The public needs to know the truth about wars. So why have journalists colluded with governments to hoodwink us?
In the US Army manual on counterinsurgency, the American commander General David Petraeus describes Afghanistan as a “war of perception . . . conducted continuously using the news media”. 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 “the media directly influence the attitude of key audiences”. Reading this, I was reminded of the Venezuelan general who led a coup against the democratic government in 2002. “We had a secret weapon,” he boasted. “We had the media, especially TV. You got to have the media.”
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 “perpetual”. In echoing the west’s more verbose warlords, such as the waterboarding former US vice-president Dick Cheney, who predicated “50 years of war”, 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 Defence’s psychological warfare (Psyops) establishment, media trainers devote themselves to the task, immersed in a jargon world of “information dominance”, “asymmetric threats” and “cyberthreats”. 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 Don’t See, there is reference to a pre-WikiLeaks private conversation in December 1917 between David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during much of the first world war, and CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian. “If people really knew the truth,” the prime minister said, “the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.”
In the wake of this “war to end all wars”, Edward Bernays, a confidante of President Woodrow Wilson, coined the term “public relations” as a euphemism for propaganda “which was given a bad name in the war”. In his book, Propaganda (1928), Bernays described PR as “an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country” thanks to “the intelligent manipulation of the masses”. This was achieved by “false realities” and their adoption by the media. (One of Bernays’s early successes was persuading women to smoke in public. By associating smoking with women’s liberation, he achieved headlines that lauded cigarettes as “torches of freedom”.)