Writing that "655,000 dead" report
- 16 Oct 06, 09:46 AM
I would just like to add some points, as the reporter who covered a story that has now become controversial on the BBC Editor's Blog:
1) The "pre-mails" were interesting, generally forwarded to me by Peter - but they did not influence my report. I became aware that some of them might do - the point is I do not care whether somebody complains in the aftermath about my stuff, as long as I have worked in good faith and followed the (i) the principles of my profession (ii) the rules laid down by my bosses (distinclty in that order)....
: but a journalist perpetually looking over their shoulder in fear of bias might have let one or other side sway them along the lines of "better stay away from that, it's controversial".
2) By far the most interesting part of the day for me was interviewing Sir Richard Peto - a statistician who had been critical of the first JH Uni report but said this one was statistically valid. He kept saying it in every answer he gave me: to me this took the story further than simply "one side's truth versus another's" - it made it credible. Note there is a difference between being credible and true.
3) On Medialens, a leftwing site that monitors the media, forum posters decided to nitpick my report - in once case helpfully, in others not. Some were angry that we "gave credence" to the critique of Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. We did exactly give it credence - that is we said it was a credible (and, given the status of Brookings, both authoritative and politically identifiable). O'Hanlon, for was just one voice (another could have been Iraq Body Count) which argued in favour of a different methodology for counting (passive surviellance). (The one bit of useful clarification from a poster on Medialens was that the 69% of violent deaths not attributable to the coalition action were not positively identified as being the result of "insurgency or incipient civil war". I should probably have added "...general lawlessness and say the authors the coalition-killed number may be an under-estimate". However I stand by trying to explain what did kill those people if it was not the bullets of the coalition: that is, insurgency and civil war.
4) Horrible though it may be, concetrating on stats, methodology etc is vital when trying to report on mass killings you have not witnessed. Vasilly Grossman, the first Soviet reporter on the scene of Treblinka, overestimated the number killed there massively - ie millions instead of the **estimated** 800,000 murdered in that Nazi concentration camp. Later Grossman revised his estimate of the number dead downwards towards a number that was confirmed 55 years later in a decrypt of a Nazi telegram . When his work was read out at the Nuremerg Trials he had achieved what journalists are supposed to achieve: ie his reports were not just "credible", they were true.
5) The geographic distribution of the death rate was high in three areas in the survey: if there was a network of journalists free to range across Anbar province, the Sunni triangle and Baghdad (the areas with 10+/k death rate), and if they were saying - "look we can find no qualitative evidence to back up this quantitative research", then it would have been easier to knock down the JHU estimate. There is not such a journalistic presence - and many of those trying to do it are being killed. I cite Grossman again: when he got to Treblinka he was incredulous - it's impossible that so many could have been killed; impossible that they could have physically killed so many in a short time etc. But he conducted extensive interviews with survivors, witnesses and German prisoners and reconciled individual stories with the big number.
6) I think it will be years (if ever) before we get an accurate picture of the human cost of the Iraq war. I think if a credible estimate comes out you have a duty to report it, interrogate it and stimulate the debate.