Bad Apples on Bloody Sunday? The British Army in Iraq.

Posted: July 6, 2010 in Media & Journalism, Northern Ireland

Jonathan Beale, BBC Defence Correspondent, reflects on the implications of the Saville Report for the British Army, which “learned the hard lessons of Bloody Sunday long ago with changes to soldiers’ training and rules of engagement”. It’s that, he reckons, which ‘”makes the harsh criticisms of the Saville report harder to swallow” for a paratroop regiment that has served in WW2, the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq among others.  And while they must now “live with the disgrace of Bloody Sunday […] the Saville Report will be a reminder to everyone who serves that they could be held to account for their actions” (BBC News online, 15 June).

One would hope so but recent precedent suggests otherwise. The official line is that while the killing of 13 people on Bloody Sunday was wrong and cannot be condoned, it was an aberration; a stain on the reputation of what David Cameron called “the finest army in the world”. The media as always buttressed the line. The Daily Mail greeted the Saville Report with this front page headline, juxtaposed with photos of two soldiers just killed in Afghanistan: “True Face of Our Soldiers” (16 June). All in all,  No Excuses Buttery was a defining theme among the newspaper pundits. 

Yet, just weeks later, we hear that since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, at least eight Iraqi citizens have died while in British Army custody and, furthermore, that the MoD faces legal action in the cases of another 102 who allege serious abuse (Guardian online, 1 July).

For those who have followed the illegal war in Iraq since 2003, this shouldn’t come as a surprise unless they’ve fallen for the army PR line about “our brave troops” trying to keep the peace and restore democracy to people who should show a bit more gratitude. There was a lot of that. When the troops went into Basra in 2003, we heard that they would bring to bear all their experience from Northern Ireland.  ‘Basra’s the new Belfast!’ declared the Daily Mirror at the time. The Belfast Telegraph never tired of reminding readers of the local connection with events in southern Iraq:  “Army to rely on Belfast skills in street battles” (25 March 2003) and “Troops using Ulster methods” (1 April 2003) are just two examples. Alas, the date of the second item is not a joke.

So how did “our boys” deploy their expertly honed “Belfast skills” in Iraq? On 12 February 2006, the News of the World, normally a standard bearer for the army, released an army home video of a “rogue squad” brutally beating a group of teenage boys they arrested for rioting. The video came complete with an ecstatic commentary from the cameraman, clearly enjoying the entertainment.  

The rest of the media quickly picked up on the NoW’s exclusive but despite their evident distaste and embarrassment, they followed the official spin that this, like Bloody Sunday, was untypical, yet another aberration, a “rogue squad” out of control, a few bad apples etc etc. To think otherwise would be a massive culture shock to journalists well cultivated by MoD spin and the media embed system where they are allowed to get up close and personal with the troops in the war zone.

For example, the Observer (12 February 2006) reported that the video “appears to show a group of British soldiers brutally beating and kicking defenceless Iraqi teenagers in an army compound”. No, the video shows, not appears to show, British troops beating up the boys. But that is standard journalistic objectivity when reporting controversial material involving Britain and its allies.  In Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza, civilians appear to have been killed and wounded by British/American/Israeli bombs but journalists have “no way of independently verifying it”.

Then again, let’s give our intrepid Observer the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps its reporters were being careful in case they were watching an elaborate Al Qaida spoof? It’s possible to imagine, after all, how those devious terrorists might easily trick the British army in Iraq and fool the world’s media with just one audacious operation.  “Excuse me, General Jackson, I am from Al Qaida and I want to make a propaganda video showing British army brutality, so beautifully produced it will fool the world’s media. To that end, could you kindly lease me out your local army base and a few uniforms for an afternoon? And perhaps one of your good boys could do the commentary as well? Yours sincerely, Ahmed.”

So Jonathan Beale is right when he says that the lesson of Bloody Sunday for the British Army today is that similar “indiscipline” may be prosecuted in a court of law. And who knows? Maybe the soldiers responsible for murder and beatings in Iraq will face proper justice one day?  But the real lesson is that the army as an institution can do what it wants and get away with it and that the media will help it massage the facts and spin out the damage.

In his speech on Saville in the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron promised an end to expensive inquiries in to the past crimes and misdemeanours of the state and its institutions. In that context, the bad apples scenario becomes a most serviceable theory. 

Further Reading

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry

The BBC Bloody Sunday archive

Eamonn McCann. ‘David Cameron’s stomach-churning hypocrisy’. Socialist Worker online. 26 June 2010.

David Miller (ed.) Tell me lies: propaganda and media distortion in the attack on Iraq. Pluto Press, 2004. 

Don Mullan and John Scally. Eyewitness: Bloody Sunday.  Merlin Press, 2002. Third edition. 

Bill Rolston and Greg McLaughlin. ‘All news is local: covering the war in Iraq in Northern Ireland’s daily newspapers’, in Journalism Studies, Vo.5, No.2 (2004): pp.191-202.

Alex Thomson. “Channel Four’s role in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry”. Channel 4. 15 June 2010.

  1. Dr.Disco says:

    AA – I read an article in the mirror a day or so after the results of the inquiry came out. I tried to find it for you online but no luck. If my memory serves me correctly, the Mirror was striving for ovjectivity in such a smarmy way that I nearly choked on my Stella. On the one hand, it offered the pretty much indisputable fact that a number of people were murdered without provocation. In another column (with may have been a commentary – I can’t quite remember), The Mirror pleaded for its readers not be too hard on “our boys”, while so many are fighting for our security in hot and sandy places. After all, the orders came from above.
    But, you have to ask – who pulled the trigger? In fact, you don’t. Because we know.
    Dr. Disco

    • Ah yes, Dr Disco. The old Nuremburg Defence always comes in handy in these situations: only following orders. The problem with the Nuremburg Trials, though, is that an awful lot of Nazis got away with that defence, while many more were spirited away by the Allies if they had particular expertise in tea-making, bun-baking or the development of weapons of mass destruction. It thus set a terrible precedent for the future, the legacy of which we see now and which can be summarised as: the victors write the history and define the limits of the law. So what is absent from the Saville Inquiry is an indictment of the institutions, government and armed forces, that created Bloody Sunday. The reason for that lies in its original brief set down by the Blair government in 1998: that the Inquiry establish only the facts on the ground on Bloody Sunday and not apportion blame, especially not from the top down.

  2. Rabelais says:

    The camera man in the clip ‘appears’ to take almost libidinal pleasure in the beating of the teenagers.

    I cringe every time I hear some journalist report that the British troops have a so much better understanding of and a better relationship with the ‘locals’ because of their experience in Northern Ireland.

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