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Power, Propaganda and Conscience in The War On Terror - full text of the University of Western Australia (UWA) Extension Summer School Lecture.


I am a reporter, who values bearing witness. That is to say, I place paramount importance in the evidence of what I see, and hear, and sense to be the truth, or as close to the truth as possible. By comparing this evidence with the statements, and actions of those with power, I believe it’s possible to assess fairly how our world is controlled and divided, and manipulated - and how language and debate are distorted and a false consciousness developed.

When we speak of this in regard to totalitarian societies and dictatorships, we call it brainwashing: the conquest of minds. It’s a notion we almost never apply to our own societies. Let me give you an example. During the height of the cold war, a group of Soviet journalists were taken on an official tour of the United States. They watched TV; they read the newspapers; they listened to debates in Congress. To their astonishment, everything they heard was more or less the same. The news was the same. The opinions were the same, more or less. "How do you do it?" they asked their hosts. "In our country, to achieve this, we throw people in prison; we tear out their fingernails. Here, there’s none of that? What’s your secret?"

The secret is that the question is almost never raised. Or if it is raised, it’s more than likely dismissed as coming from the margins: from voices far outside the boundaries of what I would call our ‘metropolitan conversation’, whose terms of reference, and limits, are fixed by the media at one level, and by the discourse or silence of scholarship at another level. Behind both is a presiding corporate and political power. 

A dozen years ago, I reported from East Timor, which was then occupied by the Indonesian dictatorship of General Suharto. I had to go there under cover, as reporters were not welcome - my informants were brave, ordinary people who confirmed, with their evidence and experience, that genocide had taken place in their country. I brought out meticulously hand-written documents, evidence that whole communities had been slaughtered - all of which we now know to be true. 

We also know that vital material backing for a crime proportionally greater than the killing in Cambodia under Pol Pot had come from the West: principally the United States, Britain and Australia. On my return to London, and then to this country, I encountered a very different version. The media version was that General Suharto was a benign leader, who ran a sound economy and was a close ally. Indeed, prime minister Keating was said to regard him as a father figure. 

He and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans made many laudatory speeches about Suharto, never mentioning - not once - that he had seized power as a result of what the CIA called "one of the worst massacres of the twentieth century." Nor did they mention that his special forces, known as Kopassus, were responsible for the terror and deaths of a quarter of the East Timorese population - 200,000 people, a figure confirmed in a study commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee of Federal Parliament. 

Nor did they mention that these killers were trained by the Australian SAS not far from this auditorium, and that the Australian military establishment was integrated into Suharto’s violent campaign against the people of East Timor.

The evidence of atrocities, which I reported in my film Death of a Nation was heard and accepted by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, but not by those with power in Australia. When I showed evidence of a second massacre near the Santa Cruz cemetery in November 1991, the foreign editor of the only national newspaper in this country, The Australian, mocked the eyewitnesses. 

"The truth," wrote Greg Sheridan, "is that even genuine victims frequently concoct stories." The paper’s Jakarata correspondent, Patrick Walters, wrote that "no one is arrested [by Suharto] without proper legal procedures". The editor-in-chief, Paul Kelly, declared Suharto a "moderate" and that there was no alternative to his benign rule.

Paul Kelly sat on the board of the Australia-Indonesia Institute, a body funded by the Australian government. Not long before Suharto was overthrown by his own people, Kelly was in Jakarta, standing at Suharto’s side, introducing the mass murderer to a line of Australian editors. To his great credit, the then editor of the West Australian, Paul Murray, refused to join this obsequious group.

Not long ago, Paul Kelly was given a special award in the annual Walkley Awards for journalism - the kind they give to elder statesmen. And no one said anything about Indonesia and Suharto. Imagine a similar award going to Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the London Times in the 1930s. Like Kelly, he appeased a genocidal dictator, calling him a "moderate".

This episode is a metaphor for what I’d like to touch upon tonight. 

For 15 years, a silence was maintained by the Australian government, the Australian media and Australian academics on the great crime and tragedy of East Timor. Moreover, this was an extension of the silence about the true circumstances of Suharto’s bloody ascent to power in the mid-sixties. It was not unlike the official silence in the Soviet Union on the bloody invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. 

The media’s silence I’ll discuss in a while. Let’s look now at the academic silence. One of the greatest acts of genocide in the second half of the twentieth century apparently did not warrant a single substantial academic case study, based on primary sources. Why? We have to go back to the years immediately after world war two when the study of post-war international politics, known as "liberal realism", was invented in the United States, largely with the sponsorship of those who designed American global economic power. They include the Ford, Carnegie and Rockeller Foundations, the OSS, the foreunner of the CIA, and the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Thus, in the great American universities, scholars generally served to justify the cold war - which, we now know from declassified files, not only brought us closer to nuclear war than we thought, but was itself largely bogus. As the British files now make clear, there was no Soviet threat to the world. The threat was to Russia’s satellites, just as the United States threatened, invaded and controlled its satellites in Latin America.

"Liberal realism" - in America, Britain, Australia - meant taking the humanity out of the study of nations and viewing the world in terms of its usefulness to western power. This was presented in a self-serving jargon: a masonic-like language in thrall to the dominant power. Typical of the jargon were labels.

Of all the labels applied to me, the most interesting is that I am ‘neo-idealist’. The ‘neo’ bit has yet to be explained. I should add here that the most hilarious label is the creation of the foreign editor of The Australian who took a whole page in his newspaper to say that a subversive movement called Chomskyist-Pilgerism was inspiring would-be terrorists throughout the world. 

During the 1990s, whole societies were laid out for autopsy and identified as "failed states" and "rogue states", requiring "humanitarian intervention". Other euphemisms became fashionable - "good governance" and "third way" were adopted by the liberal realist school, which handed out labels to its heroes. Bill Clinton, the president who destroyed the last of the Roosevelt reforms, was labelled "left of centre".

Noble words like democracy, freedom, independence, reform were emptied of their meaning and taken into the service of the World Bank, the IMF and that amorphous thing called "The West" - in other words, imperialism.

Of course, imperialism was the word the realists dared not write or speak, almost as if it had been struck from the dictionary. And yet imperialism was the ideology behind their euphemisms. And need I remind you of the fate of people under imperialism. Throughout 20th century imperialism, the authorities of Britain, Belgium and France gassed, bombed and massacred indigenous populations from Sudan to Iraq, Nigeria to Palestine, India to Malaya, Algeria to the Congo. And yet imperialism only got its bad name when Hitler decided he, too, was an imperialist. 

So, after the war, new concepts had to be invented, indeed a whole lexicon and discourse created, as the new imperial superpower, the United States, didn’t wish to be associated with the bad old days of European power. The American cult of anti-communism filled this void most effectively; however, when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed and the cold war was over, a new threat had to be found. 

At first, there was the "war on drugs" - and the Bogeyman Theory of History is still popular. But neither can compare with the "war on terror" which arrived with September 11, 2001. Last year, I reported the "war on terror" from Afghanistan. Like East Timor, events I witnessed bore almost no relation to the way they were represented in free societies, especially Australia.

The American attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was reported as a liberation. But the evidence on the ground is that, for 95 per cent of the people, there is no liberation. The Taliban have been merely exchanged for a group of American funded warlords, rapists, murderers and war criminals - terrorists by any measure: the very people whom President Carter secretly armed and the CIA trained for almost 20 years. 

One of the most powerful warlords is General Rashid Dostum. General Dostum was visited by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who came to express his gratitude. He called the general a "thoughtful" man and congratulated him on his part in the war on terror. This is the same General Dostum in whose custody 4,000 prisoners died terrible deaths just over two years ago - the allegations are that wounded men were left to suffocate and bleed to death in containers. Mary Robinson, when she was the UN’s senior humanitarian representative, called for an inquiry; but there was none for this kind of acceptable terrorism. The general is the face of the new Afghanistan you don’t see in the media. 

What you see is the urbane Harmid Karzai, whose writ barely extends beyond his 42 American bodyguards. Only the Taliban seem to excite the indignation of our political leaders and media. Yet under the new, approved regime, women still wear the burqua, largely because they fear to walk down the street. Girls are routinely abducted, raped, murdered.

Like the Suharto dictatorship, these warlords are our official friends, whereas the Taliban were our official enemies. The distinction is important, because the victims of our official friends are worthy of our care and concern, whereas the victims of our official enemies are not. That is the principle upon which totalitarian regimes run their domestic propaganda. And that, basically, is how western democracies, like Australia, run theirs.

The difference is that in totalitarian societies, people take for granted that their governments lie to them: that their journalists are mere functionaries, that their academics are quiet and complicit. So people in these countries adjust accordingly. They learn to read between the lines. They rely on a flourishing underground. Their writers and playwrights write coded works, as in Poland and Czechoslovakia during the cold war. 

A Czech friend, a novelist, told me; "You in the West are disadvantaged. You have your myths about freedom of information, but you have yet to acquire the skill of deciphering: of reading between the lines. One day, you will need it."

That day has come. The so-called war on terror is the greatest threat to all of us since the most dangerous years of the cold war. Rapacious, imperial America has found its new "red scare". Every day now, officially manipulated fear and paranoia are exported to our shores - air marshals, finger printing, a directive on how many people can queue for the toilet on a Qantas jet flying to Los Angeles.

The totalitarian impulses that have long existed in America are now in full cry. Go back to the 1950s, the McCarthy years, and the echoes today are all too familiar - the hysteria; the assault on the Bill of Rights; a war based on lies and deception. Just as in the 1950s, the virus has spread to America’s intellectual satellites, notably Australia. 

Last week, the Howard government announced it would implement US-style immigration procedures, fingerprinting people when they arrived. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this as government measures to "tighten its anti-terrorism net". No challenge there; no scepticism. News as propaganda.

How convenient it all is. The White Australia Policy is back as "homeland security" - yet another American term that institutionalises both paranoia and its bed-fellow, racism. Put simply, we are being brainwashed to believe that Al-Qaida, or any such group, is the real threat. And it isn’t. By a simple mathematical comparison of American terror and Al-Qaida terror, the latter is a lethal flea. In my lifetime, the United States has supported and trained and directed terrorists in Latin America, Africa, Asia. The toll of their victims is in the millions.

In the days before September 11, 2001, when America routinely attacked and terrorised weak states, and the victims were black and brown-skinned people in faraway places like Zaire and Guatemala, there were no headlines saying terrorism. But when the weak attacked the powerful, spectacularly on September 11, suddenly, there was terrorism.

This is not to say that the threat from al-Qaida is not real - It is very real now, thanks to American and British actions in Iraq, and the almost infantile support given by the Howard government. But the most pervasive, clear and present danger is that of which we are told nothing. 

It is the danger posed by "our" governments - a danger suppressed by propaganda that casts "the West" as always benign: capable of misjudgment and blunder, yes, but never of high crime. The judgement at Nuremberg takes another view. This is what the judgement says; and remember, these words are the basis for almost 60 years of international law: "To initiate a war of aggression, it is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

In other words, there is no difference, in the principle of the law, between the action of the German regime in the late 1930s and the Americans in 2003. Fuelled by religious fanaticism, a corrupt Americanism and corporate greed, the Bush cabal is pursuing what the military historian Anatol Lieven calls "the classic modern strategy of an endangered right-wing oligarchy, which is to divert discontent into nationalism". Bush’s America, he warns, "has become a menace to itself and to mankind."

Those are rare words. I know of no Australian historian or any other so-called expert to have uttered such a truth. I know of no Australian media organisation that would allow its journalists to speak or write such a truth. My friends in Australian journalism whisper it, always in private. They even encourage outsiders, like myself, to say it publicly, as I am doing now.

Why? Well, a career, security - even fame and fortune - await those who propagate the crimes of official enemies. But a very different treatment awaits those who turn the mirror around. I’ve often wondered if George Orwell, in his great prophetic work 1984, about thought control in totalitarian state - I’ve often wondered what the reaction would have been had he addressed the more interesting question of thought control in relatively free societies. Would he have been appreciated and celebrated? Or would he have faced silence, even hostility?

Of all the western democracies, Australia is the most derivative and the most silent. Those who hold up a mirror are not welcome in the media. My work is syndicated and read widely around the world, but not in Australia, where I come from. However, I am mentioned in the Australian press quite frequently. The official commentators, who dominate the press, will refer critically to an article of mine they may have read in the Guardian or New Statesman in London. But Australian readers are not allowed to read the original, which must be filtered through the official commentators. But I do appear regularly in one Australian paper: the Hinterland Voice - a tiny free sheet, whose address is Post Office Kin Kin in Queensland. It’s a fine local paper. It has stories about garage sales and horses and the local scouts, and I’m proud to be part of it.

It’s the only paper in Australia in which I’ve been able to report the evidence of the disaster in Iraq - for example, that the attack on Iraq was planned from September 11; that only a few months earlier, Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice, had stated that Saddam Hussein was disarmed and no threat to anyone.

Today, the United States is currently training a gestapo of 10,000 agents, commanded by the most ruthless, senior elements of Saddam Hussein’s secret police. The aim is to run the new puppet regime behind a pseudo-democratic façade - and to defeat the resistance. That information is vital to us, because the fate of the resistance in Iraq is vital to all our futures. For if the resistance fails, the Bush cabal will almost certainly attack another country - possibly North Korea, which is nuclear armed. 

Just over a month ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a range of resolutions on disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. Remember the charade of Iraq’s WMDs? Remember John Howard in Parliament last February, saying that Saddam Hussein, "will emerge with his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons intact", and that it was "a massive programme". 

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