Britain and America since the end of World War II, but also on the great British and American leaders who helped precipitate that demise.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

This guy needs a more ambitious lawyer

Apparently a Lebanese-German man is suing the CIA for inflicting upon him "prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment". He's seeking damages of......"at least" $75,000.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Working for the enemy?

BBC bigwig John Simpson chimes in today with another column on Iraq. It raises some very interesting questions.

Simpson makes the point that, far more than a conventional war (which, he acknowledges, America "would win hands down"), Iraq is "a war of public relations", and not just for America. He also says that "For the insurgents, too, this is a war for public opinion." And although he avoids coming out and saying it baldly, it is clear that Simspon thinks the "insurgents" are winning this particular public relations war.

Now, whether or not he is correct about this, the very fact that he thinks it raises an interesting, and perhaps troubling, issue. John Simpson is an opinion columnist for the BBC. As such, presumably, he hopes to help shape public opinion about issues he writes about. That is, afterall, why pundits offer their opinions up to the public - in the hopes of influencing the opinions of members of that public. And, if the Iraq war is a battle for public opinion, then isn't it fair to ask what role John Simpson, as a shaper of public opinion, is playing in that war?

Take, for instance, the very column under question. What is the likely effect on public opinion of Simpson's sage observations? Well, let's look at the observations/opinions he is promoting:
  • America's military strength is not all that helpful in Iraq.
  • On the same day Bush pledged "nothing less than complete victory", 10 marines were killed in Iraq which, Simpson reminds us, is atypically yet particularly significant.
  • The Pentagon "presumably" witheld the news of the deaths for 24 hours for political/propaganda reasons.
  • If America can declare victory "of a kind", withdraw its troops, and leave Iraq to "sink or swim" on its own, then even if the "insurgents" ultimately win the war outright, America could claim to be uninvolved.
  • The Iraqi army is ill-suited and ill-equipped to take on the "insurgents".
  • The US "has not succeeded in neutralising the insurgency in any of the major population centres in the Sunni heartland."
  • History strongly favors an "insurgent" victory.
  • The insurgents "had the better of" the war for public opinion last week. (This, by the way, the week in which the "insurgents" killed 2 British civilians at the airport and kidnapped a German, an American, two Canadians, and a Briton, civilians all, holding them hostage. Simpson doesn't mention these events, so it is not clear whether or not he considers them to be a part of the good PR week for the "insurgents".)
This is all pretty demoralizing stuff. Which seems to be rather the point. Significantly, Simpson offers up no suggestions or opinions about what to do to correct this seemingly hopeless situation. He is content simply to encourage his readers to adopt his gloomy view of the future.

Now if, as Simpson proclaims is the case (and I think he is correct at this point), public opinion is the "real battleground" of this war, and John Simpson himself is helping to shape that opinion through the use of his (tax-funded) opinion column, then in light of the opinions he is promoting, it seems entirely fair to me to wonder just who John Simpson is pulling for.