The Invisible Government

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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 journalists
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 ever since.

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 it’s propaganda
and lies. I like you in the West. We’ve learned to look behind
the propaganda and to read between the lines, and like 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 denied.”

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 changed. 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
Deer Hunter
, 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 Deer Hunter 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 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, let 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 Replacement
Warhead (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 administrations
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 the question is 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 a long 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.

This was
a speech delivered at the Chicago Socialism 2007 Conference on Saturday,
June 16, 2007.

July
20, 2007

John
Pilger
was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.

©
John Pilger 2007

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Pilger Archives

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