Why Are Wars Not Being
The public needs to know the truth about wars.
So why have journalists colluded with governments
to hoodwink us?
By John Pilger
December 10, 2010 "The Guardian" -- In the US
Army manual on counterinsurgency, the American
commander General David Petraeus describes Afghanistan as
a "war of perception . . . conducted
continuously using the news media". What
really matters is not so much the day-to-day
battles against the Taliban as the way the
adventure is sold in America where "the
media directly influence the attitude of key
audiences". Reading this, I was reminded of
the Venezuelan general who led a coup against the
democratic government in 2002. "We had a
secret weapon," he boasted. "We had the
media, especially TV. You got to have the media."
Never has so much
official energy been expended in ensuring
journalists collude with the makers of rapacious
wars which, say the media-friendly generals, are
now "perpetual". In echoing the west's
more verbose warlords, such as the waterboarding
former US vice-president Dick
who predicated "50 years of war", they
plan a state of permanent conflict wholly
dependent on keeping at bay an enemy whose name
they dare not speak: the public.
At Chicksands in
Bedfordshire, the Ministry of Defence's
psychological warfare (Psyops) establishment, media trainers devote
themselves to the task, immersed in a jargon
world of "information dominance",
"asymmetric threats" and "cyberthreats".
They share premises with those who teach the
interrogation methods that have led to a public
inquiry into British military torture in Iraq. Disinformation and the
barbarity of colonial war have much in common.
Of course, only
the jargon is new. In the opening sequence of my
film, The War You Don't See, there is reference to a
pre-WikiLeaks private conversation in December
1917 between David Lloyd George, Britain's prime
minister during much of the first world war, and
CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian.
"If people really knew the truth," the
prime minister said, "the war would be
stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know,
and can't know."
In the wake of
this "war to end all wars", Edward Bernays, a confidante of President Woodrow Wilson, coined the term "public
relations" as a euphemism for propaganda
"which was given a bad name in the war".
In his book, Propaganda (1928), Bernays described
PR as "an invisible government which is the
true ruling power in our country" thanks to
"the intelligent manipulation of the masses".
This was achieved by "false realities"
and their adoption by the media. (One of Bernays's
early successes was persuading women to smoke in
public. By associating smoking with women's
liberation, he achieved headlines that lauded
cigarettes as "torches of freedom".)
I began to
understand this as a young reporter during the
American war in Vietnam. During my first
assignment, I saw the results of the bombing of
two villages and the use of Napalm
continues to burn beneath the skin; many of the
victims were children; trees were festooned with
body parts. The lament that "these
unavoidable tragedies happen in wars" did
not explain why virtually the entire population
of South Vietnam was at grave risk from the
forces of their declared "ally", the
United States. PR terms like "pacification"
and "collateral damage" became our
currency. Almost no reporter used the word "invasion".
"Involvement" and later "quagmire"
became staples of a news vocabulary that
recognised the killing of civilians merely as
tragic mistakes and seldom questioned the good
intentions of the invaders.
On the walls of
the Saigon bureaus of major American news
organisations were often displayed horrific
photographs that were never published and rarely
sent because it was said they were would "sensationalise"
the war by upsetting readers and viewers and
therefore were not "objective". The My Lai massacre in 1968 was not reported
from Vietnam, even though a number of reporters
knew about it (and other atrocities like it), but
by a freelance in the US, Seymour Hersh. The cover of Newsweek
magazine called it an "American tragedy",
implying that the invaders were the victims: a
purging theme enthusiastically taken up by
Hollywood in movies such as The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The war was flawed and
tragic, but the cause was essentially noble.
Moreover, it was "lost" thanks to the
irresponsibility of a hostile, uncensored media.
opposite of the truth, such false realties became
the "lessons" learned by the makers of
present-day wars and by much of the media.
Following Vietnam, "embedding"
journalists became central to war policy on both
sides of the Atlantic. With honourable exceptions,
this succeeded, especially in the US. In March
2003, some 700 embedded reporters and camera
crews accompanied the invading American forces in
Iraq. Watch their excited reports, and it is the
liberation of Europe all over again. The Iraqi
people are distant, fleeting bit players; John
Wayne had risen again.
A statue of Saddam
Hussein is pulled down in Baghdad on 9 April 2003.
Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP
The apogee was
the victorious entry into Baghdad, and the TV
pictures of crowds cheering the felling of a
statue of Saddam Hussein. Behind this fašade, an
American Psyops team successfully manipulated
what an ignored US army report describes as a
"media circus [with] almost as many
reporters as Iraqis". Rageh
who was there for the BBC, reported on the main
evening news: "People have come out
welcoming [the Americans], holding up V-signs.
This is an image taking place across the whole of
the Iraqi capital." In fact, across most of
Iraq, largely unreported, the bloody conquest and
destruction of a whole society was well under way.
In The War You
Don't See, Omaar speaks with admirable frankness.
"I didn't really do my job properly,"
he says. "I'd hold my hand up and say that
one didn't press the most uncomfortable buttons
hard enough." He describes how British
military propaganda successfully manipulated
coverage of the fall of Basra, which BBC News 24
reported as having fallen "17 times".
This coverage, he says, was "a giant echo
magnitude of Iraqi suffering in the onslaught had
little place in the news. Standing outside 10
Downing St, on the night of the invasion, Andrew
then the BBC's political editor, declared,
"[Tony Blair] said that they would be able
to take Baghdad without a bloodbath and that in
the end the Iraqis would be celebrating, and on
both of those points he has been proved
conclusively right . . ." I asked Marr for
an interview, but received no reply. In studies
of the television coverage by the University of
Wales, Cardiff, and Media
the BBC's coverage was found to reflect
overwhelmingly the government line and that
reports of civilian suffering were relegated.
Media Tenor places the BBC and America's CBS at
the bottom of a league of western broadcasters in
the time they allotted to opposition to the
invasion. "I am perfectly open to the
accusation that we were hoodwinked," said Jeremy Paxman, talking
about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass
destruction to a group of students last year. "Clearly we were."
As a highly paid professional broadcaster, he
omitted to say why he was hoodwinked.
Dan Rather, who
was the CBS news anchor for 24 years, was less
reticent. "There was a fear in every
newsroom in America," he told me, "a
fear of losing your job . . . the fear of being
stuck with some label, unpatriotic or otherwise."
Rather says war has made "stenographers out
of us" and that had journalists questioned
the deceptions that led to the Iraq war, instead
of amplifying them, the invasion would not have
happened. This is a view now shared by a number
of senior journalists I interviewed in the US.
In Britain, David
Rose, whose Observer articles played a major part
in falsely linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida and
9/11, gave me a courageous interview in which he
said, "I can make no excuses . . . What
happened [in Iraq] was a crime, a crime on a very
large scale . . ."
make journalists accomplices?" I asked him.
"Yes . . .
unwitting perhaps, but yes."
What is the value
of journalists speaking like this? The answer is
provided by the great reporter James Cameron, whose brave and
revealing filmed report, made with Malcolm Aird,
of the bombing of civilians in North Vietnam was
banned by the BBC. "If we who are meant to
find out what the bastards are up to, if we don't
report what we find, if we don't speak up,"
he told me, "who's going to stop the whole
bloody business happening again?"
Cameron could not
have imagined a modern phenomenon such as WikiLeaks but he would have surely
approved. In the current avalanche of official
documents, especially those that describe the
secret machinations that lead to war such
as the American mania over Iran the
failure of journalism is rarely noted. And
perhaps the reason Julian Assange seems to excite
such hostility among journalists serving a
variety of "lobbies", those whom George
Bush's press spokesman once called "complicit
enablers", is that WikiLeaks and its truth-telling
shames them. Why has the public had to wait for
WikiLeaks to find out how great power really
operates? As a leaked 2,000-page Ministry of
Defence document reveals, the most effective
journalists are those who are regarded in places
of power not as embedded or clubbable, but as a
"threat". This is the threat of real
democracy, whose "currency", said
Thomas Jefferson, is "free flowing
In my film, I
asked Assange how WikiLeaks dealt with the
draconian secrecy laws for which Britain is
famous. "Well," he said, "when we
look at the Official Secrets Act labelled
documents, we see a statement that it is an
offence to retain the information and it is an
offence to destroy the information, so the only
possible outcome is that we have to publish the
information." These are extraordinary times.
War You Don't See is in cinemas and on DVD from
13 December, and is broadcast on ITV on 14
December at 10.35pm