Why Are Wars Not Being Reported Honestly?

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?

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 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

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.

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 façade, 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

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

– The 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

From: A. Papazian


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