Feature Article: The hidden power of the media

John Pilger

During the Cold War, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Russian journalists toured the United States and were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that all the opinions on the vital issues were the same. 'In our country', they said to their host, 'to get that result we have a dictatorship. We imprison people. We tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. How do you do it? What's the secret?'

The secret is that propaganda in liberal democracies, like the US and Britain, is much more thorough than in dictatorships. No imprisonment is required. No loss of fingernails is called for. There is another, far more effective way. Unlike totalitarian states, the conformity of information and opinion is insidious: its sameness implicit, ingrained, even celebrated.

Today there is another dimension to this: technology. Technology seems to have given us almost everything ­ except truth; and by truth I mean that which is subversive, for truth is always subversive. Otherwise why should governments and their bureaucracies fear it so much and go to such lengths to suppress it? When the great American muckraking reporter I F Stone remarked that 'all governments are liars and nothing they say should be believed', he was exaggerating, but not by much.

What he was saying was that all unaccountable power is the enemy of truth, regardless of its democratic pretensions. These days we are constantly told we live in an 'information society'. On the contrary, I believe we now live in a media society, in which there may appear to be saturation information, but in reality it's information that is repetitive, controlled and, above all, safe.

When you next read the fashionable word 'debate', consider the extreme narrowness of its political and economic terms. When you next turn on the television or the radio, or pick up a newspaper, consider all the news you don't see and you don't read: news that is, by its very nature, unwelcome and threatening, and therefore excluded. Indeed, the most powerful form of censorship is, as ever, by omission.

The United Nations Development Programme has just released an landmark report showing the enormous divisions opening up in humanity. It describes Britain as the most unequal society in the Western world. It notes that the wealth of the world's 358 billionaires now exceeds the annual incomes of half the people on earth. A striking example given is that since 1970 the provision of clean, running water has dropped by two thirds in poor countries. The report concludes in a style highly unusual for the UN. It says that, instead of true economic growth aimed at benefiting everybody, there is 'unprecedented jobless growth, ruthless growth and anti-democratic growth'.

The day this was released, News at Ten, the principal source of information for millions of people in Britain, uttered not a word about it. The main news item was Princess Diana suffering depression. (She had just screwed £15 million out of the royal family.) At the bottom of the news was an item on Ireland, which presented the British army and the RUC caught between two warring tribes: an enduring distortion. There was nothing about the UN report or about Ireland in the newspapers that between them sell more than any others. The Mirror and the Sun concentrated on the love life of the golfer Nick Faldo. The Mirror's campaigning spirit, however, is not completely lost; the next day it began a campaign to get back Princess Diana's title of HRH.

A few years ago Rupert Murdoch's London correspondent gave us a rare glimpse of how the media high priests view themselves. He described Murdoch as a 'free market Karl Marx'. 'Murdoch's empire', he wrote, 'has always shared one thing with the Marxist enterprise. It turns ideas into social and economic experiments.' He described Sky Television's takeover of televised football as part of 'a social and ideological transformation [of society] in the image of a radical philosophy'.

What this means is that as media giants like Murdoch get bigger, they distort the way we see much of our own world, often without many of us realising. Murdoch's empire has access, through satellite, to two thirds of the world's population. Star TV, of which he owns 64 percent, stretches from Japan to Turkey, right across China and India. Murdoch claims that direct satellite broadcasting is bringing 'a new dawn of freedom' to the Third World and offers 'an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere'.

Until recently Murdoch's satellite carried BBC television news. When the Chinese regime complained that unwelcome news was reaching into China, Murdoch obliged and kicked the BBC off the satellite.

His reward was not long in coming. The Murdoch organisation has since linked up with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Bejing regime, to sell information technology across China. As part of the deal Murdoch is believed to have offered the Chinese government 'smart card' technology that would allow television programmes to be vetted before being broadcast. Across the Pacific his Fox network now has more 'affiliate' stations than any of the three main networks.

In the print media 90 percent of all world news comes from just a handful of powerful Western sources. Three agencies ­ Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse ­ dominate our foreign news. One is American, one is British and the other is French. Reuters and AP now make most of their huge profits selling financial and corporate information. Once they had proud records as news gatherers; today their newsrooms are centres of the free market crusade. AP gets most of its funding from American clients and devotes most of its coverage to the United States. The former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyrere, has dryly suggested that the people of his country should be allowed to take part in the elections for president of the United States, because they are bombarded with as much information about the candidates as Americans are.

The American company CNN, which is owned by the billionaire Ted Turner, is the model of the 'information age'. CNN made its reputation with its round the clock coverage of the Gulf War. It was CNN that we saw relayed on the BBC and ITV during the war. Who can forget the lit up skies over Baghdad coming to us live, and the excited commentators describing the accuracy of the new 'smart' weapons and the preciseness of the 'surgical' strikes: so precise that missiles could go round corners and so smart they could distinguish between good people and bad people? And we actually saw it happening on television. Or rather we thought we did. The message was clear: war at last had become a science. And this was a war, according to the Independent newspaper, 'with miraculously few casualties'.

Long after the Gulf War I remember vividly one surreal moment from television. It was on the BBC's arts programme, The Late Show, which devoted an edition to foreign correspondents talking about their adventures in the Gulf War. As each one spoke, the background filled with images from the war itself: mostly tanks and artillery and missiles flashing brilliantly in the night.

Then suddenly the scene changed to bulldozers at work, and the reporters' monologue was overwhelmed by shocking pictures they couldn't see behind them. Driven by American soldiers, the bulldozers were pushing thousands of bodies into mass graves. Many of the bodies were crushed, as if they'd been run over. To my knowledge, the BBC's subversive blink was the only time the British public was allowed to see the true extent of the slaughter in the Gulf.

The nature of the crime committed in the Gulf was never stated in the media ­ in the same way that 20 years after the war in Vietnam, it is extremely unusual to see or read in the media the truth that the United States attacked Vietnam, not tried to save it. As in Vietnam, so it was in the Gulf, where the mass murder of people was passed off as 'tragic', at times even 'a mistake'. Both were described as 'noble crusades'.

Recently, the Guardian carried a small item that only 8 percent of the weapons used in the Gulf War were so called 'smart' weapons, and that the majority were old fashioned, highly inaccurate 'dump bombs'. And we now know that most of them missed their military targets, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children, including the very Shia and Kurd minorities that the West claimed to be defending.

A basic function of the modern hi-tech media is to 'normalise the unthinkable', a term that comes from a fine essay by Edward Herman called The Banality of Evil. Herman wrote, 'Doing terrible things in an organised and systematic way rests on normalisation. There is usually a division of labour in doing and rationalising the unthinkable, with the direct brutalising and killing done by one set of individuals and others working on improving technology [such as new weapons]. But it is the function of the mainstream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public.'

Of course this is not a new concept. At the height of the pointless slaughter known as the First World War, the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, told the editor of the Guardian, C P Scott, 'If the public knew the truth, the war would end tomorrow. But they don't know and can't know.'

In principle, nothing has changed. Take the reporting of the Cold War. When President Kennedy declared in 1960 that there was a 'missile gap' with the Soviet Union, his message was carried without question in the Western media. In fact, the opposite was true. America was actually well ahead in missile development, but Kennedy's successful propaganda gave new impetus to the Cold War.

When President Johnson unleashed American bombers on North Vietnam in 1964, he did so only after the media had helped him sell to Congress a cock-and-bull story that Communist gunboats had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam. On the basis of this lie, the greatest bombing in history followed, legitimising the American invasion and the carnage of the next ten years, in which at least 3 million people were killed.

During the Falklands War in 1982 ­ Margaret Thatcher's war ­ a plan put forward by Peru for a negotiated settlement with Argentina came close to success; how close the public never knew. On 13 May 1982, Edward Health told News at Ten that Argentina had requested three minor amendments to the peace plan. The amendments were so minor, said Heath, that they couldn't possible be rejected. But Thatcher rejected them, and the story died.

Today there is said to be a 'debate' about the future of the BBC World Service under John Birt. Anybody with a sense of decency opposes Birt's vandalism and his dismantling of the World Service. But there has never been any genuine public examination of the myths surrounding the BBC as a broadcaster 'touched by the beauty of truth', as Michael Tracey once wrote. The BBC was founded by Lord John Reith while he was an enthusiastic propagandist for the Baldwin government during the General Strike in the 1920s. To Reith, impartiality in broadcasting was a principle to be suspended whenever the establishment was threatened. And this has held true ever since.

During the Falklands War, I was sent the minutes of the BBC's Weekly Review Board meeting. These clearly showed BBC executives directing that the reporting of the war be shaped 'to suit the emotional sensibilities of the public'. The weight of BBC coverage would be concerned 'primarily with government statements of policy', and an impartial style was felt to be 'an unnecessary irritation'.

Since the current Irish war began in 1968 several hundred major programmes on Ireland have been banned, censored, doctored and delayed. From 1988 broadcast institutions and journalists accepted an outrageous censorship which used actors' voices to blunt, marginalise and demonise those like Gerry Adams who were to play, and could have then played, a major part in trying to bring peace and justice to Ireland.

Even during the recent ceasefire, the British government's propaganda model was strictly adhered to by the media. The underlying issues, such as poverty and the RUC's policing methods, were ignored. 'Decommissioning' was made into an entirely bogus issue, and one which may well have led the IRA to break the ceasefire. No mention was ever made of security force weaponry and the refortification of military installations. No mention was made of the increased intimidation of the people of Crossmaglen once the threat of the IRA was removed. The fact that the Labour Party under Blair radically changed its policy from 'persuader' to 'facilitator' in order to fit exactly with that of the government was never an issue upon which Blair was vigorously chalIenged.

These days there is a sort of fantasy world in the reporting of politics in this country. The BBC employs 13 national and 19 regional political correspondents, all of them based at Millbank across from parliament. You can see the MPs queuing up to dispense their predictable views. In an average week these political reporters churn out 300 reports ­ all of them on the same theme, sticking to the same agenda, set by two major political parties, which are now virtually the same. The fact that they are the same, that an historical process has ended and the mainstream parties have finally converged, denying the British people even the semblance of a democratic choice, is simply not reported.

There is no suggestion here of a conspiracy. Journalists are no different from historians and teachers in internalising the priorities and fashions of power, and of minimising the culpability of power. But I believe it is time those journalists, who value their professionalism, did something about this. There are many troubled by their own role in the media society, but are also worried about their jobs. Casualisation has swept the industry; 80 percent of NUJ members are freelances. Insecurity and courage are not natural bedfellows.

However, journalists working within the great media institutions can at least begin to dissect the myths and assumptions that influence everything they do, and begin clearing away the ideological rubble that buries so much real news and truth about the world. Journalists may not have the power of Murdoch or Birt, but they are not powerless. They might begin by seeing themselves as agents of people, not agents of power, as participants, not innocent bystanders.

In their organisations they can challenge, and they can argue and, if necessary, they can resist. They could start by reclaiming the language that is so casually abused: words like 'reform' and 'free market' and 'democracy' have become Orwellian jargon that cry out for decoding, not parroting.

Journalists use the terms 'globalisation', 'humanitarian intervention' and 'preventative diplomacy' as if these words mean what they say. The word 'terrorism' is applied exclusively to the enemies of these noble concepts, never to the proponents of terrorism ­ the Western powers, notably the United States.

But they are no more than propaganda terms, the euphemisms of a new imperialism which seeks the same control over people and resources as before, with the difference now that few dare speak its name.

We have much to learn from journalists who struggle in a very different world. A friend of mine, Ahmad Taufik, is an Indonesian journalist. He practices the sort of brave, non-conformist journalism that is faced with extinction in Britain.

When Suharto [president of Indonesia] shut down the relatively liberal press, Taufik and his colleagues set up their own magazine, a daring act in a country where free speech is against the law and dissenters are murdered by the state.

When I asked him if he was afraid, he said, 'People will support us'. And they did. They bought the brave new paper in their thousands. And last year they crowded the courtroom where Taufik and his colleagues were sent to prison for three years for publishing an article that merely analysed the political situation in Indonesia. He must have known this would happen ­ and I offer his principled audacity as an example to journalists in the West.

I offer his example, and that of many like him in countries where good journalists fear for their safety, to those young journalists in Britain who feel they must effect mock cynicism, an eclectic indifference towards their readers and viewers, as if this somehow ordains them as real joumalists. Sadly, some appear to be convinced by the shibboleth that the public simply don't give a damn. 'The good journalist', wrote the great Australian editor, David Bowman, 'never takes refuge in cynicism, but persuades the readers to give a damn.'

The vital point is that people do give a damn and have a right to a press and broadcasting that is theirs. I have been a journalist since I was 17 and one thing I have had to learn is that people are always ahead of the media. These are the people who supported the miners, who support the health workers and the postal workers; who have sustained the Liverpool dockers; who refused to pay the poll tax; who opposed going to war in the Gulf, and a majority did in this country, although this was hardly reported; and who despair that politics should be so distorted as to represent choice between the identical twins, Major and Blair.

I propose the following as a media survival kit for any journalist who believes he or she should be much more than, as the French say, merely a fonctionnaire of the state and its authorised truths.

­Beware all news from official sources. As the great muckraker Claud Cockburn once said, 'Never believe anything until it's officially denied.'

­Beware the pack and fashions in news. The stories crying out to be done are the ones almost always passed over. Recently the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told me that her country and the epic struggle of its people had 'fallen victim to the fickle fashion of Western news'.

­Beware all background briefings, especially from politicians. Indeed try to avoid, where possible, all contact with politicians. That way you find out more about them. Certainly, never go to work for them. Campaign to abolish the lobby system.

­Beware celebrating technology until you find out who controls it. The internet is brilliant, but its most fervent bedfellows are the American government and a cluster of multinational companies whose message posting is outstripping all others.

­Finally, take pride in the knowledge that the media barons can't stand the sight of us journalists. Rupert Murdoch's contempt for journalists is well known, although not quite as vividly stated as Conrad Black's. Journalists, he wrote, are 'a very degenerate group'. They drink too much and their 'mental stability is open to question'. As for the celebrity journalist, he depends on being 'ignorant, lazy and inadequately supervised'. And they depend on 'stifling and depraved gossip and the fawning of unfulfilled women, boys and hucksters'. To be fair, he was referring to Canadian journalists. But he later named names and I confess, not without pride, that mine was one of them.

Journalists and broadcasters should be the guardians of history. The best write history's first draft. Ed Murrow, the great American reporter, repelled smear upon smear in his reporting of the McCarthy witchhunts. Martha Gellhorn reported the disaster of the Great Depression from the heartland of America. James Cameron broke the silence over the Korean War and described the atrocities on 'our side'. Morgan Philips Price, the Guardian's man in Moscow in 1917, was damned as a traitor for reporting the Allied invasion that did its best to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth. And there are many more like them. One of my prized possessions is a first edition of William Howard Russell's Crimea Diaries. Russell was the Times correspondent in the Crimea, a war described by Queen Victoria as 'popular beyond belief'. Russell quickly changed this by describing the disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade, as the corruption and ineptitude of officers. When it was suggested that he might be charged with treason, Russell wrote to his editor, John Delane: 'Am I to tell these things, or am I to hold my tongue?' To which Delane replied, 'Continue as you have done, to tell as much of the truth as you can.' And both of them were accused of treason: an honour indeed.