John Pilger: Silencing the Lambs: How Propaganda Works

Leni Riefenstahl said her epic films glorifying the Nazis depended on a “submissive void” in the German public. This is how propaganda is done.

Leni Riefenstahl, center, filming with two assistants, 1936. (Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Pilger
Sept. 7, 2022

In the 1970s, I met one of Hitler’s leading propagandists, Leni Riefenstahl, whose epic films glorified the Nazis. We happened to be staying at the same lodge in Kenya, where she was on a photography assignment, having escaped the fate of other friends of the Führer.
She told me that the “patriotic messages” of her films were dependent not on “orders from above” but on what she called the “submissive void” of the German public.

Did that include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie? I asked.  “Yes, especially them,” she said. 

I think of this as I look around at the propaganda now consuming Western societies. 

Of course, we are very different from Germany in the 1930s. We live in information societies. We are globalists. We have never been more aware, more in touch, better connected. 

Or do we in the West live in a Media Society where brainwashing is insidious and relentless, and perception is filtered according to the needs and lies of state and corporate power? 

The United States dominates the Western world’s media. All but one of the top 10 media companies are based in North America. The internet and social media – Google, Twitter, Facebook – are mostly American owned and controlled.

In my lifetime, the United States has overthrown or attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, mostly democracies. It has interfered in democratic elections in 30 countries. It has dropped bombs on the people of 30 countries, most of them poor and defenceless. It has attempted to murder the leaders of 50 countries.  It has fought to suppress liberation movements in 20 countries. 

The extent and scale of this carnage is largely unreported, unrecognised, and those responsible continue to dominate Anglo-American political life.

Harold Pinter Broke the Silence

In the years before he died in 2008, the playwright Harold Pinter made two extraordinary speeches, which broke a silence.

“U.S. foreign policy,” he said, is

“best defined as follows: kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in. It is as simple and as crude as that. What is interesting about it is that it’s so incredibly successful. It possesses the structures of disinformation, use of rhetoric, distortion of language, which are very persuasive, but are actually a pack of lies. It is very successful propaganda. They have the money, they have the technology, they have all the means to get away with it, and they do.”

In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pinter said this: 

“The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

Pinter was a friend of mine and possibly the last great political sage – that is, before dissenting politics were gentrified. I asked him if the “hypnosis” he referred to was the “submissive void” described by Leni Riefenstahl. 

“It’s the same,” he replied. “It means the brainwashing is so thorough we are programmed to swallow a pack of lies. If we don’t recognise propaganda, we may accept it as normal and believe it. That’s the submissive void.”

Leni Riefenstahl and a camera crew stand in front of Hitler’s car during 1934 rally in Nuremberg. (Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In our systems of corporate democracy, war is an economic necessity, the perfect marriage of public subsidy and private profit: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. The day after 9/11 the stock prices of the war industry soared. More bloodshed was coming, which is great for business.

Today, the most profitable wars have their own brand. They are called “forever wars” — Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and now Ukraine. All are based on a pack of lies.

Iraq is the most infamous, with its weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. NATO’s destruction of Libya in 2011 was justified by a massacre in Benghazi that didn’t happen. Afghanistan was a convenient revenge war for 9/11, which had nothing to do with the people of Afghanistan. 

Today, the news from Afghanistan is how evil the Taliban are — not that U.S. President Joe Biden’s theft of $7 billion of the country’s bank reserves is causing widespread suffering. Recently, National Public Radio in Washington devoted two hours to Afghanistan — and 30 seconds to its starving people.

At its summit in Madrid in June, NATO, which is controlled by the United States, adopted a strategy document that militarises the European continent, and escalates the prospect of war with Russia and China. It proposes “multi domain warfighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitor.” In other words, nuclear war.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and Spain’s Prime Minster Pedro Sánchez on June 28 in Madrid. (NATO)

It says: “NATO’s enlargement has been an historic success.” 

I read that in disbelief. 

The news from the war in Ukraine is mostly not news, but a one-sided litany of jingoism, distortion, omission.  I have reported a number of wars and have never known such blanket propaganda. 

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine as a response to almost eight years of killing and criminal destruction in the Russian-speaking region of Donbass on their border. 

In 2014, the United States had sponsored a coup in Kiev that got rid of Ukraine’s democratically elected, Russian-friendly president and installed a successor whom the Americans made clear was their man. 

Dec. 7, 2015: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev. (U.S. Embassy Kyiv, Flickr)

In recent years, American “defender” missiles have been installed in eastern Europe, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, almost certainly aimed at Russia, accompanied by false assurances all the way back to James Baker’s “promise” to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that NATO would never expand beyond Germany. 

NATO on Hitler’s Borderline

Ukraine is the frontline. NATO has effectively reached the very borderland through which Hitler’s army stormed in 1941, leaving more than 23 million dead in the Soviet Union. 

Last December, Russia proposed a far-reaching security plan for Europe. This was dismissed, derided or suppressed in the Western media. Who read its step-by-step proposals? On Feb. 24, President Volodymyr Zelensky threatened to develop nuclear weapons unless America armed and protected Ukraine.  

[Related: John Pilger: War in Europe & the Rise of Raw Propaganda]

On the same day, Russia invaded — an unprovoked act of congenital infamy, according to the Western media. The history, the lies, the peace proposals, the solemn agreements on Donbass at Minsk counted for nothing. 

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On April 25, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin flew into Kiev and confirmed that America’s aim was to destroy the Russian Federation — the word he used was “weaken.” America had got the war it wanted, waged by an American bankrolled and armed proxy and expendable pawn.

Almost none of this was explained to Western audiences.

[Read:  Joe Lauria: Biden Confirms Why the US Needed This War]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wanton and inexcusable. It is a crime to invade a sovereign country. There are no “buts” — except one.

When did the present war in Ukraine begin and who started it? According to the United Nations, between 2014 and this year, some 14,000 people have been killed in the Kiev regime’s civil war on the Donbass. Many of the attacks were carried out by neo-Nazis. 

Watch an ITV news report from May 2014, by the veteran reporter James Mates, who is shelled, along with civilians in the city of Mariupol, by Ukraine’s Azov (neo-Nazi) battalion.

In the same month, dozens of Russian-speaking people were burned alive or suffocated in a trade union building in Odessa besieged by fascist thugs, the followers of the Nazi collaborator and anti-Semitic fanatic Stepan Bandera.  The New York Times called the thugs “nationalists.”

“The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment,” said Andreiy Biletsky, founder of the Azov Battaltion, “is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival, a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”

Since February, a campaign of self-appointed “news monitors” (mostly funded by the Americans and British with links to governments) have sought to maintain the absurdity that Ukraine’s neo-Nazis don’t exist. 

Airbrushing, once associated with Stalin’s purges, has become a tool of mainstream journalism.

 “I have reported a number of wars and have never known such blanket propaganda.” 

In less than a decade, a “good” China has been airbrushed and a “bad” China has replaced it: from the world’s workshop to a budding new Satan.  

Much of this propaganda originates in the U.S., and is transmitted through proxies and “think-tanks,” such as the notorious Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the voice of the arms industry, and by journalists such as Peter Hartcher of The Sydney Morning Herald, who has labeled those spreading Chinese influence as “rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows” and suggested these “pests” be “eradicated.” 

Andriy Beletsky, commanding officer of the special Ukrainian neo-Nazi police regiment Azov, with volunteers in 2014. (My News24, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

News about China in the West is almost entirely about the threat from Beijing. Airbrushed are the 400 American military bases that surround most of China, an armed necklace that reaches from Australia to the Pacific and south east Asia, Japan and Korea. The Japanese island of Okinawa and the Korean island of Jeju are like loaded guns aimed point blank at the industrial heart of China. A Pentagon official described this as a “noose.”

Palestine has been misreported for as long as I can remember. To the BBC, there is the “conflict” of “two narratives.” The longest, most brutal, lawless military occupation in modern times is unmentionable. 

The stricken people of Yemen barely exist. They are media unpeople.  While the Saudis rain down their American cluster bombs with British advisers working alongside the Saudi targeting officers, more than half a million children face starvation.

This brainwashing by omission is not new. The slaughter of the First World War was suppressed by reporters who were given knighthoods for their compliance.  In 1917, the editor of The Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, confided to Prime Minister Lloyd George: “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow, but they don’t know and can’t know.”

The refusal to see people and events as those in other countries see them is a media virus in the West, as debilitating as Covid.  It is as if we see the world through a one-way mirror, in which “we” are moral and benign and “they” are not. It is a profoundly imperial view.

The history that is a living presence in China and Russia is rarely explained and rarely understood. Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler. Xi Jinping is Fu Man Chu. Epic achievements, such as the eradication of abject poverty in China, are barely known. How perverse and squalid this is.

“The news from the war in Ukraine is mostly not news, but a one-sided litany of jingoism, distortion, omission.”

When will we allow ourselves to understand? Training journalists factory style is not the answer. Neither is the wondrous digital tool, which is a means, not an end, like the one-finger typewriter and the linotype machine.

In recent years, some of the best journalists have been eased out of the mainstream. “Defenestrated” is the word used. The spaces once open to mavericks, to journalists who went against the grain, truth-tellers, have closed.  

Julian Assange in 2014. (David G Silvers, Wikimedia Commons)

The case of Julian Assange is the most shocking.  When Julian and WikiLeaks could win readers and prizes for The Guardian, The New York Times and other self-important “papers of record,” he was celebrated. 

When the dark state objected and demanded the destruction of hard drives and the assassination of Julian’s character, he was made a public enemy. Vice President Joe Biden compared him to a “hi-tech terrorist.” Hillary Clinton asked, “Can’t we just drone this guy?” 

The ensuing campaign of abuse and vilification against Julian Assange — the U.N. rapporteur on torture called it “mobbing” — brought the liberal press to its lowest ebb. We know who they are. I think of them as collaborators: as Vichy journalists. 

When will real journalists stand up? An inspirational samizdat  already exists on the internet: Consortium News, founded by the great reporter Robert Parry, Max Blumenthal’s  The GrayzoneMint Press News, Media Lens, DeclassifiedUK, Alborada, Electronic IntifadaWSWSZNetICH, CounterPunchIndependent Australia, the work of Chris Hedges, Patrick Lawrence, Jonathan Cook, Diana Johnstone, Caitlin Johnstone and others who will forgive me for not mentioning them here. 

And when will writers stand up, as they did against the rise of fascism in the 1930s? When will film-makers stand up, as they did against the Cold War in the 1940s? When will satirists stand up, as they did a generation ago? 

Having soaked for 82 years in a deep bath of righteousness that is the official version of the last world war, isn’t it time those who are meant to keep the record straight declared their independence and decoded the propaganda? The urgency is greater than ever.

This article is based on an address the author delivered at the Trondheim World Festival, Norway.

John Pilger has twice won Britain’s highest award for journalism and has been International Reporter of the Year, News Reporter of the Year and Descriptive Writer of the Year. He has made 61 documentary films and has won an Emmy, a BAFTA and the Royal Television Society prize. His ‘Cambodia Year Zero’ is named as one of the ten most important films of the 20th century. He can be contacted at

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “John Pilger: Silencing the Lambs: How Propaganda Works

  1. Kyle Trimbach
    January 10, 2024 at 18:33

    I believe that the invasion of Afghanistan was about the opium. The CIA uses opium and narcotics as their biggest funder of their black projects. (This was major tie-in to then-Governor Clinton and the airport in Mina, AR.) The Taliban had decided to ban its production as being counter to islamic practice. Thus for almost a year from the latter part of 2000 through the first half of 2001 there was ZERO opium exported from Afghanistan. This is hidden in the yearly stats; one has to access the monthly stats to verify this.

    More evidence for this includes the following:
    It took less than 2 months to start a major theater war on the other side of the world. This is not logistically possible. The planning for this must have all been essentially complete before 9/11. Note that the US did not invade Iraq until 2003 – over a year and a half after the attack.
    A major complaint heard from US soldiers sent to Afghanistan was that they were guarding poppy fields. There were many photographs of this happening.

  2. Sgt O'Reilly
    January 9, 2024 at 17:22

    On a related topic, is there anyone running for Congress on the (D) ticket that is not a former military or CIA officer? Because I’ve foolishly supported pro-war-gressives in the past, I am on the (D) mailing lists. And my inbox is filling up with “I’m a former USMC officer and I want your money”. Is there anyone challenging for a seat on the (D) side who is not a former officer. And I note that they are all from officer-country. Don’t get no emails saying I was a army corporal and I’m running for Congress. Nope, they are all officer class, and relatively high rank.

    Vote (D) to put the Military Industrial Complex fully in charge of democracy. In the line of an older Democrat slogan from an older Democrat war, we had to destroy democracy to save democracy. Democracy is too important to leave to the civilians. Elect the Military to Congress for War Out The Wazoo!

    Prediction for 2024: Deaths of Despair will continue to rise in the USA.

    • Kyle Trimbach
      January 10, 2024 at 18:14

      I recently saw that Tulsi Gabbard is running some sort of PAC or congressional evaluation group. Try that out if you are not opposed to her.

  3. Laurie Holbrook
    January 9, 2024 at 15:14

    Thank you John Pilger for an important piece on the state of the world as we now it. You are missed already, however your fellow truth tellers live on in your stead.
    Big Brother lives. I am of the firm opinion that corporate consumer advertising has also played an important role in fostering the “submissive void”. Bush junior’s recommendation to make things better after 9/11 “get out there and shop” says it all. The Pavlovian response we have been taught to “consume, it will make you feel better” keeps us all primed for the onslaught of media propaganda parading as news. That and our failing education systems in the west that don’t teach the youth to actually think has become a deadly combination. And now we have the added layer of social media. It’s hard to remain hopeful, but hopeful we must be. The alternative is too nihilist to accept.

  4. Valerie
    January 9, 2024 at 09:39

    Thankyou CN for all these articles, videos etc from Mr. Pilger.

  5. January 9, 2024 at 09:23

    Context, plain and simple. It’s odd that Trump supporters are at least partially aware of these realities, at least as it involves their hero, but ignorant of the rest. Democrats, of course, are utterly oblivious as they spout platitudes totally at odds with what their political party is and does.

  6. Paula
    January 8, 2024 at 22:41

    A man of stature, who told the story of colonialism that didn’t quit but went underground. A journalist who went in areas no one else would, a journalist like the heroic men and women of Palestine who surpass any idea of journalism and what it means to be a person who tells truth because telling truth puts your life on the line and your family, your sons, and daughters. To be a person who tells the truth has become what we see today because there are those who do not want us to see the truth, do not want us to see our pretend democracy for what it is, who do not want us to see who controls the USA. We are not told the truth about this country. If we knew the truth, it would and could be the same country coming out on the streets to oppose geneocide. We need to keep finding and exposing truths few of us know but John Pilger did, Julian Assange exposed, and support their best friends.

  7. CaseyG
    January 8, 2024 at 21:05

    “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union..”

    Oh thes e last years of 2022 and 2023 started out with some great ideas, and many wonderful ideas were added—BUT—something happened along the way that made those who represent us seem more interested in money and power—more than in creating that more perfect union

    Many of them found power and money more alluring than honesty and real progress. In fact, many of them seemed extremely stupid, and are only interested in power over progress.

    Maybe all candidates need to pass a Constitution test before they can run–because sadly many of those running are pretty stupid and meaner than they say as junkyard dogs. It does seem sad that how quickly a
    nation can fall.

    • Steve
      January 9, 2024 at 05:24

      Casey, it’s not just the last couple of years !
      As the article points out, the brainwashing, lies and corruption has been going on for many, many decades. The USA and indeed the West has been lying to us and oppressing us for a long time, some are waking up but the masses still sleep.

    • Laurie Holbrook
      January 9, 2024 at 15:03

      I think it happened long before 2022-23.

  8. Randal Marlin
    January 8, 2024 at 19:08

    “In 1917, the editor of The Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, confided to Prime Minister Lloyd George: ‘If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow, but they don’t know and can’t know.'”

    Phillip Knightley has things the other way around in his The First Casualty:
    Lloyd George, prime minister in 1916, told C P Scott, the editor of the [Manchester] Guardian: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

    Knightley’s version seems to make better sense.

  9. Caliman
    January 8, 2024 at 16:27

    “It means the brainwashing is so thorough we are programmed to swallow a pack of lies.” – Pinter

    The brainwashing and propaganda are so thorough that most people swallow the narrative and the message points even when they know the media are lying to them.

    That’s how China turns from cuddly pandas and factory of the world into an utter menace that must be stopped to preserve our way of life and precious bodily fluids.

    Only a few disagreeable cusses have a firm enough memory and trust in their own faculties to not be taken in. But the system has a way of dealing with them too: call them conspiracy theorists and mute and muzzle their voice.

  10. JohnB
    January 8, 2024 at 13:50

    Why do we know more of Kissenger than Mbeki???

Comments are closed.