The Unseen Lies: Journalism As
by John Pilger
DemocracyNow.org, August 8, 2007
[The following is a transcript
of a talk given by John Pilger at Socialism 2007 Conference in
The title of this talk is Freedom Next
Time, which is the title of my book, and the book is meant as
an antidote to the propaganda that is so often disguised as journalism.
So I thought I would talk today about journalism, about war by
journalism, propaganda, and silence, and how that silence might
be broken. Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations,
wrote about an invisible government which is the true ruling power
of our country. He was referring to journalism, the media. That
was almost 80 years ago, not long after corporate journalism was
invented. It is a history few journalist talk about or know about,
and it began with the arrival of corporate advertising. As the
new corporations began taking over the press, something called
"professional journalism" was invented. To attract big
advertisers, the new corporate press had to appear respectable,
pillars of the establishment-objective, impartial, balanced. The
first schools of journalism were set up, and a mythology of liberal
neutrality was spun around the professional journalist. The right
to freedom of expression was associated with the new media and
with the great corporations, and the whole thing was, as Robert
McChesney put it so well, "entirely bogus".
For what the public did not know was that
in order to be professional, journalists had to ensure that news
and opinion were dominated by official sources, and that has not
changed. Go through the New York Times on any day, and check the
sources of the main political stories-domestic and foreign-you'll
find they're dominated by government and other established interests.
That is the essence of professional journalism. I am not suggesting
that independent journalism was or is excluded, but it is more
likely to be an honorable exception. Think of the role Judith
Miller played in the New York Times in the run-up to the invasion
of Iraq. Yes, her work became a scandal, but only after it played
a powerful role in promoting an invasion based on lies. Yet, Miller's
parroting of official sources and vested interests was not all
that different from the work of many famous Times reporters, such
as the celebrated W.H. Lawrence, who helped cover up the true
effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August, 1945.
"No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin," was the headline
on his report, and it was false.
Consider how the power of this invisible
government has grown. In 1983 the principle global media was owned
by 50 corporations, most of them American. In 2002 this had fallen
to just 9 corporations. Today it is probably about 5. Rupert Murdoch
has predicted that there will be just three global media giants,
and his company will be one of them. This concentration of power
is not exclusive of course to the United States. The BBC has announced
it is expanding its broadcasts to the United States, because it
believes Americans want principled, objective, neutral journalism
for which the BBC is famous. They have launched BBC America. You
may have seen the advertising.
The BBC began in 1922, just before the
corporate press began in America. Its founder was Lord John Reith,
who believed that impartiality and objectivity were the essence
of professionalism. In the same year the British establishment
was under siege. The unions had called a general strike and the
Tories were terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new
BBC came to their rescue. In high secrecy, Lord Reith wrote anti-union
speeches for the Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and broadcast
them to the nation, while refusing to allow the labor leaders
to put their side until the strike was over.
So, a pattern was set. Impartiality was
a principle certainly: a principle to be suspended whenever the
establishment was under threat. And that principle has been upheld
Take the invasion of Iraq. There are two
studies of the BBC's reporting. One shows that the BBC gave just
2 percent of its coverage of Iraq to antiwar dissent-2 percent.
That is less than the antiwar coverage of ABC, NBC, and CBS. A
second study by the University of Wales shows that in the buildup
to the invasion, 90 percent of the BBC's references to weapons
of mass destruction suggested that Saddam Hussein actually possessed
them, and that by clear implication Bush and Blair were right.
We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by
the British secret intelligence service MI-6. In what they called
Operation Mass Appeal, MI-6 agents planted stories about Saddam's
weapons of mass destruction, such as weapons hidden in his palaces
and in secret underground bunkers. All of these stories were fake.
But that's not the point. The point is that the work of MI-6 was
unnecessary, because professional journalism on its own would
have produced the same result.
Listen to the BBC's man in Washington,
Matt Frei, shortly after the invasion. "There is not
doubt," he told viewers in the UK and all over the world,
"That the desire to bring good, to bring American values
to the rest of the world, and especially now in the Middle East,
is especially tied up with American military power." In 2005
the same reporter lauded the architect of the invasion, Paul Wolfowitz,
as someone who "believes passionately in the power of democracy
and grassroots development." That was before the little incident
at the World Bank.
None of this is unusual. BBC news routinely
describes the invasion as a miscalculation. Not Illegal, not unprovoked,
not based on lies, but a miscalculation.
The words "mistake" and "blunder"
are common BBC news currency, along with "failure"-which
at least suggests that if the deliberate, calculated, unprovoked,
illegal assault on defenseless Iraq had succeeded, that would
have been just fine. Whenever I hear these words I remember Edward
Herman's marvelous essay about normalizing the unthinkable. For
that's what media clichéd language does and is designed
to do-it normalizes the unthinkable; of the degradation of war,
of severed limbs, of maimed children, all of which I've seen.
One of my favorite stories about the Cold War concerns a group
of Russian journalists who were touring the United States. On
the final day of their visit, they were asked by the host for
their impressions. "I have to tell you," said the spokesman,
"that we were astonished to find after reading all the newspapers
and watching TV day after day that all the opinions on all the
vital issues are the same. To get that result in our country we
send journalists to the gulag. We even tear out their fingernails.
Here you don't have to do any of that. What is the secret?"
What is the secret? It is a question seldom
asked in newsrooms, in media colleges, in journalism journals,
and yet the answer to that question is critical to the lives of
millions of people. On August 24 last year the New York Times
declared this in an editorial: "If we had known then what
we know now the invasion if Iraq would have been stopped by a
popular outcry." This amazing admission was saying, in effect,
that journalists had betrayed the public by not doing their job
and by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and
his gang, instead of challenging them and exposing them. What
the Times didn't say was that had that paper and the rest of the
media exposed the lies, up to a million people might be alive
today. That's the belief now of a number of senior establishment
journalists. Few of them-they've spoken to me about it-few of
them will say it in public.
Ironically, I began to understand how
censorship worked in so-called free societies when I reported
from totalitarian societies. During the 1970s I filmed secretly
in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship. I interviewed
members of the dissident group Charter 77, including the novelist
Zdener Urbanek, and this is what he told me. "In dictatorships
we are more fortunate that you in the West in one respect. We
believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing
of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda
and lies. Unlike you in the West. We've learned to look behind
the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you,
we know that the real truth is always subversive."
Vandana Shiva has called this subjugated
knowledge. The great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn got it right
when he wrote, "Never believe anything until it's officially
One of the oldest clichés of war
is that truth is the first casualty. No it's not. Journalism is
the first casualty. When the Vietnam War was over, the magazine
Encounter published an article by Robert Elegant, a distinguished
correspondent who had covered the war. "For the first time
in modern history," he wrote, the outcome of a war was determined
not on the battlefield, but on the printed page, and above all
on the television screen." He held journalists responsible
for losing the war by opposing it in their reporting. Robert Elegant's
view became the received wisdom in Washington and it still is.
In Iraq the Pentagon invented the embedded journalist because
it believed that critical reporting had lost Vietnam.
The very opposite was true. On my first
day as a young reporter in Saigon, I called at the bureaus of
the main newspapers and TV companies. I noticed that some of them
had a pinboard on the wall on which were gruesome photographs,
mostly of bodies of Vietnamese and of American soldiers holding
up severed ears and testicles. In one office was a photograph
of a man being tortured; above the torturers head was a stick-on
comic balloon with the words, "that'll teach you to talk
to the press." None of these pictures were ever published
or even put on the wire. I asked why. I was told that the public
would never accept them. Anyway, to publish them would not be
objective or impartial. At first, I accepted the apparent logic
of this. I too had grown up on stories of the good war against
Germany and Japan, that ethical bath that cleansed the Anglo-American
world of all evil. But the longer I stayed in Vietnam, the more
I realized that our atrocities were not isolated, nor were they
aberrations, but the war itself was an atrocity. That was the
big story, and it was seldom news. Yes, the tactics and effectiveness
of the military were questioned by some very fine reporters. But
the word "invasion" was never used. The anodyne word
used was "involved." America was involved in Vietnam.
The fiction of a well-intentioned, blundering giant, stuck in
an Asian quagmire, was repeated incessantly. It was left to whistleblowers
back home to tell the subversive truth, those like Daniel Ellsberg
and Seymour Hersh, with his scoop of the My-Lai massacre. There
were 649 reporters in Vietnam on March 16, 1968-the day that the
My-Lai massacre happened-and not one of them reported it.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, deliberate policies
and strategies have bordered on genocide. In Vietnam, the forced
dispossession of millions of people and the creation of free fire
zones; In Iraq, an American-enforced embargo that ran through
the 1990s like a medieval siege, and killed, according to the
United Nations Children's fund, half a million children under
the age of five. In both Vietnam and Iraq, banned weapons were
used against civilians as deliberate experiments. Agent Orange
changed the genetic and environmental order in Vietnam. The military
called this Operation Hades. When Congress found out, it was renamed
the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand, and nothing change. That's
pretty much how Congress has reacted to the war in Iraq. The Democrats
have damned it, rebranded it, and extended it. The Hollywood movies
that followed the Vietnam War were an extension of the journalism,
of normalizing the unthinkable. Yes, some of the movies were critical
of the military's tactics, but all of them were careful to concentrate
on the angst of the invaders. The first of these movies is now
considered a classic. It's The Deerhunter, whose message was that
America had suffered, America was stricken, American boys had
done their best against oriental barbarians. The message was all
the more pernicious, because the Deerhunter was brilliantly made
and acted. I have to admit it's the only movie that has made me
shout out loud in a Cinema in protest. Oliver Stone's acclaimed
movie Platoon was said to be antiwar, and it did show glimpses
of the Vietnamese as human beings, but it also promoted above
all the American invader as victim.
I wasn't going to mention The Green Berets
when I set down to write this, until I read the other day that
John Wayne was the most influential movie star who ever lived.
I a saw the Green Berets starring John Wayne on a Saturday night
in 1968 in Montgomery Alabama. (I was down there to interview
the then-infamous governor George Wallace). I had just come back
from Vietnam, and I couldn't believe how absurd this movie was.
So I laughed out loud, and I laughed and laughed. And it wasn't
long before the atmosphere around me grew very cold. My companion,
who had been a Freedom Rider in the South, said, "Let's get
the hell out of here and run like hell."
We were chased all the way back to our
hotel, but I doubt if any of our pursuers were aware that John
Wayne, their hero, had lied so he wouldn't have to fight in World
War II. And yet the phony role model of Wayne sent thousands of
Americans to their deaths in Vietnam, with the notable exceptions
of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Last year , in his acceptance of
the Nobel Prize for Literature, the playwright Harold Pinter made
an epoch speech. He asked why, and I quote him, "The systematic
brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression
of independent thought in Stalinist Russia were well know in the
West, while American state crimes were merely superficially recorded,
left alone, documented." And yet across the world the extinction
and suffering of countless human beings could be attributed to
rampant American power. "But," said Pinter, "You
wouldn't know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even
while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter.
It was of no interest." Pinter's words were more than the
surreal. The BBC ignored the speech of Britain's most famous dramatist.
I've made a number of documentaries about
Cambodia. The first was Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia.
It describes the American bombing that provided the catalyst for
the rise of Pol Pot. What Nixon and Kissinger had started, Pol
Pot completed-CIA files alone leave no doubt of that. I offered
Year Zero to PBS and took it to Washington. The PBS executives
who saw it were shocked. They whispered among themselves. They
asked me to wait outside. One of them finally emerged and said,
"John, we admire your film. But we are disturbed that it
says the United States prepared the way for Pol Pot."
I said, "Do you dispute the evidence?"
I had quoted a number of CIA documents. "Oh, no," he
replied. "But we've decided to call in a journalistic adjudicator."
Now the term "journalist adjudicator"
might have been invented by George Orwell. In fact they managed
to find one of only three journalists who had been invited to
Cambodia by Pol Pot. And of course he turned his thumbs down on
the film, and I never heard from PBS again. Year Zero was broadcast
in some 60 countries and became one of the most watched documentaries
in the world. It was never shown in the United States. Of the
five films I have made on Cambodia, one of them was shown by WNET,
the PBS station in New York. I believe it was shown at about one
in the morning. On the basis of this single showing, when most
people are asleep, it was awarded an Emmy. What marvelous irony.
It was worthy of a prize but not an audience.
Harold Pinter's subversive truth, I believe,
was that he made the connection between imperialism and fascism,
and described a battle for history that's almost never reported.
This is the great silence of the media age. And this is the secret
heart of propaganda today. A propaganda so vast in scope that
I'm always astonished that so many Americans know and understand
as much as they do. We are talking about a system, of course,
not personalities. And yet, a great many people today think that
the problem is George W. Bush and his gang. And yes, the Bush
gang are extreme. But my experience is that they are no more than
an extreme version of what has gone on before. In my lifetime,
more wars have been started by liberal Democrats than by Republicans.
Ignoring this truth is a guarantee that the propaganda system
and the war-making system will continue. We've had a branch of
the Democratic party running Britain for the last 10 years. Blair,
apparently a liberal, has taken Britain to war more times than
any prime minister in the modern era. Yes, his current pal is
George Bush, but his first love was Bill Clinton, the most violent
president of the late 20th century. Blair's successor, Gordon
Brown is also a devotee of Clinton and Bush. The other day, Brown
said, "The days of Britain having to apologize for the British
Empire are over. We should celebrate."
Like Blair, like Clinton, like Bush, Brown
believes in the liberal truth that the battle for history has
been won; that the millions who died in British-imposed famines
in British imperial India will be forgotten-like the millions
who have died in the American Empire will be forgotten. And like
Blair, his successor is confident that professional journalism
is on his side. For most journalists, whether they realize it
or not, are groomed to be tribunes of an ideology that regards
itself as non-ideological, that presents itself as the natural
center, the very fulcrum of modern life. This may very well be
the most powerful and dangerous ideology we have ever known because
it is open-ended. This is liberalism. I'm not denying the virtues
of liberalism-far from it. We are all beneficiaries of them. But
if we deny its dangers, its open-ended project, and the all-consuming
power of its propaganda, then we deny our right to true democracy,
because liberalism and true democracy are not the same. Liberalism
began as a preserve of the elite in the 19th century, and true
democracy is never handed down by elites. It is always fought
for and struggled for.
A senior member of the antiwar coalition,
United For Peace and Justice, said recently, and I quote her,
"The Democrats are using the politics of reality." Her
liberal historical reference point was Vietnam. She said that
President Johnson began withdrawing troops from Vietnam after
a Democratic Congress began to vote against the war. That's not
what happened. The troops were withdrawn from Vietnam after four
long years. And during that time the United States killed more
people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with bombs than were killed
in all the preceding years. And that's what's happening in Iraq.
The bombing has doubled since last year, and this is not being
reported. And who began this bombing? Bill Clinton began it. During
the 1990s Clinton rained bombs on Iraq in what were euphemistically
called the "no fly zones." At the same time he imposed
a medieval siege called economic sanctions, killing as I've mentioned,
perhaps a million people, including a documented 500,000 children.
Almost none of this carnage was reported in the so-called mainstream
media. Last year a study published by the Johns Hopkins School
of Public Health found that since the invasion of Iraq 655, 000
Iraqis had died as a direct result of the invasion. Official documents
show that the Blair government knew this figure to be credible.
In February, Les Roberts, the author of the report, said the figure
was equal to the figure for deaths in the Fordham University study
of the Rwandan genocide. The media response to Robert's shocking
revelation was silence. What may well be the greatest episode
of organized killing for a generation, in Harold Pinter's words,
"Did not happen. It didn't matter."
Many people who regard themselves on the
left supported Bush's attack on Afghanistan. That the CIA had
supported Osama Bin Laden was ignored, that the Clinton administration
had secretly backed the Taliban, even giving them high-level briefings
at the CIA, is virtually unknown in the United States. The Taliban
were secret partners with the oil giant Unocal in building an
oil pipeline across Afghanistan. And when a Clinton official was
reminded that the Taliban persecuted women, he said, "We
can live with that." There is compelling evidence that Bush
decided to attack the Taliban not as a result of 9-11, but two
months earlier, in July of 2001. This is virtually unknown in
the United States-publicly. Like the scale of civilian casualties
in Afghanistan. To my knowledge only one mainstream reporter,
Jonathan Steele of the Guardian in London, has investigated civilian
casualties in Afghanistan, and his estimate is 20,000 dead civilians,
and that was three years ago.
The enduring tragedy of Palestine is due
in great part to the silence and compliance of the so-called liberal
left. Hamas is described repeatedly as sworn to the destruction
of Israel. The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Boston
Globe-take your pick. They all use this line as a standard disclaimer,
and it is false. That Hamas has called for a ten-year ceasefire
is almost never reported. Even more important, that Hamas has
undergone an historic ideological shift in the last few years,
which amounts to a recognition of what it calls the reality of
Israel, is virtually unknown; and that Israel is sworn to the
destruction of Palestine is unspeakable.
There is a pioneering study by Glasgow
University on the reporting of Palestine. They interviewed young
people who watch TV news in Britain. More than 90 percent thought
the illegal settlers were Palestinian. The more they watched,
the less they knew-Danny Schecter's famous phrase.
The current most dangerous silence is
over nuclear weapons and the return of the Cold War. The Russians
understand clearly that the so-called American defense shield
in Eastern Europe is designed to subjugate and humiliate them.
Yet the front pages here talk about Putin starting a new Cold
War, and there is silence about the development of an entirely
new American nuclear system called Reliable Weapons Replacement
(RRW), which is designed to blur the distinction between conventional
war and nuclear war-a long-held ambition.
In the meantime, Iran is being softened
up, with the liberal media playing almost the same role it played
before the Iraq invasion. And as for the Democrats, look at how
Barak Obama has become the voice of the Council on Foreign Relations,
one of the propaganda organs of the old liberal Washington establishment.
Obama writes that while he wants the troops home, "We must
not rule out military force against long-standing adversaries
such as Iran and Syria." Listen to this from the liberal
Obama: "At moment of great peril in the past century our
leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and
lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedom sought
by billions of people beyond their borders."
That is the nub of the propaganda, the
brainwashing if you like, that seeps into the lives of every American,
and many of us who are not Americans. From right to left, secular
to God-fearing, what so few people know is that in the last half
century, United States adminstrations have overthrown 50 governments-many
of them democracies. In the process, thirty countries have been
attacked and bombed, with the loss of countless lives. Bush bashing
is all very well-and is justified-but the moment we begin to accept
the siren call of the Democrat's drivel about standing up and
fighting for freedom sought by billions, the battle for history
is lost, and we ourselves are silenced.
So what should we do? That question often
asked in meetings I have addressed, even meetings as informed
as those in this conference, is itself interesting. It's my experience
that people in the so-called third world rarely ask the question,
because they know what to do. And some have paid with their freedom
and their lives, but they knew what to do. It's a question that
many on the democratic left-small "d"-have yet to answer.
Real information, subversive information,
remains the most potent power of all-and I believe that we must
not fall into the trap of believing that the media speaks for
the public. That wasn't true in Stalinist Czechoslovakia and it
isn't true of the United States.
In all the years I've been a journalist,
I've never know public consciousness to have risen as fast as
it's rising today. Yes, its direction and shape is unclear, partly
because people are now deeply suspicious of political alternatives,
and because the Democratic Party has succeeded in seducing and
dividing the electoral left. And yet this growing critical public
awareness is all the more remarkable when you consider the sheer
scale of indoctrination, the mythology of a superior way of life,
and the current manufactured state of fear.
Why did the New York Times come clean
in that editorial last year? Not because it opposes Bush's wars-look
at the coverage of Iran. That editorial was a rare acknowledgement
that the public was beginning to see the concealed role of the
media, and that people were beginning to read between the lines.
If Iran is attacked, the reaction and
the upheaval cannot be predicted. The national security and homeland
security presidential directive gives Bush power over all facets
of government in an emergency. It is not unlikely the constitution
will be suspended-the laws to round up hundreds of thousands of
so-called terrorists and enemy combatants are already on the books.
I believe that these dangers are understood by the public, who
have come along way since 9-11, and a long way since the propaganda
that linked Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. That's why they voted
for the Democrats last November, only to be betrayed. But they
need truth, and journalists ought to be agents of truth, not the
courtiers of power.
I believe a fifth estate is possible,
the product of a people's movement, that monitors, deconstructs,
and counters the corporate media. In every university, in every
media college, in every news room, teachers of journalism, journalists
themselves need to ask themselves about the part they now play
in the bloodshed in the name of a bogus objectivity. Such a movement
within the media could herald a perestroika of a kind that we
have never known. This is all possible. Silences can be broken.
In Britain the National Union of Journalists has undergone a radical
change, and has called for a boycott of Israel. The web site Medialens.org
has single-handedly called the BBC to account. In the United States
wonderfully free rebellious spirits populate the web-I can't mention
them all here-from Tom Feeley's International Clearing House,
to Mike Albert's ZNet, to Counterpunch online, and the splendid
work of FAIR. The best reporting of Iraq appears on the web-Dahr
Jamail's courageous journalism; and citizen reporters like Joe
Wilding, who reported the siege of Fallujah from inside the city.
In Venezuela, Greg Wilpert's investigations
turned back much of the virulent propaganda now aimed at Hugo
Chávez. Make no mistake, it's the threat of freedom of
speech for the majority in Venezuela that lies behind the campaign
in the west on behalf of the corrupt RCTV. The challenge for the
rest of us is to lift this subjugated knowledge from out of the
underground and take it to ordinary people.
We need to make haste. Liberal Democracy
is moving toward a form of corporate dictatorship. This is an
historic shift, and the media must not be allowed to be its façade,
but itself made into a popular, burning issue, and subjected to
direct action. That great whistleblower Tom Paine warned that
if the majority of the people were denied the truth and the ideas
of truth, it was time to storm what he called the Bastille of
words. That time is now.
John Pilger is a world-renowned journalist,
author and documentary filmmaker, who began his career in 1958
in his homeland, Australia, before moving to London in the 1960s.
His most recent book is Freedom Next Time.