Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Do you believe what you read in the media? I'm not talking about Di and Fergie but about the important stuff, politics and economics. Has it ever occurred to you it could be a system of propaganda designed to limit how you imagine the world. Well, that's the view of Noam Chomsky, who's been teaching here in Boston for the past 30 years. Described as America's leading dissident, he's based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, although it's very cold, it isn't exactly the Gulag Archipelago. As a working journalist myself, I've come to talk to professor Chomsky about bias in the media. Orwell's nightmare: a place where propaganda rules, where thought is controlled. It's now a familiar, if chilling, cold war fable. Most of us would say it's old hat. But is it? For decades the freedoms of thought and expression have been central to Western democracy. The media sees itself as free, fearless, stroppy. And for many in power, the press are too strong. So the idea that Orwell's warning is still relevant, may seem bizarre. But not to Noam Chomsky, who thinks the image of a truth seeking media is a sham. Chomsky's devoted his life to questioning Western state power. Having virtually invented modern linguistics by the age of 30, Chomsky joined the gathering swirl of protests in the '60s. I'm Noam Chomsky and I'm faculty at MIT. And I've been getting more and more heavily involved in anti-war activities for the last few years. Since then, Chomsky has championed a brand of anarchism, becoming deeply hostile to established power and privilege. And in recent years, he's refined what he calls the propaganda model of the media. He claims that the mass media brainwash under freedom. Not only do the media systematically suppress and distort, when they do present facts, the context obscures their real meaning. The invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian army caused indescribable slaughter. Hundreds of thousands died. But it was more or less ignored by the mainstream Western media, because, Chomsky argues, we were selling arms to the aggressors. But wars were the West's interests are directly involved, get a different treatment. For Chomsky, coverage of the Gulf war was servile. Trivial criticisms were aired, fundamental ones were ignored. Naturally, Chomsky has numerous critics. Is the media so influential? Have dissident views really been excluded in an age of relative media diversity? In the age of the Internet? What about Chomsky's own access? What about this very programme? Professor Chomsky, could we start by listening to you explain what the "Propaganda Model", as you call it, is. For many people, the idea that propaganda is used by democratic, rather than merely authoritarian governments, will be a strange one. Well... the term "propaganda" fell into disfavour around the Second World War, but in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, it was commonly used, and in fact advocated, by leading intellectuals, by the founders of modern political science, by Wilsonian progressives and of course, by the public relations industry, as a necessary technique to overcome the danger of democracy. The institutional structure of the media is quite straightforward - we’re talking about the United States, it’s not very different elsewhere - there are sectors, but the agenda-setting media, the ones that set the framework for everyone else (like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and so on), these are major corporations, parts of even bigger conglomerates. Like other corporate institutions, they have a product and a market: Their market is advertisers, that is, other businesses; their product is relatively privileged audiences, more or less... So they’re selling audiences to... They’re selling privileged audiences - these are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is, what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure? Then we draw some conclusions about what you would expect, and then we check, and yes - that’s the picture of the world that comes out. And is this anything more than the idea that, basically, the press is relatively right wing, with some exceptions, because it’s owned by big business - which is a truism, it’s well known? Well, I would call the press relatively liberal. Here I agree with the right wing critics. So, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which are called, without a trace of irony - the New York Times is called the "establishment left" in say, major foreign policy journals - and that’s correct, but what’s not recognised is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go - "this far, and no further". Give me some examples of that... Well, let’s take say, the Vietnam War - probably the leading critic, and in fact one of the leading dissident intellectuals in the mainstream, is Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who did finally come around to opposing the Vietnam War about 1969 - about a year and a half after Corporate America had more or less ordered Washington to call it off, and his picture from then on is that the war (as he put it) began with blundering efforts to do good, but it ended up by 1969 being a disaster and costing us too much - and that’s the criticism... So, what would the "non-propaganda model" have told Americans about the Vietnam War at the same time? Same thing that the mainstream press was telling them about Afghanistan. The United States invaded South [Vietnam]... had first of all in the 1950s set up a standard Latin American-style terror state, which had massacred tens of thousands of people, but was unable to control local uprising (and everyone knows - at least every specialist knows - that’s what it was) and when Kennedy came in, in 1961, they had to make a decision because the government was collapsing under local attack, so the U.S. just invaded the country. In 1961 the U.S. airforce started bombing South Vietnamese civilians, authorised Napalm crop destruction... then in 1965 - January, February 1965 - the next major escalation took place against South Vietnam, not against North Vietnam - that was a sideshow - that’s what an honest press would be saying, but you can’t find a trace of it. Now, if the press is a censoring organisation, tell me how that works - you’re not suggesting that proprietors phone one another up, or that many journalists get their copy "spiked", as we say? It’s actually... Orwell, you may recall, has an essay called "Literary Censorship in England" which was supposed to be the introduction to Animal Farm, except that it never appeared, in which he points out "look, I’m writing about a totalitarian society, but in free, democratic England, it’s not all that different", and then he says unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force, and then he gives a two sentence response which is not very profound, but captures it: He says, two reasons - first, the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain things appear but second, the whole educational system from the beginning on through gets you to understand that there are certain things you just don’t say. Well, spelling these things out, that’s perfectly correct - I mean, the first sentence is what we expanded... This is what I don’t get, because it suggests - I mean, I’m a journalist - people like me are "self-censoring"... No - not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and - it doesn’t work a hundred percent, but it’s pretty effective - it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially... So, stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence... There’ll be "behaviour problems" or... if you read applications to a graduate school, you see that people will tell you "he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues" - you know how to interpret those things. I’m just interested in this because I was brought up, like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on, to believe that journalism was a crusading craft, and that there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have to say, I think I know some of them. Well, I know some of the best and best-known investigative reporters in the United States - I won’t mention names - whose attitude toward the media is much more cynical than mine. In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they know, and they consciously talk about how they try to... play it like a violin: If they see a little opening they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through. And it’s perfectly true that the majority, I'm sure you're speaking for the majority of journalists, who are trained, have it driven in to their heads that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, "We stand up against power", very self-serving view. On the other hand, in my opinion, I hate to make a value judgement but, the better journalists, and in fact, the ones who are often regarded as the best journalists, have quite a different picture and, I think, a very realistic one. How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are... I don’t say you’re self-censoring - I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting. We [the UK] have a press which has, it seems to me a relatively wide range of view - there is a pretty small-c conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, there are liberal papers and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left, for those who want them. I don’t see how a propaganda model... That’s not quite true. I mean there have been good studies of the British press and you could look at them - James Curran is the major one - which point out that, up until the 1960s there was indeed a kind of a social democratic press, which sort of represented much of the interests of working people, and ordinary people and so on, and it was very successful - I mean, the Daily Herald for example had not only more... it had far higher circulation than other newspapers, but also a dedicated circulation. Furthermore, the tabloids at that time - the Mirror and the Sun - were kind of labour based. By the ’60s, that was all gone, and it disappeared under the pressure of capital resources. What was left was overwhelmingly the... sort of... centre to right press with some dissidence - it’s true, I mean... We’ve got I would say, a couple of large circulation newspapers, which are left of centre and which are putting in neo-Keynesian views which - you call the elites - are strongly hostile to. It’s interesting that you call neo-Keynesian "left of centre" - I’d just call it straight centre. "Left of centre" is a value term... Sure. But there's... there are extremely good journalists in England, a number of them, they write very honestly, and very good material; a lot of what they write couldn’t appear here [the US]. On the other hand, if you look at the question overall, I don’t think you’re going to find a big difference, and the few (there aren’t many studies of the British press), but the few that there are have found pretty much the same results, and I think the better journalists will tell you that. In fact, what you have to do is check it out in cases. So let’s take what I just mentioned - the Vietnam War. The British press did not have the kind of stake in the Vietnam War that the American press did, because they weren’t fighting it. Just check sometime, and find out how many times you can find the American war in Vietnam described as a US attack against South Vietnam, beginning clearly with outright aggression in 1961, and escalating to massive aggression in ’65. If you can find 0.001% of the coverage saying that, you’ll surprise me, and in a free press, 100% of it would have been saying that. Now that’s just a matter of fact - it has nothing to do with left and right. Let me come up to a more modern war, which was the Gulf War which, again, looking at the press in Britain and watching television, I was very, very well aware of anti-Gulf War dissidence Were you? The "no blood for oil" campaigns, and I have the... That’s not the dissidence... "No blood for oil" isn’t the dissidence? No. Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait took place on August 2nd. Within a few days, the great fear in Washington was that Saddam Hussein was going to withdraw and leave a puppet government, which would be pretty much what the US had done in Panama. The U.S. and Britain therefore, moved very quickly to try to undercut the danger of withdrawal. By late August, negotiation offers were coming from Iraq, calling for a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal. The press wouldn’t publish them here, they never publish them in England. It did leak however... There was a great debate about whether there should have been a negotiated settlement... No, sorry, no that was not a debate - there was a debate about whether you should continue with sanctions, which is a different question... because the fact of the matter is, we have good evidence that by mid- or late-August the sanctions had already worked, because these stories were coming from high American officials in the State Department - former American officials like Richard Helm - they couldn’t get the mainstream press to cover them, but they did manage to get one journal to cover them - Newsday - that’s a suburban journal in Long Island, the purpose obviously being to smoke out the NYT, cause that’s the only thing that matters. It came out in Newsday and this continued (I won’t go through the details), but this continued until January 2nd. At that time, the offers that were coming were apparently so meaningful to the State Department, that State Department officials were saying that "Look, this is negotiable, meaningful, maybe we don’t accept everything, but it’s certainly a basis for a negotiated withdrawal". The press would not cover it. Newsday did. A few other people did - I have a couple of op-eds on it, and to my knowledge - you can check this - the first reference to any of this in England is actually in an article I wrote in the Guardian, which was in early January. You can check and see if there’s an earlier reference. Okay - let’s look at one of the other key examples, which you’ve looked at too, which would appear to go against your idea, which is the Watergate affair... Watergate is a perfect example - we’ve discussed it at length in our book in fact, and elsewhere - it’s a perfect example of the way the press was subordinated to power. In fact... But this brought down a President! Just a minute - let’s take a look. What happened there... here it’s kind of interesting, ’cause you can’t do experiments on history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us. The Watergate exposures happened to take place at exactly the same time as another set of exposures; they were the exposures of COINTELPRO. Sorry - you’ll have to explain that to us. It’s interesting that I have to explain it, because it’s vastly more significant than Watergate - that already makes my point. COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out, not by a couple of petty crooks, but by the national political police - the FBI - under four administrations. It began in the late Eisenhower administration, ran up till This is the end of the Socialist Workers Party in America? The Socialist Workers Party was one tiny fragment of it. It began... by the time it got through (I won’t run through the whole story), it was aimed at the entire New Left, at the Women’s movement, at the whole Black movement; it was extremely broad - its actions went as far as political assassination. Now what’s the difference between the two? Very clear. In Watergate, Richard Nixon went after half of US private power, namely the Democratic Party, and power can defend itself. So therefore, that’s a scandal. He didn’t do anything... nothing happened - look, I was on Nixon’s enemies list. I didn’t even know, nothing ever happened. But... Nonetheless, you wouldn’t say it was an insignificant event, to bring down a President... No, it was a case where half of US power defended itself against a person who had obviously stepped out of line. And the fact that the press thought that was important shows that they think powerful people ought to be able to defend themselves. Now, whether there was a question of principle involved happens to be easily checked in this case. One tiny part of the COINTELPRO program was itself far more significant in principle than all of Watergate; and if you look at the whole program, I mean, it’s not even a discussion. But you have to ask me what COINTELPRO is. You know what Watergate is. There couldn’t be a more dramatic example of the subordination of educated opinion to Power, here in England, as well as the United States. I know you’ve concentrated on foreign affairs, and some of these key areas... I’ve talked a lot about domestic problems. Well, I’d like to come onto that, because it still seems to me that, on a range of pretty important issues for the Establishment, there is serious dissent... That’s right. ... Gingrich and his neo-conservative agenda in America has been pretty savagely lampooned. The apparently fixed succession for the Republican candidacy at the Presidential election has come apart. Clinton, who is a powerful figure, is having great difficulty with Whitewater. Everywhere one looks, one sees disjunctions, openings. Within a spectrum so narrow that you really have to look hard to find it. Let me give you... Can I just stop you there, because you say that the spectrum is narrow, but on the one hand Let me illustrate... ... We’ve got flat tax... Can I illustrate?