In the US Army manual on counterinsurgency, the American commander General David Petraeus describes Afghanistan as a â€œwar of perception conducted continuously using the news media.â€ What really matters is not so much the day-to-day battles against the Taliban as the way the adventure is sold in America where â€œthe media directly influence the attitude of key audiences.â€ Reading this, I was reminded of the Venezuelan general who led a coup against the democratic government in 2002. â€œWe had a secret weapon,â€ he boasted. â€œWe had the media, especially TV. You got to have the media.â€
Never has so much official energy been expended in ensuring journalists collude with the makers of rapacious wars which, say the media-friendly generals, are now â€œperpetual.â€ In echoing the wests more verbose warlords, such as the waterboarding former US vice-president Dick Cheney, who predicated â€œ50 years of war,â€ they plan a state of permanent conflict wholly dependent on keeping at bay an enemy whose name they dare not speak: the public.
At Chicksands in Bedfordshire, the Ministry of Defenses psychological warfare (Psyops) establishment, media trainers devote themselves to the task, immersed in a jargon world of â€œinformation dominance,â€ â€œasymmetric threatsâ€ and â€œcyberthreats.â€ They share premises with those who teach the interrogation methods that have led to a public inquiry into British military torture in Iraq. Disinformation and the barbarity of colonial war have much in common.
Of course, only the jargon is new. In the opening sequence of my film, The War You Dont See, there is reference to a pre-WikiLeaks private conversation in December 1917 between David Lloyd George, Britains prime minister during much of the first world war, and CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian. â€œIf people really knew the truth,â€ the prime minister said, â€œthe war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they dont know, and cant know.â€
In the wake of this â€œwar to end all wars,â€ Edward Bernays, a confidante of President Woodrow Wilson, coined the term â€œpublic relationsâ€ as a euphemism for propaganda â€œwhich was given a bad name in the war.â€ In his book, Propaganda (1928), Bernays described PR as â€œan invisible government which is the true ruling power in our countryâ€ thanks to â€œthe intelligent manipulation of the masses.â€ This was achieved by â€œfalse realitiesâ€ and their adoption by the media. (One of Bernayss early successes was persuading women to smoke in public. By associating smoking with womens liberation, he achieved headlines that lauded cigarettes as â€œtorches of freedom.â€)
I began to understand this as a young reporter during the American war in Vietnam. During my first assignment, I saw the results of the bombing of two villages and the use of Napalm B, which continues to burn beneath the skin; many of the victims were children; trees were festooned with body parts. The lament that â€œthese unavoidable tragedies happen in warsâ€ did not explain why virtually the entire population of South Vietnam was at grave risk from the forces of their declared â€œally,â€ the United States. PR terms like â€œpacificationâ€ and â€œcollateral damageâ€ became our currency. Almost no reporter used the word â€œinvasion.â€ â€œInvolvementâ€ and later â€œquagmireâ€ became staples of a news vocabulary that recognized the killing of civilians merely as tragic mistakes and seldom questioned the good intentions of the invaders.
On the walls of the Saigon bureaus of major American news organizations were often displayed horrific photographs that were never published and rarely sent because it was said they were would â€œsensationalizeâ€ the war by upsetting readers and viewers and therefore were not â€œobjective.â€ The My Lai massacre in 1968 was not reported from Vietnam, even though a number of reporters knew about it (and other atrocities like it), but by a freelance in the US, Seymour Hersh. The cover of Newsweek magazine called it an â€œAmerican tragedy,â€ implying that the invaders were the victims: a purging theme enthusiastically taken up by Hollywood in movies such as The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The war was flawed and tragic, but the cause was essentially noble. Moreover, it was â€œlostâ€ thanks to the irresponsibility of a hostile, uncensored media.
Although the opposite of the truth, such false realties became the â€œlessonsâ€ learned by the makers of present-day wars and by much of the media. Following Vietnam, â€œembeddingâ€ journalists became central to war policy on both sides of the Atlantic. With honorable exceptions, this succeeded, especially in the US. In March 2003, some 700 embedded reporters and camera crews accompanied the invading American forces in Iraq. Watch their excited reports, and it is the liberation of Europe all over again. The Iraqi people are distant, fleeting bit players; John Wayne had risen again.
The apogee was the victorious entry into Baghdad, and the TV pictures of crowds cheering the felling of a statue of Saddam Hussein. Behind this faÃ§ade, an American Psyops team successfully manipulated what an ignored US army report describes as a â€œmedia circus [with] almost as many reporters as Iraqis.â€ Rageh Omaar, who was there for the BBC, reported on the main evening news: â€œPeople have come out welcoming [the Americans], holding up V-signs. This is an image taking place across the whole of the Iraqi capital.â€ In fact, across most of Iraq, largely unreported, the bloody conquest and destruction of a whole society was well under way.
In The War You Dont See, Omaar speaks with admirable frankness. â€œI didnt really do my job properly,â€ he says. â€œId hold my hand up and say that one didnt press the most uncomfortable buttons hard enough.â€ He describes how British military propaganda successfully manipulated coverage of the fall of Basra, which BBC News 24 reported as having fallen â€œ17 times.â€ This coverage, he says, was â€œa giant echo chamber.â€
The sheer magnitude of Iraqi suffering in the onslaught had little place in the news. Standing outside 10 Downing St, on the night of the invasion, Andrew Marr, then the BBCs political editor, declared, â€œ[Tony Blair] said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating, and on both of those points he has been proved conclusively rightâ€ I asked Marr for an interview, but received no reply. In studies of the television coverage by the University of Wales, Cardiff, and Media Tenor, the BBCs coverage was found to reflect overwhelmingly the government line and that reports of civilian suffering were relegated. Media Tenor places the BBC and Americas CBS at the bottom of a league of western broadcasters in the time they allotted to opposition to the invasion. â€œI am perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked,â€ said Jeremy Paxman, talking about Iraqs non-existent weapons of mass destruction to a group of students last year. â€œClearly we were.â€ As a highly paid professional broadcaster, he omitted to say why he was hoodwinked.
Dan Rather, who was the CBS news anchor for 24 years, was less reticent. â€œThere was a fear in every newsroom in America,â€ he told me, â€œa fear of losing your job the fear of being stuck with some label, unpatriotic or otherwise.â€ Rather says war has made â€œstenographers out of usâ€ and that had journalists questioned the deceptions that led to the Iraq war, instead of amplifying them, the invasion would not have happened. This is a view now shared by a number of senior journalists I interviewed in the US.
In Britain, David Rose, whose Observer articles played a major part in falsely linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and 9/11, gave me a courageous interview in which he said, â€œI can make no excuses What happened [in Iraq] was a crime, a crime on a very large scaleâ€
â€œDoes that make journalists accomplices?â€ I asked him.
â€œYes unwitting perhaps, but yes.â€
What is the value of journalists speaking like this? The answer is provided by the great reporter James Cameron, whose brave and revealing filmed report, made with Malcolm Aird, of the bombing of civilians in North Vietnam was banned by the BBC. â€œIf we who are meant to find out what the bastards are up to, if we dont report what we find, if we dont speak up,â€ he told me, â€œwhos going to stop the whole bloody business happening again?â€
Cameron could not have imagined a modern phenomenon such as WikiLeaks but he would have surely approved. In the current avalanche of official documents, especially those that describe the secret machinations that lead to war such as the American mania over Iran the failure of journalism is rarely noted. And perhaps the reason Julian Assange seems to excite such hostility among journalists serving a variety of â€œlobbies,â€ those whom George Bushs press spokesman once called â€œcomplicit enablers,â€ is that WikiLeaks and its truth-telling shames them. Why has the public had to wait for WikiLeaks to find out how great power really operates? As a leaked 2,000-page Ministry of Defense document reveals, the most effective journalists are those who are regarded in places of power not as embedded or clubbable, but as a â€œthreat.â€ This is the threat of real democracy, whose â€œcurrency,â€ said Thomas Jefferson, is â€œfree flowing information.â€
In my film, I asked Assange how WikiLeaks dealt with the draconian secrecy laws for which Britain is famous. â€œWell,â€ he said, â€œwhen we look at the Official Secrets Act-labeled documents, we see a statement that it is an offense to retain the information and it is an offense to destroy the information, so the only possible outcome is that we have to publish the information.â€ These are extraordinary times.