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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

You can contact John in the comments area or email him at

BBC admits error - late and grudging again

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 17 March 2010 at 06:30 pm

The BBC has admitted that Andrew Marr was "incorrect" to attribute the estimate of 600,000 killed in violence after the invasion of Iraq to the UN. But the rest of its response to a complaint about Marr's use of the figure in an interview with Alastair Campbell on 7 February is typically evasive.

More Media Nonsense quotes the letter:
Dear ***

Thanks for your e-mail regarding 'The Andrew Marr Show' as broadcast on 7 February.

Firstly, I should apologise for the delay in getting back to you. We realise that our correspondents appreciate a quick response and I'm therefore sorry that you've had to wait on this occasion.

Your issues were raised with the Editor of 'The Andrew Marr Show', Barney Jones, who has advised that Andrew was incorrect when he attributed the estimate of 600,000 casualties to the UN. He was in fact referring to a widely quoted survey undertaken on behalf of Britain's most prestigious medical journal, 'The Lancet'. During the interview, Andrew said that "an awful lot of people died". And when Alastair Campbell questioned the exact number, he repeats that phrase, saying again that "an awful lot of people died". Andrew also says during the interview that we will never know how many would have died had the invasion not gone ahead. There are many different estimates of the number who died, and we will never know the precise figure.

Barney Jones is grateful for the feedback which helps the production team enormously when they are planning future editions of the programme.

I can assure you that your complaint has been registered on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that's circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your feedback.

"We will never know the precise figure" is a cowardly way of saying that the BBC does not want to assess which of the estimates is more likely to be robust. For anyone interested in at least trying to get close to the truth, I have commented on Iraq death toll estimates. My view is that the true figure is likely to be in the range of 100,000-150,000 and most unlikely to be anything like as high as 600,000. The Lancet is certainly a medical journal, but its role in the MMR controversy hardly entitles it to elevated authority. 

Once again, the BBC's response to a complaint is late, grudging and contains no hint of apology. (Still no news of my complaint about this parcel.) Once again, one asks what the BBC has learned from the Hutton inquiry about correcting errors made by its journalists in live broadcasts.

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How the Internet Works

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 11 February 2010 at 06:03 pm
Some opponents of the Iraq war are curiously unversed in the skills of looking things up on the internet. It is almost as if they are afraid of what they might find.

Today I received three emails asking similar questions in similar level tones about why I was so sure that the 2006 Lancet study, which suggested 600,000 deaths from violence in Iraq since the invasion, was "deeply flawed and its estimate unreliable". For those of you not familiar with Media Lens, and there is no reason why any normal person should be, this is its way of operating:

Dear Journalist who has dedicated his career to the pursuit of truth and justice,
I am in no way suggesting that you beat your wife, but I was just wondering to what evidence you can point that you believe supports your contention that you have desisted from the practice, and if so when?
If you do not reply, I shall send another email asking you, politely, why you have not. I shall also post copies of both emails on the Media Lens website. If you do reply, I shall post your replies as well. I reserve the right to post some of your replies and then comment on the correspondence, saying that Journalist who works for the corporate media did not reply to further questions, even if you have done so.
Yours sincerely (or Kind regards, or even Best)

It is a small sect of the Chomsky-Pilger tendency. However, the issues with which its supporters engage are important, so I am happy to guide new readers to the information that they need.

In the post in which I made the "deeply flawed" and "unreliable" comment, I went on to say:

I posted about the Iraqi death toll here, here and in several posts here. The most credible academic discussion of these issues is this 2007 article in the International Review of the Red Cross.

Now this is where the Media Lens people seem to hit a brick wall. The words "here" and "this 2007 article" above are a different colour. This means that they are clickable links. If you put the cursor arrow over them it changes to a hand symbol and if you click the mouse it takes you to another web page. If anybody wants to ask questions about what is on those pages, I exist only to serve.

To be fair, one of my Media Lens correspondents asked a question with which I have not dealt for some time. He cited the antiwar kerfuffle three years ago over a document obtained by a Freedom of Information request (a fact alone guaranteed to raise conspiracy alert status to level two):

The Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, told the government: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to 'best practice' in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

There is no question that the design of the survey followed best practice in epidemiology; that is why the Lancet article passed peer review. But peer review, like legal advice, should not mean the suspension of critical faculties. In stable populations, the cluster sample method should work. But the Lancet reviewers do not seem to have asked searching enough questions about the way the survey was carried out, and it later emerged that the data collection records were not kept, so that the work could not be validated or repeated.

That is also the answer to one of Media Lens's favourite questions, which is why I do not complain about estimates, carried out by some of the same people using the same methods, of the death toll in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Do you view the Congo studies as 'deeply flawed and ... unreliable'?" I avoid answering this, as I do not know so much about the Congo, although the estimate of 5 million dead there is certainly not inconsistent with the Iraqi death toll being overestimated by a factor of up to five.

Anyway, it turns out that a new study does indeed suggest that the Congo death toll estimates are unreliable. I owe this to a remarkable website, Medialens Watch, a tribute to the human instinct for truth, no matter how marginal or unimportant the purveyors of propaganda might be.

Its author, Mike Clark, does a better job than I of rebutting blinkered nonsense. And I say that not just because he calls me "top journalist John Rentoul".

More on Marr

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Sunday, 7 February 2010 at 11:33 pm
One of the worst features of some opponents of the Iraq war is the assumption that because people died that makes it all right to accuse other people of lying. That is what Andrew Marr came too close to with his snarky introduction of Alastair Campbell, saying they would discuss "that dossier and his new work of fiction" this morning.

When Campbell fought to control his exasperation, Marr came back with the righteous "600,000 people died", which is a figure that needs to be cross-examined rather than asserted. When Campbell challenged it, Marr said: "Well, I'm taking internationally accepted UN figures on that." This is not the case, as I have repeatedly argued.* Even if it were true, and 150,000 dead is surely bad enough, is does not justify calling someone a liar.

Iain Martin, a journalist whom I respect, was at it too. He quoted Campbell's words on Marr's programme: “I’ve been through a lot on this… I’m a bit upset.” And commented: "There’ll probably be parents and partners of those troops killed in Iraq who will raise an eyebrow at that remark." That soldiers have died has nothing to do with questioning Campbell's integrity.

The transcript of the Marr-Campbell exchange is here.

*Meanwhile, sad to report that my own newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, has again carried a letter alleging "the killing of more than a million Iraqis is a direct result of a policy pursued by Blair and George Bush". 

A real question for Blair

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 28 January 2010 at 11:56 pm
One of the important questions about the Iraq invasion, as opposed to the minutaie of most of the Chilcot inquiry coverage, is how many people died as a result of it. The lack of curiosity about the answer - on the part of both the antis and the pros - I find surprising. One of the criticisms of Tony Blair that I will accept is that he consistently failed to engage with this question - which was not even in his own interest, as it allowed vastly inflated figures to gain credibility.

But the antis are not interested either. One of the things that "everyone knows" is that "hundreds of thousands" of Iraqis died, as Nick Robinson has just said on the BBC News. If pressed, the antis default to The Lancet study of 2006, which put a figure of 600,000 on the "excess" deaths from violence since the invasion. But how can that figure be reconciled with the estimate of around 100,000 by Iraq Body Count? Perhaps that really is a question that Blair should be asked tomorrow.

My view is that the Lancet study was deeply flawed and its estimate unreliable. The researchers who carried it out failed to keep records; it seems to have passed peer review on the basis that its maths was sound. While the Iraq Body Count figures are likely to be an underestimate it seems implausible that they could be understated by a factor of as much as two. I posted about the Iraqi death toll here, here and in several posts here. The most credible academic discussion of these issues is this 2007 article in the International Review of the Red Cross.

Iraq Body Count suggests that the death toll in the invasion itself was around 7,000. Knowing the weakness of Saddam's forces in hindsight, that is regrettably high. And the toll of sectarian and criminal killings since then has been terrible. But there is a difference between 100,000 and half a million, or a million, figures often repeated without any respect for evidence.

And there is a difference between direct and indirect responsibility. On the basis on which the antis seek to arraign George Bush and Blair, Clement Attlee and Abraham Lincoln were war criminals, as I pointed out the other day, because people died as the indirect but arguably foreseeable consequence of their decisions.

It is on this basis that I disagree with the respectable wing of the antiwar movement, for whom Iraq was worse than a crime - it was a mistake. A monumental blunder. The worst foreign policy disaster since the Charge of the Light Brigade (or whatever). Marbury is one of those otherwise sympathetic to Blair who think that Iraq was an error of judgement. He quotes Rachel Sylvester as another. Richard Sanders in next month's Prospect is a third.

Yes, too many people have died. But the counterfactual of Saddam's survival was not blood-free. Most Iraqi people think it was worth their suffering to have got rid of him. They have hope; democracy has a chance in the region. And, yes, the invasion has been used an excuse to recruit jihadists, but there are two fewer rogue states with WMD ambitions (Iraq and Libya) that might have given them the means of mass destruction.

Photo: Karim Kadim/AP

Catalogue of Inanities

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 13 January 2010 at 10:53 pm

The coverage of the Iraq Inquiry is "so maddening, so uniform in its bias, and so absurd (because there's no real new news they keep having to invent 'revelations' that aren't) that I can hardly bear to read/watch it", says Ian Leslie. He is good enough to say:

Thank goodness for John Rentoul who is doing a good job of cataloguing the inanities.

If only I were. There is just so much of this propaganda that no one could rebut it all.

But I can catch a few pieces of stray litter as they fly past.

Paul "Anti" Waugh had a brilliant summary last night of the key points of Alastair Campbell's evidence, albeit built around the idea that Campbell is arrogant to stand by his views when alternative views are put to him. (And Campbell did not use a pin to stab his hand when he felt his temper rising when he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs select committee in 2003; it was a paper clip.)

But then he says:

If any of us were accused of being responsible, even partly, for the deaths of nearly a million people, psychologically at least, we may too be in some kind of denial.

I have said before that the case against the Iraq war is strong enough not to require the death toll to be exaggerated by a factor of up to 10. I have no idea where Waugh gets a figure of "nearly a million" from. I suspect it is simple extrapolation from the Lancet's 600,000 figure from 2006. But that figure does not stand up to close scrutiny. The most robust estimate is between 100,000 and 200,000, and probably below 150,000.

Clement Attlee, war criminal

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Monday, 4 January 2010 at 09:06 pm

In order to prepare for the big show trial of the pre-election campaign, as scheduled by Gordon Brown, that genius of five-moves-ahead political strategy, namely Tony Blair's appearance at the Iraq Inquiry, perhaps we should list some of the other former leaders who would be war criminals under the modern definition.

This requires that people died as the indirect but arguably foreseeable consequence of decisions made in pursuit of laudable ends.

Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, arguably a "war of choice", 1861-65: 620,000 killed (approximate modern consensus).

Clement Attlee (right), Partition of India, 1947: 500,000 killed (median of 14 estimates).

George Bush Sr and John Major, failure to protect the Shia in the Southern Iraq uprising of 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait: at least 60,000 killed (claimed in war crimes trial - of Saddam's officers - in Baghdad, 2007).

George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, John Major and others, failure to protect Bosnian Muslims, 1992-95: 100-110,000 killed.

Well, I say laudable ends. Blair (Iraq, 2003-07: c.150,000 killed) was trying to rid the world of a proven and dangerous menace, to liberate the Iraqi people and to spread democracy. What were Major's excuses?

For further analysis of Major's contemptible attack on his successor, see Michael White and Denis MacShane.

Iraq death toll, again

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 11:59 am
There is just so much misinformation on the internet that it cannot all be corrected, but when it starts to appear in my own newspaper, albeit in the "letters" page (which is now a "letters, emails and online postings" page), it is worth rebutting. This letter was published last Sunday:

In "The really disturbing question about Iraq" (29 November), John Rentoul writes of "the deaths of perhaps 150,000 Iraqis" during the Iraq war. Three years ago, The Lancet informed us that about 600,000 Iraqis had died. The website Information Clearing House continuously updates that figure, which now stands at 1,339,771. The vast majority of these deaths are civilians and many are children. The number of injured will be much higher and millions have been driven from their homes. There are many disturbing questions concerning the Iraq war and one of these is the failure of the British media to inform the public about the suffering of the Iraqi people.

Jim McCluskey

Twickenham, Middlesex

The Lancet
study has been discredited, and the figure from Information Clearing House is extrapolated from it using a simple multiplier derived from Iraq Body Count, which currently puts the violent death toll since the invasion at around 100,000, using a careful and conservative method.

The Information Clearing House estimate comes from another site called Just Foreign Policy, which has a Death Counter Explanation Page, which explains how it arrives at the 1.3m figure:

The formula used is:

Just Foreign Policy estimate = (Lancet estimate as of July 2006) * ( (Current IBC Deaths) / (IBC Deaths as of July 1, 2006) )

I have said it before, and I shall probably say it again:

Of course, the death toll in Iraq has been too high. The Iraq Body Count cumulative total since the invasion is now just under 100,000. That is likely to be an under-estimate, but the highest figure from a credible and independently verifiable source is the World Health Organisation survey, also in 2006, that estimated (with a 95 per cent probability) between 104,000 and 223,000, but which again used the cluster sample method. (There is a good summary of the different approaches published by the International Committee of the Red Cross here - pdf.)

But to exaggerate it by a factor of 10 or more does nothing to advance the anti-war cause.

Iraq: the false prospectus

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Tuesday, 27 October 2009 at 01:13 pm
Someone's got to do it, and not just to keep Hopi Sen happy. Not so much making the case for Tony Blair to be President of the European Council, but trying to ensure that, if the decision goes against him, it will not be because of untrue propaganda put about by the haters.

I disagree with the views of George Monbiot and Henry Porter, which need concern no one, but when they use figures for the death toll in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that are wild exaggerations, they must be resisted. I think it is important that The Guardian and The Observer should not lend their credibility to such figures as 600,000 (Porter) or 1 million (Monbiot).

As I have tried to explain many times before, I think that the likely death toll in Iraq, at between 100,000 and 200,000 over six and a half years, is terrible enough not to need exaggeration by those that opposed the invasion. Their case is strong enough, and troubling enough for those of us that supported it.

Foreign Secretary slips up

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 25 June 2009 at 02:55 pm
Regular reader of this blog will know that I have kept up a long attempt to monitor the spread of exaggerated estimates of the death toll in Iraq after the 2003 invasion into the mainstream. My view is that the solid evidence suggests that a cumulative total of between 100,000 and 200,000 have died from the invasion and ensuing violence. Studies purporting to support figures such as 600,000 by 2006 or 1 million by 2007 were flawed.

Regular reader will also know that I think that the number of deaths is so terrible that serious critics of the war should have no reason to exaggerate it. He or she will also know that I have criticised ministers for taking so little interest in the subject of counting, and accounting for, the Iraqi dead.

I was dismayed, therefore, when David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, made what I assume was a slip in the House of Commons yesterday, saying that "many hundreds of thousands" of Iraqis had died.

I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the courage and selflessness of all the military and civilian personnel who have served and continue to serve in Iraq, and the courage of the brave Iraqi people, many, many thousands of whom have also lost their lives, their livelihoods and their homes. Profound questions of international relations, nation building and regional security were, and are, at issue.

Harry Cohen: Is not the Secretary of State being mealy-mouthed in saying that many thousands of Iraqis died? Was it not 1 million? Cannot he at least confirm that?

David Miliband: It would be quite wrong of me to confirm that, because nothing—

Harry Cohen: Hundreds of thousands?

David Miliband: There were many hundreds of thousands. As I said, many, many thousands have lost their lives. 

This lack of precision on the part of the Government only gives the myths that sustain Islamist grievances currency.

North Korea, Land of the Free

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Monday, 8 June 2009 at 01:25 pm
Many journalists will have suffered from an internet virus known as Media Lens, an outfit run by David Edwards and David Cromwell that is dedicated to "correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media".  

They are slightly cultish followers of Noam Chomsky, not in his long-forgotten academic work on language but in his later incarnation as a polemicist of the totalitarian left. They and their cadres bombard journalists with irritating emails asking rhetorical questions about obscure debating points from history, insinuating that the journalist is biased in thinking that, say, Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein were dangerous tyrants.

Their m.o. is to tempt said journalist into replying, often in haste and with an impatience that can be portrayed as defensiveness, so that they can post the response, which courtesy should assume to be confidential, on their internet forum.  

Today, however, they have excelled themselves, sending out one of their media alerts, an email to supporters, headed "CARTOON KOREA - FILTERED TO FIT". Yes, they are defenders not just of Milosevic and Saddam, but of the North Korean regime, and they have noticed that it has had a bit of a bad press lately. 

This, though, is the best part:

And North Korea is surely not alone in being “secretive”. In February, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, took the unprecedented decision to veto the release of cabinet minutes about the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it would undermine democratic decision-making. Perhaps the grand panjandrum had other motives - for example, obscuring his role in the criminal conspiracy to invade a sovereign nation. His decision was greeted in the Hose of Commons by calls of "shame" and "disgraceful" from Labour and Conservative MPs. The Conservative MP Edward Leigh commented: 
"Surely the people have the right to know the legal basis of a war in which up to 600,000 people died? This whole thing stinks." (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Why we went to war in Iraq remains a secret as Straw blocks the release of cabinet minutes,’ The Guardian, February 25, 2009)
Leigh’s 600,000 figure is now three years, and several hundred thousand corpses, out of date.
Marvellous stuff, and so obviously true if only the inhabitants of the British gulag could lift their eyes from breaking rocks and see things for what they are. Straw's decision was indeed unprecedented, because it was the first taken under the Freedom of Information Act, which came into effect four years ago - much like, one imagines, the North Korean freedom of information law that has been in force for so much longer. 
As for the segue into pro-Saddam propaganda, it was so neat you may not even have noticed it. As for that 600,000 figure, it is not only three years out of date, it is four or five times too high, even after another three years of sectarian killings. 


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