Books in brief

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The Independent Culture
Hidden Agendas by John Pilger, Vintage pounds 8.99. Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko identified the central component of all systems of thought control when he wrote: "The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie."

Maintaining this level of silence is no mean task. In the West we like to focus on the totalitarian method, rooted in coercion and fear. In his book John Pilger examines a more subtle method, requiring no conspiracy, rooted instead in the interplay of market forces, self-interest, and the capacity for self-deception.

Pilger argues that the possibility of "widespread, voluntary and subliminal censorship" of this kind is itself "a taboo subject in the press". Instead, the holy trinity of Lord Reith's "three truths", impartiality, objectivity and balance, is held up. As Pilger reminds us, the BBC World Service, originally called the Empire Service, was funded by the Foreign Office and it still is. Its declared role, after WWII, was to "preserve and strengthen the Commonwealth and Empire" and "increase our trade and investments abroad". Pilger draws our attention to a deeper truth: that the mass media is an integral element of the wider corporate system: proprietors, parent companies, advertisers and state pressure constitute a vast carrot- and-stick system inexorably leading our media "watchdogs" in a power-friendly direction.

Journalists rail against human rights abuses by tyrants in Nigeria and Burma, but fail to point out that Western corporations are utterly dependent on these same regimes for cheap access to local resources. Pilger argues that one of the most important functions of the press is to minimise the culpability of Western power in subordinating Third World democracy to profits. This is achieved "by omission on a grand scale, by the repetition of received truths and the obfuscation of causes". All under the banner of Reith's "three truths".

Pilger is always urgent, always trying to make a difference. It is a tragedy that he is all but unique. The least we can do is read his book.