Propaganda’s Triumph over Journalism

As the world hurtles toward a new Cold War and possibly a nuclear confrontation over Ukraine, the West’s “free press” is again serving the role of an obedient propaganda service — demonizing Russia, presenting a one-sided narrative and feeding a dangerous belligerence, as veteran journalist John Pilger explains.

By John Pilger

Why has so much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Why are censorship and distortion standard practice? Why is the BBC so often a mouthpiece of rapacious power? Why do the New York Times and the Washington Post deceive their readers?

Why are young journalists not taught to understand media agendas and to challenge the high claims and low purpose of fake objectivity? And why are they not taught that the essence of so much of what’s called the mainstream media is not information, but power?

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

These are urgent questions. The world is facing the prospect of major war, perhaps nuclear war – with the United States clearly determined to isolate and provoke Russia and eventually China. This truth is being turned upside down and inside out by journalists, including those who promoted the lies that led to the bloodbath in Iraq in 2003.

The times we live in are so dangerous and so distorted in public perception that propaganda is no longer, as Edward Bernays called it, an “invisible government.” It is the government. It rules directly without fear of contradiction and its principal aim is the conquest of us: our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from lies.

The information age is actually a media age. We have war by media; censorship by media; demonology by media; retribution by media; diversion by media – a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions. This power to create a new “reality” has been building for a long time. Forty-five years ago, a book entitled The Greening of America caused a sensation. On the cover were these words: “There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual.”

I was a correspondent in the United States at the time and recall the overnight elevation to guru status of the author, a young Yale academic, Charles Reich. His message was that truth-telling and political action had failed and only “culture” and introspection could change the world.

Within a few years, driven by the forces of profit, the cult of “me-ism” had all but overwhelmed our sense of acting together, our sense of social justice and internationalism. Class, gender and race were separated. The personal was the political, and the media was the message. In the wake of the cold war, the fabrication of new “threats” completed the political disorientation of those who, 20 years earlier, would have formed a vehement opposition.

In 2003, I filmed an interview in Washington with Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist. We discussed the invasion of Iraq a few months earlier. I asked him, “What if the freest media in the world had seriously challenged George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?”

He replied that if we journalists had done our job “there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq.”

That’s a shocking statement, and one supported by other famous journalists to whom I put the same question. Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, gave me the same answer. David Rose of the Observer and senior journalists and producers in the BBC, who wished to remain anonymous, gave me the same answer.

In other words, had journalists done their job, had they questioned and investigated the propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children might be alive today; and millions might not have fled their homes; the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia might not have ignited, and the infamous Islamic State might not now exist.

Even now, despite the millions who took to the streets in protest, most of the public in Western countries have little idea of the sheer scale of the crime committed by our governments in Iraq. Even fewer are aware that, in the 12 years before the invasion, the U.S. and British governments set in motion a holocaust by denying the civilian population of Iraq a means to live.

Those are the words of the senior British official responsible for sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s – a medieval siege that caused the deaths of half a million children under the age of five, reported UNICEF. The official’s name is Carne Ross. In the Foreign Office in London, he was known as “Mr. Iraq.” Today, he is a truth-teller of how governments deceive and how journalists willingly spread the deception. “We would feed journalists factoids of sanitized intelligence,” he told me, “or we’d freeze them out.”

The main whistleblower during this terrible, silent period was Denis Halliday. Then Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and the senior UN official in Iraq, Halliday resigned rather than implement policies he described as genocidal.  He estimates that sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis.

What then happened to Halliday was instructive. He was airbrushed. Or he was vilified. On the BBC’s Newsnight program, the presenter Jeremy Paxman shouted at him: “Aren’t you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?” The Guardian recently described this as one of Paxman’s “memorable moments.” Last week, Paxman signed a £1 million book deal.

The handmaidens of suppression have done their job well. Consider the effects. In 2013, a ComRes poll found that a majority of the British public believed the casualty toll in Iraq was less than 10,000 – a tiny fraction of the truth. A trail of blood that goes from Iraq to London has been scrubbed almost clean.

Rupert Murdoch is said to be the godfather of the media mob, and no one should doubt the augmented power of his newspapers – all 127 of them, with a combined circulation of 40 million, and his Fox network. But the influence of Murdoch’s empire is no greater than its reflection of the wider media.

The most effective propaganda is found not in the Sun or on Fox News – but beneath a liberal halo. When the New York Times published claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, its fake evidence was believed, because it wasn’t Fox News; it was the New York Times.

The same is true of the Washington Post and the Guardian, both of which have played a critical role in conditioning their readers to accept a new and dangerous cold war. All three liberal newspapers have misrepresented events in Ukraine as a malign act by Russia – when, in fact, the fascist-led coup in Ukraine was the work of the United States, aided by Germany and NATO.

This inversion of reality is so pervasive that Washington’s military encirclement and intimidation of Russia is not contentious. It’s not even news, but suppressed behind a smear-and-scare campaign of the kind I grew up with during the first Cold War. Once again, the Evil Empire is coming to get us, led by another Stalin or, perversely, a new Hitler. Name your demon and let rip.

The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe since World War Two is blacked out. Washington’s secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.

And again, supposedly liberal media are the censors. Citing no facts, no evidence, one journalist identified a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine as the man who shot down the airliner. This man, he wrote, was known as The Demon. He was a scary man who frightened the journalist. That was the evidence.

Many in the Western media haves worked hard to present the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine as outsiders in their own country, almost never as Ukrainians seeking a federation within Ukraine and as Ukrainian citizens resisting a foreign-orchestrated coup against their elected government.

What the Russian president has to say is of no consequence; he is a pantomime villain who can be abused with impunity. An American general who heads NATO and is straight out of Dr. Strangelove – one General Breedlove – routinely claims Russian invasions without a shred of visual evidence. His impersonation of Stanley Kubrick’s General Jack D. Ripper is pitch perfect.

Forty thousand Ruskies were massing on the border, according to Breedlove. That was good enough for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Observer – the latter having previously distinguished itself with lies and fabrications that backed Blair’s invasion of Iraq, as its former reporter, David Rose, revealed. There is almost the joi d’esprit of a class reunion. The drum-beaters of the Washington Post are the very same editorial writers who declared the existence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to be “hard facts.”

“If you wonder,” wrote Robert Parry, “how the world could stumble into World War III – much as it did into World War I a century ago – all you need to do is look at the madness that has enveloped virtually the entire U.S. political/media structure over Ukraine where a false narrative of white hats versus black hats took hold early and has proved impervious to facts or reason.”

Parry, the journalist who revealed Iran-Contra, is one of the few who investigate the central role of the media in this “game of chicken,” as the Russian foreign minister called it. But is it a game? As I write this, the U.S. Congress votes on Resolution 758 which, in a nutshell, says: “Let’s get ready for war with Russia.”

In the 19th Century, the writer Alexander Herzen described secular liberalism as “the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this.” Today, this divine right is far more violent and dangerous than anything the Muslim world throws up, though perhaps its greatest triumph is the illusion of free and open information.

In the news, whole countries are made to disappear. Saudi Arabia, the source of extremism and Western-backed terror, is not a story, except when it drives down the price of oil. Yemen has endured 12 years of American drone attacks. Who knows? Who cares?

In 2009, the University of the West of England published the results of a ten-year study of the BBC’s coverage of Venezuela. Of 304 broadcast reports, only three mentioned any of the positive policies introduced by the government of Hugo Chavez. The greatest literacy program in human history received barely a passing reference.

In Europe and the United States, millions of readers and viewers know next to nothing about the remarkable, life-giving changes implemented in Latin America, many of them inspired by Chavez. Like the BBC, the reports of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the rest of the respectable Western media were notoriously in bad faith. Chavez was mocked even on his deathbed. How is this explained, I wonder, in schools of journalism?

Why are millions of people in Britain persuaded that a collective punishment called “austerity” is necessary? Following the economic crash in 2008, a rotten system was exposed. For a split second the banks were lined up as crooks with obligations to the public they had betrayed.

But within a few months – apart from a few stones lobbed over excessive corporate “bonuses” – the message changed. The mug shots of guilty bankers vanished from the tabloids and something called “austerity” became the burden of millions of ordinary people. Was there ever a sleight of hand as brazen?

Today, many of the premises of civilized life in Britain are being dismantled in order to pay back a fraudulent debt – the debt of crooks. The “austerity” cuts are said to be £83 billion. That’s almost exactly the amount of tax avoided by the same banks and by corporations like Amazon and Murdoch’s News UK. Moreover, the crooked banks are given an annual subsidy of £100 billion in free insurance and guarantees – a figure that would fund the entire National Health Service.

The economic crisis is pure propaganda. Extreme policies now rule Britain, the United States, much of Europe, Canada and Australia. Who is standing up for the majority? Who is telling their story? Who’s keeping the record straight? Isn’t that what journalists are meant to do?

In 1977, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, revealed that more than 400 journalists and news executives worked for the CIA. They included journalists from the New York Times, Time and the TV networks. In 1991, Richard Norton Taylor of the Guardian revealed something similar in this country.

None of this is necessary today. I doubt that anyone paid the Washington Post and many other media outlets to accuse Edward Snowden of aiding terrorism. I doubt that anyone pays those who routinely smear Julian Assange – though other rewards can be plentiful.

It’s clear to me that the main reason Assange has attracted such venom, spite and jealously is that WikiLeaks tore down the facade of a corrupt political elite held aloft by journalists. In heralding an extraordinary era of disclosure, Assange made enemies by illuminating and shaming the media’s gatekeepers, not least on the newspaper that published and appropriated his great scoop. He became not only a target, but a golden goose.

Lucrative book and Hollywood movie deals were struck and media careers launched or kick-started on the back of WikiLeaks and its founder. People have made big money, while WikiLeaks has struggled to survive.

None of this was mentioned in Stockholm on Dec. 1 when the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, shared with Edward Snowden the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. What was shocking about this event was that Assange and WikiLeaks were airbrushed. They didn’t exist. They were unpeople.

No one spoke up for the man who pioneered digital whistle-blowing and handed the Guardian one of the greatest scoops in history. Moreover, it was Assange and his WikiLeaks team who effectively – and brilliantly – rescued Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and sped him to safety. Not a word. What made this censorship by omission so ironic and poignant and disgraceful was that the ceremony was held in the Swedish parliament – whose craven silence on the Assange case has colluded with a grotesque miscarriage of justice in Stockholm.

“When the truth is replaced by silence,” said the Soviet dissident Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.”

It’s this kind of silence we journalists need to break. We need to look in the mirror. We need to call to account an unaccountable media that services power and a psychosis that threatens world war.

In the 18th Century, Edmund Burke described the role of the press as a Fourth Estate checking the powerful. Was that ever true? It certainly doesn’t wash any more. What we need is a Fifth Estate: a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power. We need what the Russians called perestroika – an insurrection of subjugated knowledge. I would call it real journalism.

It’s 100 years since the First World War. Reporters then were rewarded and knighted for their silence and collusion. At the height of the slaughter, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George confided in 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.”

It’s time they knew.

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. This article was derived from John Pilger’s address to the Logan Symposium, “Building an Alliance Against Secrecy, Surveillance & Censorship”, organized by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, London, Dec. 5-7, 2014. Pilger’s Web site is:


23 comments for “Propaganda’s Triumph over Journalism

  1. madeleine
    December 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    If only this article could be printed in the “liberal” western press!

    • Vlad
      December 10, 2014 at 8:31 am

      I’m sure the Onion would print it.

  2. WG
    December 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Excellent article. The fifth estate is gaining in strength all the time, as recent polling results show trust in mainstream media have tied the lowest on record. There has been a precipitous drop since the Iraq war debacle and something tells me we ain’t seen nothin yet ;)

    I’d love to see some polling results of trust in Soviet media that were taken around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Could be interesting…

    • Abe
      December 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      If memory serves correctly, Soviet television was airing Season 4 of родина, a drama about a female KGB agent with with bipolar disorder.

  3. Abe
    December 7, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Hermann Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

    Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

    Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

    – Nuremberg Diary (Farrar, Straus & Co 1947), by Gustave Gilbert.
    Gilbert was an Allied appointed psychologist during the International Military Tribunal held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany. He visited daily with Göring and other Nazi leaders in their cells, afterwards making notes and ultimately writing the book about these conversations.

  4. John
    December 7, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    Very well said. Our fifth estate, including this website, have quite a task. The MSM as propagandists of the oligarchy must be displaced to restore democracy, and direct action would be a refreshing development. But the public is expertly deceived; the mere convenience of simple tune-in is enough to control them. The vast majority are unlikely to do anything simply because the truth is available, and will wait until their suffering is unbearable, and then join the oligarchy as enforcers or scabs.
    If the US is embargoed, isolated, and impoverished, and new generations prefer web news, and the oligarchy cannot stop or dominate that, perhaps action will be taken.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    December 7, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    If you would like a breath of fresh air, listen to Chris Moore. Mr Moore host a radio show which airs every Sunday between 4 to 9 pm. I’ll warn you he sometimes gets bumped if the radio station has to aire a football game, but otherwise he is on every Sunday.

    Mr Moore allows callers to speak their mind, sometimes at great length. Chris Moore has had people such as Webster Tarpley, and Paul Craig Roberts on his show. A couple of weekends ago Mr Moore even quoted Robert Parry on a issue or two. Apparently Chris Moore frequents this site. Moore is a Vietnam vet who learned first hand how terrible war can be.

    His show is on KDKA radio. You may call in on 866-391-1020. I don’t know Mr Moore, but I feel he is worth a listen. Outside of Thom Hartman Chris Moore is the real deal.

  6. Mike
    December 8, 2014 at 3:58 am

    American Media is an interesting thing. 90% of what Americans see is controlled by 6 corporations.

    What is the most current trend in U.S. politic/business relations? It is that corporations back politicians on the condition that said politician does not pass legislation to do the corporation harm or the politician passes legislation to help the corporation profit. The exact opposite was done.

    The government told these 6 corps to cover the Iraq war in a particular war. If they did this the government would pass favorable legislation. If the corporations did not agree the government would pass legislation that would harm those corporations.

    They were posed with the options, “You either make us look good and you profit because of it or you make us look wrong and we make sure you never profit again.”

  7. Terry Washington
    December 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Let’s see in world where there are literally dozens if not hundreds of independent media sources online(blogs and websites) according to Mr Pilger we are living in an information blackout worthy of Stalin ‘s Soviet Union or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
    When he isn’t flacking for the likes of Slobodan Milosevic or more recently Vladimir Putin(remember the red herring of the Rambouillet accords?), Mr Pilger is peddling the ludicrous claim that his good pal Julian Assange(currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge where is getting both fat and unkempt as well as a pain in the ass to the local diplomatic staff) is the victim of a CIA”honey trap”! The late George Orwell once observed that there are some ideas so ludicrous that only an intellectual could take them seriously- no working man or woman in their right senses would do so- case in point John Pilger, who never saw an “anti-imperialist”(read anti Western) leader that he didn’t want to embrace, figuratively or literally!

    • KHawk
      December 8, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Good job missing his point completely and resorting to the old tactic of “Kill the Messenger.” But the message still stands.

    • Abe
      December 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      TW’s comment is boilerplate ad hominem.

      Journalists and progressive commentators who question the West’s demonization of its designated enemies are routinely accused of being apologists for authoritarian regimes.

      “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.”
      – Michel de Montaigne, Of Liars, 1574

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 8, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Yes, but Orwell also said, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”. Pilger’s point is that those atrocities will never be discussed in those places where the ordinary person is likely to hear of them. Pilger is obviously cognizant of another Orwell observation: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”. It is worthwhile to note that Orwell took great pride in his own intellectualism, stating, “I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.” Having never met you, he might remind you that there is a full moon this evening, on the off chance you might care to howl at that as well.

      • KHawk
        December 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm

        Yes. And “not hearing of them” is so often a willful endeavor.

        Brilliant as usual Mr. Sanford.

  8. Abe
    December 8, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    RT (formerly named “Russia Today”) has been called a propaganda outlet for the Russian government. However, American journalist Glenn Greenwald listed the corporate and government owners of prominent Western media like NBC, BBC, Voice of America, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Politico and The Washington Post and asked why it was “an intrinsic violation of journalistic integrity to work for a media outlet owned by the Russian government.”

    Greenwald also wrote that the real cause of American media hostility toward RT is that “the reporting it does reflects poorly on the U.S. Government, the ultimate sin in the eyes of our ‘adversarial’ press corps.

    H. Res. 758, a resolution “strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination”, singles out Russian state-funded media outlets for attack, claiming that they “distort public opinion.”

    US resolution on Russia scarcely read by those who voted for it

  9. Jim Solomon
    December 8, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Fantastic article, Mr. Pilger. You are so close to the heart of the matter, citing fact after fact, exposing lie after lie and truth after truth so why not finally get it out here that lies about 9/11 in the media you critique are as prevalent as the ones about Iraq et al. You didn’t even mention 9/11. I would dearly love to embrace your notions but there is something you are not saying and that is the very same mainstream media lied and continues to lie or, like you, stays silent, about 9/11.

    • Abe
      December 8, 2014 at 11:04 pm

      “Nafeez Ahmed’s understanding of the post 9/11 power game, its lies, illusions and dangers, is no less than brilliant. Everyone should read this wise and powerfully illuminating book.”
      – John Pilger on The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation and the Anatomy of Terrorism (2005) by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

    • Abe
      December 8, 2014 at 11:16 pm

      The War You Don’t See, a 2010 documentary film written, produced and directed by John Pilger with Alan Lowery, challenged the media for the role they played in the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine conflicts.

      In 2010, Pilger was asked his views on “the theory that the US government was complicit in or even perpetrated the attacks on 9/11 to gain support for criminal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq”

      Pilger replied:

      “I think there is a lot of evidence that certain elements in the Bush administration, whether by intent or by or by their own arrogant incompetence, I don’t know, let things happen. I think there is enough evidence to…

      “We know the senior FBI people who gave warnings right throughout 2001. We know about the extraordinary inactivity by the NORAD aircraft on the day of September 11th. We know that Cheney was in charge of the White House on that day.

      “I think the most plausible is the ‘let it happen’, now at what stage it was let happen, I don’t know, I don’t know. But certainly that seems to me, the most plausible.

      “There is no doubt that 9/11 became the opportunity for a new ‘Cold War’ basically, only called the ‘War on Terror’. But beyond that I wouldn’t want to…”

      • Jim Solomon
        December 9, 2014 at 12:10 am

        Why so reluctant, Mr. Pilger? You said “I don’t know” three times in that short quote. You know so much about matters peripheral to 9/11 but about the the event itself, eh, not so much. Odd, that’s all, especially for one who writes and supports the peacenik left who themselves, along with Pilger, are nuts for not seizing and wielding 9/11 truth to bludgeon the lying and warmongering right.

      • Abe
        December 9, 2014 at 1:31 am

        Progressive journalists are hardly “nuts” for not choosing to “bludgeon” themselves with declarations of “9/11 Truth”.

        Your thinly veiled contempt for the “peacenik left” speaks for itself, Jim.

        • Jim Solomon
          December 9, 2014 at 2:20 am

          You nailed me, Abe. Too bad it was with one of those plastic squeaky hammers. Is “peacenik” passe? Shows my age, I guess. Whatever, I meant it with love. But for folks like Mr. Pilger, peaceniks, lefties, progressives, liberals – the good guys – who dis 9/11 truth well, I don’t hate you by any means but I am dumbfounded as to how little you seem to know about 9/11, especially after all these years where so much research has gone into debunking the Commission’s report. Guess what. The same guys who got us into the war on terror are the same guys who engineered 9/11, and I don’t mean Bin Ladin. They are the same bastards who are ginning up this phony cold war with Russia. Abe, please forget about the holograms and other nonsense. We’ve progressed! Go and rediscover 9/11 truth as it is in 2014, and take Mr. Pilger with you.

  10. Abe
    December 8, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Pilger on the appropriation of 9/11 to advance “a war of terror”

  11. Abe
    December 8, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Pilger discussing his film The War You Don’t See (2010), news media on the internet, and what effect the financial crisis will have on imperialist wars and military adventures.

  12. December 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Indeed the press has been subdued to present the propaganda of the government and the elite. It is important for those of us who see this to be creatively expressive about our concerns. Being so is self affirming on a personal level and maybe offer some inspiration to others leading to some social change. Thank you John Pilger for your work. It is much appreciated. I hope you have had the opportunity to see some of Ray McGovern, Coleen Rowley, Medea Benjamin, David Swanson, and Ann Wrights work. They all are making an effort to help the real news be heard. Ray has also founded a group Retired Professional Intelligence Officers for Sanity and they have issued some informative statements about the Ukraine situation. peace

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