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  • 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 - were 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 theyre selling audiences to...

  • Theyre 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 - youre 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...

  • Therell 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 theyll 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 youre self-censoring - I’m sure you believe everything youre saying;

  • but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting

  • where youre 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...

  • Weve 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 youre

  • 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, youll 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 youve looked at too, which

  • would appear to go against your idea, which is the Watergate affair...

  • Watergate is a perfect example - weve 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 - youll 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 youve 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...

  • ... Weve got flat tax...

  • Can I illustrate?