The people don't know and can't know

The First Casualty: Introduction to the revised edition

John Pilger

When I read the first edition of this remarkable book twenty-five years ago, I was struck by the following quotations. During the First World War, Prime Minister David Lloyd George told C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: 'If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know.' The truth was reported, insisted The Times correspondent, Sir Phillip Gibbs (knighted for his services), 'apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts.'

Robert C Millar, a United Press correspondent covering the Korean War in 1952, was less subtle. 'There are certain facts and stories from Korea,' he said, 'that editors and publishers have printed which were pure fabrication ... Many of us who sent the stories knew they were false, but we had to write them because they were official releases from responsible military headquarters and were released for publication even though the people responsible knew they were untrue.'

Almost every word of these testimonies could apply to the wars of our time, especially the Gulf War of 1991 and the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Chapters covering these have been added to this new edition, making Knightley's work the most comprehensive j'accuse of journalism as propaganda in the English language. It is the author's lament that, for all the dazzling advances in media technology, the media has little or no memory, as the same bogus 'truth' is served up again and again. Reading the new material, I wondered when journalism's modern breeding grounds, the media studies courses, would begin to address the most important issue raised in this book: the virulence of an unrecognised censorship, often concealed behind false principles of objectivity, whose effect is to minimise and deny the culpability of Western power in acts of great violence and terrorism, such and the Gulf and Kosovo.

Thus The Independent could praise the "miraculously few casualties" in the Gulf War (meaning the few British and American casualties, most of them the result of American "friendly fire"), while the horror of up to a quarter of a million Iraqis slaughtered by the US-led forces was consigned to oblivion. Had this been the headline news, rather than the dubious technological triumph of the West, the public "would have really known the truth", as Lloyd George said in 1917, and the pattern might not have been repeated in the Balkans. At the very least, journalists might have raised the questions that distinguish their duty to keep the record straight.

Instead, and with honourable exceptions, they were 'managed&