Why Are Wars Not Being Reported Honestly The public needs to know the truth about wars. So why have journalists colluded with governments to hoodwink us?

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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
Cheney
, 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
B
, which 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.

Although the
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.

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
faade, 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
Omaar
, 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 chamber”.

The sheer 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
Marr
, 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
Tenor
, 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 . . .”

“Does that
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 information”.

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.

Reprinted
from The Guardian with
permission from the author.

December
17, 2010

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 latest book is Freedom
Next Time: Resisting the Empire
.

John
Pilger Archives

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