Picture the scene: August 29th, Kabul. Ezmarai Ahmadi, an engineer for an NGO, returns home from work. His children and nephews, excited by his return, pour out of the house to greet him and to play inside the car. Moments later a high-powered missile, fired from an unmanned United States drone, strikes the car. Ahmadi is killed, along with seven children and two other adults.
How would a free press report such an atrocity? The Daily Mail, card carrying member of the UK corporate media, quickly showed how they wouldn’t. “A cuddle amidst the carnage” declared their 30th August front page beneath a picture of a US Military servicewoman cradling an Afghan child.
It’s certainly nice of US Military personnel to comfort children after their institution has subjected them to the unimaginable terror of a drone attack (in which seven of their contemporaries perished). It’s inevitable that the US Military press team will release images of sympathy and compassion to try and mitigate murder and destruction.
The question of how the UK media, inveterate interrogators of power that they are, aid and abet such sophistry is a matter that requires further investigation.
This article looks at the response of the BBC, Guardian, Times and Daily Mail to the 29th August drone attack. Believe it or not, in some ways the Mail emerge as the most empathetic outlet…
Context is important – and something the corporate media routinely fail to provide.
Afghanistan has dominated media headlines throughout August, with MSM outlets and voices alternating expressions of their true concern (declining US/UK military power) with false concern (the wellbeing of Afghan civilians and women’s rights).
“According to a Nexis search,” noted FAIR’s Julie Hollass, “TV news shows aired more segments that mentioned women’s rights in the same sentence as Afghanistan in the last seven days (42) than in the previous seven years (37).” Hollas notes, in addition, that in its 19th year of US/UK occupation, Afghanistan “ranked second-to-last in the world on women’s well-being and empowerment.”
A recent Brown University report, The Costs of War, records that “about 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.”
US drone strikes have been responsible for a high number of civilian deaths. The 542 drone strikes authorised while Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama was in the White House “killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians,” according to the Council for Foreign Relations. Earlier this year, a US intelligence analyst turned whistleblower to reveal “details of a military drone program that he believed was indiscriminately killing civilians in Afghanistan.”
A final piece of context: Just a few days before the fatal drone strike, on 26th August, terrorists struck at Kabul airport. The UK press devoted countless articles to the death of civilians and US service personnel at the airport (initial reports suggested 100+ deaths). Would they display comparable interest when it is the West, not bogeymen terrorists, responsible for carnage and civilian deaths?
The Guardian are widely viewed as the most liberal mainstream UK media outlet. This is certainly how they view themselves – “The Guardian has no shareholders or billionaire owner, meaning our journalism is free from influence and vested interests… We can give a voice to the oppressed and neglected, and help bring about a brighter, fairer future” (Guardian funding appeal, 3/11/20)
The Guardian usually “pins” a topic at the top of its home page to signify that it is the most important news story of the moment. For the last two weeks of August the topic was Afghanistan.
We clicked on The Guardian’s Afghanistan tag to carry out an overview of their coverage of the airport terror attack and the US drone attack.
On the day of the airport attack, August 26th, six Guardian article headlines directly reference the attack. Several headlines emphasise the horror of the event – It Was Like Doomsday: Wait at Kabul Airport Descends into Terror
On August 27th nine article headlines reference the airport attack. Headlines include Kabul Airport Atrocity Offers a Glimpse of the Chaos to Come in Afghanistan and Hell on Earth: What the Papers Say About the Kabul Bomb Blasts.
On 28th August the Guardian Afghanistan tag contains three airport attack headlines, while on 29th August two headlines refer to it. As late as 3rd September, a week after the attack, there were still headlines devoted to it – British Troops ‘Metres Away’ from Kabul Bomb Blast Given Therapy.
The image below shows the SOLE REFERENCE to the US drone attack on August 29th that we could find on the Guardian’s Afghanistan tag:
Can you spot it? It’s hiding in the very bottom left…
You may wish to note that the headline refers only to “reports” that Afghan children were killed and that it is not an article. The only Guardian coverage of the US drone attack that killed 10 Afghan civilians is in that day’s “as it happened” blog!
In fairness to the writers of the blog, they do provide important background information.
Such context makes it all the more puzzling that Guardian editors didn’t think the atrocity was worthy of a single full article, let alone follow up pieces relating the true terror and enduring consequences of such violence.
Where were the headlines Kabul Droning Atrocity Offers a Glimpse of the Chaos to Come as US Ramps Up Drone Programme and Hell on Earth: What the Papers Say About the Kabul Drone Attacks in the days after the attack?
On August 30th and 31st the Guardian tag for “Afghanistan” returns 56 results in total. Their website was awash in Afghanistan coverage. Yet the US drone attack warranted a single mention, buried in the margins.
The BBC is the most widely consumed news product in the UK. The Reuters Digital News Report suggest they reach 56% of the population each week via TV, Radio, Print (next highest: ITV News, 27%) and 45% of the population via the internet (next highest: Guardian, 18%)
A recent statement released by the BBC feverishly declares their independence from power:
Did the BBC show neither “fear or favour” in their reporting of the US drone attack?
Like the Guardian, the BBC website has an Afghanistan tag that can be clicked to take an overview of their coverage.
BBC coverage of the Kabul airport terrorist attack on 26th August extends well beyond the date of the attack. Sample headlines: 28th August (Father of eight among those killed in Kabul airport attack), 29th August (Taxi driver, shopkeeper: UK victims of Kabul attack), 31st August (Tribute paid to taxi driver killed in Kabul attack)
All BBC coverage of the US drone attack is limited to a 24 hour period (29th to 30th August), when details of the attack broke worldwide.
We captured their first reference to the incident, late on August 29th:
The title is interesting. By leading with “US investigates” the BBC immediately call into doubt their mantra of reporting “without fear or favour”. Can you imagine a corresponding headline: Russia investigates civilian casualties in Ukraine strike?
Rival nations inflict civilian casualties, the US “investigates them”.
The BBC’s desire to exempt the US from criticism is confirmed in their first August 30th article on the drone strike:
Here is the US attempting to justify itself – with the full support of the BBC. “A US drone strike in the Afghan capital Kabul has prevented another deadly suicide attack at the airport, US military officials say,” is how the article begins. You will note, again, that the US military position is to the fore.
The attempted whitewash didn’t age well. Within 18 hours another article appeared…
Once again, note the primacy given to the US voice in the headline. It is repeated in the first line: “The Pentagon says it can’t yet dispute claims that a US drone strike on a suspected suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed a number of civilians.” (emphasis ours).
So craven is the opening to this article it is worth quoting in full:
“US military said…”, “US was assessing and investigating”, “American commanders said…” The US are granted first voice in the article and treated as an authority despite being the perpetrators of the violence. It’s the journalistic equivalent of asking a serial killer to write their own charge sheet!
To their credit, the BBC did post a couple of videos on the 30th of August highlighting the human toll of the drone strike – ‘Why did they kill our family… our children?’ and ‘Ten people died here.. including my daughter’
The videos are emotive, but note that this time neither title mentions the US military. A passive media consumer, glancing at the headlines, may well assume these are further atrocities committed by the Taliban or terrorists – in line with the narrative of the previous two weeks.
We searched The Times website for “Afghanistan” on September 1st with a filter of one week. It returned 140 results.
One of the 140 results contained a headline that referred to the US drone attack – US revenge strike condemned as drone kills seven children.
For comparison, other topics that gained one headline mention include: “Carrie Johnson ‘was key to rescue of 200 cats and dogs from Kabul’”
The report on the drone strike is, to the credit of journalist Charlie Faulkner, thorough and includes unsparing testimony from eye witnesses such as:
“I saw Ezmarai on fire. I could see two children inside the burning car. We tried to put the fire out and help them but it was too late. We tried to get some of them to hospital but they all died on the way. There was just one leg and one hand remaining of Farzad.”
Like the BBC and Guardian, the Times offers no further headlines that reference the drone attack.
We were, however, intrigued by an article which appeared on the same day – and at the same time (6.00pm) – as the US drone attack headline: Joe Biden needs fresh rules for remote strikes on Afghan targets, by “Diplomatic Correspondent Catherine Philp”.
Remarkably, despite a title referencing drone use in Afghanistan, this article MAKES NO MENTION of the fact that 10 civilians, 7 of them children, were killed by a US drone strike the previous day.
If you ever wondered what Orwell was getting at with his concept of “doublethink”, look no further. Philp’s article was presumably occasioned by controversy over the renewed drone strikes (and their civilian victims) yet she declines to actually mention the victims. She knows that the atrocity occurred and needs to be defended/discussed, but knows equally well that it jars so badly with the prevailing media narrative (the UK/US fight against terror) that it is better off in “the memory hole”. To Philp’s and her corporate media colleagues, the US drone atrocity both exists and does not; is known and forgotten!
Philp’s article is a paradigm of corporate media malpractice in another way, demonstrating how opinion writers act to keep debate within “acceptable” parameters. Some critical observations are made – “civilian casualties (from US drone strikes)…went unacknowledged and uncompensated, fuelling resentment and radicalisation” – but all solutions/suggestions are bound well within the status quo.
How America should use drones to bomb Middle-Eastern countries is discussed, not whether they should use drones to bomb Middle-Eastern countries (with mass civilian casualties).
The Daily Mail
And so to the Mail. As you can see from the 30th August cover, there is no mistaking the fact that Daily Mail editors took the decision to illustrate an article on a murderous US drone strike with one of their troops cuddling a victim. We conjecture that even Goebbels would have blanched at that.
The Mail’s coverage of the event may make your stomach turn, but at least they covered it. The Daily Mail front cover, warped as it was, brought to their readers’ attention the fact that a US drone strike killed Afghan children. The front pages of the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times for the same day (30th August) are shown below.
These papers, widely considered to be more respectable and/or liberal than the Mail, lead with the US propaganda line that the drone strike prevented a terrorist attack and DO NOT inform readers that civilians (including children) were killed.
The morally bankrupt Mail was also the ONLY one of the four media outlets surveyed in this article to revisit the drone attack the next day and relate the full horror of it.
On August the 31st The Daily Mail website carried an article headlined: ‘There was just a leg and a hand remaining’: Neighbours describe horrific scene where US drone killed seven children and say there were no ISIS explosives in the vehicle or carnage would have been worse
A selection of quotes from the article is below…if you can bear it:
“‘I could see two children inside the burning car. We tried to help them but it was too late,’ Aziz said…”
“She staggered outside where she was greeted by the dismembered bodies of her family members…”
“Another neighbour Mumtaz Rahimi, 20, wore rubber gloves as he picked up obliterated body parts scattered among shards of glass outside the home…”
“‘When I left home to go to work she came to me to kiss me goodbye and said ‘I love you father’. After that I never saw her again. I’m completely lost, what should I do. I’ve lost ten members of my family. I’ve lost my life.'”
The article also contains numerous photographs of the victims and an emotive image of Romal Ahmadi, whose three young children were killed in the attack.
The Daily Mail highlight the full horror of the attack – details that would cause anyone in their right mind to doubt the legitimacy of US drone strikes.
As predicted by the propaganda model (explained here), the corporate media filters such people out – they must do, or where are the BBC, Times and Guardian articles calling for an end to US terror?
In his landmark work A People’s History of the United States of America, Howard Zinn observes:
“Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel… To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world”
As this article has shown, the UK corporate media took this precise approach to the US drone strike – they provided it with the bare minimum of coverage, threw a protective arm around the US (presenting them as a cuddly, caring authority whose actions stopped a terrorist attack), then immediately returned to the narrative they’re interested in – terror against the West.
Coverage like this ensures that Western aggression can continue, the status quo endures, and that we will NOT take the basic step articulated by Zinn’s peer, Noam Chomsky:
“If you want to reduce terrorism stop participating in it.”
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