The Unspoken Rule of Media Reporting: The BBC’s The Century of the Self

Focusing heavily on the machinations of public relations guru Edward Bernays, the BBC2 series, The Century of the Self, began its second programme with this account of post-war U.S. history:

“Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

It is a remarkable claim, and one that could only be taken seriously in a culture that has been largely stripped of political awareness. In fact post-1945 (like pre-1945) “politicians and planners” set out to +promote+ dangerous and irrational desires and fears in the service of profits and power, not peace. Similarly, far from setting out to “stop it ever happening again”, post-war U.S. policies generated repetitions of Nazi-style barbarism throughout the Third World.

Australian academic Alex Carey described the actual problem perceived by elites following both the first and second world wars:

“Major wars create major problems for the defenders of the established order. For modern wars require the support of everyone; and so wartime propaganda idealises the humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing actually to come about.” (Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy, University of New South Wales Press, 1995, p.137)

Historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf notes that the growth in workers’ expectations and power during the 1940s and 1950s was a major factor in shaping elite policy, leading to a fierce business backlash:

“Important segments of the business community responded to this economic and ideological challenge with an aggressive campaign to recast the political economy of America. They sought to undermine the legitimacy and power of organised labour and to ‘halt the momentum of New Deal liberalism.'” (Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.4)

The response was immense in scale, involving all the leading business organisations, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Committee for Economic Development, the National Association of Manufacturers, and industry-specific bodies:

“Manufacturers orchestrated multimillion dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system… employers sought to undermine unionism and address shop-floor conflict by building a separate company identity or company consciousness among their employees. This involved convincing workers to identify their social, economic, and political well-being with that of their specific employer and more broadly with the free enterprise system.” (p.6)

This was a nationwide propaganda campaign that had nothing to do with lessons learned from Nazism, and everything to do with power and profits.

Notwithstanding its claims of an elite determination to ensure that Nazi barbarism could never be repeated, The Century of the Self revealed, as Tim Adams of the Observer puts it, “how Bernays single-handedly toppled the popular Guatemalan government with one or two publicity stunts, playing on Cold War fears, and acting on behalf of a banana corporation”. (Adams, ‘How Freud got under our skin’, Observer, March 10, 2002)

Adams’ remarkable naivety is revealed by the briefest of glances at the facts. Elected in 1950, in Guatemala’s first ever democratic elections, the aim of the popular Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz was to transform Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy to a modern capitalist state. As part of this process, Arbenz felt he had a strong mandate to instigate land reforms. Around 100,000 peasants received land through the reform; 234,000 acres of unused land owned by the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (UFCO) were expropriated with the offer of compensation that UFCO found “unacceptable”. Displeased by Arbenz’s reforms, UFCO began to apply pressure on the U.S. government and the CIA to take action.

In response, the U.S. State Department, working closely with the CIA, evolved a covert plan to overthrow Arbenz, with the name PBSUCCESS. The absurdity of the idea that Bernays was somehow a rogue genius operating “single-handedly” is revealed by Stephen Schlesinger, who reports that “the [1954] Putsch was conceived of and run at the highest levels of the American Government in closest cahoots with the United Fruit Company and under the overall direction of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, backed by President Eisenhower”. (Quoted, Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala, University of Texas Press, 1982, p.176)

Unmentioned by The Century of the Self, the campaign against Guatemalan democracy constituted a small part of a vast state-corporate campaign to undermine democracy and independent nationalism throughout the Third World: in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, and so on. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have explained the link between terror and corporate profiteering:

“The development model applied by… [the U.S. and its partners in the Third World] is so blatantly exploitative that it has required terror and the threat of terror to assure the requisite passivity.” (Chomsky and Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, South End Press, 1979, p.11).

The violence has long been targeted at civil resistance:

“An important function of the military juntas has been to destroy all forms of institutional protection for the masses, such as unions, peasant leagues and cooperatives, and political groupings, making them incapable of defending themselves against the larger interests served by the state.” (Chomsky and Herman, ibid, p.11)

Curiously, Adams’ suggestion that Bernays played on Cold War fears when organising the attack on Guatemala was simultaneously rejected and accepted by the programme itself:

“In reality Arbenz was a democratic socialist with no links to Moscow. But Bernays set out to turn him into a Communist threat to America.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

In other words, U.S. elites did not “play on” Cold War fears, they created and then exploited them in pursuit of profit. This is hard to say in the mainstream media and so, in summing up Bernays’ role in Guatemala, the programme declared:

“Bernays had manipulated the American people, but he had done so because he, like many others at the time, believed that the interests of business and the interests of America were indivisible, especially when faced with the threat of Communism.”

Even when the “threat of Communism” had been invented by Bernays and others to justify an attack!

As a result of this attack, Nazi-style barbarism was unleashed on Guatemala. The programme managed to hint at the reality when it quoted a CIA operative:

“What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrify Arbenz particularly, to terrify his troops, much as the German Stuka bombers terrified the population of Holland, Belgium and Poland at the onset of World War Two, and rendered everybody paralysed.” (Howard Hunt, Head of CIA Operations, Guatemala, 1954)

But, typically for the BBC and other mainstream media, The Century of the Self ended its review of Guatemalan history where Western responsibility for mass murder begins. The programme made literally no mention of the hundreds of thousands of people killed and tortured by the U.S. “terror campaign”.

On June 18, 1954, the U.S. plan for Guatemala came to fruition when its client, Castillo Armas and his forces crossed the Honduran border; on June 27 Arbenz resigned, and Armas was installed as president. Armas immediately returned land back to United Fruit and abolished tax on interests and dividends to foreign investors. Arbenz was later found drowned in his bath, whereas Armas received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and honorary degrees from Columbia and Fordham universities.

Following the invasion, the military elite took control of the economy and the country more generally, with government troops patrolling both city and countryside in full battle gear. More than 200 union leaders were immediately killed. Within two months of the invasion, some 8,000 peasants had been murdered in a terror campaign that targeted UFCO union organisers and Indian village leaders. The U.S. Embassy lent its assistance, providing lists of “communists” to be eliminated or imprisoned and tortured.

Exiled journalist Julio Godoy, who had worked on the Guatemalan newspaper La Epoca, whose offices were blown up by government terrorists, compared conditions in Guatemala with those in Eastern Europe:

“While the Moscow-imposed government in Prague would degrade and humiliate reformers, the Washington-made government in Guatemala would kill them. It still does, in a virtual genocide that has taken more than 150,000 victims [in what Amnesty International calls] ‘a government programme of political murder’.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, 1993, p.50)

According to Amnesty International, victims were found “with signs of torture or mutilation along roadsides or in ravines, floating in plastic bags in lakes or rivers, or buried in mass graves in the countryside”, many of them being from the peasantry and urban poor. (Amnesty International Briefing on Guatemala, London, 1976) Over 440 villages were totally destroyed, with vast areas of the highlands wrecked.

All of this was known to U.S. government officials. The head of intelligence at the State Department wrote: “At the heart of the secret anti-communist force is a special unit of the army which kidnaps, kills in the street, plants bombs and executes real or supposed communists.” (Quoted, the Guardian, ‘How the CIA kills its foes’, August 27, 1999)

After the coup, as the slaughter continued, total U.S. and multinational aid and credits to Guatemala increased 5,300 per cent. This support of terror is standard – the leading academic scholar on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, notes that U.S. aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens… to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights”. (Quoted, Chomsky, Year 501 – The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.120) Similarly, the 1973 coup in Chile which established the Pinochet regime led to a 550 per cent increase in U.S. economic aid and a 1,000 per cent increase in U.S. and multinational credits.

The BBC’s failure to mention the horrific consequences of U.S. policy in Guatemala might be dismissed as an isolated oversight. But in fact it is part of what John Pilger describes as the “unspoken rule of reporting whole societies in terms of their usefulness to western ‘interests’ and of minimising and obfuscating the culpability of ‘our’ crimes”. (Pilger, ‘Should we go to war against these children?’, New Statesman, March 21, 2002)

Readers should not be surprised if some or all of the above is unfamiliar to them. Schlesinger explains:

“What strikes an observer immediately about the Guatemala affair is how history has over the years practically abandoned it. No book has ever explored it; no Senate committee has ever investigated it.” (The Nation, October 28, 1978)

But all of these omissions have gone unnoticed by the many ‘liberal’ journalists who have commented favourably on the series, and who seem to have been amazed by its revelations. Tim Adams of the Observer enthused about the programme, calling it “remarkable”. The New Statesman’s Andrew Billen called it “riveting” and “remarkable” (Billen, ‘Full of their selves’, New Statesman, March 25, 2002) The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting described it as “compelling… and profoundly disturbing” (Bunting, ‘Slaves of our desires’, Guardian, March 25, 2002 ) Nick Cohen of the Observer declared the series “a resounding justification for the licence fee”. (Cohen, ‘Primal therapy’, the Observer, March 31, 2002)

In a different world, these journalists might have reflected on the fact that they are themselves employed by the same mendacious corporate system that has fought so hard to control the public mind. They might, for example, have noted that their papers are also profit-seeking businesses dependent on advertisers for fully 75% of their revenue. The reality being, of course, that the corporate media has always played a pivotal role in the campaign for corporate control of society. Thus James Reston, former editor of the New York Times, revealed, that “we left [out] a great deal of what we knew about U.S. intervention in Guatemala and in a variety of other cases” at government request or for political reasons known only to the editors. The government lied, but the Times published their claims even though it knew the statements were untrue. (Quoted Edward Herman, Z Magazine, May 1998)

The Century of the Self is certainly unusual – the mainstream generally prefers to remain silent on the issue of corporate propaganda. Thus the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – cited by Fones-Wolf and others as being at the heart of the corporate propaganda campaign over many decades – has been mentioned (as of March 28, 2002) 3 times in the Guardian and Observer, and once in the Independent since 1998. None of these mentions referred to the NAM’s role as a giant source of cynical propaganda. Today, the NAM is alive and well, and right at the heart of the (successful) attempts by big business to obstruct action on climate change.


Write to Adam Curtis, the maker of The Century of the Self, and the BBC’s commissioning editors, at: Email:

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Ask why The Century of the Self gave so much detailed attention to Guatemalan history, and yet failed to mention U.S. responsibility for the 150,000 civilians killed in its assault on Guatemala. Ask why the series focused on this isolated U.S. intervention without mentioning that it was a small part of similar interventions elsewhere in Latin America and in the Third World generally. Is this wider pattern not central to understanding the real significance, and costs, of corporate control of domestic and foreign societies in the 20th and 21st centuries?