Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1906

Some deaths more equal than others

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
Media Radical writer David Edwards looks at double standards at work in reporting Middle East conflicts
Issue 1906

On 2 March, over 270 Iraqis were massacred in a series of horrific bomb attacks in Kerbala and Baghdad. The BBC’s Six O’Clock News devoted less than ten seconds to the atrocity. By contrast, the Madrid train bombings on 11 March, which killed around 200 people, received continuous, impassioned coverage for more than two weeks.

ITV reporter Bill Neely described the Madrid attacks as ‘the worst terrorist atrocity since September 11’. He had forgotten the even greater horrors in Iraq just days earlier. This kind of double standard pervades the media’s reporting of Iraq and the Middle East. Even threats to Western lives are considered more important than the actual deaths of Iraqis and Palestinians.

For example, the front page of the Guardian on 10 April featured three bullet points ordered like this: ‘

UK security guard killed as contractors attacked.

Six more Westerners taken hostage by rebels.

Death toll in besieged city of Fallujah rises to 450.’

In fact, Western forces often don’t actually kill victims-they just die. A recent headline in the New York Times read, ‘In a second attack, Gazans kill five Israeli soldiers, seven Arabs die.’

Gazans are identified as killers and their action-killing-is clearly spelled out. Arabs, on the other hand merely died. Who knows how or why? Notice that more Arabs died than Israelis, but they merit second place. The reporting of recent events in the Iraqi city of Fallujah also demonstrates how Arab deaths routinely count for less.

ITV reported that US ‘contracted civilians’-in fact, mercenaries-were ‘horribly butchered’ in Fallujah. Iraqi civilians, in contrast, were merely ‘killed’ or ‘caught in crossfire’. The Americans reacted to the mercenaries’ deaths by launching a murderous assault on Fallujah’s population. Hundreds of Iraqis-including many women and children-were killed by US troops.

The taking of Western hostages had been described as ‘horrific’, ‘one of the dirtiest tactics of war’. But the brutal US devastation of Fallujah was only ‘fierce fighting’. The first US combat casualty in Afghanistan received more US media coverage than all Afghan civilian victims put together-many thousands of people.

I even remember the US soldier’s name-Nathan Chapman. Does anyone remember the name of any one of the thousands of Afghan casualties? Double standards and euphemisms aren’t confined to news stories. They also regularly appear in comment and opinion pages.

David Aaronovitch, pro-war columnist on the pro-war Observer, described the Fallujah massacre merely as ‘partial chaos of the last fortnight’. Blair’s refusal to condemn US actions was only ‘disappointing’, he said. Imagine the language he would have used if it had been Saddam attacking Kurds. Everyone knows the name Nick Berg. His horrific beheading was recorded on video and published on the internet.

We also know that Berg had a father, a mother, a brother, a neighbour. We know he lived in a leafy American suburb, he had close friends, he went to school, and so on.

By contrast, all we ever know about Iraqis who are killed-little children, pregnant women, old people-is that they are lying face down in pools of blood. That’s as much as we’re told about them-that they’re dead. Iraqis die as anonymous masses. Westerners die as individuals.

David Edwards is an editor at Media Lens, a radical website that exposes the distortions of the mainstream media. You can sign up for its media alerts at

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance