Edward Bernays (who coined the phrase “public relations”) used fear to win US public support for the First World War. Bernays described public relations as “an invisible government” capable of acting as the ruling power through “the intelligent manipulation of the masses.” In the film, media historian Professor Stuart Ewen outlines how fear justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iraq posed no real threat but came to symbolize the greatest threat - with the mainstream media adopting the symbolism. Facts no longer mattered. Steve Rendall gives the story of Associated Press journalist Charles Hanley. In January 2003, two months prior to the invasion of Iraq, Hanley reported that Iraq’s alleged nuclear sites (apparently responsible for developing WMDs) were inoperative. No mainstream media outlet published Hanley’s article. By failing to research, report or publish claims that were contrary to the official line, mainstream media outlets were complicit in generating public support for an unjust and arbitrary war.
Throughout the film, journalists “imbedded” within the US and UK militaries give personal accounts of how they were “taken-in” by effective propaganda machines. A UK Ministry of Defence cable released by Wikileaks reveals that independent journalists were considered “threats.” The bombing of Al-jazeera’s compound in Iraq is recounted and the lack of coverage given to civilian fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan considered. Photo-journalist Guy Smallman provides an emotive narration of the Granai airstrike in Afghanistan. Carried out by US forces on May 4, 2009 in the Farah Province, the airstrike killed a large number of civilians, mostly children and women. The mainstream media gave little attention to the airstrike. In accordance with Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model such victims are considered by the media as “unworthy” – highlighting their fate would threaten perceived US power interests in the region.
The Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw said the film’s force was in its contention that civilian casualties are “to be ignored." However, the film also highlights the systemic bias within mainstream media outlets which, for a number of reasons, publish material that protects the interests of the powerful. Governments and oil companies continue to benefit from the Iraq war. At the same time, threats to US national security have increased as a direct result and while the people of Iraq no longer live under a brutal dictator, their lives remain insecure. Former British Foreign Office diplomat Carne Ross testifies to the unreported suffering inflicted on Iraqi civilians by the post-Gulf War economic sanctions and bombing, which went unquestioned by journalists reliant on official information channels. Journalists also failed to question why sanctions were being imposed long after Iraq ended its nuclear program. The film indicates that where great power interests are at stake the mainstream media will fail to ask the serious questions.
The film was due to have its US premier in the week of June 20, 2011 in Santa Fe at an event organized by the Lannan Foundation, a liberal organization advocating freedom of speech. Pilger was due to attend and discuss free speech, US foreign policy and censorship in the media. The film was, however, abruptly cancelled by the Lannan Foundation and Pilger’s visit cancelled. Pilger called it a “compelling symbol of our extraordinary times” where an “organization, espousing freedom of speech, has moved ruthlessly and unaccountably to crush it.”