Why Are Wars Not Being Reported Honestly?

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 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 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.



John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See, will be showing at Curzon Soho in London on Monday 13 December at 6.20pm (including a satellite Q&A) and Thursday 16 December at 9pm, as well as at a number of cinemas across the UK. Full details.

On Tuesday 14 December, ITV1 will broadcast The War You Don’t See at 10.35pm.

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.

11 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozh said on December 11th, 2010 at 11:58am #

    pilger makes many points i had made over decades [naturally, my letters to eds were never published]
    media is part of governance and not an entity appart from it. media wages not only ignorance [w.o. which one cannot wage any war] but also promotes waging war for poverty.

    these two factors, poverty and evaluation of lies as truth, enable warlords to wage their wars; from which they mostly either benefit or they expect to gain large wealth from.
    else no war!
    yes to pilger’s observation that people not only don’t know, but cannot know! and why? because of conditioning of children that u.s governance is best [etc.] in the
    world and that u.s has the right make sure it stays that way when it’s attacked or wld be attacked or even threatened!
    of course, false flag operations ensure that u.s actually get’s attacked!

    this is happened to germans, italians, serbs, japanese and other voelken and not just americans.

    people who own media also own weapons manufacture, holliwood, education, corporations; so, it is all one big interdependent and happy family.

    it manufactures all salient laws. it solely also interprets them; thus, cannot ever violate even one law. and the cosa nosa family tells u, we are a nation of laws.
    u break one of them and u’r off to jail or w.o. job.
    and only we decide who breaks a law! and the wagons aRE CIRCLED! u’r inside of them or outside. now, choose! tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on December 11th, 2010 at 1:19pm #

    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.”

    The new’s we get in the United States is not new’s it’s 100% certifiable bullshit, nonsense, illusion and not just about war’s. The level of intelligent’s on a scale between one and ten is about .02 and that could be a high number. If I hear one more time we are doing this or that so people can send there kid’s to college am moving to Canada. I just used that as an example of madness as we all go down the drain in not such slow motion. Corporate controlled for profit bullshit.

  3. Don Hawkins said on December 11th, 2010 at 1:40pm #

    I think John gave us a good look at how these few think and this very second the control these people have over the media is right out of 1984 not going to happen has happened. Granted it took on a little bit different form than Orwell wrote about he forgot go shopping, buy gold, call call now maybe the other part comes later but I don’t think we will make it that far how they do it now seems to work just fine. Just the weather patterns so far this winter are amazing to see and not one word why. That people is called crazy.

  4. hayate said on December 11th, 2010 at 7:55pm #

    Journalism in wartime is pure propaganda. That’s their job. In the usa, if you spoke out against WW1, you went to jail, I think the plugs even hung a few. During WW2, you wrote pro-war, uncritical pap, or you didn’t work. Same for Korea and Vietnam (initially). In other countries, also, it was unusual to work as a whistle-blower when there was a war on. What we see now is nothing new in that respect. The major change is that now the media in the ziofascist/fascist capitalist west is almost wholly owned and operated by a very small unified group of ziofascists.

    One could look on the bright side, it’s a much smaller group of goebbelsian low life to hang after the war criminal trials….

  5. MichaelKenny said on December 12th, 2010 at 8:35am #

    The important point about all of this is that as people become more and more sophisticated, the believe less and less of what the media pumps out. In other words, those who have “controlled the discourse” have done it so thoroughly that they have discredited the discourse. Because the world became accustomed to a certain type of war reporting in the Vietnam era, the “embedded” reporting at the start of the Iraq war, with its permanent string of victories, just didn’t ring true. And after years of telling us that the Soviets couldn’t win in Afghanistan, and in fact, they didn’t, the press just couldn’t get away with telling us that the US was going to sweep to a glorious victory!
    Equally, there is the psychological factor. No amount of press propaganda can make people wan’t to do what they fundamentally don’t want to do. Here in Europe, given our history, the one thing nobody wants is any more wars, whether hot or cold. Thus, no amount of American-oriented press coverage has swung public opinion behind either the American wars or a new cold war. Indeed, American pushing has actually opened up a rift between the US and Europe which even the tame press can only partly hide. Indeed, Mr Pilger’s film is a perfect example of what I mean!

  6. Don Hawkins said on December 12th, 2010 at 9:21am #

    The important point about all of this is that as people become more and more sophisticated, the believe less and less of what the media pumps out. In other words, those who have “controlled the discourse” have done it so thoroughly that they have discredited the discourse.

    Good one as the regular people I talk with all say the same thing. The dream world the illusion is not working to well although there are still some and man are they in for a big shock. Let’s see Monday the thinking from are great leaders and yes what can we do about it everybody is in everybody else’s pocket. It almost seems the short term thinking is all we got left.

  7. bozh said on December 12th, 2010 at 9:37am #

    i do not think that deeming media owners as a separate entity; i.e., not being part of other people who own america, depicts reality.

    owners of media may change. over a century ownership of media had changed; now, most of it owned by ‘jews’. however, its role in a supremacist structure of society never changes.
    and as per intent of the constitution! so, seeing only ‘jews’ as evil and not the structure of society, its ‘laws’ [lawlessness], ‘schooling’, etc., cannot bring us an elucidation. tnx

  8. Don Hawkins said on December 12th, 2010 at 9:39am #

    A great example is Beck on the fair and balanced channel. Much of what he say’s is true like tuff times ahead it’s why that is going to happen is where he get’s a big confused. His thinking on so many levels and I guess that of the tea party, freedom work’s and on and on is crazy. Of course the other side is not to far off on not facing the problem, problems the easy way out short term orange chicken and the glass full. So it goes and the thinking tomorrow will be a great example of just that. Repete the obvious, ok.

  9. mary said on December 15th, 2010 at 3:49am #

    John Pilger’s new film The War You Don’t See was broadcast on ITV late last night. It is on their player for one month. I am not sure if you can use it in the US.


    The worst of the monsters he interviewed were Fran Unsworth of the BBC, Head of Newsgathering (in Orwellspeak Head of Propaganda) and Mannion head of ITV News. Pilger exposed them beautifully.

    A comment on medialens says

    Yes absolutely brilliant work. It should have been put on at an earlier time I feel, even though some of the images were horrific – but saying that, maybe people need to be shocked at what the U.K has done?

    I particularly like the part when Pilger took Francesca Unsworth to task over Mark Regev (a Propagandist Pilger rightly called him) given more air-time than any Palestinian equivalent (was there one?) during operation Cast Lead. She said that it wasn’t her job to nominate a Palestinian spokesperson, but the inference from his questioning was that as head of News Gathering she didn’t even bother to look for one – queue her uncomfortable writhing in her chair.

    Mea Culpa’s from Carne Ross and Rageh Omar and a journalist from the Observer (I can’t remember his name though) as well. They all struck me as intelligent men – but really, when you can see that something is wrong shouldn’t you do something about it? Did these people undergo a temporary moralectomy? Also a very interesting comment from Ross about the U.K publics default setting of ‘we can do no wrong in the world’, which has been nurtured and propagated by the media.

    The thing that came across to me was the way that established power has an enormous capacity to twist the truth and this trait has been learnt, honed and specialised over the years. In order to get on in their careers, journalists have to kowtow to established power, otherwise they get shut-out. There is something cancerous and seriously wrong with mainstream journalism presently.

    and another

    Francesca Unsworth came across very badly indeed, she dithered and um’d and ah’d, Pilger is a brilliant interviewer and simply lets those he is interviewing hang themselves.

    There was quite a large segment towards the end of the film about tGaza and the attack on the flotilla and the media response to it. Pilger wiped the floor with Unsworth about the use of Israeli propaganda, Regev and the fact that no Palestinian voice was heard or even sought. ITV accused too of course. The Guardian have reviewed it today.

  10. mary said on December 17th, 2010 at 2:32pm #

    The film The War You Don’t See is on You Tube in seven parts. Well worth watching.
    Beginning at –

  11. Don Hawkins said on December 19th, 2010 at 6:55pm #

    A war between North and South Korea is scheduled to begin on Monday, December 20, 2010 shortly after South Korea holds firing drills near a border with the North. Both countries are in high military alert, and other countries are making preparations in case they will join in. The magnitude of the war is still unknown. It could be an event that last a day or two, with a few dozen to a few hundred causalities, or it could escalate into something much larger, drawing in China, Japan, Russia and the United States. The trigger for the war will be the military exercises which South Korea has chosen to hold near a disputed border with North Korea. It is a show of force by the South. The North has promised a response bolder than the previous, which killed four South Koreans. Persons inside North Korea are urging restraint, including the governor of Arizona who frequently visits the reclusive country. Mobile Tribune