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The media war you don’t see

Red Pepper's Latin America editor Pablo Navarrete interviews John Pilger ahead of the release of his new film, 'The War You Don't See.'
December 2010

John Pilger is an award-winning journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, who began his career in 1958 in his homeland, Australia, before moving to London in the 1960s. He has been a foreign correspondent and a front-line war reporter, beginning with the Vietnam War in 1967. For Pilger, “It is too easy for Western journalists to see humanity in terms of its usefulness to 'our' interests and to follow government agendas that ordain good and bad tyrants, worthy and unworthy victims and present 'our' policies as always benign when the opposite is usually true. It's the journalist's job, first of all, to look in the mirror of his own society." In a career that has produced more than 56 television documentaries, 'The War You Don't See' is Pilger's second major film for cinema.

PN: Your new film 'The War You Don't See' focuses on the media's role in war. I'd like to start by asking you why you felt you wanted to make this film.

JP: Television is most people's principal source of information. In Britain, much of television journalism is devoted to a mythology of 'objectivity', 'impartiality', 'balance'. The BBC has long elevated this to a self-serving noble cause, allowing it to broadcast received establishment wisdom dressed as news. This helps us understand why propaganda in free societies like Britain and the United States is far more effective than in dictatorships. While 'professional' journalists, especially broadcasters, present themselves falsely as a neutral species, truth doesn't stand a chance. This is most vividly demonstrated when imperial power -- that is, America with Britain in tow -- invades countries it wants to control, regardless of international law. This lawlessness is seldom a yardstick used in the coverage and selection of news. I didn't really understand this early in my career. Perhaps it was my arrival in Vietnam in the 1960s that helped me understand. ‘The War You Don't See’ is a product of that, and of routinely deconstructing almost every news item I see, hear and watch.

PN: In an interview with Venezuelan academic Edgardo Lander, he argued that countries that do not have a democratic media cannot be called democratic. Why is a functioning democratic media system so important for democracy in general?

JP: I agree with Lander. Thomas Jefferson said, “Free information is the currency of democracy.” It's simple. No free flow of information; no democracy. Without an informed public, political or corporate authority -- any authority -- cannot be held to account, and if it's not held to account, it's very soon corrupted.

PN: The British-based media watchdog website Media Lens argues that the increasingly centralised, corporate nature of the media means that it acts as a de facto propaganda system for corporate and other establishment interests. This is a damming verdict on mainstream journalism, but is it a fair one?

JP: Yes, it's entirely fair. Again, take the issue of war. The United States is a 'warfare state' with the most stable and powerful part of its economy devoted to the manufacture of armaments. It sells these armaments, and planes and munitions, to hundreds of countries. Go to any arms fair, and it's clear these have to be 'market tested' in wars. The cluster bombs that rain down on people in Iraq and Afghanistan were tested in Vietnam; the Napalm that has been refined to burn beneath the skin was tested in Korea. Each new war is a laboratory. Much of the media and the arms companies are augmented; in the case of NBC, this is explicit. NBC is one of the world's biggest news organisations and its parent company, General Electric, is one of the world's biggest arms manufacturers. In the message of its news, the BBC is not very different. A study by the University of Wales, Cardiff, about the BBC's role in the run-up to the Iraq invasion found that the corporation's coverage was found to have been overwhelmingly supportive of the government --  a government then engaged in serious lying, as we now know and as journalists ought to have known at the time. There are of course a number of honourable exceptions -- but think of an 'establishment' interest, then consider how it is propagated, directly or indirectly, in the so-called mainstream media; and by 'indirectly' I also mean a censorship by omission. This surely must explain why so many in the media could barely contain their fury at Wikileaks; how dare these unclubbable types get in the way of the media's right to be used and flattered and lied to. In ‘The War You Don't See’, a former Foreign Office official describes in detail how easy it is to manipulate 'lobby' journalists.

PN: Your film begins with shocking images from a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians which first came out via the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks. Last week Wikileaks released more than 250,000 classified US embassy cables which have since dominated the global news agenda. How important do you think the work of Wikileaks is and how big a threat does it pose to governments wishing to keep information about their foreign military operations secret from their citizens?

JP: I hesitate to use the word 'revolution' but the entry of Wikileaks does represent a revolution. Digital technology has made it possible for governments to read our emails, but it also means we can read theirs. Is this a 'threat' to established power? Yes, because, again, information is power. It gives an undemocratic elite its power and secrecy perpetuates this power. When we know the nature of official machinations and deceptions, we the public can act. As the historian Mark Curtis says in my film, “the public is a threat that has to be countered.” When the beans are spilled, the “countering” is all the more difficult.

PN: In your film you also recount how Edward Bernays invented the term public relations and pioneered the modern-day system of propaganda. And you show how the US government used Bernays’ techniques to recruit US citizens to join the First World War. Are governments such as the US still using these techniques today, and if so can you give some concrete examples of how this works?

JP: Edward Bernays said, “The intelligent manipulation of the masses is an invisible government which is the true ruling power in this country.” The same techniques are still being used, such as the creation of what Bernays called “false realities” and the rituals of patriotism devoted to justifying war-making. What's different these days is that the propaganda is not working. Look at the panic in the responses of governments to Wikileaks' disclosures. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are opposed not only throughout the world but in the US and Britain. The world wide web has given people a way of finding out without turning on the TV or the Today programme. I write a column for the ‘New Statesman’, which has a modest circulation. Once it goes out on the web, it can reach an audience of several million.

PN: Finally, what would be the best way to make the mainstream media’s reporting of war less subservient to government interests and are you hopeful about the internet’s ability to provide alternative reporting of major events such as war?

JP: The mainstream media will not change until its structure changes. A Murdoch newspaper or TV channel will always reflect the rapacious interests of Murdoch. However, journalists and broadcasters collectively have power, as does the interested public. I would like to see established a 'fifth estate' in which journalists, and those in media colleges who tutor aspiring journalists, and the public, unite to begin to change practice from within. During the invasion of Iraq, there were small mutinies in the BBC, but they weren't co-ordinated. The potential is there. As for the internet providing an alternate reporting of war, that's already happening. Most of the best reporting of Iraq was on the web -- from the likes of Dahr Jamail and Nir Rosen, and 'citizen journalists' such as Jo Wilding. And it's already happening where it probably matters most: at the seats of power, where, it seems, almost everything is leaking on the web; and long may it continue.

‘The War You Don't See’ is at the Curzon Soho and cinemas throughout Britain from 12th December, and is broadcast on ITV on 14th December at 10.35pm. More info: www.johnpilger.com

Pablo Navarrete is the director of 'Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela' (Alborada Films, 2009). He an editor of levelground.info and Alborada.net, a website covering Latin America related issues such as politics, media and culture.

Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


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spsyed 15 December 2010, 07.01

In his latest factual documentary film by award winning investigative journalist John Pilger, The War You Don’t See exposes 99.99% of news and current affairs media people working for mainstream outfits who never question political liars http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HOLfwY17ns … Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again, shame on me… Pilger is voice for the voiceless. Just like Wikileaks and Julian Paul Assange, Pilger is a champion of those for whom he fights and the scourge of politicians. Other films by John Pilger include “War On Democracy” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HT_wSpMep-o ; “Breaking the Silence” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ayv6kFwzsE ; “Paying the Price” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXfyMI_hXrI ; “War By Other Means” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSctiOhxVBY . 99.99% of broadcasters cannot match Pilger’s performance and backbone. Adam Curtis of the BBC TV made “The Power of Nightmares: The Politics of Fear” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcFByLpXoZs that only tried to give credence to the war criminals.

sheri laizer 18 December 2010, 19.42

I watched John Pilger’s film, The War You Don’t See – Iraq, as an expert on Iraq. I am a Middle East specialist, broadcast journalist and author, including on Iraq.

John Pilger’s film used some highly emotive images of a wounded female Iraqi child I obtained when working as a two member crew with a UK-based independent documentary and news broadcast company in 1991.

John Pilger incorporated these images deriving from the 1991 Kurdish uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan/now the KRG region, when Saddam Hussein’s armed bombed civilians and injured children in the course of seeking to regain control of Kurdistan. The shelling and use of helicopters by Saddam was instrumental in crushing the Kurdish rebellion prior to the creation of the No Fly Zones in 1991.

In Pilger’s film, these same images from this specific timeline (1991) were presented as having been injuries inflicted upon Iraqi civilians by the Americans/British in the course of regime change in 2003 and its aftermath.

These images were therefore misused as the reality behind them was in fact the opposite: in two very clear sequences that I know intimately from having been at the location the victim was that of Saddam Hussein’s forces and not the Americans (or British) at all.

Owing to this misrepresentation, I cannot consider the film reliably researched or annotated and consider that library images were used to tell the story the presenter sought to tell with disregard for the truth behind the images.

The style was that of Mr Pilger as the all-knowing seeker of inner realities that are withheld from the public by Western nations and compliant media organisations, but the images, as well as the structural omissions tell otherwise.

Failing to refer to the reality of Iraqi citizens under Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party’s 30-plus years of tyranny as a prelude, counterpoint, or even anecdotally, the film relies instead on Mr Pilger presenting himself as an Anti-hero charting his knowledge through wars since his youth in journalism, involving, primarily, America.

The structure and content were therefore misrepresentative of Iraq’s broader historical and ongoing realities: the film failed to refer to Iraq’s successive past wars, non-organic state construction as a nation fabricated from diverse sectarian groups, or the long-term fallout upon its civilians since its inception as a nation state.

Accepting that Mr Pilger did not seek to tell the history of Iraq in this film, the images he used and the spin put upon them should at least have been true to the framework of the film as seeking to present the living – and dying – conditions faced by Iraqi civilians since the 2003 US-led war on Iraq.

Yours sincerely

Sheri Laizer (Ms)

Author and Middle East Specialist

PS My details are openly available in any online or library search.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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