The Big Lie


Until the spread of literacy and the advent of the penny newspaper in the mid-19th century, there was no reason for governments to lie, because most people didn’t know what was going on anyway, except at home or in their immediate neighbourhood.

For example, Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe in the late 18th century were largely unremarked upon by the so-called ‘general public.’ Wars and military activities were essentially minority affairs, of interest only to the soldiers involved and the poor devils who were actually at the scene of destruction and rapine. And then it was commonly assumed that the burning of crops, the despoliation of the region, or the raping of women was a mysterious expression of God’s anger.

By the end of the 19th century, all this had changed. News and popular information were largely in the hands of the press barons – people like Lord Northcliffe, who owned the London Daily Mail and The Times, or Northcliffe’s brother, Lord Rothermere, who founded the Daily Mirror and later acquired control of the Sunday Dispatch. Northcliffe owned vast forests in Newfoundland for the production of newsprint.

After newspapers, came radio and then television, all of which eventually fell into the hands of giant corporations of one kind or another – either State-run or privately owned.

Things haven’t changed a great deal. In Australia, even the ABC is ultimately an arm of the government of the day. We can look to very few sources for ‘objective’ news.

The first big lie – on a governmental level – concerned World War I. The so-called Great War was the first ‘public’ war, in that it involved millions of men, conscription and public opinion. It became necessary to mobilise national opinion in favour of the government and the generals. To this end, the War Propaganda Bureau was formed and ‘news’ from the Front was heavily censored and delivered by a handful of specially selected correspondents. All this was arranged with the full co-operation of the newspaper proprietors, who went to the same clubs and restaurants as the senior politicians and generals.

Again, nothing much has changed. The New York Times, for example, embraced all of the Pentagon’s reasons for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Journalists were ’embedded’ with US military units, and after three years of bloodshed in Iraq, the news is still heavily censored and manipulated – either by downright lie, obfuscation or, as generally happens in Australia, by omission.

The lie has become an accepted weapon in the politician’s armoury. More than that, it has crept into the bureaucracy and the governmental report. It is impossible to know the truth anymore.

The governmental lie has become reality. In some quarters, German ‘atrocities’ as concocted by the War Propaganda Bureau during World War I are still believed in. The Nazis went on to make the lie national and monumental. The Soviets improved on this and rewrote history. But the rewriting of history is by no means confined to Europe – the Japanese, for example, have rewritten their role in World War II. The rewriting of history has become an art form.

Thanks to Bill Leak

It seems that most people have come to accept the lie. When, for instance, John Howard’s lies about the children overboard were exposed, not very many Australians seemed to mind. And Howard himself said that the big issue in the last election was one of trust. His lies seemed not to bother him one whit. That John Howard lies is of no real consequence.

Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, lied about the sinking of the submarine, the Kursk, and the massacre at the school siege in Beslan; but in the long run, it did him no harm. Putin is more concerned with television than newspapers, because he says people don’t read – they watch. He is right, of course.

The lie, or the obfuscation, has affected the reporter’s language. In the Israeli/Palestine conflict, the immense concrete dividing wall being constructed there is called a ‘fence;’ and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory are called ‘colonies’ or ‘neighbourhoods.’ While in Iraq, the insurgents are called ‘rebels’ or ‘remnants of the former regime.’

To quote Robert Fisk:

American television [as does the Australian media, if it covers it at all]continues to present war [in Iraq]as a bloodless sandpit in which the horrors of conflict – the mutilated bodies of the victims of aerial bombing, torn apart in the desert by wild dogs – are kept off the screen. Editors in New York and London make sure that viewers’ sensitivities don’t suffer, that we don’t indulge in the ‘pornography’ of death (which is exactly what war is) or ‘dishonour’ the dead whom we have just killed. Our prudish video coverage makes war easier to support, and journalists long ago became complicit with governments in making conflict and death more acceptable to viewers. Television journalism has thus become a lethal adjunct to war.

There was a time when the lie and the broken promise had a distinct moral connotation. This is no longer the case.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.