Tuesday 7 November 2006

Tipping points

Few of us are under any illusions about the inadequacies of the media but, even then, it comes as a shock to realise quite how badly we are served.

That comes today with the news of yet another soldier killed in Basra, bringing to 121 the number of British casualties in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.

The sad news, but now distressingly common, is accompanied by minimal details. The soldier was from the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, who died after the Old State Building - a coalition base in central Basra city - came under small arms fire.

Army spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge, who is increasingly taking on some of the characteristics of Saddam Hussein's Minister of Information, informs us that the soldier was killed while on sentry duty. "There were bursts of automatic fire, which is an indication that this was not a sniper," he told Sky News. "These are individual rogue elements of criminal gangs and militias who target our soldiers."

It may be a complete coincidence that last week saw men from the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment on trial for abusing Iraqi prisoners but, whatever the reason for the shooting, this does not seem to be an action by "individual rogue elements", as Burbridge claims.

Last Thursday, we got a flavour of how bad it was getting in Basra from Thomas Harding of the Telegraph, also with comment that "Operation Sinbad" was stirring up a hornet's nest. But what we did not get was any idea that the Army was losing control of the city. That we had to deduce for ourselves, relying largely on other sources, one of which today gives us important additional information.

Amazingly, this is from a website called Newslab, which turns out to be a Siberian-based operation. The "News laboratory" portal, we are told, is a project of Krasnoyarsk "Informburo" news agency, which was launched on January, 28 in 2003. It includes news from Siberian Region, feature articles and reference information which is interesting to Territory residents.

Yet it is from this source – not the British media or our own government – we learn that on the Friday, the day after Thomas Harding's breathless report, about British troops being mortared in Basra Palace, four Russian technicians working on the reconstruction of al-Najibiya power plant in Basra were injured by a mortar strike.

Crucially, we also learn that the bomb "accidentally" hit the power plant and that the real object of the strike was "UK Armed Forces". The same report also tells us that earlier, a "Russian energy specialist" was killed and six more workers, including three Russians, were wounded.

That a British soldier today was regrettably killed, therefore, seems only an accident of history – we could have had such a report last Friday. The death or injury of Russian or other nationality workers, though, is not worthy of a report in the British media.

Also not worthy of the British media is a report about “provocative” British tactics, datelined 5 November by a local media agency. It records a "strong protest" by the Basra provincial council over recent actions by "British occupation troops".

The council's deputy chairman, Jassem al-Abadi, described British troops' conduct as "provocative and unjustified," and was particularly critical of the treatment of Iraqi security forces in the city. He said on one occasion the troops forced Iraqi police officers to dismount their vehicles as they were on their way to check "a suspicious item" under one of the bridges. Says al-Abadi:

The (British) troops compelled Iraqi forces to surrender their weapons, ordered them to lie down on the ground and put their boots over their heads. This is a heinous practice that is insulting to all the citizens and not only to the police officers involved.
According to the report, Abadi warned the troops not to repeat such practices in the future. "If they do, the masses will teach them a lesson this time," he said, declaring that the people of Basra were "angry and furious" over the troops' practices.

Abadi also accused British occupation troops of attacking the headquarters of al-Fadhila party, one of the most influential factions in the city. Fadhila is powerful in Basra and its supporters and armed men are reported to be wielding immense influence in the city. "These provocations are unacceptable and we warn British troops not to repeat them otherwise the people’s reaction will be beyond control," he said.

There may well be special pleading here, and the source is hardly impartial. Not least there have been persistent reports of Iraqi police siding with the militias and insurgents, assisting them to attack British troops, so they can hardly expect an easy ride. But the very nature of the report indicates that things are far from under control in Basra and may well explain why, today, we are hearing of another British casualty.

None of this, though, we are going to hear from our own media. The major effort, as always, is in Baghdad, from where the BBC makes its most recent report, while the likes of the The Guardian is more interested in pushing its own agenda, its story for today recounting how: "Dead Soldiers' Kin Seek Inquiry Into War".

Even where they do pick up some nuggets, the analysis simply is not there, for instance in a report in The Scotsman about the death of Lance Corporal Allan Douglas. He was killed by a sniper's bullet in the Maysan province in January, the 99th British casualty of the war. One of his contemporaries describes their role in Iraq as "driving around until they were shot at".

This brings to mind the piece we wrote in June last reporting the observations in a House of Lords debate of the Viscount Brookeborough. "We seem to be providing ourselves as a target," said the Viscount, recalling his experiences in Northern Ireland, and calling for more helicopters in Iraq. But that was not reported by the media either.

Thus, when last week we saw the claim recorded by the stupid Thomas Harding that southern Iraq was at a "tipping point", we could hardly agree. It is more like already lost. Thus, we might say that it is the media coverage that is at the tipping point, although the indications are that it has actually passed over the edge and is on the slide downwards.