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The real first casualty of war

John Pilger
Monday 24th April 2006

Censorship by journalism is virulent in Britain and the US - and it means the
difference between life and death for people in faraway countries. By John

During the 1970s, I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist
dictatorship. The dissident novelist Zdenek Urbánek told me, "In one respect,
we are more fortunate than you in the west. We believe nothing of what we
read in the newspapers and watch on television, nothing of the official
truth. Unlike you, we have learned to read between the lines, because real
truth is always subversive."

This acute scepticism, this skill of reading between the lines, is urgently
needed in supposedly free societies today. Take the reporting of
state-sponsored war. The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of
war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has
become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognised in the
United States, Britain and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose
power is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death
for people in faraway countries, such as Iraq.

As a journalist for more than 40 years, I have tried to understand how this
works. In the aftermath of the US war in Vietnam, which I reported, the
policy in Washington was revenge, a word frequently used in private but never
publicly. A medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and Cambodia; the
Thatcher government cut off supplies of milk to the children of Vietnam. This
assault on the very fabric of life in two of the world's most stricken
societies was rarely reported; the consequence was mass suffering.

It was during this time that I made a series of documentaries about Cambodia.
The first, in 1979, Year Zero: the silent death of Cambodia, described the
American bombing that had provided a catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot, and
showed the shocking human effects of the embargo. Year Zero was broadcast in
some 60 countries, but never in the United States. When I flew to Washington
and offered it to the national public broadcaster, PBS, I received a curious
reaction. PBS executives were shocked by the film, and spoke admiringly of
it, even as they collectively shook their heads. One of them said: "John, we
are disturbed that your film says the United States played such a destructive
role, so we have decided to call in a journalistic adjudicator."

The term "journalistic adjudicator" was out of Orwell. PBS appointed one
Richard Dudman, a reporter on the St Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of the few
westerners to have been invited by Pol Pot to visit Cambodia. His despatches
reflected none of the savagery then enveloping that country; he even praised
his hosts. Not surprisingly, he gave my film the thumbs-down. One of the PBS
executives confided to me: "These are difficult days under Ronald Reagan.
Your film would have given us problems."

The lack of truth about what had really happened in south-east Asia - the
media-promoted myth of a "blunder" and the suppression of the true scale of
civilian casualties and of routine mass murder, even the word "invasion" -
allowed Reagan to launch a second "noble cause" in central America. The
target was ano-ther impoverished nation without resources: Nicaragua,
whose "threat", like Vietnam's, was in trying to establish a model of
development different from that of the colonial dictatorships backed by
Washington. Nicaragua was crushed, thanks in no small part to leading
American journalists, conservative and liberal, who suppressed the triumphs
of the Sandinistas and encouraged a specious debate about a "threat".

The tragedy in Iraq is different, but, for journalists, there are haunting
similarities. On 24 August last year, a New York Times editorial
declared: "If we had all known then what we know now, the invasion [of Iraq]
would have been stopped by a popular outcry." This amazing admission was
saying, in effect, that the invasion would never have happened if journalists
had not betrayed the public by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies
of Bush and Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them.

We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by MI6, the secret
intelligence service. In what was called "Operation Mass Appeal", MI6 agents
planted stories about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction - such as
weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers. All these
stories were fake. But this is not the point. The point is that the dark
deeds of MI6 were quite unnecessary. Recently, the BBC's director of news,
Helen Boaden, was asked to explain how one of her "embedded" reporters in
Iraq, having accepted US denials of the use of chemical weapons against
civilians, could possibly describe the aim of the Anglo-American invasion as
to "bring democracy and human rights" to Iraq. She replied with quotations
from Blair that this was indeed the aim, as if Blair's utterances and the
truth were in any way related. On the third anniversary of the invasion, a
BBC newsreader described this illegal, unprovoked act, based on lies, as
a "miscalculation". Thus, to use Edward Herman's memorable phrase, the
unthinkable was normalised.

Such servility to state power is hotly denied, yet routine. Al-most the entire
British media has omitted the true figure of Iraqi civilian casualties,
wilfully ignoring or attempting to discredit respectable studies. "Making
conservative assumptions," wrote the researchers from the eminent Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, working with Iraqi scholars, "we
think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003
invasion of Iraq . . . which were pri marily the result of military actions
by coalition forces. Most of those killed by coalition forces were women and
children . . ." That was 29 October 2004. Today, the figure has doubled.

Language is perhaps the most crucial battleground. Noble words such
as "democracy", "liberation", "freedom" and "reform" have been emptied of
their true meaning and refilled by the enemies of those concepts. The
counterfeits dominate the news, along with dishonest political labels, such
as "left of centre", a favourite given to warlords such as Blair and Bill
Clinton; it means the opposite. "War on terror" is a fake metaphor that
insults our intelligence. We are not at war. Instead, our troops are fighting
insurrections in countries where our invasions have caused mayhem and grief,
the evidence and images of which are suppressed. How many people know that,
in revenge for 3,000 innocent lives taken on 11 September 2001, up to 20,000
innocent people died in Afghanistan?

In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth, we
journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are
assigned - that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its
usefulness, or otherwise, to "us", and to soften up the public for rapacious
attacks on countries that are no threat to us. We soften them up by
dehumanising them, by writing about "regime change" in Iran as if that
country were an abstraction, not a human society. Hugo Chávez's Venezuela is
currently being softened up on both sides of the Atlantic. A few weeks ago,
Channel 4 News carried a major item that might have been broadcast by the US
State Department. The reporter, Jonathan Rugman, the programme's Washington
correspondent, presented Chávez as a cartoon character, a sinister buffoon
whose folksy Latin ways disguised a man "in danger of joining a rogues'
gallery of dictators and despots - Washington's latest Latin nightmare". In
contrast, Condoleezza Rice was given gravitas and Donald Rumsfeld was allowed
to compare Chávez to Hitler.

Indeed, almost everything in this travesty of journalism was viewed from
Washington, and only fragments of it from the barrios of Venezuela, where
Chávez enjoys 80 per cent popularity. That he had won nine democratic
elections and referendums - a world record - was omitted. In crude Soviet
flick style, he was shown with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar
Gaddafi, though these brief encounters had to do with Opec and oil only.
According to Rugman, Venezuela under Chávez is helping Iran develop nuclear
weapons. No evidence was given for this absurdity. People watching would have
no idea that Venezuela was the only oil-producing country in the world to use
its oil revenue for the benefit of poor people. They would have no idea of
spectacular developments in health, education, literacy; no idea that
Venezuela has no political jails - unlike the United States.

So if the Bush administration moves to implement "Operation Bilbao", a
contingency plan to overthrow the democratic government of Venezuela, who
will care, because who will know? For we shall have only the media version;
another demon will get what is coming to him. The poor of Venezuela, like the
poor of Nicaragua, and the poor of Vietnam and countless other faraway
places, whose dreams and lives are of no interest, will be invisible in their
grief: a triumph of censorship by journalism.

It is said that the internet offers an alternative, and what is wonderful
about the rebellious spirits on the worldwide web is that they often report
as many journalists should. They are mavericks in the tradition of muckrakers
such as Claud Cockburn, who said: "Never believe anything until it has been
officially denied." But the internet is still a kind of samizdat, an
underground, and most of humanity does not log on, just as most of humanity
does not own a mobile phone. And the right to know ought to be universal.
That other great muckraker, Tom Paine, warned that if the majority of the
people were being denied the truth and ideas of truth, it was time to storm
what he called the "Bastille of words". That time is now.

This is an abridged version of an address, "Reporting War and Empire", by John
Pilger at Columbia University, New York, in company with Seymour Hersh,
Robert Fisk and Charles Glass