09/06/2006 23 min #1205

Journalism as Weapon of War


John Pilger addresses Columbia University in New York

On 14 April 2006, the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia

University in New York brought together John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, Robert

Fisk and Charles Glass for a discussion entitled 'Breaking the Silence: War,

lies and empire'.

Tne following is a transcript of John Pilger's address

- 'War by Media' - http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=267

"During the Cold War, a group of Russian journalists toured the United

States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked by their hosts for

their impressions. “I have to tell you,” said their spokesman, “that we were

astonished to find, after reading all the newspapers and watching TV, that

all the opinions on all the vital issues were, by and large, the same. To

get that result in our country, we imprison people, we tear out their

fingernails. Here, you don't have that. What's the secret? How do you do


What is the secret? It's a question now urgently asked of those whose job is

to keep the record straight: who in this country have extraordinary

constitutional freedom. I refer to journalists, of course, a small group who

hold privileged sway over the way we think, even the way we use language.

I have been a journalist for more than 40 years. Although I am based in

London, I have worked all over the world, including the United States, and I

have reported America's wars. My experience is that what the Russian

journalists were referring to is censorship by omission, the product of a

parallel world of unspoken truth and public myths and lies: in other words,

censorship by journalism, which today has become war by journalism.

For me, this is the most virulent and powerful form of censorship, fuelling

an indoctrination that runs deep in western societies, deeper than many

journalists themselves understand or will admit to. Its power is such that

it can mean the difference between life and death for untold numbers of

people in faraway countries, like Iraq.

During the 1970s, I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist

dictatorship. I interviewed members of the dissident group, Charter 77. One

of them, the novelist Zdener Urbanek, told me, “We are more fortunate than

you in the West, in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the

newspapers and watch on television, nothing of the official truth. unlike

you, we have learned to read between the lines of the media. unlike you, we

know that that real truth is always subversive.” By subversive, he meant

that truth comes from the ground up, almost never from the top down.

(Vandana Shiva has called this 'subjugated knowledge').

A venerable cliché is that truth is the first casualty in wartime. I

disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. The first American war I

reported was Vietnam. I went there from 1966 to the last day. When it was

all over, the magazine Encounter published an article by Robert Elegant,

another correspondent who covered Vietnam. “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 was accusing journalists of losing the war by opposing it in

their work.

Robert Elegant's view became the received wisdom in America and still is.

This official truth has determined how every American war since Vietnam has

been reported. In Iraq, the “embedded” reporter was invented because the

generals believed the Robert Elegant thesis: that critical reporting had

“lost” Vietnam. How wrong they are.

On my first day as a young reporter in Saigon, I called on the bureaus of

the main newspapers and TV companies. I noticed most of them had a gruesome

photo gallery pinned on the wall -- pictures of the bodies of Vietnamese and

American soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles. In one office was a

photograph of a man being tortured. Above the torturer's head was a stick-on

comic strip balloon with the words: “That'll teach you to talk to the


None of these pictures had ever been published, or even put on the wire.

I asked why. The response was that "New York" would reject them, because the

readers would never accept them. Anyway, to publish them would be to

“sensationalise”; it would not be "objective" or "impartial". At first, I

accepted the apparent logic of this: that atrocities surely were aberrations

by definition. I, too, had grown up on John Wayne movies of the "good war"

against Germany and Japan, an ethical bath that had left us westerners pure

of soul and altruistic towards our fellow man and heroic. We did not

torture. We did not kill women and children. We were the permanent good


However, this did not explain the so-called “free fire zones” that turned

entire provinces into places of slaughter: provinces like Quang Ngai, where

the My Lai massacre was only one of a number of unreported massacres. It did

not explain the helicopter “turkey shoots”. It did not explain people

dragged along dirt roads, roped from neck to neck, by jeeps filled with

doped and laughing GIs and why they kept human skulls enscribed with the

words, “One down, one million to go.”

The atrocities were not aberrations. 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 reporters, but the word

"invasion" was almost never used. The fiction of a well-intentioned,

blundering giant, stuck in an Asian quagmire, was promoted by most

journalists, incessantly. It was left to whistleblowers at home to tell the

subversive truth -- those like Daniel Ellsberg, and mavericks like Seymour

Hersh with his extraordinary scoop of the My Lai massacre. There were 649

reporters in Vietnam at the time of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Not one of

them reported it.

The invasion of Vietnam was deliberate and calculated, as were policies and

strategies that bordered on genocide and were designed to force millions of

people to abandon their homes. Experimental weapons were used against

civilians. Chemicals banned in the United States -- Agent Orange -- were

used to change the genetic and environmental order in Vietnam. All of this

was rarely news at the time. The unspoken task of the reporter in Vietnam,

as it was in Korea, was, to normalise the unthinkable - to quote Edward

Herman's memorable phrase. And that has not changed.

In 1975, when the Vietnam war just over, I witnessed the full panorama of

what the American military machine had done, and I could barely believe my

eyes. In the north, it seemed as if I had stumbled on some great, unrecorded

natural disaster. On my office wall in London is a photograph I took of a

town in Vinh province that was once home to 10,000 people. The photograph

shows bomb craters and bomb craters, and bomb craters. Obliteration.

The Hollywood movies that followed the war were an extension of the

journalism. The first was The Deerhunter, whose director Michael Cimino

fabricated his own military service in Vietnam, and invented scenes of

Vietnamese playing Russian roulette with American prisoners. The message was

clear. America had suffered, America was stricken, American boys had done

their best. It was all the more pernicious because it was brilliantly made

and acted. I have to admit it remains the only time I have shouted out in

protest, in a packed cinema.

This was followed by Apocalyse Now, whose writer, John Millius, invented a

sequence about the Vietcong cutting off the arms of children. More oriental

barbarity, more American angst, more purgative for the audience. Then there

was the Rambo series and the “missing in action” films that fed the lie of

Americans still imprisoned in Vietnam. Even Oliver Stone's Platoon, which

gave us glimpses of the Vietnamese as human beings, promoted the invader as


Even the official truth, or the liberal version, that the “noble cause” had

failed in Vietnam, was a myth. From Kennedy to Ford, the American war

establishment had seen Vietnam as a threat, because it offered an

alternative model of development. The weaker the country, the greater the

threat of a good example to his region and beyond. By the time the last US

Marine had left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, Vietnam was

economically and environmentally crushed and the threat had been


In the acclaimed movie The Killing Fields, the story of a New York Times

reporter and his stringer in Cambodia, scenes that showed the Vietnamese as

liberators of Cambodia in 1979 were filmed, but never shown.

These showed Vietnamese soldiers as the liberators they were, handing out

food to the survivors of Pol Pot. To my knowledge, this censorship was never

reported. The cut version of The Killing Fields complied with the official

truth then dominant I the United States, especially in the liberal press,

such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New York Review of

Books. This set out to justify the crime of the Vietnam war by dehumanising

the Vietnamese communists and confusing them, in the public mind, with Pol

Pot's Khmer Rouge.

In the post war period, the policy in Washington was revenge, a word that

officials used in private, but never publicly. Famous insider journalists,

like James Reston of the New York Times, embraced it and disguised it in

anti-Vietnamese disinformation. An economic embargo was imposed on Vietnam

and Cambodia. Supplies of milk were cut off to the children of Vietnam. This

barbaric assault on the very fabric of life in two of the most stricken

societies on earth was rarely reported in the United States.

During this time, I made a number of documentaries about Cambodia. The

first, in 1979, Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia described the

American bombing that had provided a catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot and

showed the human effects of the embargo. Year Zero was broadcast in some 60

countries, but never in the United States. When I flew to Washington and

offered Year Zero to the national public broadcaster, PBS. I received a

curious reaction from PBS executives. They were shocked by the film, and

they also spoke admiringly of it, even though but I could see them

collectively shaking their heads. One of them finally said to me, “John, we

are disturbed that your film says the United States played such a

destructive role in Cambodia, and we may have an issue of objectivity. So

we have decided to call in a Journalistic Adjudicator.”

“Journalistic Adjudicator” was straight out of Orwell. But it was real, and

PBS appointed one Richard Dudman, a reporter on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Dudman was one of the few Westerners to have been invited by Pol Pot to

visit Cambodia. His dispatches reflected none of the savagery then

enveloping that country; he even praised his hosts. Not surprisingly, he

turned his thumb down on my film and Americans never saw the film. Months

later, one of the PBS executives, told me, “These are difficult days under

Reagan. Your film would have given us problems. Sorry.”

The lack of truth about what had really happened in South East Asia - the

media promoted myth of an honourable “blunder” into a “quagmire” and the

cover-up of the true scale of the slaughter -- allowed Ronald Reagan to

renew the same “noble cause” in Central America and rescue, as the

Reaganites saw it, America's lost prestige in the world. The target, once

again, was an impoverished nation without resources, whose threat, like

Vietnam, was in trying to establish a model of development different from

that of the corrupt, colonial dictatorships, backed by Washington. This was

Nicaragua: population three million, one of the poorest nations on earth.

I reported the so-called Contra War from the Nicaraguan side; but it was not

a war. Like all the attacks of the American superpower on small,

defenceless countries, it was about murder, bribery and “perception

management”. A CIA-armed and trained rabble known as the Contra would slip

across the border from Honduras and cut the throats of midwives, or blow up

schools and clinics. Reagan called them the equivalent of his nation's

Founding Fathers. The Iran-Contra scandal that followed produced some

excellent investigative reporting in he United States, yet when it was all

over, the overall impression was of a mildly embarrassed administration in

Washington, not the barbarity of its actions. Thanks to journalists, Reagan

emerged smiling and waving, “the great communicator”. According to the

American historian Greg Grandin (Empire's Workshop: Metropolitan Books),

300,000 people in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador had paid with their


Is Iraq different? Yes, there are many differences, but for journalists

there are haunting similarities of both Vietnam and Central America. The

"noble cause" of “bringing democracy to the Middle East”, the promotion of a

civil war and the killing of tens of thousands of invisible people. On

August 24 last year, a New York Times editorial declared: “If we had known

then what we know now, the invasion [of Iraq] would have been stopped by a

popular outcry.” This amazing admission was saying, in effect, that

journalists had betrayed the public by accepting and amplifying and echoing

the lies of Bush and Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them. The

result is a human disaster of epic proportions, for which journalists in the

so-called mainstream bear much of the responsibility; and that includes

responsibility for the lives lost and destroyed.

This is true not only in America. In Britain, where I live, the BBC - which

promotes itself as a nirvana of objectivity and impartiality and truth - has

blood on its corporate hands. There are two interesting studies of the BBC's

reporting. One of them, in the build-up to the invasion, shows that the BBC

gave just two per cent of its coverage of Iraq to anti-war dissent. That was

less than the anti-war coverage of all the American networks. A second study

by the respected journalism school at University College in Cardiff shows

that 90 per cent 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 MI6, the

secret intelligence service. In what they called Operation Mass Appeal, MI6

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 fakes. However, that is not the point. The point is that

the dark arts of MI6 were quite unnecessary, because a systematic media

self-censorship produced the same result.

Recently, the BBC's Director of News, Helen Boaden, was asked to explain how

one of her “embedded” reporters in Iraq could possibly describe the aim of

the Anglo-American invasion as “bring [ing] democracy and human rights” to

Iraq. She replied with quotations from Tony Blair that this was indeed the

truth, as if Blair and the truth were in any way related. This servility to

state power is hotly denied, of course, but routine. It is even called

“objectivity”. This is the BBC's correspondent in Washington, Matt Frei,

shortly after the invasion of Iraq. “There is no doubt,” he reported, "that

the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world,

and especially now in the Middle East ... is now increasingly tied up with

military power". Last year, he lauded the architect of the invasion, Paul

Wolfowitz, as "someone who believes passionately in the power of democracy

and grassroots development." This is not unusual. On the third anniversary

of the invasion, a BBC newsreader described the invasion as a

"miscalculation". Not illegal. Not unprovoked. Not based on lies. Not a

crime as defined by the judegment at Nuremberg. But a miscalculation. Thus,

the unthinkable was normalised.

There is a new book out in Britain called “Guardians of Power”. The authors

are David Edwards and David Cromwell, who edit a remarkable website called

MediaLens. Their work is about the parallel worlds of unspoken truths and

official lies. They have not bothered with soft targets, like the Murdoch

press. They concentrate on the liberal media, which is proud of its

objectivity and impartiality, its “balance” and “professionalism”. They

studied the reporting of the invasions of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and

the current build-up to an invasion of Iran. What they reveal is a pattern.

In the British media, as in the United States, as in Australia, rapacious

western actions are reported as moral crusades, or humanitarian

interventions. At the very least, they are represented as the management of

an international crisis, rather than the cause of the crisis. This truthful,

bracing book has not been reviewed in a single British newspaper, even

though informed people have offered to write about it.

Now consider the treatment of Harold Pinter, Britain's greatest living

dramatist. In accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature last December, Harold

Pinter made an epic speech. He asked why “the systematic brutality, the

widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought” in

Stalinist Russia were well known in the west while American state crimes

were merely “superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone

acknowledged.” Across the world, he pointed out, the extinction and

suffering of countless human beings could be attributed to rampant American

power, “but you wouldn't know it”, he said. “it never happened. Nothing ever

happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't

matter. It was of no interest.” For the BBC, Pinter's speech never happened.

Not a word of it was broadcast. It never happened.

Pinter's threat is that he tells a subversive truth. He makes the connection

between imperialism and fascism and he describes it as a battle for history.

I would add that it is also a battle for journalism. Language has become a

crucial battleground. Noble words, like “democracy”, "liberation",

“freedom”, “reform” have been emptied of their true meaning and refilled by

the enemies of these concepts. Their counterfeits dominate the news. "War

on terror” is used incessantly, yet it is a false metaphor that insults our

intelligence. We are not at war. Instead, American, British and Australian

troops are fighting insurrections in countries where their invasions have

caused mayhem and grief. And where are the pictures of “our” atrocities? How

many Americans and Britons know that, in revenge for 3,000 innocent lives

taken on September 11th, 2001, up to 20,000 innocent people have died in

Afghanistan? How many know that the equivalent of the population of a

middle-sized American city have been killed in Iraq, most of them by

American firepower?

It is too easy to blame everything on Bush, and to plead, as liberal

journalists do, that the “neo-cons” have hi-jacked America. Ask the Native

Americans how benign the system used to be. Or listen to Richard Nixon on

the Watergate tapes, talking about power and bombing. "You're so goddamned

concerned about the civilians," Nixon said to Kissinger, "and I don't give a

damn. I don't care .... I'd rather use the nuclear bomb ... I just want you

to think big." In the nuclear age, from Harry Truman to George W Bush,

there is no evidence that Nixon was unique.

The lies told about Iraq are no different from the lies that ignited the

Spanish-American war, that allowed the Vietnam and Korean wars to happen and

the Cold War to endure. They are no different from the myths of World War

Two that justified the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. It is as if we

journalists are being constantly groomed to swallow the fables of empire.

Richard Falk at Princeton has described the process. We are indocrinated to

see foreign policy, he wrote, “through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal

screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as

threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted violence.”

In my career as a journalist, there has never been a war on terror but a war

of terror. Not long ago I walked down a leafy street in Jakarta, Indonesia,

where the former dictator General Suharto is living out his life in luxury,

having stolen from his people an estimated $10 billion. A United Nations

truth commission had just released a report, based on official files, that

credits Suharto with the deaths of 180,000 people in East Timor. It says

that the United States played a "primary role" in this terror. Britain and

Australia are named as accessories to this vast suffering.

After I had filmed in East Timor in 1993, I interviewed Philip Liechty, a

former CIA officer who, at his embassy desk in Jakarta, had seen the

evidence of Suharto's horrors committed with American approval and American

arms. He told me that, when he retired, he had tried to alert the media to

East Timor. “But there was no interest,” he said, echoing Harold Pinter.

And yet the deaths in East Timor are more than six times greater than all

the deaths caused by terrorist incidents throughout the world over past 25

years, according to the State Department. The “mainstream” deals with this

by reporting humanity in terms of its worthy victims and unworthy victims,

its good tyrants and bad tyrants. The victims of September 11, 2001, are

worthy. The victims of East Timor are unworthy. Israeli victims are worthy;

Palestinians are unworthy. Saddam Hussein was once a good tyrant. Now he is

a bad tyrant. Saddam must be envious of Suharto, who has always been a good

tyrant, an acceptable mass murderer.

In the 1960s, the New York Times greeted Suharto's blood-soaked seizure of

power in Indonesia as "a gleam of light in Asia". After Suharto had killed

off 180,000 East Timorese, Bill Clinton called him “our kind of guy”.

Margaret Thatcher offered similar unction, as did the Australian prime

ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating on a regular basis. The media both led

and echoed this chorus.

If we journalists are ever to reclaim the honour of our craft, we need to

understand, at least, the historic task that great power assigns us. This is

to “soften-up” the public for rapacious attack on countries that are no

threat to us. We soften them up by de-humanising them, by writing about

"regime change" in Iran as if that country is an abstraction, not a human

society. Currently, journalists are softening up Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is likened to Hitler. That he has won nine

democratic elections and referenda -- a world record -- is of no interest.

A few weeks ago, Channel 4 News in Britain - regarded as a liberal news

service - carried a major item that might have been broadcast by the State

Department. The reporter, Jonathan Rugman, the Washington correspondent,

presented Chavez as a cartoon character, a sinister buffoon whose folksy

Latin way camouflaged a man “in danger of joining a rogue gallery of

dictators and despots - Washington's latest Latin nightmare.” In contrast,

Condaleeza Rice was afforded gravitas and Rumsfeld was allowed to call

Chavez Hitler, unchallenged.

Indeed, almost everything in this travesty of journalism was viewed from

Washington, only fragments of it from the barrios of Venezuela, where

President Chavez enjoys 80 per cent popularity. In crude Soviet-flick style,

Chavez was shown with Saddam Hussein when this brief encounter only had to

do with OPEC and oil. According to the reporter, Venezuela under Chavez was

helping Iran develop nuclear weapons. No evidence was given for this


The softening-up of Venezuela is well advanced in the United States.

Ninety-five per cent of 100 media commentaries surveyed by the media watch

dog FAIR expressed hostility to Chavez. “Dictator”, “strongman”, “demagogue”

were the familiar buzz words, so that people reading and watching had no

idea that Venezuela was the only oil-producing country in the world to use

its oil revenue for the benefit of poor people. They would have no idea of

spectacular developments in health, education, literacy. They would have no

idea that Venezuela has no political jails - unlike the United States.

So that if the Bush administration launches “Operation Balboa”, a mooted

plan to overthrow the Chavez government, who will care, because who will

know? For we shall only have the media version - another lousy demagogue got

what was coming to him. The poor of Venezuela, like the poor of Nicaragua,

like the poor of Vietnam and Cambodia, like the poor of Fallujah, whose

dreams and lives are of no interest, will be invisible in their grief -- a

triumph of censorship by journalism.

What should journalists do? I mean, journalists who give a damn? They need

to act now. Governments fear good journalists. The reason the Pentagon

spends millions of dollars on PR, or “perception management” companies that

try to bend the news is because it fears truth tellers, just as Stalinist

governments feared them. There is no difference. Look back at the great

American journalists: Upton Sinclair, Edward R Murrow, Martha Gellhorn, I.

F.Stone, Seymour Hersh. All were mavericks. None embraced the corporate

world of journalism and its modern supplier: the media college.

It is said the internet is an alternative; and what is wonderful about the

rebellious spirits on the World Wide Web is that they often report as

journalists should. They are mavericks in the tradition of the great

muckrakers: those like the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, who said: "Never

believe anything until it is officially denied." But the internet is still

a kind of samidzat, an underground, and most of humanity does not log on;

just as most of humanity does not own a cell phone. And the right to know

ought to be universal. That other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that

if the majority of the people were denied the truth and ideas of truth, it

was time to storm what he called the "Bastille of words". That time is now."