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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Nafeez Ahmed’s smear piece on IBC – part 2

ibc-nafeez-ahmed-part-2-compJuly 23, 2015Earlier this year, Nafeez Ahmed made some absurd conspiracy-flavoured allegations about Iraq Body Count (IBC). I responded in part 1, highlighting his errors and double standards. I’ve waited a while before writing anything more, partly because of responses such as the following (which made me want to shave my head, adopt the upside-down lotus position and chant for Universal Love):-


One good thing, however, was that George Monbiot read my article and promoted it on Twitter – it ended up being read by a lot of people. The following is an update, with some additional comments on recurring witchhunts.

The Bourne Ultimatum or the boring facts

A few days after my article got exposure via Twitter, Nafeez Ahmed posted a long response (which Monbiot described as “a frantic attempt to justify unfounded assertions/associations stretched beyond breaking point”), and tweeted this link to it:

ahmed-monbiot-tweet-7-6-2015“Hiding” war casualties? To me this statement seems right up there with “Elvis is living in my neighbour’s fridge”. Perhaps Ahmed could point to data on all the casualties that Monbiot and IBC are “hiding”? Or perhaps not – he appeared to “clarify” his position in yet another, later diatribe:

“While there is no indication that IBC has deliberately undercounted violence in Iraq…”
(Nafeez Ahmed, ‘IBC: undercounting death with pro-war cash’) – My emphasis

So, to summarise Ahmed’s position, there’s “no indication” that IBC has “deliberately undercounted” while “hiding Iraq war casualties” for the purpose of “undercounting death with pro-war cash”!

The comic absurdity of this stuff is exceeded only by Ahmed’s description of an apparently sinister “off-the-record” meeting organised by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP):

“In January 2007, Colin Kahl and John Sloboda were together in Washington DC at an off-the-record USIP panel, where Sloboda delivered a presentation about IBC’s views of the Iraq War death toll at an off-the-record USIP panel.”

secret-meeting6xEverything that Ahmed tells us about the meeting was already on the public record, including IBC co-founder John Sloboda’s presentation (which is on IBC’s website). The USIP web page for this event lists participants, subjects discussed, and helpfully tells us that it was “off-the-record”.

After informing us that IBC’s John Sloboda was “together” with Colin Kahl (a villainous US propagandist in Ahmed’s narrative) at the meeting, Nafeez Ahmed informs us that Les Roberts (co-author of the ‘Lancet’ Iraq studies) was also a participant – and thus, presumably, also “together” with Kahl in the same sense that Sloboda was. But not to worry, because, as Ahmed tells it, Les Roberts was “outnumbered at the USIP meeting three-to-one”. By “outnumbered”, I don’t think Ahmed means Roberts was forced to participate against his own free will. But you never know – perhaps he was bound and gagged by the “US Army counterinsurgency sub-contractor”, Michael Spagat. (Those are the actual words that Ahmed has used to characterise Prof Spagat, in case you were wondering).

Who needs Jason Bourne? Less amusingly, Ahmed tells us that John Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials” at the off-the-record USIP meeting. In his earlier piece, Ahmed writes that Sloboda did this “sycophantically”, and that his “statement before USIP and its pro-war panel contradicts the IBC’s official rationale”.

I find this kind of thing from Ahmed not only misleading, but gratuitously so. He is referring to a part of Sloboda’s presentation which is published on IBC’s website. I’ve heard Sloboda make a similar argument before, in the early days when IBC was sometimes characterised by pundits as ideologically “antiwar” in a politically “biased” sense (eg: “a hard-left anti-war group with a clear agenda“). Sloboda in fact makes it clear that IBC is “passionately opposed” to the Iraq war, but that he doesn’t impose any kind of ideological conformity on his colleagues (“where individual IBC members stand on other wars is a matter for them and them alone”). I see nothing “sycophantic” about this, and, in any case, it’s not tailored to “USIP and its pro-war panel” as Ahmed seems to insinuate. It also – obviously – doesn’t “contradict” IBC’s rationale (which states that “War’s very existence shames humanity”) as Ahmed obtusely asserts.

So, Ahmed is hopelessly wrong to say that Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials”. Perhaps Ahmed thinks that one acquires such “credentials” by conducting ideological purges to ensure that one’s colleagues have the “correct” beliefs?

Ahmed’s new falsehoods

Ahmed adds new falsehoods in his two response pieces. He’s also quietly corrected some of his earlier errors (the ones I’d pointed out). For example, he withdrew his claim that “USIP selected IBC for funding” and backed away from what he’d implied about IBC’s own funding (“My story does not claim that the IBC as an institution received funding from US and European governments…”). But then, in his latest piece, he goes back to claiming (falsely) that USIP funded IBC and that, “In total, four pro-war governments are currently involved in funding IBC and IBC personnel since 2009, none of which has been declared in the scientific journal articles related to the Iraq War by IBC authors.”

Related to these new falsehoods, Ahmed also misrepresented what I wrote (he’s now removed this):

In Brian Dean’s defence of IBC, which received a resounding endorsement from Dougherty, Dean claimed repeatedly that the IBC had not received any funding from the governments of the US, Switzerland, Germany or Norway.

He’d asserted this near the start of his piece, setting me up, as it were, for the revelations to follow which would contradict the claim he’d (wrongly) attributed to me. Remarkably, even his supposedly new revelations are false. IBC openly discloses some recent (2015) German government funding on its “About” page, which I’d linked to – but none of the government agency (eg USIP) funding which Ahmed makes claims about went to IBC (it was specifically for work by ORG/Every Casualty, eg research into international law as it applies to casualty recording, globally – not restricted to Iraq).

These supposed revelations, which Ahmed introduces in his latest piece, are based entirely on his reading of (and lack of fact-checking regarding) a “10th Anniversary Impact Report” by The Funding Network (TFN), which has been publicly available since 2012, and which contains a one-page case study titled “Iraq Body Count”. Ahmed seems to get excited about this because of the blurring of distinctions between “IBC” and “ORG” in the case study. He jumps to erroneous conclusions – all of the claims from Ahmed’s piece that I’ve underlined here are false.

Ahmed’s misrepresentations

Ahmed’s long response frequently misrepresents me, and it would take a long time to correct every case. I’ll restrict myself to a few examples – the clearest and (to me) most annoying ones…

At one point, Ahmed declares that, “The problem is that Dean is either lying, or plain dumb. Burnham’s Afghanistan study was not about mortality rates as such in Afghanistan (Ahmed’s bold emphasis). This was in response to a point I’d made about double standards, in which I cited a study of post-invasion Afghanistan, by Gilbert Burnham, which suggested a huge number of lives saved from health improvements. The study contains a whole section on child mortality-rates – indeed the page I linked to, which summarises this section of the study, talks explicitly about the mortality rates that I’m referring to. Ahmed somehow missed this, looked up the wrong study (the page I’d linked to summarises two separate studies) and formed the wrong conclusion – that I was “either lying, or plain dumb”. (On the basis of his mistake, he also referred to my point as “flagrant lies”).

The next example makes me think Nafeez Ahmed has a low estimation of his readers. Here’s a paragraph from his original article which I’d quoted in full. Please read it carefully:

Spagat’s early career connections to IREX and NCEEER, both conduits for US State Department propaganda operations, as well as to Radiance Technology, USAID, and USIP, raise serious ethical questions, as well as questions about the reliability and impartiality of his work, and that of IBC.

I noted that despite the obvious irrelevance to IBC of Spagat’s “early career connections to IREX and NCEEER” (which Ahmed wrote at length about), Ahmed asserted here that it raises “questions about the reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work. I noted this because it’s precisely what Ahmed asserts in the above paragraph. In response, Ahmed simply denies that he asserts it:

Um, no I don’t, but if you quote repeatedly and entirely out of context, even English language night school won’t help you.

Presumably Nafeez hopes his own readers aren’t paying full attention to what he’s written?

The final example is clearest when shown as a graphic (click to enlarge to readable size). It concerns another point about double standards – this one involving an undisclosed OSI grant for “public education” relating to the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. The example demonstrates that no matter how careful I was to get the detail right, it didn’t matter, because Ahmed simply asserts something that isn’t true:-


Recurring witchhunts

One of the things I’ve found creepy about Nafeez Ahmed’s recent attacks on IBC is that the ludicrous, unsupported, overstretched allegations about Pentagon “propaganda” and “whitewashing war-crimes”, etc, sound similar to the rhetoric from another campaign against IBC – the one started in 2006 by Medialens (which I wrote about here). Medialens claimed that IBC was “providing powerful propaganda for people responsible for horrendous war crimes”, but the supposed basis for this claim was nothing to do with IBC’s funding. Initially, Medialens’s main (and false) premise was that IBC was a “Western Media Body Count” (and thus inherently propagandistic), although Medialens later shifted their focus to other forms of “criticism” (eg deriding IBC as “amateurs” in emails to journalists).

The term, witchhunt, is overused, but I think there can hardly be a clearer case than we have here. George Monbiot was right to characterise it that way:

monbiot-witchhuntNot only is it sustained, recurring, and based on assertion and moral outrage rather than evidence – it also takes the form of morally pre-framed allegations in search of anything that can be used, or spun, as reinforcement. It’s the already-pointing finger looking for an excuse to point. Any excuse. That’s why you have the same allegation of pro-war “propaganda”, but periodically recurring with a different “reason” for that allegation each time. (And it doesn’t even make sense – IBC’s tally of violent deaths approximately matches a violent deaths estimate from the 2013 UCIMS epidemiological study, which was vaunted as an improvement on the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. If you can’t refute the detailed case that IBC makes on this – and nobody has, to my knowledge – then you don’t even have a shaky premise as an excuse for a witchhunt).

You’d think Medialens would have learnt their lesson after all the things they got so badly wrong on IBC previously – but they’ve been the main cheerleaders for Nafeez Ahmed’s wild conspiracy theories and smears. Recall for a moment that Ahmed alleged, with no supporting evidence, that “the IBC’s directors are selling casualty recording as a way to legitimize military operations, and increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency responses to armed resistance”.

This really is through the looking glass.

Note (2/8/2015): One thing I left out of the above (since I credit my readers with having a decent memory) is the point about USIP funding of Gilbert Burnham (lead author of the 2006 ‘Lancet’ Iraq study), which I brought up in part 1 to illustrate the double standards underlying these attacks on IBC. So, after making extreme, and probably libellous, claims about IBC based on his assertions about USIP funding, etc, Nafeez Ahmed, in his response, dismissed as a “non-issue” the fact that his own sources have been funded by USIP – including Burnham, who has repeatedly collaborated with USIP on conflict research, including on Iraq. Ahmed had to bend over backwards to make this seem a “non-issue” in Burnham’s case, after he made it such a big issue with IBC.

Written by NewsFrames

July 23, 2015 at 7:53 am

12 Responses

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  1. One thing I left out (since I credit my readers with having a decent memory as well as intelligence and good taste) is the point about USIP funding of Gilbert Burnham, which I brought up in part 1 to illustrate the double standards underlying these attacks on IBC. So, after making extreme, and probably libellous, claims about IBC based on his assertions about USIP funding, etc, Nafeez Ahmed, in his response, dismissed as a “non-issue” the fact that his own sources have been funded by USIP – including Burnham, who was lead author of the 2006 ‘Lancet’ Iraq study, and who has repeatedly collaborated with USIP on conflict research, including on Iraq. Ahmed had to bend over backwards to make this seem a “non-issue” in Burnham’s case, after he made it such a big issue with IBC.


    July 23, 2015 at 8:29 am

  2. Good man that Mr Monbiot!

    Peter Dolan

    July 23, 2015 at 8:40 am

  3. Thanks Brian, for taking the time and trouble to (again) dispose of (yet) another piece of delirious nonsense on this topic. One clarification: speaking as IBC’s co-founder, I can assure you that neither John Sloboda nor I were ever in a position to “impose” our views on IBC colleagues. It’s not how we run projects nor how we tick. However, knowing the opinions of his colleagues, John could confidently assert that all were opposed to this (the Iraq) war, but that he could not speak to our views on any other conflict.

    One of the many disgraceful and perhaps all-too-predictable features of the Media Lens-fanned campaign against IBC ca. 2006 is that it needed a personified, Goldstein character to direct its bile against. I still have a copy of the Media Lens message board thread depicting John in the most unflattering snapshots that one of its users could find to enhance these pillorying sessions (posts uncensored and posters uncensured by the board’s “compassionate” “editors”).

    Hamit Dardagan

    July 23, 2015 at 9:22 am

  4. I notice that the subtitle of Nafeez Ahmed’s longer response was “Why the ‘liberal’ defence of the Iraq Body Count falls flat on its face”.

    “Liberal”? What has “liberal” got to do with it? And why do these guys use the term “liberal” in the same derogatory way that the hard right does? It’s worth noting that while Lakoff characterises the two predominant modes of moral framing as “conservative” and “progressive”, he also sometimes uses the terms “authoritarian” and “liberal” as contrasting tendencies.

    There’s obviously an authoritarianism in witchhunts. It’s difficult to conceive of a “liberal” witchhunt without losing the widely understood meaning of the term “liberal”. The language from both Ahmed and Medialens betrays a real intolerant authoritarianism. It’s a worldview of moral black and white. If you’re not with them, you’re part of the Power Elite, or its unwitting servant. And you may not even know it if you’ve been reading the Guardian. Liberal relativism, you’re part of the problem! Up against the wall in the name of purity! The perils our civilisation faces.

  5. What is Medialens’ game? I don’t get them at all. Why the big interest in Iraq Body Count and people such as Owen Jones? Do they think this is where the powerful exercise their influence for max leverage? And who does Nafez Ahmed think he’s kidding. Investigative journalist? Don’t make me laugh. Paul Foot was an investigative journalist. Ahmed is just a bedroom mouse-clicker.


    July 23, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    • It’s certainly the case that during their most crazed anti-IBC witchhunt period (2006-2008) Medialens spent more time focused on IBC than on rightwing media. That’s a strange thing for a supposedly leftwing media criticism website. In fact, I recall someone demonstrating this empirically (more words written by Medialens on IBC than on Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph, etc, put together).

      And the two Medialens Daves are still obsessed with IBC. One of the first things they did after Nafeez Ahmed published his funding-conspiracy nonsense was to tweet that questions should be asked about *our* funding too – since in Medialens’s world we’re “linked with” IBC and therefore must get the same Pentagon funding! Obviously our major 700-followers Twitter account is funded by US government for the sole purpose of discrediting Medialens. Because Medialens is that important.

      That might sound comical, but Medialens really do seem to believe this. They’ve gone on and on about it on Twitter – even interrogating us about it after they’d blocked us. (Incidentally, we’re no more “linked with” IBC than we’re “linked with” Medialens. One of our occasional contributors, Robert Shone, contributed a small list of Medialens messageboard posts to a response by IBC to Medialens’s attacks. In Medialens-land that means “Shone collaborated with IBC in the writing of a major report“. But Shone has also contributed to a Medialens alert – a correspondence with then BBC director of news, Helen Boaden, which Medialens used. So Medialens is “linked with” us! We send them the leftovers of our Pentagon money as donations. We’re as proud to be linked with Medialens as we are to be linked with IBC!)

      Seriously, though, this persistent smearing of IBC by Ahmed and Medialens is pernicious, as Monbiot says. When you accuse a group of “undercounting death with pro-war cash”, that is very serious – a real smear (not the merely unflattering, mocking remark that Medialens scream “smear” about when they’re on the receiving end). It’s depressing, but educational, that the followers of Medialens and Ahmed who retweet their funding-conspiracy falsehoods and libels don’t seem to understand this.

    • Btw, for some reason best known to themselves, Medialens retweeted that pointless (and pointlessly hostile) tweet from Nafeez Ahmed:


      July 24, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    • i’d have thought you guys would be better directing your criticism at common enemies rather than each other. you have more political commonalities than differences, you’re both interested in exposing right-wing propaganda and such.


      August 1, 2015 at 9:38 am

      • It’s in all our interests that serious falsehoods are corrected, and anyone who looks at the facts (as presented above, here and here) can see that Medialens have a case to answer when it comes to falsehoods they’ve stated or promoted about IBC over a long period.

        They can respond, or not, as they see fit, but given that they’ve disseminated these falsehoods and smears about IBC to a large number of people, I think they have a clear responsibility. One example: they haven’t corrected their “Western Media Body Count” claim (which dates from 2006, and which they once seemed to grudgingly admit wasn’t correct). As a result, this falsehood was recently regurgitated by a report by “Physicians for Social Responsibility”. One of the reasons you correct errors is to stop them being further recycled like that.

        Medialens’s only response to my pieces on the Nafeez Ahmed conspiracy stuff (which they’ve enthusiastically promoted) has been to retweet a pointlessly hostile slur from Ahmed (see above) and to send another tweet which read “Monbiot again backs a dodgy source against a leftist” (the “dodgy source” being me, apparently, and the “leftist” being Nafeez Ahmed!). It would be comical if not for the fact that they are promoting some pretty nasty, baseless allegations (that IBC “whitewashes war-crimes” for “Pentagon cash”, etc).

        As for your general point, I spend a lot of time looking at rightwing conservative framing – how it’s increasingly being regarded, or “felt”, as “common sense” on so many issues, how progressive framing is atrophying in certain areas (eg debate on welfare), etc. This is where I think the big problem lies in our media and so-called “public debate” – as shown, I suspect, by the 2015 general election result. Medialens, on the other hand, seems largely concerned with what it calls the “liberal” media – eg The Guardian and Independent. So there’s not much of an overlap in that respect, and Medialens don’t appear to be particularly interested in framing, except for binary oppositions such as “corporate” vs “non-corporate”.


        August 1, 2015 at 11:03 am

  6. Wow. Have Nafeez and Media Lens gone too far here. They don’t see that serious charges require solid back-up, not some thin “possibles” which are just as possible for the Lancet guys, if one is to be consistent (they got USIP and government funds too, right?). As someone who has previously appreciated their work, I’m disappointed with this guilt-by-association angle.

    Media Lens and Ahmed both describe what they do as journalism, but on this occasion I get the feeling that it’s more like “hit and run”. They make claims which do the maximum damage, but then won’t revisit the scene of damage to acknowledge or correct their mistakes. If it were newspaper journalism, it would be seen as extremely irresponsible.

    Liz Gosley

    July 25, 2015 at 12:19 pm

  7. any comment on ahmed’s new thread on twitter in which he flies off the handle and calls you a liar again (admittedly without good reason that i can see)?


    August 5, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    • It’s pure nonsense. He asserted, incorrectly, that the “ORG founder confirms IBC as ORG initiative”. This is wrong on both counts – IBC isn’t an ORG initiative, and the ORG founder doesn’t “confirm” that it is. Here’s what she actually said:

      “The second excitement is seeing your own organisation gain the confidence of TFN supporters over time. This was the case for me with Oxford Research Group becoming the second highest funded project in TFN history with a total amount raised over the years of £58,000 for our Iraq Body Count initiative.”

      By “our Iraq Body Count initiative” she means the specific TFN funding initiative, not “Iraq Body Count is our initiative”, as Ahmed apparently misreads it. There were only a few TFN grants, over a few years – for specific work, bid for by IBC’s co-founders (who were also members of ORG, hence the blurring of distinctions in the case study title/subtitle: “Iraq Body Count – John Sloboda & Hamit Dardagan, Oxford Research Group”).

      I pointed out these facts (which anyone can check for themselves), and Nafeez Ahmed tweeted in response: “thanks for lying on the record so shamelessly”. It seems idiotic, as he obviously hasn’t checked any of this, and knows next to nothing – he’s simply believed his own mistaken, uncorroborated assumptions. (I, on the other hand, have at least contacted the people involved, in order to clarify and confirm the facts). The twitter thread arose after he tweeted (again falsely) to ‘The Intercept’ that USIP fund IBC. I corrected him on that too (USIP have never funded IBC. There was a one-off USIP grant for Every Casualty, not IBC – that’s all). I guess Ahmed doesn’t like being corrected with actual facts that can be checked.


      August 5, 2015 at 11:41 pm

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