By John Pilger
25 July, 2007
In a speech in Chicago, John Pilger describes how propaganda has
become such a potent force in our lives and, in the words of one of
its founders, represents 'an invisible government'.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 of 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.
Speech delivered at the Chicago
Socialism 2007 Conference on Saturday June 16 2007
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