The Black Art of News Management

How do wars begin? With a “master illusion”, according to Ralph McGehee, one of the CIA’s pioneers in “black propaganda”, known today as “news management”. In 1983, he described to me how the CIA had faked an “incident” that became the “conclusive proof of North Vietnam’s aggression”. This followed a claim, also fake, that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.

“The CIA,” he said, “loaded up a junk, a North Vietnamese junk, with communist weapons — the Agency maintains communist arsenals in the United States and around the world. They floated this junk off the coast of central Vietnam. Then they shot it up and made it look like a fire fight had taken place, and they brought in the American press. Based on this evidence, two Marine landing teams went into Danang and a week after that the American air force began regular bombing of North Vietnam.” An invasion that took three million lives was under way.

The Israelis have played this murderous game since 1948. The massacre of peace activists in international waters on 31 May was “spun” to the Israeli public for most of last week, preparing them for yet more murder by their government, with the unarmed flotilla of humanitarians described as terrorists or dupes of terrorists. The BBC was so intimidated that it reported the atrocity primarily as a “potential public relations disaster for Israel”, the perspective of the killers, and a disgrace for journalism.

A similar master illusion currently preoccupies Asian governments. On 20 May, South Korea announced that it had “overwhelming evidence” that one of its warships, the Cheonan, had been sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine in March with the loss of 46 sailors. The United States maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea, where popular sentiment has long backed a détente with Pyongyang.

On 26 May, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Seoul and demanded that the “international community must respond” to “North Korea’s outrage”. She flew on to Japan, where the new “threat” from North Korea conveniently eclipsed the briefly independent foreign policy of Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, elected last year with popular opposition to America’s permanent military occupation of Japan. The “overwhelming evidence” is a torpedo propeller that “had been corroding at least for several months,” reported the Korea Times. In April, the director of South Korea’s national intelligence, Won See-hoon, told a parliamentary committee that there was no evidence linking the sinking of the Cheonan to North Korea. The defence minister agreed. The head of South Korea’s military marine operations said, “No North Korean warships have been detected [in] the waters where the accident took place.” The reference to “accident” suggests the warship struck a reef and broke in two.

To the American media, North Korea’s guilt is beyond doubt, just as North Vietnam’s guilt was beyond doubt, just as Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, just as Israel can terrorise with impunity. However, unlike Vietnam and Iraq, North Korea has nuclear weapons, which helps explain why it has not been attacked, not yet: a salutary lesson to other countries, such as Iran, currently in the crosshairs.

In Britain, we have our own master illusions. Imagine someone on state benefits caught claiming £40,000 of taxpayers’ money in a second home scam. A prison sentence would almost certainly follow. David Laws, chief secretary to the Treasury, does the same and is described as follows:

“I have always admired his intelligence, his sense of public duty and his personal integrity” (Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister). “You are a good and honourable man. I am sure that throughout you have been motivated by wanting to protect your privacy rather than anything else.” (David Cameron, prime minister). Laws is “a man of quite exceptional nobility” (Julian Glover, the Guardian). A “brilliant mind” (BBC).

The Oxbridge club and its associate members in politics and the media have tried to link Laws’s “error of judgement” and “naivety” to his “right to privacy” as a gay man, an irrelevance. The “brilliant mind” is a wealthy Cambridge-groomed investment banker and gilts trader devoted to the noble task of cutting the public services of mostly poor and honest people.

Now imagine another public official, the force behind one of the great war criminals and liars. This official “spun” the illegal invasion of a defenceless country that resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and the dispossession of many more: in effect, the crushing of a human society. If this was the Balkans or Africa, he would very likely have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

But crime pays for the clubbable. In quick step with the Laws affair, this truth was demonstrated by the continuing celebration of Alastair Campbell, whose frequent media appearances provide a vicarious thrill for the liberal intelligentsia. To the Guardian, Campbell is “bullish, sometimes misdirected, but unafraid to press on where others might have faltered”. The Guardian’s immediate interest is its “exclusive” publication of Campbell’s “politically explosive” and “uncut” diaries. Here is a flavour: “Saturday 14 May. I called Peter [Mandelson] and asked why he didn’t return my calls yesterday. ‘You know why.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ He said he was incandescent at my Newsnight interview…’”

In a promotional interview with the Guardian, Campbell dispensed more of this dated incest, referring just once to the bloodbath for which he was a principal apologist. “Did Iraq lose us support in 2005?” he asked rhetorically. “Without a doubt…” Thus, a criminal tragedy equal in scale to the Rwandan genocide was dismissed as a “loss” for New Labour: a master illusion of notable profanity.

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on June 5th, 2010 at 10:34am #

    And of the 6.8 billion human’s on Earth how many understand what you just wrote and of the few that do who is in control the system or human’s?

  2. MichaelKenny said on June 5th, 2010 at 12:12pm #

    If I was a journalist like Mr Pilger, I don’t think I’d go around pointing out just how utterly dishonest journalists are! I totally agree that they are, and I make no exceptions to that, but isn’t Mr Pilger spitting into his own soup?

  3. John Andrews said on June 6th, 2010 at 12:05am #


    You seem to be losing the plot. There was a time when some of your comments were quite lucid and worth thinking about, but recently they have become a little unhinged. Someone really ought to point that out to you.

    A couple of days ago you suggested that few people in Britain want the country to pull out of Europe (forgetting that the fourth largest political party – UKIP – is wholly dedcated to that purpose; not to mention about half the Tory party), and now you suggest that Mr Pilger should not expose the murky world of journalism just because he’s a journalist.

    Michael, you’re losing credibility; do think about what you post. Here for example you’ve said there are no excptions to dishonest journalists – so when one of their number writes about the dishonesty of journalism what he’s actually doing, according to your view, is exposing the honesty of their profession.

  4. hayate said on June 6th, 2010 at 2:07am #

    MichaelKenny said on June 5th, 2010 at 12:12pm

    “but isn’t Mr Pilger spitting into his own soup?”

    It’s your soup.


  5. Angie Tibbs said on June 6th, 2010 at 12:05pm #

    Rest assured, Michael Kenny, that you will never “be a journalist like Mr. Pilger.” John Pilger is an intelligent, knowledgable writer.

  6. hayate said on June 6th, 2010 at 11:22pm #

    It’s quite refreshing to read a piece by someone who doesn’t accept the israeloamerican lying. If you look around progressive and left site, you’ll find a depressing number of people shilling the israeloamerican line on North Korea. Many more people are writing their pieces from the view the North Koreans are the “bad guy” than their should be. One expects this crap from the zionist owned/run western corporate media, not from leftists and progressives. Mr. Pilger’s analysis should be what the majority of progressives/leftists are doing, IE: not accepting the propaganda and asking serious questions about it. Unfortunately, they are not doing that enough, and the fascists and ziofascists are getting pretty much a free ride.

  7. hayate said on June 6th, 2010 at 11:30pm #

    The North Koreans are almost universally portrayed as some totalitarian nutcases in the zionist occupied western corporate media. Unfortunately, many progressives and leftists also repeat this propaganda. The reality is North Korea lost some 20-30% of its population during the Korean war and has been the victim of constant economic warfare since, as well as constant very serious threats of renewed aggression from the americans (now israeloamericans). Are they nutso, or just not suicidal? Michael Parenti wrote a great piece on this last year that’s worth checking out:

    North Korea: “Sanity” at the Brink