Pilger exposes censorship in war reporting

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Pilger's film shows media censorship

Today’s reporting on NATO’s bombing of civilians in Libya demonstrates once again that the mainstream media are unreliable witnesses to war.  This CBC online account, for example, tells the story mainly from NATO’s point of view:

“A NATO commander said it ‘regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes.’ NATO said it has launched 4,400 airstrikes since the beginning of attacks on Libya, which the alliance says are meant to protect civilians from leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.”

Yes, it’s too bad that NATO is killing civilians as it blasts the hell out of Libya, but it’s being done for a noble reason: to protect the Libyan people.

John Pilger tells a different story

However, the latest film from the Australian-born journalist, John Pilger shows that mainstream media reporting of wars rarely tells the whole story. In The War You Don’t See, Pilger documents how the media frequently treat civilian casualties, for example, as a numbers game rather than showing the actual carnage. If we saw war’s real horrors in living colour on our big-screen TVs, the film suggests, more of us might question the violence that rich countries routinely inflict on poor ones — all in the name of freedom and justice, of course.

Filmmaker John Pilger

Perhaps though, Pilger’s film should be renamed The War You Won’t See. Earlier this month, its American premiere in Santa Fe, New Mexico was abruptly and mysteriously cancelled. Those of us who have watched excerpts on YouTube can only wonder why. Pilger’s documentary does expose war propaganda and the media censorship that makes it effective, but all of this is well known to anyone who has studied war reporting.

Phillip Knightley’s 1975 tome The First Casualty, for example, thoroughly exposes “the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth maker.” It is true though, that Knightley’s book ends with Vietnam while Pilger points out that rich countries like the U.S. and Britain have been steadily at war ever since.

Pilger’s unwelcome treatment of Israel

Maybe Pilger’s real offence is that he documents how Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are routinely misreported by western media. His film relies, in part, on an extensive study of British TV reporting conducted by the Glasgow Media Group in Scotland. In Bad News from Israel, the Glasgow researchers point out that journalists almost never mention crucial historical facts leaving viewers in the dark about Israeli oppression and Palestinian rage:

Most did not know that the Palestinians had been forced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied by force the territories to which the Palestinian refugees had moved. Most viewers did not know that the Palestinians subsequently lived under Israeli military rule or that the Israelis took control of key resources such as water, and the damage this did to the Palestinian economy.

The Glasgow researchers also found that media reporting tended to portray the Israelis as responding to Palestinian violence rather than routinely inflicting violence of their own.

As Pilger points out, Israel has one of the most sophisticated propaganda operations in the world. Western reporters know that if they seem too pro-Palestinian, they’ll catch unwelcome flak as the CBC’s Neil MacDonald did in spades from the late Canadian media mogul, Izzy Asper.

Pilger’s film examines war propaganda and censored reporting from the First World War on. It’s a “must see” for those who wish to understand why the western media routinely get war stories wrong.

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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