At the height of the first world war the prime minister, David Lloyd George, confided to C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: "If people knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But they don't know and can't know." Every day now, the suppression of truth and the organising of public ignorance shames journalism. It was shame enough eight years ago when the American-led attack on Iraq ended with newspaper editorials lauding the "miraculously few casualties". In truth, up to a quarter of a million people were killed or died in the immediate aftermath, many the very Kurdish and Shi'a minorities George Bush and John Major said they were "protecting".
Now Nato has bombed residential areas in the capital of Kosovo, terrorising and killing the people Clinton and Blair say they are protecting. The bombers were "seduced off-target", said the press briefer in Brussels. The Americans are using A-10 "Warthog" aircraft, armed with depleted uranium missiles, over Kosovo. Depleted uranium was used in southern Iraq where the level of leukaemia among children is now equal to that of Hiroshima. It is a form of nuclear warfare. Why are journalists mostly silent on this? On BBC radio news, the bombing of Kosovo was reported as "the sound of angels".
It is this kind of omission and propaganda that has blurred the truth of why tens of thousands of people stampeded in Kosovo. No one doubts Milosevic's brutality; however, before 25 March, the United Nations put the balance of atrocities caused by Serb and Kosovar paramilitaries at roughly even. Imagine for a moment the opposite of the current headlines in the British press: "Illegal Nato attacks increase human suffering - more to die today"; "Milosevic stronger than ever, thanks to Nato". Imagine Peter Sissons opening the BBC news: "Good evening. Nato attacks continued to kill innocent civilians in Serbia and, after a week of failing to help tens of thousands of refugees who fled as the bombing began, the British government gave £20 million, the cost of two cruise missiles."
Having reduced much of journalism to a vicarious peep show of celebrities and demons, the dumbers-down take naturally to state propaganda. One of their most effective functions is to minimise the culpability of western power in war and terrorism and the repression of human rights. This is achieved by the repetition of received truths and by omission on a grand scale. The British public's primary source of information is television, yet according to a recent survey, programmes about international affairs account for just 3.4 per cent of peak-time viewing, almost all of it on the minority channels.
"I have recently found mountains of evidence," wrote the historian Mark Curtis, author of The Great Deception, "pointing to a radically revised understanding of postwar British foreign policy, which has simply been sitting in the Public Record Office, apparently untouched." He cited secret British backing for the denial of human rights in many countries, such as Indonesia, Turkey and Colombia, which are "systematic and consistent rather than evidence of 'double standards'. Neither the conservative nor liberal media betray much interest in exposing these topical realities."
Last week the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, claimed that all bombing targets were approved by him and Tony Blair. The Americans must have found this laughable. Why hasn't Robertson been challenged on such a critical issue? Who had the say of life or death over workers in the Zastava car factory? Nato was warned that 10,000 people were in the plant, yet they went ahead and bombed it. The people of the mining town of Aleksinac had nothing to do with Kosovo and they were bombed. We glimpsed the body of an old woman, her legs protruding from the rubble of her home. Who was responsible? Or was her life merely "collateral"? And why did a Nato pilot fire his missiles at a railway bridge while a civilian train was crossing? Are these questions beyond journalists now? On the day the train was attacked, Kirsty Wark interviewed the Nato commander, General Clark, on Newsnight and failed to ask a single question about civilian casualties. Instead, she appeared to be egging him on to commit ground troops.
Supporters of the bombing are said to include "the left", meaning liberals, chameleons like Roy Hattersley and those who have simply lost their compass. The parallels with the American invasion of Vietnam are striking. When that began, the Hattersleys supported it; indeed, it was a liberal adventure, instigated by John Kennedy. The bombers of Clinton's new Democrats and Blair's new Labour are reminiscent of Kennedy's New Frontiersmen, who liked nothing better than to save people from themselves, even if it meant killing them.
Then, as now, the media played a central role in promoting public confusion. Stereotypes were important. The Vietnamese communists were "Asian Prussians" guilty of "internal aggression". An entirely fictitious attack on American warships was used to fool Congress and the press, providing the excuse to begin the slaughter. Later, Hollywood transformed the aggressors into angst-ridden heroes and the Vietnamese to unpeople.
Today, the Serbs are the unpeople. They have no civilisation, no society, no poetry, no history. The savagery they suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the second world war, exceeded only by the mass extermination of the Polish Jews, has been forgotten. Like the woman in the rubble, they are unworthy victims - unlike the Kosovars, who are worthy: until they seek asylum in Britain, of course.
"News" of the liberal mission in the Balkans comes largely from daily briefings in Brussels, which are conducted by a public relations man called Jamie and a military spin-doctor from the RAF. They remind me of the briefers at the Five O'Clock Follies in Saigon who, like Major Major in Catch-22, intoned their "interdictions" and "degradation" and "collateral damage" with hardly anyone believing a word, yet almost everybody reporting it.
When the Vietnam war was over, I interviewed General Winant Sidle, the chief US spokesman. "We sure took flak for not prosecuting the war efficiently," he said. "But I don't recall anybody questioning our motives. That's a myth. I had two delegations of journalists, including the news bureau chiefs, call on me in 1968, asking me to please impose censorship. They wanted to know what they could and couldn't say." In its retrospectives on Vietnam, the BBC invariably congratulates itself on having been "more impartial" in its reporting than the American media. There is never reference to the BBC's blacklisting of reports by the cameraman Malcolm Aird and the journalist James Cameron on the bombing of civilian targets.
Little has changed. Since 25 March, I have tried unsuccessfully to have a piece published about the bombing. It has been used all over the world, but not in Britain. Radio, usually the freest medium, has cancelled four times. Friends in BBC current affairs, affronted by the notion of broadcasting as a government agency, describe how they must tread carefully. Pervasive voluntary and subliminal censorship remains a taboo subject. Honourable exceptions like John Simpson have become a journalistic lifeline.
The real news is that the bombing has nothing to do with humanitarianism. "President Milosevic", said Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to the Balkans, last year, "is a man we can do business with, a man who recognises the realities of life in former Yugoslavia." So much for "the butcher". The man didn't obey orders, that's all. As a result, there is now a cataclysm that affords Clinton and Blair a special distinction among modern leaders: they share with a European tyrant the responsibility for virtually emptying a country, leaving its people to fester like the Palestinians, perhaps for generations. Blair also shares responsibility for destroying the democratic opposition in Serbia. "The air strikes erased in one night," wrote Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, the Serb former vice-chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, "the results of ten years of hard work of groups of courageous people. The Kosovo problem will remain unsolved and the future of democracy in Serbia uncertain for many years."
The real news is that the Americans are planning to "degrade" Serbia with the same ferocity they destroyed Vietnam and now Iraq. The "turkey shoots" are coming; and the future is to be militarised by Nato. Bored with the UN, the Americans want their own imperial posse. Congress has passed the "Nato Participation" and "Nato Facilitation" Acts, which allow the greatest expansion of American military influence since the second world war. Clinton has ended a 20-year-old arms embargo to most of Latin America. In the current Nato Review, Argentina is welcomed as "Nato's south Atlantic partner". In eastern Europe, a £22 billion bonanza beckons for American and British arms companies. This has passed virtually unreported in Britain.
At the same time, neutral or non-aligned states have been cajoled or bribed into joining Nato's "Partnership for Peace". Albania, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Macedonia and Slovenia have joined. Ireland is next. Nato describes this as "the most intensive programme of military-to-military collaboration ever conceived".
The threat to us all, and to our children's generation, is written on the bombs now falling on the Balkans. That is the real news.