It was a pity that, in all the recent remembrance of the first world war, there was nothing about the press. In 1917 the prime minister, David Lloyd George, confided to C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: "If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know." The Guardian's C E Montague described how the wartime truth was inverted; a massacre became "quite a good day - a victory really".
Montague's great-grandson, Simon, believes that when the soldiers returned home and discovered the extent of the lying and omission, they never again trusted journalists. I think he has a point. What has changed is that we now have the illusion of information saturation - when, in fact, we have media saturation, most of it politically repetitive, shallow and safe. With wars now confined to faraway people, "the bloody years", wrote Milan Kundera, "have turned into mere words, and become lighter than feathers, frightening no one".
I was reminded of this while watching a recent episode of the BBC's Timewatch series which celebrated another war: the American assault on Somalia in 1992. Here again, the truth was turned upside down. The Americans were deployed on a "humanitarian mission" and found themselves menaced by people who, one of them said, "appear to be primitive". An American general was allowed to make specious, unchallenged statements; the message was that his men avoided picking fights with armed factions. What went unmentioned was that the US angels of mercy picked fights with civilians. Much was made of the helicopter gunner whose body was dragged through the streets. There was no mention that the Americans killed between 7,000 and 10,000 Somalis, mostly civilians. That is the CIA's estimate, which was never news. It is at least four times the number killed by the Chinese army in Tiananmen Square.
According to a study entitled Watching the World, in Britain only 3 per cent of peak-time programmes feature anything about the majority of humanity, and almost all of that is confined to the minority channels. In the media "global village", other nations generally do not exist unless they conform to stereotypes little different from those of the first world war. The "Islamic terrorist", like the "horrible Hun", is a bogey - even though Muslims have suffered disproportionately from Anglo-American terrorism.
Iraq and its demonised leader are a current target of convenience as the United States and Britain go about their imperial task of securing the oil fields all the way to the Caspian Sea. During the latest Anglo-American threats to bomb Iraq - including the targeting of civilian areas - I could find no mention that, in September, a UN Security Council resolution, engineered by the United States, "abandoned all discussion of sanctions against Iraq", in the words of one observer. This meant that economic sanctions were to be maintained in perpetuity - regardless of Iraq's compliance, in the main categories of weapons inspection, with the demands of the UN Special Commission. For example, it is generally agreed it has neither long-range missiles nor nuclear weapons.
Why, then, are the people of Iraq condemned to a suffering without apparent end? In Iraqi hospitals people are being operated on without anaesthetic because vital equipment is blockaded by the UN. A consignment of ambulances from France was stopped. At Heathrow airport customs officers confiscated antibiotics from a humanitarian group flying to Iraq and threatened to prosecute. The World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN Children's Fund all confirm a figure of half a million child deaths as a result of sanctions.
In this space a fortnight ago, I reported that the Anglo-American or "Atlanticist" freemasonry known as the British American Project for the Successor Generation was meeting in New Orleans. This is a Reaganite enterprise, set up by the extreme right in the United States and launched in 1983 by Ronald Reagan himself, who called on a "successor generation" on both sides of the Atlantic to "work together on defence and security issues": in other words, to maintain the imperial project. Five members of the Blair government are "alumni", including the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, and the ubiquitous Peter Mandelson. Blair's "100 per cent" support for bombing Iraq was a striking example of Atlanticism in full cry.
A number of journalists have been "introduced" into the Successor Generation fraternity, quite a few them from the BBC. "Projects" need journalists for obvious reasons. Enjoying the luxury of the Royal Orleans Hotel last week, the "debates", the jazz and the Mississippi river cruise, all expenses paid, was Evan Davis, the economics correspondent of Newsnight.
I asked Davis if he knew the background to the Successor Generation: who started it and why. He said he knew "they don't court publicity"; in any case, "respectable companies like British Airways are involved" (BA provided his free air ticket). As for attending such a conference, this was, he laughed, "a very BBC-ish thing to do". He seemed to think it was all a bit of a lark. "Do you think I'll be indoctrinated and end up running guns to Nicaragua?" he said. I pointed out that Nicaragua had long been dealt with. But like his colleagues, he will be on an Atlanticist "alumni" register drawn up to promote, however indirectly and discreetly and with more freebies and more flattery, the very same ideology that denies medicines and ambulances to a stricken people.