For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Interview with John Pilger
John Pilger has clear views about the duty of journalists. True to form, his latest film pulls no punches. He talks to us on the eve of its release.
NI: What’s The War You Don’t See about?
JP: The film asks: ‘What is the role of the media in rapacious wars like Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do so many journalists beat the drums of war and not challenge the spin and lies of governments? And how are the crimes of war reported and justified when they are our crimes?’ It’s a film about truth and justice.
In the opening sequence, I refer to David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during much of the First World War, who had a private chat with the editor of The Guardian, CP Scott, at the height of the carnage. ‘If people really knew the truth,’ said Lloyd George, ‘the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.’ My film is about people’s right to know.
It has always seemed odd to me that as journalists we examine people’s professional lives, but not our own. We treasure our myths. Edmund Burke called the press a ‘fourth estate’ that would check the other great institutions of democracy. It was a quintessentially liberal view. It was also romantic nonsense – honourable exceptions aside. Up till the arrival of the corporate press at the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were often fiercely independent and saw themselves as voices of ordinary people. The media – press and broadcasting – has long since become an extension of the established order, and frequently its mouthpiece and valet.
These days, we surely owe it to the public to come clean about the pressures and seductions, crude and subliminal, that subvert our independence. War – the industrial killing of people and the destruction of their society – is the ultimate test. One of my favourite quotations is Claud Cockburn’s: ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’ I suggest some of us might engrave that on our bathroom mirrors.
What led you to do a film on this theme? Was there a specific trigger for it?
What war does: a child injured in a bomb blast, Peshwar, Pakistan. The bombing was in retaliation for a US drone attack.
The first trigger was the sight of children burned almost to death by Napalm B – which keeps on burning beneath the skin – then finding out that such an atrocity was not an aberration. It was realizing the racism in colonial warfare, and how apologetic reporting perpetuates this.
You’ve said ‘the media is not covering war. It is promoting war.’ Are there any media outlets whose activities have especially shocked or outraged you?
Well, you get crude examples of war promotion on Fox television in the United States. However, Fox has the virtue of leaving us in no doubt where it stands; and that’s true of most of the Murdoch empire. Murdoch himself has said that war is OK. Too bad about the innocents; war is necessary, says the great baron. Certainly, it is necessary for the arms corporations which are a pillar of the US war economy. The more insidious and perhaps more powerful war promoters are in the respectable media, such as the New York Times and the BBC. Two important studies following the invasion of Iraq received little media attention. Cardiff University found that the BBC overwhelmingly promoted the Blair government’s war agenda; and Media Tenor, based in Berlin, found that of the world’s principal broadcasters, the BBC gave just three per cent of its pre-invasion coverage to anti-war voices. Only CBS in the United States was worse. Censorship by omission is, in my view, the most virulent form of warmongering. ‘When the truth is replaced by silence,’ said the Soviet dissident poet Yevtushenko, ‘the silence is a lie.’
Do you think the reporting of war is actually worse now than it was at the beginning of your career? Is the modern ‘embedding’ of journalists a major factor?
It’s not worse, it’s just better organized – though in many respects it’s far less successful. The last British war completely free of state censorship was the Crimea, which produced some of the greatest war reporting of all time: William Howard Russell’s exposé of the disaster of the charge of the Light Brigade. He and his editor at The Times, John Delane, were almost charged with treason for telling the truth. This changed completely during the First World War, when journalists saw their job, wrote Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle, as telling ‘only tales of gallantry’. The modern idea of ‘embedding’ is similar. More than 700 journalists were embedded with US and British forces during the invasion of Iraq. They told good action stories and showed us a little of the obligatory ‘bang-bang’ but they managed to pass over or obscure the truth that the brutal conquest and plunder of a defenceless country was under way. That said, the reporting on the worldwide web was an important antidote; look at Dahr Jamail’s powerful, independent reporting from Fallujah and the independent filmmaking that gave civilians a voice. We show some remarkable examples in The War You Don’t See.
You have talked about ‘wars of perception’ in which the news media plays a major role. What do you mean by this?
The term belongs to General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Afghanistan, who wrote in the 2006 US Counterinsurgency Manual that what mattered was not so much military superiority as persuading the public at home that you were winning, regardless of the reality. In other words, the public is the true enemy of governments that pursue unpopular colonial wars which can only be ‘won’ if the public is successfully deceived. This owes much to Edward Bernays, who is said to have invented the term ‘public relations’ soon after the First World War. Bernays’ dictum was that the facts didn’t matter as much as the success of ‘false reality’, and that the manipulators of public thinking belonged to an ‘invisible government that is the true ruling power in our country’. Of course, none of this can succeed without the media as its transmitter and amplifier. And these days it hasn’t really succeeded. Some 77 per cent of the British public is opposed to the colonial adventure in Afghanistan, and most were against the invasion of Iraq.
What do you think can be done to improve the coverage of war, so that the public gets a picture of what is really going on?
The truth of war is grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes.
The answer is: tell the obvious truth; and the truth of war is the grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes. It is terrified soldiers with their trousers full of shit. It is human damage that runs through countless families: civilians and soldiers. That’s war. The coverage of war should be this eyewitness but it should also try to tell us the why. That means journalists not colluding but investigating. One of the most revealing documents released by Wikileaks was a 2,000-page Ministry of Defence document that equated investigative journalists with terrorists. That reflects the lethal stupidity that runs like a current through the war-making industry. It says they are afraid of the truth.
Should we be giving more space to local reporters who are from the regions where the wars are being fought?
Only if they try to tell the why of a war, not dispense sentimentalized tales about soldiers from local families – which the military relish.
You have also talked about ‘a war against journalism’. What do you mean by this?
Journalism ought to be about telling as much of the truth as possible in the circumstances. And governments can be expected to wage a constant war on truth-tellers, be they whistleblowers or fearless reporters. That’s why the Pentagon recently set up a department to fight ‘cyberwar’. To the military propagandists, cyberspace is unconquered and, worse, populated by mavericks they can’t control. This is only partly true, of course, but there are enough good journalists writing exclusively for the web to justify the war-makers’ alarm.
Do you draw a distinction between the corporate media world of Murdoch, CNN and the BBC and independent media in terms of which stories are told and the ways in which they are told?
Yes, but mostly in style. Look at Andrew Marr’s recent interview with Tony Blair to mark, or celebrate, Blair’s self-serving memoirs. Marr didn’t ask a single probing question about Blair’s record on Iraq and allowed Blair to promote an attack on Iran. That’s not much different from an interview conducted in the Murdoch media, which I doubt would be as compliant. Look at the BBC’s coverage of the day of the invasion of Iraq; it’s an echo chamber: the message is that Blair is vindicated. Fox did the same in America for Bush.
US General Tommy Franks telling it like it isn’t to journalists at Bagran airbase, Afghanistan.
Do you see any glimmers of hope in the way important issues are being discussed in the mass media?
There are some superb reporters in the mainstream – Patrick Cockburn in The Independent has been a most honourable exception in Iraq. Ian Cobain of The Guardian has brilliantly exposed the torture and injustice of the so-called War on Terror.
On the web, there is some exciting new journalism – not to be confused with top-of-the-head blogging. Look at some of the work posted on Tom Feeley’s excellent Information Clearing House and on ZNet. In Britain, Media Lens has broken new ground with the first informed and literate analysis and criticism of the liberal media. This is the new fifth estate.
Is there another issue on which you think the public is currently being massively deceived?
The major deception in Britain today is the political/media consensus that there is an economic crisis requiring a devastation of public finances and people’s lives. If you look back on the coverage of the ‘crash’ in the autumn two years ago, the shock of it forced the media to tell the truth: corrupt banks and an unregulated financial sector were rightly identified as the source of the problem, and that was the news. Within a year, journalists were back ‘on message’ and the assumptions of the media echoed the nonsense of the political élite that ‘we are all in this together’: a deception so gross it insults the nation’s intelligence. Britain is not on the edge of bankruptcy: this is one of the world’s wealthiest economies; the richest 10 per cent control $6,300 billion with an average per household of $6.3 million. An equitable rate of tax would see off the so-called deficit in no time. In any case, the ‘deficit’ is ideological: the product of an almost cultish obsession of central banks and financiers with shifting the wealth of nations to the very top and keeping it there. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was officially bankrupt yet the Labour government created some of the country’s greatest public institutions, such as the National Health Service. None of this would be a mystery to a media that saw itself as an agency of people, not power.
What is the good news?
The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working.
The good news is that much of direct and indirect propaganda is not working. As I say, most people oppose colonial wars. There is a critical public intelligence that runs counter to the authority of the media in all its wondrous digital forms. Perhaps people sense the historical moment: that their social democracy is being appropriated by insatiable corporatism, regardless of which party is in power. In many countries – Greece, France, Spain – this is well understood and is being translated into direct action. In Britain, it is still a seed beneath the snow. But that will change; it has to.
John Pilger was interviewed by Vanessa Baird.