Yesterday ITV aired the iconoclastic journalist John Pilger‘s documentary titled ‘The War You Don’t See’. Over 90 minutes he set about revealing the Machiavellian ‘truth’ behind the headlines and strongly criticised the media for kow-towing to the propagandist line fed to them by the government and military. The result was not only a gross misapplication of history but a scaremongering personal assault on the machinery of the state. Yet underneath all of Pilger’s passionate hyperbole lay a fair criticism. This is the tragedy of TWYDS, that a fair point can be lost to the polemical style, and emotive hypocrisy of the presentation.
Pilger predictably starts with the Wikileaks Apache footage, but without much commentary the focus swiftly swings to the Great War. Here he manages to successfully propagate the fallacious myth that the British public remained completely ignorant of conditions on the Western Front. Citing the hugely problematic Lloyd George in support. Furthermore he references the ‘propaganda’ film The Battle of the Somme, yet wrenches it from its historical context. It is evident that Pilger’s research went no further than what he already knew from the cultural ether; even a cursory look at the historical literature would have shown him that far from drawing a veil of ignorance over front line conditions the film revealed to many the brutal realities of industrial warfare (1). The defining scene of The Battle of the Somme came when the soldiers went ‘over the top’, the piano accompaniment fell silent, and men on-screen began to fall. 20 million people saw this film in the first two weeks of release, many hoping to get a glimpse of a friend or relative, what many received instead was the shock of images of death which given the newness of the technology the general public were simply unprepared for. Yet in 1916, at the British Army’s nadir it did not end the war the following day as DLG is quoted as saying (one suspects apocryphally). Pilger makes no account of this, it is infeasible to him that there could rationally be popular support for war. The documentary moves on to richer climes of the Second World War and Vietnam where the governments are equally portrayed as Orwellian oligarchs out to manipulate the masses. The dropping of the atomic bomb, a far-from-settled debate, is dealt with in categoric terms: it was wrong the war would have ended anyway. The important caveat that it would have cost the Russians and Allies thousands more in casualties not to mention the civilian deaths as a result of any conventional assault is a point intentionally ignored.
The strongest section of the documentary follows the historical onslaught though, Pilger sits down with a range of journalists culminating in Fran Unsworth and David Mannion all of whom offer a mea culpa for their part in not questioning the official record of Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter pairing fuse this with an attempt to offer the circumstantial nuances of the situation, that all important context becomes a muted whisper amongst the politically idealised framework Pilger has laid down. Ultimately Unsworth and Mannion offer up the question: are journalists there to judge or to present information? Pilger is far too dismissive of this and unfortunately the point is not made vociferously enough to be an effective counter-attack. One is left feeling that the journalists are really just victims of this obfuscating system designed to mislead. There’s some validity in this idea, but it is far too simplistic to assume such an organisation is driven by one overriding goal.
The latter half of the show focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan and the character of the media reports that have stemmed from the conflict. It is here that Pilger’s complete lack of appreciation for the contexts of the military are so stark and evident. It is a simple equation for him: these images are undeniable – The US is clearly fighting the civilians and the civilians alone. The pinnacle of this rationale comes when Pilger gives the citizen casualty statistics: WW1: 10% WW2: 50% Vietnam: 70% Iraq: up to 90%. There’s no source given, there’s no context, there’s just numbers: they should speak for themselves. Well, they don’t; how are they counting this? Who is counting this? Why has Pilger refused to give sources on this occasion when at other parts he doesn’t? Concluding, in pops everyone’s favourite anti-hero Julian Assange, that flawed freedom fighter very much in the Pilger mould. Assange speaks fluently and passionately with much more persuasion than Pilger can muster, yet one is left feeling that underscoring all of this is not some ideal desire for accountability and transparency but a driven distrust of the US and its allies. Where, after all, is the criticism of other nation’s control of the media? Should they not look to N.Korea first?
The great irony of TWYDS, a documentary calling for more dissension, is that there’s very little to challenge Pilger’s argument. After 80 minutes the first and only figure representing ‘the elite’ is brought on. For an hour and twenty minutes the audience has heard ‘don’t trust these people!’ ‘don’t trust these people!’ ‘don’t trust these people!’ and consequently Bryan Whitman, The Deputy Secretary of State for Defense, has absolutely no chance of offering a convincing rebuttal: whatever he says is indelibly lies. The choice of representative is poor, Whitman looks shifty the whole time; his eerily awkward smile suggesting that he frequented the same PR coach as Gordon Brown, and he does it at all the wrong moments. The US and UK governments, the militaries, the information bureaus don’t stand a chance, this is not a programme about balance. It is nothing more than polemical rhetoric. The unfortunate truth is, many will see this and swallow it: Like good propaganda it taps the cultural zeitgeist and mistrust of authority. He may not understand what constitutes propaganda and how it works but Pilger has unwittingly and ironically crafted a first class example of it.
You can see Pilger’s ‘The War You Don’t See’ here.
You can see my critique as it developed on my Twitter Page
1. See D.Todman, The Great War Myth and Memory (London, Hambledon and London, 2005) and Fraser, Robertshaw, Roberts, Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle June – July 1916 (London, Pen & Sword, 2009)