During the 1970s, I filmed secretly in Czechoslovakia, then a Stalinist dictatorship. The dissident novelist Zdenek Urba'nek told me, "In one respect, we are more fortunate than you in the West. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and watch on television, nothing of the official truth. Unlike you, we have learned to read between the lines, because real truth is always subversive."
This acute scepticism, this skill of reading between the lines, is urgently needed in supposedly free societies today. Take the reporting of state-sponsored war. The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognized in the United States, Britain and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose power is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death for people in faraway countries, such as Iraq.
As a journalist for more than 40 years, I have tried to understand how this works. In the aftermath of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which I reported, the policy in Washington was revenge, a word frequently used in private but never publicly. A medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and Cambodia; the Thatcher government in Britain cut off supplies of milk to the children of Vietnam. This assault on the very fabric of life in two of the world's most stricken societies, was rarely reported; the consequence was mass suffering.
It was during this time that I made a series of documentaries about Cambodia. The first, in 1979, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, described the American bombing that had provided a catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot, and showed the shocking human effects of the embargo. Year Zero was broadcast in some 60 countries, but never in the United States. When I flew to Washington and offered it to the national public broadcaster, PBS, I received a curious reaction. PBS executives were shocked by the film, and spoke admiringly of it, even as they collectively shook their heads. One of them said: "John, we are disturbed that your film says the United States played such a destructive role, so we have decided to call in a journalistic adjudicator."
The term "journalistic adjudicator" was out of Orwell. PBS appointed one Richard Dudman, a reporter on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of the few westerners to have been invited by Pol Pot to visit Cambodia. His despatches reflected none of the savagery then enveloping that country; he even praised his hosts. Not surprisingly, he gave my film the thumbs-down. One of the PBS executives confided to me: "These are difficult days under Ronald Reagan. Your film would have given us problems."
The lack of truth about what had really happened in Southeast Asia-the media-promoted myth of a "blunder" and the suppression of the true scale of civilian casualties and of routine mass murder, even the word "invasion"-allowed Reagan to launch a second "noble cause" in central America. The target was another impoverished nation without resources: Nicaragua, whose "threat," like Vietnam's, was in trying to establish a model of development different from that of the colonial dictatorships backed by Washington. Nicaragua was crushed, thanks in no small part to leading American journalists, conservative and liberal, who suppressed the triumphs of the Sandinistas and encouraged a specious debate about a "threat."
The tragedy in Iraq is different, but, for journalists, there are haunting similarities. On August 24 last year, a New York Times editorial declared: "If we had all known then what we know now, the invasion [of Iraq] would have been stopped by a popular outcry." This amazing admission was saying, in effect, that the invasion would never have happened if journalists had not betrayed the public by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them. …