New Statesman (London) 15 July 2002
John Pilger on a not-so-free press
"Freedom of the press" is a
phrase that sounds well.
But in the world of George W
Bush and Enron, freedom is
not meant to be that free.
By John Pilger
On 4 July, the front page of the Daily Mirror was as powerful as any
I have known, a tabloid at its best. George W Bush was flanked by a
row of Stars and Stripes, chin up, eyes misted. "Mourn on the Fourth
of July," said the banner headline. Above him were the words: "George
W Bush's policy of bomb first and find out later has killed double
the number of civilians who died on 11 September. The USA is now the
world's leading rogue state."
The next day, Tom Shrager, a fund manager with the American
investment company, Tweedy Browne, phoned Philip Graf, the chief
executive of Trinity Mirror, to complain about the front page and the
accompanying article, which I wrote. He reportedly "did not threaten"
to sell his company's 4 per cent share of Trinity Mirror and "began
by stating that he respected the concept of freedom of the press".
The United States has the freest press in the world. Under the
constitution, journalists can push beyond limits of free speech
accepted in this country. It is a freedom that lies fallow. Even
Watergate, the Arc de Triomphe of modern journalism, was not quite as
it seemed. Among the 1,500 journalists who were "covering" Washington
at the start of the scandal, only two of the least experienced
reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, sustained any curiosity
about the Watergate burglary that led to the fall of Richard Nixon.
Seymour Hersh, America's great maverick reporter, believes that,
contrary to the myth of a fearless adversary press, "the press did an
awful lot to bring us Watergate". He contends that some of the most
serious crimes of the Nixon/Kissinger years - the secret bombing of
Cambodia in 1969, widespread domestic spying, and the assault on the
Chilean government of Salvador Allende - were not disclosed until
after Nixon was elected for a second term in 1972, even though
journalists knew about them.
This was equally true of the "Iran-Contra" scandals during the years
of Ronald Reagan, whose terrorism in Central America, especially
against the government of Nicaragua, was ignored by many leading
American journalists, who knew about the secret deals. I remember
reading at the time an interview with Walter Guzzardi, the editor of
Fortune magazine, who poured scorn on the notion of American
journalism as a "fourth estate" steadfastly independent of
government. Far from being a liberal redoubt, he said, more than
three-quarters of the press had always endorsed the Republican Party.
"The flow of news in America is essentially benign," he wrote. "The
press has become a tremendous - and often unappreciated - force for
legitimising governments, institutions and free enterprise."
In the US these days, as in Britain, genuine investigative reporting,
which is costly, time-consuming and often politically unpalatable, is
rare. It is unlikely that Woodward and Bernstein would be encouraged
to follow the presidential scent today. Presidents are protected;
Clinton was pursued by the media for salacious reasons and has since
been reinvented as "misunderstood".
The same protection has been afforded the unelected George W Bush.
Since 11 September, the freest media has put its collective hand over
its heart, ending news bulletins with "God bless America" ad nauseam.
The few who have explained the roots of the attacks have been
intimidated with time-honoured abuse on being "anti American". This
is the "freedom of the press" that Tom Shrager no doubt had in mind
when he called the Daily Mirror's corporate boss to complain about
the paper reporting the criminal actions and hypocrisies of the
plutocracy running Washington. In the world of Bush and Enron,
freedom is not meant to be that free.
I was in the United States the other day, to pay tribute to a
journalist whose work is the antithesis of the kind Shrager and his
fellow fund managers would approve. She is Amy Goodman, who deserves
to be better known in this country. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the
Lannan Foundation, which recognises the often unsung voices of
cultural and political freedom, was honouring Amy.
Her radio programme, Democracy Now! on the Pacifica public radio
network is an unerring antidote to the compliant mainstream. Her
interview with Clinton on election day 2000 stands as the only proper
interrogation of him I have read or heard. She simply asked the
questions the White House press corps never ask.
For example: "President Clinton, what do you say to people who feel
that the two parties are bought by the corporations, and that their
vote doesn't make a difference?" and "[Why did you] when you first
ran for president, go back in the midst of your campaign, to
Arkansas, and preside over the execution of a mentally impaired man?"
and "UN figures show that up to 5,000 children die in Iraq because of
the sanctions against Iraq".
Clinton's unguarded, blustering replies broke the oily surface he has
cultivated. He accused Amy of being "hostile, combative and
disrespectful". She was nothing of the kind. Amy and Alan Nairn,
another exceptional American journalist who revealed Henry
Kissinger's complicity in the agony of East Timor, were in East Timor
when young people were being massacred by Indonesian troops in the
Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, in 1991. Her reporting was
extraordinarily brave. Surrounded by the dead and dying, she held
Alan in her arms; his head had been fractured by one of the soldiers.
On 11 September, she was broadcasting from the basement of a fire
station only a few blocks from the twin towers. Even then, as her
colleagues gave shelter to people, she mounted a discussion about
worldwide terrorism, "seeking perspective and explanation, which is
the job of journalism".
She pointed out that 11 September was also a significant day in
Chilean history. "It's the day," she said, "President Salvador
Allende died in the midst of the rise of the Pinochet regime, fully
supported by the United States. It was President Nixon and Henry
Kissinger who were responsible for thousands of Chilean dead." Her
accuracy has a sure touch. In reporting Bush, she always refers to
the "president-select". She would not pass the Shrager test.