Media and the Triumph of Propaganda
By John Pilger
December 05, 2014 "ICH"
Why has so
much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Why are
censorship and distortion standard practice? Why
is the BBC so often a mouthpiece of rapacious
power? Why do the New York Times and the
Washington Post deceive their readers?
Why are young journalists not taught to
understand media agendas and to challenge the
high claims and low purpose of fake objectivity?
And why are they not taught that the essence of
so much of what's called the mainstream media is
not information, but power?
These are urgent questions. The world is facing
the prospect of major war, perhaps nuclear war -
with the United States clearly determined to
isolate and provoke Russia and eventually China.
This truth is being turned upside down and
inside out by journalists, including those who
promoted the lies that led to the bloodbath in
Iraq in 2003.
The times we live in are so dangerous and so
distorted in public perception that propaganda
is no longer, as Edward Bernays called it, an
"invisible government". It is the government. It
rules directly without fear of contradiction and
its principal aim is the conquest of us: our
sense of the world, our ability to separate
truth from lies.
The information age is actually a media age. We
have war by media; censorship by media;
demonology by media; retribution by media;
diversion by media - a surreal assembly line of
obedient clichés and false assumptions.
This power to create a new "reality" has
building for a long time. Forty-five years ago,
a book entitled The Greening of America caused a
sensation. On the cover were these words: "There
is a revolution coming. It will not be like
revolutions of the past. It will originate with
I was a correspondent in the United States at
the time and recall the overnight elevation to
guru status of the author, a young Yale
academic, Charles Reich. His message was that
truth-telling and political action had failed
and only "culture" and introspection could
change the world.
Within a few years, driven by the forces of
profit, the cult of "me-ism" had all but
overwhelmed our sense of acting together, our
sense of social justice and internationalism.
Class, gender and race were separated. The
personal was the political, and the media was
In the wake of the cold war, the fabrication of
new "threats" completed the political
disorientation of those who, 20 years earlier,
would have formed a vehement opposition.
In 2003, I filmed an interview in Washington
with Charles Lewis, the distinguished American
investigative journalist. We discussed the
invasion of Iraq a few months earlier. I asked
him, "What if the freest media in the world had
seriously challenged George Bush and Donald
Rumsfeld and investigated their claims, instead
of channeling what turned out to be crude
He replied that if we journalists had done our
job "there is a very, very good chance we would
have not gone to war in Iraq."
That's a shocking statement, and one supported
by other famous journalists to whom I put the
same question. Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, gave
me the same answer. David Rose of the Observer
and senior journalists and producers in the BBC,
who wished to remain anonymous, gave me the same
In other words, had journalists done their job,
had they questioned and investigated the
propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of
thousands of men, women and children might be
alive today; and millions might not have fled
their homes; the sectarian war between Sunni and
Shia might not have ignited, and the infamous
Islamic State might not now exist.
Even now, despite the millions who took to the
streets in protest, most of the public in
western countries have little idea of the sheer
scale of the crime committed by our governments
in Iraq. Even fewer are aware that, in the 12
years before the invasion, the US and British
governments set in motion a holocaust by denying
the civilian population of Iraq a means to live.
Those are the words of the senior British
official responsible for sanctions on Iraq in
the 1990s - a medieval siege that caused the
deaths of half a million children under the age
of five, reported Unicef. The official's name is
Carne Ross. In the Foreign Office in London, he
was known as "Mr. Iraq". Today, he is a
truth-teller of how governments deceive and how
journalists willingly spread the deception. "We
would feed journalists factoids of sanitised
intelligence," he told me, "or we'd freeze them
The main whistleblower during this terrible,
silent period was Denis Halliday. Then Assistant
Secretary General of the United Nations and the
senior UN official in Iraq, Halliday resigned
rather than implement policies he described as
genocidal. He estimates that sanctions killed
more than a million Iraqis.
What then happened to Halliday was instructive.
He was airbrushed. Or he was vilified. On the
BBC's Newsnight programme, the presenter Jeremy
Paxman shouted at him: "Aren't you just an
apologist for Saddam Hussein?" The Guardian
recently described this as one of Paxman's
"memorable moments". Last week, Paxman signed a
£1 million book deal.
The handmaidens of suppression have done their
job well. Consider the effects. In 2013, a
ComRes poll found that a majority of the British
public believed the casualty toll in Iraq was
less than 10,000 - a tiny fraction of the truth.
A trail of blood that goes from Iraq to London
has been scrubbed almost clean.
Rupert Murdoch is said to be the godfather of
the media mob, and no one should doubt the
augmented power of his newspapers - all 127 of
them, with a combined circulation of 40 million,
and his Fox network. But the influence of
Murdoch's empire is no greater than its
reflection of the wider media.
The most effective propaganda is found not in
the Sun or on Fox News - but beneath a liberal
halo. When the New York Times published claims
that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass
destruction, its fake evidence was believed,
because it wasn't Fox News; it was the New York
The same is true of the Washington Post and the
Guardian, both of which have played a critical
role in conditioning their readers to accept a
new and dangerous cold war. All three liberal
newspapers have misrepresented events in Ukraine
as a malign act by Russia - when, in fact, the
fascist led coup in Ukraine was the work of the
United States, aided by Germany and Nato.
This inversion of reality is so pervasive that
Washington's military encirclement and
intimidation of Russia is not contentious. It's
not even news, but suppressed behind a smear and
scare campaign of the kind I grew up with during
the first cold war.
Once again, the evil empire is coming to get us,
led by another Stalin or, perversely, a new
Hitler. Name your demon and let rip.
The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is
one of the most complete news blackouts I can
remember. The biggest Western military build-up
in the Caucasus and eastern Europe since world
war two is blacked out. Washington's secret aid
to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible
for war crimes against the population of eastern
Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that
contradicts propaganda that Russia was
responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian
airliner is blacked out.
And again, supposedly liberal media are the
censors. Citing no facts, no evidence, one
journalist identified a pro-Russian leader in
Ukraine as the man who shot down the airliner.
This man, he wrote, was known as The Demon. He
was a scary man who frightened the journalist.
That was the evidence.
Many in the western media haves worked hard to
present the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine
as outsiders in their own country, almost never
as Ukrainians seeking a federation within
Ukraine and as Ukrainian citizens resisting a
foreign-orchestrated coup against their elected
What the Russian president has to say is of no
consequence; he is a pantomime villain who can
be abused with impunity. An American general who
heads Nato and is straight out of Dr.
Strangelove - one General Breedlove - routinely
claims Russian invasions without a shred of
visual evidence. His impersonation of Stanley
Kubrick's General Jack D. Ripper is pitch
Forty thousand Ruskies were massing on the
border, according to Breedlove. That was good
enough for the New York Times, the Washington
Post and the Observer - the latter having
previously distinguished itself with lies and
fabrications that backed Blair's invasion of
Iraq, as its former reporter, David Rose,
There is almost the joi d'esprit of a class
reunion. The drum-beaters of the Washington Post
are the very same editorial writers who declared
the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction to be "hard facts".
"If you wonder," wrote Robert Parry, "how the
world could stumble into world war three - much
as it did into world war one a century ago - all
you need to do is look at the madness that has
enveloped virtually the entire US
political/media structure over Ukraine where a
false narrative of white hats versus black hats
took hold early and has proved impervious to
facts or reason."
Parry, the journalist who revealed Iran-Contra,
is one of the few who investigate the central
role of the media in this "game of chicken", as
the Russian foreign minister called it. But is
it a game? As I write this, the US Congress
votes on Resolution 758 which, in a nutshell,
says: "Let's get ready for war with Russia."
In the 19th century, the writer Alexander Herzen
described secular liberalism as "the final
religion, though its church is not of the other
world but of this". Today, this divine right is
far more violent and dangerous than anything the
Muslim world throws up, though perhaps its
greatest triumph is the illusion of free and
In the news, whole countries are made to
disappear. Saudi Arabia, the source of extremism
and western-backed terror, is not a story,
except when it drives down the price of oil.
Yemen has endured twelve years of American drone
attacks. Who knows? Who cares?
In 2009, the University of the West of England
published the results of a ten-year study of the
BBC's coverage of Venezuela. Of 304 broadcast
reports, only three mentioned any of the
positive policies introduced by the government
of Hugo Chavez. The greatest literacy programme
in human history received barely a passing
In Europe and the United States, millions of
readers and viewers know next to nothing about
the remarkable, life-giving changes implemented
in Latin America, many of them inspired by
Chavez. Like the BBC, the reports of the New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian
and the rest of the respectable western media
were notoriously in bad faith. Chavez was mocked
even on his deathbed. How is this explained, I
wonder, in schools of journalism?
Why are millions of people in Britain are
persuaded that a collective punishment called
"austerity" is necessary?
Following the economic crash in 2008, a rotten
system was exposed. For a split second the banks
were lined up as crooks with obligations to the
public they had betrayed.
But within a few months - apart from a few
stones lobbed over excessive corporate "bonuses"
- the message changed. The mugshots of guilty
bankers vanished from the tabloids and something
called "austerity" became the burden of millions
of ordinary people. Was there ever a sleight of
hand as brazen?
Today, many of the premises of civilised life in
Britain are being dismantled in order to pay
back a fraudulent debt - the debt of crooks. The
"austerity" cuts are said to be £83 billion.
That's almost exactly the amount of tax avoided
by the same banks and by corporations like
Amazon and Murdoch's News UK. Moreover, the
crooked banks are given an annual subsidy of
£100bn in free insurance and guarantees - a
figure that would fund the entire National
The economic crisis is pure propaganda. Extreme
policies now rule Britain, the United States,
much of Europe, Canada and Australia. Who is
standing up for the majority? Who is telling
their story? Who's keeping record straight?
Isn't that what journalists are meant to do?
In 1977, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame,
revealed that more than 400 journalists and news
executives worked for the CIA. They included
journalists from the New York Times, Time and
the TV networks. In 1991, Richard Norton Taylor
of the Guardian revealed something similar in
None of this is necessary today. I doubt that
anyone paid the Washington Post and many other
media outlets to accuse Edward Snowden of aiding
terrorism. I doubt that anyone pays those who
routinely smear Julian Assange - though other
rewards can be plentiful.
It's clear to me that the main reason Assange
has attracted such venom, spite and jealously is
that WikiLeaks tore down the facade of a corrupt
political elite held aloft by journalists. In
heralding an extraordinary era of disclosure,
Assange made enemies by illuminating and shaming
the media's gatekeepers, not least on the
newspaper that published and appropriated his
great scoop. He became not only a target, but a
Lucrative book and Hollywood movie deals were
struck and media careers launched or
kick-started on the back of WikiLeaks and its
founder. People have made big money, while
WikiLeaks has struggled to survive.
None of this was mentioned in Stockholm on 1
December when the editor of the Guardian, Alan
Rusbridger, shared with Edward Snowden the Right
Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel
Peace Prize. What was shocking about this event
was that Assange and WikiLeaks were airbrushed.
They didn't exist. They were unpeople. No one
spoke up for the man who pioneered digital
whistleblowing and handed the Guardian one of
the greatest scoops in history. Moreover, it was
Assange and his WikiLeaks team who effectively -
and brilliantly - rescued Edward Snowden in Hong
Kong and sped him to safety. Not a word.
What made this censorship by omission so ironic
and poignant and disgraceful was that the
ceremony was held in the Swedish parliament -
whose craven silence on the Assange case has
colluded with a grotesque miscarriage of justice
"When the truth is replaced by silence," said
the Soviet dissident Yevtushenko, "the silence
is a lie."
It's this kind of silence we journalists need to
break. We need to look in the mirror. We need to
call to account an unaccountable media that
services power and a psychosis that threatens
In the 18th century, Edmund Burke described the
role of the press as a Fourth Estate checking
the powerful. Was that ever true? It certainly
doesn't wash any more. What we need is a Fifth
Estate: a journalism that monitors, deconstructs
and counters propaganda and teaches the young to
be agents of people, not power. We need what the
Russians called perestroika - an insurrection of
subjugated knowledge. I would call it real
It's 100 years since the First World War.
Reporters then were rewarded and knighted for
their silence and collusion. At the height of
the slaughter, British prime minister David
Lloyd George confided in C.P. Scott, editor of
the Manchester Guardian: "If people really knew
[the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow,
but of course they don't know and can't know."
It's time they knew.
Follow John Pilger on twitter @johnpilger
The text aboveis a transcript of
address to the Logan Symposium, “Building an
Alliance Against Secrecy, Surveillance &
Censorship”, organised by the Centre for
Investigative Journalism, London, 5-7 December,