John Pilger: The invisible government


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

In a speech in Chicago, John Pilger describes how propaganda has become such a 
potent force in our lives and, in the words of one of its founders, represents 
'an invisible government'.

The invisible government
John Pilger

16 Jun 2007

The title of this talk is Freedom Next Time, which is the title of my book, and 
the book is meant as an antidote to the propaganda that is so often disguised as
journalism. So I thought I would talk today about journalism, about war by 
journalism, propaganda, and silence, and how that silence might be broken. 
Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, wrote about an 
invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. He was 
referring to journalism, the media. That was almost 80 years ago, not long after
corporate journalism was invented. It is a history few journalist talk about or 
know about, and it began with the arrival of corporate advertising. As the new 
corporations began taking over the press, something called ³professional 
journalism² was invented. To attract big advertisers, the new corporate press 
had to appear respectable, pillars of the establishment‹objective, impartial, 
balanced. The first schools of journalism were set up, and a mythology of 
liberal neutrality was spun around the professional journalist. The right to 
freedom of expression was associated with the new media and with the great 
corporations, and the whole thing was, as Robert McChesney put it so well, 
³entirely bogus².

For what the public did not know was that in order to be professional, 
journalists had to ensure that news and opinion were dominated by official 
sources, and that has not changed. Go through the New York Times on any day, and
check the sources of the main political stories‹domestic and foreign‹you¹ll find
they¹re dominated by government and other established interests. That is the 
essence of professional journalism. I am not suggesting that independent 
journalism was or is excluded, but it is more likely to be an honorable 
exception. Think of the role Judith Miller played in the New York Times in the 
run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Yes, her work became a scandal, but only after 
it played a powerful role in promoting an invasion based on lies. Yet, Miller¹s 
parroting of official sources and vested interests was not all that different 
from the work of many famous Times reporters, such as the celebrated W.H. 
Lawrence, who helped cover up the true effects of the atomic bomb dropped on 
Hiroshima in August, 1945. ³No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin,² was the 
headline on his report, and it was false.

Consider how the power of this invisible government has grown. In 1983 the 
principle global media was owned by 50 corporations, most of them American. In 
2002 this had fallen to just 9 corporations. Today it is probably about 5. 
Rupert Murdoch has predicted that there will be just three global media giants, 
and his company will be one of them. This concentration of power is not 
exclusive of course to the United States. The BBC has announced it is expanding 
its broadcasts to the United States, because it believes Americans want 
principled, objective, neutral journalism for which the BBC is famous. They have
launched BBC America. You may have seen the advertising.

The BBC began in 1922, just before the corporate press began in America. Its 
founder was Lord John Reith, who believed that impartiality and objectivity were
the essence of professionalism. In the same year the British establishment was 
under siege. The unions had called a general strike and the Tories were 
terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new BBC came to their rescue. In
high secrecy, Lord Reith wrote anti-union speeches for the Tory Prime Minister 
Stanley Baldwin and broadcast them to the nation, while refusing to allow the 
labor leaders to put their side until the strike was over.

So, a pattern was set. Impartiality was a principle certainly: a principle to be
suspended whenever the establishment was under threat. And that principle has 
been upheld ever since.

Take the invasion of Iraq. There are two studies of the BBC¹s reporting. One 
shows that the BBC gave just 2 percent of its coverage of Iraq to antiwar 
dissent‹2 percent. That is less than the antiwar coverage of ABC, NBC, and CBS. 
A second study by the University of Wales shows that in the buildup to the 
invasion, 90 percent of the BBC¹s references to weapons of mass destruction 
suggested that Saddam Hussein actually possessed them, and that by clear 
implication Bush and Blair were right. We now know that the BBC and other 
British media were used by the British secret intelligence service MI-6. In what
they called Operation Mass Appeal, MI-6 agents planted stories about Saddam¹s 
weapons of mass destruction, such as weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret
underground bunkers. All of these stories were fake. But that¹s not the point. 
The point is that the work of MI-6 was unnecessary, because professional 
journalism on its own would have produced the same result.

Listen to the BBC¹s man in Washington, Matt Frei, shortly after the invasion. 
³There is not doubt,² he told viewers in the UK and all over the world, ³That 
the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and
especially now in the Middle East, is especially tied up with American military 
power.² In 2005 the same reporter lauded the architect of the invasion, Paul 
Wolfowitz, as someone who ³believes passionately in the power of democracy and 
grassroots development.² That was before the little incident at the World Bank.

None of this is unusual. BBC news routinely describes the invasion as a 
miscalculation. Not Illegal, not unprovoked, not based on lies, but a 

The words ³mistake² and ³blunder² are common BBC news currency, along with 
³failure²‹which at least suggests that if the deliberate, calculated, 
unprovoked, illegal assault on defenseless Iraq had succeeded, that would have 
been just fine. Whenever I hear these words I remember Edward Herman¹s marvelous
essay about normalizing the unthinkable. For that¹s what media clichéd language 
does and is designed to do‹it normalizes the unthinkable; of the degradation of 
war, of severed limbs, of maimed children, all of which I¹ve seen. One of my 
favorite stories about the Cold War concerns a group of Russian journalists who 
were touring the United States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked
by the host for their impressions. ³I have to tell you,² said the spokesman, 
³that we were astonished to find after reading all the newspapers and watching 
TV day after day that all the opinions on all the vital issues are the same. To 
get that result in our country we send journalists to the gulag. We even tear 
out their fingernails. Here you don¹t have to do any of that. What is the 

What is the secret? It is a question seldom asked in newsrooms, in media 
colleges, in journalism journals, and yet the answer to that question is 
critical to the lives of millions of people. On August 24 last year the New York
Times declared this in an editorial: ³If we had known then what we know now the 
invasion if Iraq would have been stopped by a popular outcry.² This amazing 
admission was saying, in effect, that journalists had betrayed the public by not
doing their job and by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and
his gang, instead of challenging them and exposing them. What the Times didn¹t 
say was that had that paper and the rest of the media exposed the lies, up to a 
million people might be alive today. That¹s the belief now of a number of senior
establishment journalists. Few of them‹they¹ve spoken to me about it‹few of them
will say it in public.

Ironically, I began to understand how censorship worked in so-called free 
societies when I reported from totalitarian societies. During the 1970s I filmed
secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship. I interviewed members
of the dissident group Charter 77, including the novelist Zdener Urbanek, and 
this is what he told me. ³In dictatorships we are more fortunate that you in the
West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and 
nothing of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda and lies.
I like you in the West. We¹ve learned to look behind the propaganda and to read 
between the lines, and like you, we know that the real truth is always 

Vandana Shiva has called this subjugated knowledge. The great Irish muckraker 
Claud Cockburn got it right when he wrote, ³Never believe anything until it¹s 
officially denied.²

One of the oldest clichés of war is that truth is the first casualty. No it¹s 
not. Journalism is the first casualty. When the Vietnam War was over, the 
magazine Encounter published an article by Robert Elegant, a distinguished 
correspondent who had covered the war. ³For the first time in modern history,² 
he wrote, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the
printed page, and above all on the television screen.² He held journalists 
responsible for losing the war by opposing it in their reporting. Robert 
Elegant¹s view became the received wisdom in Washington and it still is. In Iraq
the Pentagon invented the embedded journalist because it believed that critical 
reporting had lost Vietnam.

The very opposite was true. On my first day as a young reporter in Saigon, I 
called at the bureaus of the main newspapers and TV companies. I noticed that 
some of them had a pinboard on the wall on which were gruesome photographs, 
mostly of bodies of Vietnamese and of American soldiers holding up severed ears 
and testicles. In one office was a photograph of a man being tortured; above the
torturers head was a stick-on comic balloon with the words, ³that¹ll teach you 
to talk to the press.² None of these pictures were ever published or even put on
the wire. I asked why. I was told that the public would never accept them. 
Anyway, to publish them would not be objective or impartial. At first, I 
accepted the apparent logic of this. I too had grown up on stories of the good 
war against Germany and Japan, that ethical bath that cleansed the 
Anglo-American world of all evil. But the longer I stayed in Vietnam, the more I
realized that our atrocities were not isolated, nor were they aberrations, but 
the war itself was an atrocity. That was the big story, and it was seldom news. 
Yes, the tactics and effectiveness of the military were questioned by some very 
fine reporters. But the word ³invasion² was never used. The anodyne word used 
was ³involved.² America was involved in Vietnam. The fiction of a 
well-intentioned, blundering giant, stuck in an Asian quagmire, was repeated 
incessantly. It was left to whistleblowers back home to tell the subversive 
truth, those like Daniel Ellsberg and Seymour Hersh, with his scoop of the 
My-Lai massacre. There were 649 reporters in Vietnam on March 16, 1968‹the day 
that the My-Lai massacre happened‹and not one of them reported it.

In both Vietnam and Iraq, deliberate policies and strategies have bordered on 
genocide. In Vietnam, the forced dispossession of millions of people and the 
creation of free fire zones; In Iraq, an American-enforced embargo that ran 
through the 1990s like a medieval siege, and killed, according to the United 
Nations Children¹s fund, half a million children under the age of five. In both 
Vietnam and Iraq, banned weapons were used against civilians as deliberate 
experiments. Agent Orange changed the genetic and environmental order in 
Vietnam. The military called this Operation Hades. When Congress found out, it 
was renamed the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand, and nothing change. That¹s 
pretty much how Congress has reacted to the war in Iraq. The Democrats have 
damned it, rebranded it, and extended it. The Hollywood movies that followed the
Vietnam War were an extension of the journalism, of normalizing the unthinkable.
Yes, some of the movies were critical of the military¹s tactics, but all of them
were careful to concentrate on the angst of the invaders. The first of these 
movies is now considered a classic. It¹s The Deerhunter, whose message was that 
America had suffered, America was stricken, American boys had done their best 
against oriental barbarians. The message was all the more pernicious, because 
the Deerhunter was brilliantly made and acted. I have to admit it¹s the only 
movie that has made me shout out loud in a Cinema in protest. Oliver Stone¹s 
acclaimed movie Platoon was said to be antiwar, and it did show glimpses of the 
Vietnamese as human beings, but it also promoted above all the American invader 
as victim.

I wasn¹t going to mention The Green Berets when I set down to write this, until 
I read the other day that John Wayne was the most influential movie who ever 
lived. I a saw the Green Berets starring John Wayne on a Saturday night in 1968 
in Montgomery Alabama. (I was down there to interview the then-infamous governor
George Wallace). I had just come back from Vietnam, and I couldn¹t believe how 
absurd this movie was. So I laughed out loud, and I laughed and laughed. And it 
wasn¹t long before the atmosphere around me grew very cold. My companion, who 
had been a Freedom Rider in the South, said, ³Let¹s get the hell out of here and
run like hell.²

We were chased all the way back to our hotel, but I doubt if any of our pursuers
were aware that John Wayne, their hero, had lied so he wouldn¹t have to fight in
World War II. And yet the phony role model of Wayne sent thousands of Americans 
to their deaths in Vietnam, with the notable exceptions of George W. Bush and 
Dick Cheney.

Last year, in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the playwright 
Harold Pinter made an epoch speech. He asked why, and I quote him, ³The 
systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of 
independent thought in Stalinist Russia were well know in the West, while 
American state crimes were merely superficially recorded, left alone, 
documented.² And yet across the world the extinction and suffering of countless 
human beings could be attributed to rampant American power. ³But,² said Pinter, 
³You wouldn¹t know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it 
was happening it wasn¹t happening. It didn¹t matter. It was of no interest.² 
Pinter¹s words were more than the surreal. The BBC ignored the speech of 
Britain¹s most famous dramatist.

I¹ve made a number of documentaries about Cambodia. The first was Year Zero: the
Silent Death of Cambodia. It describes the American bombing that provided the 
catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot. What Nixon and Kissinger had started, Pol Pot 
completed‹CIA files alone leave no doubt of that. I offered Year Zero to PBS and
took it to Washington. The PBS executives who saw it were shocked. They 
whispered among themselves. They asked me to wait outside. One of them finally 
emerged and said, ³John, we admire your film. But we are disturbed that it says 
the United States prepared the way for Pol Pot.²

I said, ³Do you dispute the evidence?² I had quoted a number of CIA documents. 
³Oh, no,² he replied. ³But we¹ve decided to call in a journalistic adjudicator.²

Now the term ³journalist adjudicator² might have been invented by George Orwell.
In fact they managed to find one of only three journalists who had been invited 
to Cambodia by Pol Pot. And of course he turned his thumbs down on the film, and
I never heard from PBS again. Year Zero was broadcast in some 60 countries and 
became one of the most watched documentaries in the world. It was never shown in
the United States. Of the five films I have made on Cambodia, one of them was 
shown by WNET, the PBS station in New York. I believe it was shown at about one 
in the morning. On the basis of this single showing, when most people are 
asleep, it was awarded an Emmy. What marvelous irony. It was worthy of a prize 
but not an audience.

Harold Pinter¹s subversive truth, I believe, was that he made the connection 
between imperialism and fascism, and described a battle for history that¹s 
almost never reported. This is the great silence of the media age. And this is 
the secret heart of propaganda today. A propaganda so vast in scope that I¹m 
always astonished that so many Americans know and understand as much as they do.
We are talking about a system, of course, not personalities. And yet, a great 
many people today think that the problem is George W. Bush and his gang. And 
yes, the Bush gang are extreme. But my experience is that they are no more than 
an extreme version of what has gone on before. In my lifetime, more wars have 
been started by liberal Democrats than by Republicans. Ignoring this truth is a 
guarantee that the propaganda system and the war-making system will continue. 
We¹ve had a branch of the Democratic party running Britain for the last 10 
years. Blair, apparently a liberal, has taken Britain to war more times than any
prime minister in the modern era. Yes, his current pal is George Bush, but his 
first love was Bill Clinton, the most violent president of the late 20th 
century. Blair¹s successor, Gordon Brown is also a devotee of Clinton and Bush. 
The other day, Brown said, ³The days of Britain having to apologize for the 
British Empire are over. We should celebrate.²

Like Blair, like Clinton, like Bush, Brown believes in the liberal truth that 
the battle for history has been won; that the millions who died in 
British-imposed famines in British imperial India will be forgotten‹like the 
millions who have died in the American Empire will be forgotten. And like Blair,
his successor is confident that professional journalism is on his side. For most
journalists, whether they realize it or not, are groomed to be tribunes of an 
ideology that regards itself as non-ideological, that presents itself as the 
natural center, the very fulcrum of modern life. This may very well be the most 
powerful and dangerous ideology we have ever known because it is open-ended. 
This is liberalism. I¹m not denying the virtues of liberalism‹far from it. We 
are all beneficiaries of them. But if we deny its dangers, its open-ended 
project, and the all-consuming power of its propaganda, then we deny our right 
to true democracy, because liberalism and true democracy are not the same. 
Liberalism began as a preserve of the elite in the 19th century, and true 
democracy is never handed down by elites. It is always fought for and struggled 

A senior member of the antiwar coalition, United For Peace and Justice, said 
recently, and I quote her, ³The Democrats are using the politics of reality.² 
Her liberal historical reference point was Vietnam. She said that President 
Johnson began withdrawing troops from Vietnam after a Democratic Congress began 
to vote against the war. That¹s not what happened. The troops were withdrawn 
from Vietnam after four long years. And during that time the United States 
killed more people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with bombs than were killed in 
all the preceding years. And that¹s what¹s happening in Iraq. The bombing has 
doubled since last year, and this is not being reported. And who began this 
bombing? Bill Clinton began it. During the 1990s Clinton rained bombs on Iraq in
what were euphemistically called the ³no fly zones.² At the same time he imposed
a medieval siege called economic sanctions, killing as I¹ve mentioned, perhaps a
million people, including a documented 500,000 children. Almost none of this 
carnage was reported in the so-called mainstream media. Last year a study 
published by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that since the 
invasion of Iraq 655, 000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the invasion. 
Official documents show that the Blair government knew this figure to be 
credible. In February, Les Roberts, the author of the report, said the figure 
was equal to the figure for deaths in the Fordham University study of the 
Rwandan genocide. The media response to Robert¹s shocking revelation was 
silence. What may well be the greatest episode of organized killing for a 
generation, in Harold Pinter¹s words, ³Did not happen. It didn¹t matter.²

Many people who regard themselves on the left supported Bush¹s attack on 
Afghanistan. That the CIA had supported Osama Bin Laden was ignored, that the 
Clinton administration had secretly backed the Taliban, even giving them 
high-level briefings at the CIA, is virtually unknown in the United States. The 
Taliban were secret partners with the oil giant Unocal in building an oil 
pipeline across Afghanistan. And when a Clinton official was reminded that the 
Taliban persecuted women, he said, ³We can live with that.² There is compelling 
evidence that Bush decided to attack the Taliban not as a result of 9-11, but 
two months earlier, in July of 2001. This is virtually unknown in the United 
States‹publicly. Like the scale of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. To my 
knowledge only one mainstream reporter, Jonathan Steele of the Guardian in 
London, has investigated civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and his estimate is
20,000 dead civilians, and that was three years ago.

The enduring tragedy of Palestine is due in great part to the silence and 
compliance of the so-called liberal left. Hamas is described repeatedly as sworn
to the destruction of Israel. The New York Times, the Associated Press, the 
Boston Globe‹take your pick. They all use this line as a standard disclaimer, 
and it is false. That Hamas has called for a ten-year ceasefire is almost never 
reported. Even more important, that Hamas has undergone an historic ideological 
shift in the last few years, which amounts to a recognition of what it calls the
reality of Israel, is virtually unknown; and that Israel is sworn to the 
destruction of Palestine is unspeakable.

There is a pioneering study by Glasgow University on the reporting of Palestine.
They interviewed young people who watch TV news in Britain. More than 90 percent
thought the illegal settlers were Palestinian. The more they watched, the less 
they knew‹Danny Schecter¹s famous phrase.

The current most dangerous silence is over nuclear weapons and the return of the
Cold War. The Russians understand clearly that the so-called American defense 
shield in Eastern Europe is designed to subjugate and humiliate them. Yet the 
front pages here talk about Putin starting a new Cold War, and there is silence 
about the development of an entirely new American nuclear system called Reliable
Weapons Replacement (RRW), which is designed to blur the distinction between 
conventional war and nuclear war‹a long-held ambition.

In the meantime, Iran is being softened up, with the liberal media playing 
almost the same role it played before the Iraq invasion. And as for the 
Democrats, look at how Barak Obama has become the voice of the Council on 
Foreign Relations, one of the propaganda organs of the old liberal Washington 
establishment. Obama writes that while he wants the troops home, ³We must not 
rule out military force against long-standing adversaries such as Iran and 
Syria.² Listen to this from the liberal Obama: ³At moment of great peril in the 
past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and 
lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedom sought by billions of
people beyond their borders.²

That is the nub of the propaganda, the brainwashing if you like, that seeps into
the lives of every American, and many of us who are not Americans. From right to
left, secular to God-fearing, what so few people know is that in the last half 
century, United States adminstrations have overthrown 50 governments‹many of 
them democracies. In the process, thirty countries have been attacked and 
bombed, with the loss of countless lives. Bush bashing is all very well‹and is 
justified‹but the moment we begin to accept the siren call of the Democrat¹s 
drivel about standing up and fighting for freedom sought by billions, the battle
for history is lost, and we ourselves are silenced.

So what should we do? That question often asked in meetings I have addressed, 
even meetings as informed as those in this conference, is itself interesting. 
It¹s my experience that people in the so-called third world rarely ask the 
question, because they know what to do. And some have paid with their freedom 
and their lives, but they knew what to do. It¹s a question that many on the 
democratic left‹small ³d²‹have yet to answer.

Real information, subversive information, remains the most potent power of 
all‹and I believe that we must not fall into the trap of believing that the 
media speaks for the public. That wasn¹t true in Stalinist Czechoslovakia and it
isn¹t true of the United States.

In all the years I¹ve been a journalist, I¹ve never know public consciousness to
have risen as fast as it¹s rising today. Yes, its direction and shape is 
unclear, partly because people are now deeply suspicious of political 
alternatives, and because the Democratic Party has succeeded in seducing and 
dividing the electoral left. And yet this growing critical public awareness is 
all the more remarkable when you consider the sheer scale of indoctrination, the
mythology of a superior way of life, and the current manufactured state of fear.

Why did the New York Times come clean in that editorial last year? Not because 
it opposes Bush¹s wars‹look at the coverage of Iran. That editorial was a rare 
acknowledgement that the public was beginning to see the concealed role of the 
media, and that people were beginning to read between the lines.

If Iran is attacked, the reaction and the upheaval cannot be predicted. The 
national security and homeland security presidential directive gives Bush power 
over all facets of government in an emergency. It is not unlikely the 
constitution will be suspended‹the laws to round of hundreds of thousands of 
so-called terrorists and enemy combatants are already on the books. I believe 
that these dangers are understood by the public, who have come along way since 
9-11, and a long way since the propaganda that linked Saddam  Hussein to 
al-Qaeda. That¹s why they voted for the Democrats last November, only to be 
betrayed. But they need truth, and journalists ought to be agents of truth, not 
the courtiers of power.

I believe a fifth estate is possible, the product of a people¹s movement, that 
monitors, deconstructs, and counters the corporate media. In every university, 
in every media college, in every news room, teachers of journalism, journalists 
themselves need to ask themselves about the part they now play in the bloodshed 
in the name of a bogus objectivity. Such a movement within the media could 
herald a perestroika of a kind that we have never known. This is all possible. 
Silences can be broken. In Britain the National Union of Journalists has 
undergone a radical change, and has called for a boycott of Israel. The web site has single-handedly called the BBC to account. In the United 
States wonderfully free rebellious spirits populate the web‹I can¹t mention them
all here‹from Tom Feeley¹s International Clearing House, to Mike Albert¹s ZNet, 
to Counterpunch online, and the splendid work of FAIR. The best reporting of 
Iraq appears on the web‹Dahr Jamail¹s courageous journalism; and citizen 
reporters like Joe Wilding, who reported the siege of Fallujah from inside the 

In Venezuela, Greg Wilpert¹s investigations turned back much of the virulent 
propaganda now aimed at Hugo Chávez. Make no mistake, it¹s the threat of freedom
of speech for the majority in Venezuela that lies behind the campaign in the 
west on behalf of the corrupt RCTV. The challenge for the rest of us is to lift 
this subjugated knowledge from out of the underground and take it to ordinary 

We need to make haste. Liberal Democracy is moving toward a form of corporate 
dictatorship. This is an historic shift, and the media must not be allowed to be
its façade, but itself made into a popular, burning issue, and subjected to 
direct action. That great whistleblower Tom Paine warned that if the majority of
the people were denied the truth and the ideas of truth, it was time to storm 
what he called the Bastille of words. That time is now.

Speech delivered at the Chicago Socialism 2007 Conference on Saturday June 16 

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