In free societies, wrote George Orwell, ‘unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban’. One of the least discussed, some would say most suppressed issues of the contemporary world is the part played by the media in promoting the ideology and propaganda of Western power. The roots of this propaganda, which can influence how we in the developed world see ourselves and other societies, go back more than 60 years to a largely forgotten history.
In the United States in the 1930s, revolution was in the air as working men and women rallied to a view of life very different from that which had brought about the Great Depression. ‘Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,’ said the populist John Dewey. Millions of people rounded on capitalists as the source of their hardship and of inequality. The response of the American establishment was a propaganda crusade of extraordinary intensity. A series of ‘Americanization’ campaigns was launched, depicting strikes and demonstrations as unpatriotic, trade unions as the enemy of workers and social democracy ‘infected’ by communism. This reached a crescendo in the 1950s with the inquisition known as McCarthyism, which singled out as heretics those who questioned ‘free enterprise’ and ‘the American way of life’ – a slogan invented by a public relations agency.
The scale of the crusade, wrote the editor of Fortune magazine, was ‘staggering’. By 1954, business-sponsored propaganda consumed half the resources devoted to school textbooks. Alex Carey, the social scientist who pioneered the study of Americanization, described the three most significant political developments of the 20th century as ‘the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy’.
Monocultures of the mind
Today, most of humanity is subjected, in one form or another, to corporate propaganda. While the clichés have changed – ‘the American way of life’ has become ‘globalization’ – the essential aim is the same: to expand the power of capital, mostly Western and American capital, into most aspects of our lives so that almost everything is a commodity and the only value is measured by cost and consumption. Unlike the 1930s, the modern crusade has been institutionalized in totalitarian bodies with prodigious power: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, whose manipulative ‘loans’, ‘bail-outs’ and ‘treaties’ ensure foreign ownership of everything from education to water to living organisms. Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva has described this as a form of brainwashing, a ‘monoculture of the mind’.
The media is the main carrier of the crusade’s propaganda. For example, media language has systematically appropriated positive concepts, emptying them of their dictionary meaning and refilling them. ‘Reform’ now means regression, even destruction, and those who promote laissez-faire capitalism are ‘reformers’. Selling off public enterprises (such as Britain’s integrated railways) is ‘breaking up monopolies’. ‘Restructuring’ is the transfer of income from production to speculation. ‘Deregulation’ is the shift of power from the national welfare to international banks and a local corporate élite. And ‘market economics’ means capitalism for the majority and socialism for the rich and powerful: an ingenious system under which the poor are persecuted and the rich given billions in public subsidies, such as minimal corporate tax and a range of opportunities to avoid tax.
This reversal of political language has an incessant message: there is no alternative to the single-ideology state, with its almost identical competing pro-business parties. Political lobby journalists and commentators, conservatives and liberals alike, work assiduously to obfuscate this truth, promoting personality differences between essentially likeminded politicians. The real divisions are to be found outside government and they have never been greater. They reflect the unprecedented disparity between the poverty of the majority of humanity and the power and privilege of a corporate and militarist minority, headquartered in Washington, with a branch office in Whitehall. Their goal is to control the world’s resources. One of the reasons these mighty pirates have such a free reign is that the Anglo-American intelligentsia – journalists, academics, writers, the ‘people with a voice’ – are quiet or complicit or ‘twittering’, as one critic said of English mainstream novelists, and often rich as a result.
As I write this, a BBC reporter casually describes the American ideologue Milton Friedman as ‘the respected … perhaps the world’s greatest economist’. There is no qualification, no suggestion of who this important figure really is. As head of the infamous Chicago School, Friedman inspired the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, the blueprint for the extremes of ‘globalization’, using Chile under the fascist Pinochet as his ‘laboratory’.
History without memory
One of the most pervasive myths is that we live in an ‘information age’. We actually live in a media age, in which most of the available information is repetitive, politically safe (that is, it reflects the one true path) and is limited by invisible boundaries. Certainly, media technology, such as the ‘digital revolution’, may appear to offer more choice and greater horizons, yet the media itself is actually shrinking in terms both of its ownership and editorial agenda or world view. According to a comprehensive study by the leading British voluntary agencies, television in Britain, reputedly the best, has so drastically cut back its serious content that little more than three per cent of its overall output is devoted to the rest of humanity, and most of that is on the minority channels.
Consider the coverage of the Middle East. While Palestinian grievances may be acknowledged, Israel’s news agenda dominates; the Israeli military, a colonial oppressor employing a terrorist and homicidal strategy, is still ‘the security forces’. Britain and America bomb Iraq day after day, killing civilians, illegally, with scant media reporting. Until recently, there was no recognition of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children, as a direct result of Anglo-American designed sanctions. This followed the 1991 attack, known as the ‘Gulf War’, that saw the slaughter of as many as 200,000 Iraqis: a fact that went largely unreported in what was generally agreed to be a bloodless victory for military technology. In Kosovo in 1999, the justification for raining cluster bombs on Yugoslavia, killing 1,500 civilians, and precipitating the stampede of Kosovar Albanians was a ‘genocide’ evoking ‘World War Two and the Holocaust’ (Tony Blair). There was no genocide. Last year, international forensic teams found that 2,700 people on both sides had died over a year-long period, the victims of a civil war not unlike that in Ireland in the 1970s. This passed virtually unreported.
It is time we journalists analyzed the often subtle pressures that manipulate us. Humanity is too often reported in terms of its usefulness to Western strategic and corporate interests. The culpability of ‘our’ governments is too often minimized. Regardless of the innovation of media supplements in newspapers and media studies courses, this subject remains a taboo, or is skirted defensively.
A barely recognized danger is the growth of public relations almost as a substitute for real journalism. Max Clifford, the famous celebrity PR man, says the public relations consultant ‘is filling the role investigative reporters should fill but no longer can because [of] cost-cutting’. According to PR Week, the amount of ‘PR generated material’ in the British media is ’50 per cent in a broadsheet newspaper in every section apart from sport’. What often passes for news in the financial pages, is ‘packaged’ by PR consultants paid by investment firms.
In the Australian press during the 1980s, the cheerleaders of what was known as economic rationalism – Thatcherism – were the financial page writers, who relentlessly misrepresented laissez-faire ideology as economic necessity. Their specious message, rather like that of a cult, was that there was no other way.
‘History without memory,’ says Time magazine, ‘confines Americans to a sort of eternal present.’ As the rest of us are drawn into this eternal present, the memory struggles to rescue the truth that rights come not from something called consumerism or from technology, but from a long and painful history of struggle. The great demonstration in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization was reported as a new phenomenon. On the contrary, there have been many Seattles in the developing world, the ‘south’. Last year, an estimated million people demonstrated against globalization in some 30 countries. When this is reported in the ‘global’ media, the images invariably are of confused street conflict.
Those who teach journalism have a responsibility to make young journalists aware of the nature of insidious propaganda and of censorship by omission, and to provide them with survival kits and navigation routes through the system, warning them about the pitfalls, such as the seduction of the Murdoch mantra of ‘giving the public what it wants’ – code for giving the public no choice. The late James Cameron called journalism the first draft of history; if the propaganda of power is accepted and reported uncritically, if circus journalism and me-ism is allowed to dominate, journalists contribute to the shaping of history as an instrument of power, exacerbating human divisions and conflict.
However, if they recognize and expose propaganda, they give their readers, viewers and listeners the opportunity to shape their own history. The great muckraker Claud Cockburn offered this advice: ‘Never believe anything until it is officially denied.’
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