John Pilger: Washington is flying the flag and faking the news on Iraq

Loud noises from Washington about a US pull-out from Iraq are a poor disguise for America’s determination to control.

Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, is said to have invented modern propaganda. During the First World War, he was one of a group of influential liberals who mounted a secret government campaign to persuade reluctant Americans to send an army to the bloodbath in Europe. In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Bernays wrote that the "intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society", and that the manipulators "constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country". Instead of propaganda, he coined the euphemism "public relations".

The American tobacco industry hired Bernays to convince women that they should smoke in public. By associating smoking with women's
liberation, he made cigarettes "torches of freedom". In 1954, he conjured a communist menace in Guatemala as an excuse for overthrowing the democratically elected government, whose social reforms were threatening the United Fruit Company's monopoly of the banana trade. He called it a "liberation".

Bernays was no rabid right-winger. He was an elitist liberal who believed that "engineering public consent" was for the greater good. This could be achieved by the creation of "false realities" which then became "news events". Here are examples of how it is done these days.

False reality The last US combat troops have left Iraq "as promised, on schedule", according to President Barack Obama. The TV news has been filled with cinematic images of the "last US soldiers", silhouetted against the dawn light, crossing the border into Kuwait.

Fact They have not left. At least 50,000 troops will continue to operate from 94 bases. American air assaults are unchanged, as are special forces' assassinations. The number of "military contractors" is 100,000 and rising. Most Iraqi oil is now under direct foreign control.

False reality BBC presenters have described the departing US troops as a "sort of victorious army" that has achieved "a remarkable change in [Iraq's] fortunes". Their commander, General David Petraeus, is a "celebrity", "charming", "savvy" and "remarkable".

Fact There is no victory of any sort. There is a catastrophic disaster, and attempts to present it as otherwise are a model of Bernays's campaign to "rebrand" the slaughter of the First World War as "necessary" and "noble". In 1980, Ronald Reagan, running for president, rebranded the invasion of Vietnam, in which up to three million people died, as a "noble cause", a theme taken up enthusiastically by Hollywood. Today's Iraq war movies have a similar purging theme: the invader as both idealist and victim.

False reality It is not known how many Iraqis have died. They are "countless", or maybe "in the tens of thousands".

Fact As a direct consequence of the Anglo-American-led invasion, a million Iraqis have died. This figure, from Opinion Research Business, follows peer-reviewed research by Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, whose methods were secretly affirmed as "best practice" and "robust" by the Blair government's chief scientific adviser. This is rarely reported or presented to "charming" American generals. Neither is the dispossession of four million Iraqis, the malnourishment of most Iraqi children, the epidemic of mental illness, or the poisoning of the environment.

False reality The British economy has a deficit of billions which must be reduced with cuts in public services and regressive taxation, in a spirit of "we're all in this together".

Fact We are not in this together. What is remarkable about this PR triumph is that only 18 months ago, the diametric opposite filled TV screens and front pages. Then, in a state of shock, truth became unavoidable, if briefly. The Wall Street and City of London trough was on full view for the first time, along with the venality of once-celebrated snouts. Billions in public money went to inept and crooked organisations known as banks, which were spared debt liability by their Labour government sponsors.

Within a year, record profits and personal bonuses were posted and the "black hole" was no longer the responsibility of the banks, whose debt is to be paid by those not in any way responsible: the public. The received media wisdom of this "necessity" is now a chorus, from the BBC to the Sun. A masterstroke, Bernays would surely say.

False reality Ed Miliband offers a "genuine alternative" as leader of the Labour Party.

Fact Miliband, like his brother and almost all those standing for the Labour leadership, is immersed in the effluent of New Labour. As a New Labour MP and minister, he did not refuse to serve under Blair or to speak out against Labour's persistent warmongering. He now calls the invasion of Iraq a "profound mistake". Calling it a mistake insults the memory and the dead. It was a crime, of which the evidence is voluminous. He has nothing new to say about the other colonial wars, none of them mistakes. Neither has he demanded basic social justice - that those who caused the recession clear up the mess and that Britain's fabulously rich corporate minority be taxed seriously, starting with Rupert Murdoch.

The good news is that false realities often fail when the public trusts its own critical intelligence. Two classified documents recently released by WikiLeaks express the CIA's concern that the populations of European countries, which oppose their governments' war policies, are not succumbing to the usual propaganda spun through the media.

For the rulers of the world, this is a conundrum, because their unaccountable power rests on the false reality that no popular resistance works. And it does.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.