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Marr needs to explain his ‘sexed up’ question re casualties

Posted on 8 February 2010 | 1:02pm

May I return to the claim made by Andrew Marr yesterday – and presented without qualification – that 600,000 Iraqis died in the Iraq war?

I did not push back at the time, because he added that these were UN figures. And given I had only just recovered from the moment of exasperation I described here yesterday, I did not want to get involved in a tit for tat row about statistics. Everyone knows a lot of civilians died.

But having looked at the issue this morning, I really think Marr has to explain that claim.

It appears to have come from a Lancet survey whose findings have been comprehensively rejected. There is certainly no evidence anywhere that I can find that would allow anyone to present these as somehow UN backed figures.

Casualty figures are inevitably controversial and also given the nature and length of the conflict difficult to assess.But both supporters and opponents of the conflict seem to view the so-called Iraq Body Count figures as likely to be the most reliable. They put the figure at 103722. That is a lot of people and a lot of devastated families. The Brookings Institute puts it higher, at 111,600. Others go higher still. But all are a long way short of Marr’s casually tossed out figure.

The International Red Cross stated ‘perhaps the best that the public can be given is exactly what IBC provides – a running tally of deaths derived from knowledge, supplemented by the weath of data of the Iraq Living Conditions Survey and Iraq Family Health Survey (which have their own limitations) provides enough information in the light of the circumstances. At a later date, additional surveys can be conducted to determine the impact and-or do demographic analysis. But for now, the Iraq Body Count’s imperfect figures combined with the data of the ILCS and IFHS may suffice.’

In other words, we cannot be sure but this seems as good an assessment as can be made.

The Iraq Body Count also shows that from 2005 to 2009 the vast bulk of deaths were caused by the insurgency. 4650 are attributed to coalition forces. More were killed by Al Qaida suicide bombs than coalition forces.

Marr is surely as aware of that report as the one he chose to use. So who is sexing up a case now? And would such a claim stand up to the kind of questioning and analysis our presentation on Iraq has endured in successive public and parliamentary inquiries? Indeed, if he is as interested in answers as questions, he might wonder … how long would he last in front of an inquiry seeking to examine his use of the information, and the totally false claim that this was a UN figure?

I guess another of the reasons I got angry yesterday is constantly being questioned by media people, many of whom would not stand up for more than a few minutes to the level of scrutiny people in politics have to live with 24-7.

Whilst I was looking through the facts and figures on this I also came across another figure that merits more attention than it gets.

In 2003 child mortality rates in Iraq were, at 130 per 1,000, higher than Congo, not least because Saddam diverted money for medicines to weapons.

In 2007 it was down to 44 per 1,000. That suggests that as many as 50,000 more children live every year as a result of the new freedoms Iraqis enjoy. Perhaps someone on the media might cover that one day.

As I said yesterday, I can at least see there are always two sides to an argument. But the honest debate people in the media claim they want would be helped if a few of these facts were sometimes allowed to get in the way of the story they want to tell, and the scores they want to settle over the fact that when one of those inquiries put one BBC story under real scrutiny, it was they not the government who were found wanting.

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  • Simon3W

    Back when the war started there were a lot of figures flying abount concerning deaths due to Sanctions. I saw 2 million somewhere. What surprises me is that these aren’t used now as a comparison — ie, it could even be argued that, in ending sanctions, the war saved lives.

  • ci bates

    Oh! thats ok then only 100000 dead !!!!

  • Findlay

    Any loss of life is a tragedy. But what Mr Campbell so eloquently points out is that It’s not about a number, there is more to it than that and the five second sound bite does not do the issue any type of justice.

  • Steve Sp

    Agreed. I’d like to see Andrew marr answer the question. It seems like a fairly sweet life to be able to say whatever you like and almost never have to justify it.

  • Jon Ward

    But you surely must recognise that politicians have direct power whereas journalists don’t. So politicians are justifiably subject to greater scrutiny than journalists. I’m not getting involved in the question of whether Andrew Marr was right, but I’m surprised you see journalists and politicians as two equal adversaries.

  • Liz

    The UN sanctions against Iraq (which were lifted after the invasion) surely had a significant effect on child mortality rates don’t you think? So, after “we” stopped doing that thing we were doing which was harming Iraqi children, fewer children were harmed! I’m proud to be British!

  • jamesup

    As sympathetic as I am to the jist of your point, trying to articulate the moral difference between the deaths 100,000 or 600,000 people isn’t ever going to be a crowd pleaser.

  • Jane

    I too have read up on the casualty figures, including that on the BBC website. I am astonished now that this figure was used by Mr Marr as a definitive study accepted by the world community. Estimates as you say vary enormously and as to be expected those opposed to the war will use the highest figure. Even that figure is recognised as being flawed as it used combatant deaths as well as civilian never mind those behind the study were known to be morally opposed to war.

    The use of this figure does not sit comfortably with me and it should have been qualified by the interviewer. Neither can I find any statement by the UN regarding the various studies undertaken to determine civilian deaths. I do not expect partial statistics from the BBC.

    On reflection I think the questioning was hostile and inappropriate. It somehow detracts from the real tragedy of civilian deaths which should be directed to those who made the decision and not to others such as yourself. Is it right that you were asked if the former PM misled the House? Should this not be asked of the former PM and those Senior Ministers around him?

    I am glad you are now cross with how your interview was conducted and not upset. Some of us were upset for you! I also hope you are thinking of your book and hopefully an attendance at the Hay Festival?

  • Billy Blofeld

    Marr’s figures sound at least as credible as Gordon Brown’s claims to have saved 500,000 jobs.

  • Robin

    Simon3W your comment seems a bit odd. So the government’s decision to go to war ended the sanctions, but the sanctions were the act of those who went to war. This seems like a weapons manufacturer declaring they have nobly saved lives as the missile launchers they produce now are 50% more accurate

  • Phomesy

    Andrew Marr is using the deaths of Iraqis as a stick to beat his enemies with. Simple as that. He should be sacked and the BBC apologise. Immediately.

  • Billy Blofeld

    @Phomsey

    “Marr should be sacked?”

    Well yes – of course. He typifies the BBC’s agenda – which is this:

    – Anti Iraq War
    – Pro Palestine
    – Anti “Global Warming Deniers”
    – Pro Labour party (apart from Iraq)
    – Anti Tory

    There is nothing impartial about the BBC. As such someone needs to decimate the place and then reform it.

  • Matthew Bates

    The sanctions pre-war were not in any way responsible for the high child mortality rate. Under ‘oil for food’ Saddam was also able to purchase unlimited amounts of medicine and health related products. He simply chose not to, undoubtedly partly so he could use the deaths of his own citizens as a political tool. I am no labour supporter but the reduction in child mortality rate should be taken into account when weighing these unpalatable statistics.

  • robin

    re:Matthew Bates comment
    Why did Denis Halliday, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq resign in disgust over the nature of sanctions?
    Should we ignore all journalists who wrote of the pedantic nature of the sanctions that meant, they believed, that many vital pieces of equipment were not allowed into Iraq for piffling reasons?

  • Robert Jackson

    Sounds to me that some of those who are saying that we went to war on what they claim is a lie also now say sanctions should not have been applied against Iraq beforehand.

    Isn’t that the seal of approval for Saddam’s behaviour?

  • CPW

    I think we can forgive Marr his inexactitude. He did, after all, utter it when attempting to get at the truth.

    To claim that your 45 min claim was inexact, on the other hand, wouldn’t just be inexaxt it would be a plain wrong. Very much like the 45 min claim itself.

  • Jane A

    I was incensed by Andrew Marr’s ill-informed and chaotic lines of questioning which started out with a deep bitch (“another work of fiction” etc) and then more so by Nicky Campbell’s R5 phone-in today which was entitled “Do you feel any sympathy for Alastair Campbell?” – subtext, “…or does he manufacture emotion to dodge questions?”, which I felt was both biased and manipulative.

    Lorraine Davidson though, made excellently argued sense in your defence, and bless her that she did.

    I hope – though I didn’t hear it – that Richard B was a fairer and more objective voice of the BBC.

    One out of three would be a start…

  • Trickie Dickie

    Alastair,
    Relax, take a deep breath and then move on.
    The obvious truth is that those who think you are a monster will always prefer Saddam over you. These same people never had to live under his rule or ever suffered real oppression so they will forever believe in a faux morality utopia.

    The BBC as with other media outlets are not run by free thinking people….they trawl the emails and blogs with score of young graduates and wannabe intellectuals for the latest trend on vox pop. The agenda is set by the number of blogs in or against a topic. Imagine 100,000
    posts on Tesco’s proposed change to the design of their loyalty card and then see how long before Fiona Bruce is forced to interview Cleethorpes Branch manager on why.

    Be sure that one day the heat will move onto another person that gets caught in their headlights and they will be chasing you for your view on something else.

    Dont bother to explain anymore its not worth it they cant listen its never going to get through.
    Perhaps in 30 years time when we have a prosperous Iragi government signing trade deals with us and thanking us for our suppoert they will see the light but not now.

    You will never get a man like Marr to understand when his agenda is “to get even” he is a walking linch mob and a legend in his own bathtime.
    Burnley won !

  • Daniel Davies

    Andrew Marr was presumably not referring to the second Johns Hopkins University study published in the Lancet (the “Lancet Study”), because he said “UN figures”. He was therefore probably referring to the survey conduced by the World Health Organisation, commonly known as the “IFHS” (Iraq Family Health Survey). This found that between March 2003 and June 2006, 150,000 Iraqis died from violence, and approximately 250,000 Iraqis died from an increase in the mortality rate from its pre-war base. Extrapolating this figure would give 600,000 for the full post-war period.

    The Iraq Body Count figures are collated from media reports (and count a “family” being killed as 4 deaths, substantially smaller than the average family size in Iraq). They are not “the most reliable estimate” – they are a conservative estimate of a lower bound, and the compilers of that website would never argue otherwise.

    (It should be noted that the 250,000 deaths estimated for non-violent deaths in the IFHS is not a figure presented in that survey, but it is easily calculable from pre- and post-war mortality rates presented in that survey).