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The War You Don't See

13 December 10 words: James Walker
Unless you go to the cinema to watch John Pilger's brilliant new documentary



The War You Don't See - a film by John Pilger
‘What is the role of the media in rapacious wars like Iraq and Afghanistan?’

On Monday 13 December, 15 cinemas across Britain hooked up for the premier of John Pilger’s latest film The War You Don’t See, which was then followed by a satellite linked Q&A. In the documentary, the softly spoken Australian asks a very simple question: What is the role of the media in war? The answer lies in a conversation between WWI prime minister David Lloyd George and CP Scott of The Guardian. ‘If people really knew the truth,’ said Lloyd George, ‘the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.’

It’s because of this that we don’t get to see footage of the true victims of war - civilians. The families innocently bombed. In Vietnam, 70% of deaths were civilian. In Iraq it’s a staggering 90%. But this is a war which has broken all records. The ‘exporting of democracy’ can also add a staggering 300 journalists to the casualties as well as 4.5million homeless. To put this in perspective, that’s half of the combined population of Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and Birmingham. But according to Pilger, governments don’t want to put things into perspective, they want simplistic jingoistic narratives that place lives into categories of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy.’ The purpose of the media is not to humanise war as then, quite simply, it would be harder to sell.

This raises a minor problem with Pilger’s thesis. I think the majority of people do know what goes on in war, they simply feel as if there is nothing they can do about it. 2003 saw a record 2 million people march on Parliament in protest at the planned invasion. But just as with the demonstrations against tuition fees, nothing changed. Nobody is/was listening. The result is apathy. Malaise at the ballot box. I kid you not, the Liberal Democrats are currently proposing putting ‘cutting tuition fees’ into their new manifesto. Talk about taking the piss. Grind ‘em down and spit ‘em out. Then there was the expense scandal which took benefit fraud to another level. But at least there is Obama. The great hope for us all. Can he? Yes he can. He can raise the ‘defence budget’ next year to a record $708 billion. Fortunately, the Department of Defence is exempt from the budget freeze. No wonder we’ve had to dig ourselves out of the snow.

Despite this, Pilger believes the truth will exert change. But the major problem is that journalists are implicit in this process of mass deception. They are integral cogs within a machine that needs recalibrating if it is ever to fulfil its intended function. (See the Chomsky and Marr debate for how this operates) Pilger accuses journalists of being duplicitous, exposing the corruption of others whilst failing to turn the spotlight on themselves. Quite surprisingly he gets Rageh Omaar and others to hold their hands up and admit their mistakes. Graciously he commends them for starting what he hopes will be a cleansing process.

Pilger is perfectly placed to make these criticisms as he’s spent over forty years as a foreign correspondent and front-line war reporter. He’s watched Napalm B peel off the skin of children, he’s seen ‘paradise cleansed’ when families of Diego Garcia were evicted to make way for military bases, and he wrote for the Mirror back in the day when a red top stood for blood spilled through outstanding investigative journalism. What he wants is a more ‘ethical’ journalism. A Mika Brzezinski moment.

Currently, there is a lot of talk about ethics. We need to be ethical consumers and think about where and how are products are made. What affect our behaviour has on the planet. We need a more ethical capitalism, should such an oxymoron be allowed. Ethical has become the new buzz word of the zeitgeist. Or is it perhaps that consumerism, capitalism and journalism are intrinsically linked? Kids working in sweat boxes never did manage to sell a back page insert.  

In the Q&A, Pilger revealed one of his favourite quotations is from Claud Cockburn: ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’ Something he suggests should be engraved on our bathroom mirrors. There was a lot of denial that the war in Iraq was about oil. It was all ‘words of mass deception’. But for Pilger the worst form of denial is only allowing one voice to speak. He evidenced this through research from the Glasgow Media Group and the Berlin-based Media Tenor study that showed the BBC gave just three per cent of its pre-invasion coverage to anti-war voices. For Pilger, denying people the right to represent their views is censorship. The most ‘virulent form of warmongering’.


John Pilger - started out in Vietnam
Censorship is the most ‘virulent form of warmongering’.


This is why journalism is so important because it is has a moral duty to present all arguments. Not just those that fit the party line. Such is the growing power of the media that General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Afghanistan, wrote in the 2006 US Counterinsurgency Manual that the most important thing in war was persuading the public at home that you were winning, regardless of the reality. We had entered a new level of combat. That of ‘wars of perception.’

This can be seen as a development of ‘manufacturing consent’, the term first used by Walter Lipmann and more recently as part of Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model. These ‘wars of perception’ have already been satirised in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which sees press baron Lord Cooper of the Daily Beast send a junior hack to the fictional African state of Ishmaelia where a civil war threatens to break out. He’s not entirely sure 'who' is fighting or 'what for' but this is irrelevant. He wants reports of victorious wins for the good guys and he wants them filed on time.

The press barons still exist and there was strong evidence in Pilger's documentary to suggest that particular nations are able to exert influence. Flak can come right from the very top to the proprietor or on ground level through ‘embedded’ journalism or what should more appropriately be termed as ‘in bed with’ journalism. By bedding in with national platoons, the integrity of the journalist is compromised in two ways. Firstly, they build up a natural affinity with their surrogate family and so lose impartiality. Secondly, if you’re too critical you lose your contacts, no longer get invited to meetings and are bureaucratically kept out of the loop. If you’re particularly critical – such as filming blown up civilians, then you are likely to be bombed. As Al Jazeera have found in two separate wars, despite handing over their location to avoid such mistakes.

The media may have failed to live up to their role as the ‘fourth estate’ but help is on hand courtesy of the internet and what Pilger hopes will become the ‘fifth estate’. One without press barons and gatekeepers. Organisations such as MediaLens, Znet, and that last great bastion of hope, Wikileaks. One recently leaked document unequivocally stated that there was a financial imperative to war. It may be what we already knew but to see it stated so blatantly was one embarrassment too many. Julian Assange is now banged up on what Pilger described as ‘ludicrous charges’. His harassment is so despicable that Pilger, Jemima Khan and Ken Loach have put up sureties of £180,000.       

Julian Assange - leader of the fifth estate. Our true hope for democracy?

These are strange times and we are potentially witnessing our first ever ‘virtual war’ (WWWI) in which the American government tries to put pressure on anyone associated with Wiki who are then in turn attacked by hackers for their moral cowardice. Amazon, PayPal, Sarah Palin, the US State Department and the Swedish Government have been the targets so far of 'Operation Payback', hit by DDoS attacks which basically slows or temporarily closes down a website. 

Pilger has put his money where his mouth is because Wiki has shamed traditional journalism by doing their job for them. He believes this is a good thing because shame is what motivates us to reflect and change. It is the first step to redemption. At the moment the liberal press are feeding from Julian Assange’s table and should at the very least be supporting him, morally and financially, for showing them the path to a transparent society. The fact that Pilger's film has been funded by ITV suggests the commercial sector is responding to public mood and a desire for something more nourishing than that fed to celebrities in the jungle. 

Pilger recognises that the media is integral in shaping debate and therefore it should act accordingly. As the political scientist Noelle-Neumann noted, the media can’t tell us what to think but they can tell us what to think about. The student protests have become a debate on respecting royalty and the cuts require the nation to ‘pull together’ rather than ‘pull apart’ the richest 10% of the country who could solve our debt problems by simply paying their tax. When did it become so easy for our objectives to be hijacked? Are we really that gullible? 

Of course the other great mass deception of the media is the way it makes us feel as if we are making a difference simply because we’ve been informed. We leave the cinema and go to bed feeling like a better person when in fact all we’ve done is stare at a big screen for a couple of hours. But Pilger doesn’t let us get off that easily. He’s linked up with the Stop the War Coalition who are waiting outside the Broadway to take down your details and ensure you get involved in the next set of demonstrations. I bought a badge and wrote this. It’s a start. 

John Pilger's website contains all of his previous 58 documentaries.

James Walker's website.

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