A recent poll asked people in Britain how many Iraqis had been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The answers they gave were shocking. A majority said that fewer than 10,000 had been killed. Scientific studies report that up to a million Iraqi men, women and children died in an inferno lit by the British government and its ally in Washington. That’s the equivalent of the genocide in Rwanda. And the carnage goes on. Relentlessly. What this reveals is how we in Britain have been misled by those whose job is to keep the record straight.
The American writer and academic Edward Herman calls this ‘normalising the unthinkable’. He describes two types of victims in the world of news: ‘worthy victims’ and ‘unworthy victims’. ‘Worthy victims’ are those who suffer at the hands of our enemies: the likes of Assad, Qadaffi, Saddam Hussein. ‘Worthy victims’ qualify for what we call ‘humanitarian intervention’. ‘Unworthy victims’ are those who get in the way of our punitive might and that of the ‘good dictators’ we employ. Saddam Hussein was once a ‘good dictator’ but he got uppity and disobedient and was relegated to ‘bad dictator’.
In Indonesia, General Suharto was a ‘good dictator’, regardless of his slaughter of perhaps a million people, aided by the governments of Britain and America. He also wiped out a third of the population of East Timor with the help of British fighter aircraft and British machine guns. Suharto was even welcomed to London by the Queen and when he died peacefully in his bed, he was lauded as enlightened, a moderniser, one of us. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he never got uppity.
When I travelled in Iraq in the 1990s, the two principal Moslem groups, the Shia and Sunni, had their differences but they lived side by side, even intermarried and regarded themselves with pride as Iraqis. There was no Al Qaida, there were no jihadists. We blew all that to bits in 2003 with ‘shock and awe’. And today Sunni and Shia are fighting each other right across the Middle East. This mass murder is being funded by the regime in Saudi Arabia which beheads people and discriminates against women. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Wikileaks released a cable sent to US embassies by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She wrote this: ‘Saudi Arabai remains a critical financial support for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, al Nusra and other terrorist groups … worldwide’. And yet the Saudis are our valued allies. They’re good dictators. The British royals visit them often. We sell them all the weapons they want.
I use the first person ‘we’ and ‘our’ in line with newsreaders and commentators who often say ‘we’, preferring not to distinguish between the criminal power of our governments and us, the public. We are all assumed to be part of a consensus: Tory and Labour, Obama’s White House too.
When Nelson Mandela died, the BBC went straight to David Cameron, then to Obama. Cameron who went to South Africa during Mandela’s 25th was tantamount to support for the apartheid regime, and Obama who recently shed a tear in Mandela’s cell on Robben Island – he who presides over the cages of Guantanamo.
What were they really mourning about Mandela? Clearly not his extraordinary will to resist an oppressive system whose depravity the US and British governments backed year after year. Rather they were grateful for the crucial role Mandela had played in quelling an uprising in black South Africa against the injustice of white political and economic power. This was surely the only reason he was released. Today the same ruthless economic power is apartheid in another form making South Africa the most unequal society on earth. Some call this “reconciliation”.
We all live in an information age – or so we tell each other as we caress our smart phones like rosary beads, heads down, checking, monitoring, tweeting. We’re wired; we’re on message; and the dominant theme of the message is ourselves. Identity is the zeitgeist.
A lifetime ago in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicted this as the ultimate means of social control because it was voluntary, addictive and shrouded in illusions of personal freedom. Perhaps the truth is that we live not in an information age but a media age. Like the memory of Mandela, the media’s wondrous technology has been hijacked. From the BBC to CNN, the echo chamber is vast.
In his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, Harold Pinter spoke about a ‘manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good, a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.’ But, said Pinter, ‘it never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.’
Pinter was referring to the systematic crimes of the United States and to an undeclared censorship by omission – that is leaving out crucial information that might help us make sense of the world.
Today liberal democracy is being replaced by a system in which people are accountable to a corporate state and not the other way round as it should be. In Britain, the parliamentary parties are devoted to the same doctrine of care for the rich and struggle for the poor. This denial of real democracy is an historic shift. It’s why the courage of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange is such a threat to the powerful and unaccountable. And it’s an object lesson for those of us who are meant to keep the record straight. The great reporter Claud Cockburn put it well: ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied’. Imagine if the lies of governments had been properly challenged and exposed as they secretly prepared to invade Iraq – perhaps a million people would be alive today.
This is a transcript of John Pilger’s contribution to a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, on 2 January 2014, guest-edited by the artist and musician P.J.Harvey.