C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Propaganda and Democracy

In a recent interview, Chomsky provided some remarks on the media, a favourite theme of his for some years now. He spoke of some other things, too, but I'll restrict this post to a brief discussion on propaganda.

To what extent, if at all, can the mainstream media's (MSM) output be considered 'propaganda'? Particularly in a democracy, with a supposedly 'free' press?

As Chomsky notes, countries such as America, or Australia, are not totalitarian states. Journalists are formally permitted to write as they please. Although this writing must account for commercial pressures, libel laws, and now, in Australia, sedition laws, nobody is compelled, with a gun at their head, so to speak, to write any particular thing.

In spite of this apparent 'freedom', however, we have some recent counter-examples. One that comes to mind has been the recent 'spin' placed on polls for Australia's 2007 election. The Liberal Party, liberal in name only, has been in power for 11 years. This year, the unthinkable has happened, and we have seen about 6 months worth of consistently strong poll results for the opposition, Labor.

In the face of these poor poll results, The Australian newspaper, Murdoch's mouthpiece, has been using its political 'analysis' to paint the polls in a favourable light for the Liberal Party. As has been pointed out on the Australian blogosphere, this has led to political chief of the newspaper, Dennis Shanahan, churning out a series of quite ridiculous statements, earning him comparisons with this guy:

This drew the ire of The Australian, who subsequently wrote this (fairly innocuous, as it turns out) blogger a letter, threatening to attack him in the newspaper's editorial. This duly occurred the following day, but was publicised widely on the Australian political blogosphere. In the end, any 'propaganda' value that Shanahan at which Shanahan may have been aiming was lost. He and his newspaper were reduced to a laughing stock among the politerati.

The strategy of personal attack, particularly by Australia's Murdoch media (and doubtless elsewhere), is not without precedent. In 2003, Andrew Wilkie, of an the Office of National Assessments (ONA, an Australian intelligence agency), resigned in protest at the Government's fabricated claims that Iraq had WMD's. This attracted considerable publicity at the time, for, even with a credulous press eagerly reporting the Government's claims, the Iraq War was never popular.

Enter Andrew Bolt, columnist for Melbourne's Herald Sun, and leading attack dog of the Murdoch press. Bolt appears to enjoy a 'special relationship' with Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who has given Bolt access to DFAT meetings, and has twice flown Bolt to Iraq, so that he may return to Australia and share as 'opinion' the official Government line.

In response, Downer and DFAT leaked to Bolt a 'confidential' report about Wilkie, so that Bolt could make 'misleading use of its contents to ridicule his analytical credentials was part of a concerted campaign to neutralise his criticisms of the government over the invasion of Iraq'. Nobody was ever charged for this apparent breach of State secrecy, though two of Bolt's stablemates, whose leaked material was not pro-Government, were prosecuted. Bolt was subject to a degree of condemnation, and cynicism over the Iraq was sufficient to allow us to suggest that this particular piece of propaganda was thwarted.

A third example comes to mind, also concerning reporting of the Iraq War. We know that it is to the benefit of the Governments of Australia and the US to portray this unpopular war as a war on 'terror', and, to that end, demonise the recipients of the Coalition's 'liberation'. Furthermore, the ongoing occupation is justified in public discourse with the notion that, if Coalition forces were to leave, 'Al Qaeda' would take over. A piece at Salon put paid to this fiction:

It's a curious thing that, over the past 10 - 12 days, the news from Iraq
refers to the combatants there as "al-Qaida" fighters. When did that happen?
Until a few days ago, the combatants in Iraq were "insurgents" or they were
referred to as "Sunni" or "Shia'a" fighters in the Iraq Civil War. Suddenly,
without evidence, without proof, without any semblance of fact, the US
command is referring to these combatants as "al-Qaida".
to the
latest in Iraq propaganda. That the Bush administration, and
specifically its
military commanders, decided to begin using the term "Al
Qaeda" to designate
"anyone and everyone we fight against or kill in Iraq"
is obvious. All of a
sudden, every time one of the top military commanders
describes our latest
operations or quantifies how many we killed, the enemy
is referred to, almost
exclusively now, as "Al Qaeda."

This propaganda has been more or less successful, as the equation 'Insurgency=Al Qaeda' appears to be taken seriously, except in the margins of public discourse, and policy debate.

Finally, we have numerous examples of the phenomenon of 'astroturfing', whereby select individuals are used to feign grassroots support for something. This reportedly occurs on talkback radio, with some callers delivering what sounds very much like a scripted response to a particular topic. A more brazen example can be found in the US, when a number of identical letters, purporting to be from US soldiers in Iraq, and highly supportive of the ongoing occupation, were sent to various newspapers.

We have here a number of examples of Governments influencing and manipulating, either directly or indirectly, media coverage of political events. In some cases, this manipulation has reached extraordinary levels of sophistication and planning, and has come at a cost to those opposing it.

With this in mind, let us return to Chomsky's discussion of media influence:

It's a complex subject, but the little in-depth research carried out in this
field suggests that, in fact, the media exert greater influence over the
highly educated fraction of the population. Mass public opinion seems
influenced by the line adopted by the media.

Take the
of a war against Iran. Three-quarters of Americans think the
United States
should stop its military threats and concentrate on reaching
agreement by
diplomatic means. Surveys carried out by western pollsters
suggest that public
opinion in Iran and the US is also moving closer on some
aspects of the nuclear
issue. The vast majority of the population of both
countries think that the area
from Israel to Iran should be completely clear
of nuclear weapons, including
those held by US forces operating in the
region. But you would have to search
long and hard to find this kind of
information in the media.

main political parties in either
country do not defend this view either. If Iran
and the US were true
democracies, in which the majority really decided public
policy, they would
undoubtedly have already solved the current nuclear
disagreement. And there
are other similar instances. Look at the US federal
budget. Most Americans
want less military spending and more welfare expenditure,
credits for the
United Nations, and economic and international humanitarian aid.
They also
want to cancel the tax reductions decided by President George Bush for
benefit of the biggest taxpayers.

On all these topics, White
policy is completely at odds with what public opinion wants. But the media
rarely publish the polls that highlight this persistent public opposition.
only are citizens excluded from political power, they are also kept in a
of ignorance as to the true state of public opinion. There is growing
international concern about the massive US double deficit affecting trade
the budget. But both are closely linked to a third deficit, the
deficit that is constantly growing, not only in the US but also
all over the western

It is one of the big differences between
the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies
go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state
decides the official line and everyone must then comply. Democratic societies
operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This
involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty. Even the passionate
debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit
rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views.

The 'democratic' means of spreading propaganda tends, by its nature, to be more sophisticated than that found in totalitarian regimes. In one of Žižek's books, he cites an example of propaganda from Stalinist Russia. The State has provided a number of citizens with 'official' encyclopaedias, containing the official history of the Revolution, its heroes, enemies, and so on. During the period of the show trials, one former hero has been denounced as a traitor, and eventually executed. This leaves the authorities with a public relations problems, as this former hero has a glowing reference contained in his encyclopaedia entry. The solution? The authorities send out an alternative page, re-writing the history of this revolutionary-turned-villain, and ask those who own the encyclopaedia to replace the old page with this re-written history. In short, this clumsy attempt at propaganda does not even bother to hide the fact that its contents are bullshit. It even presumes that individuals will accept the bullshit, but go along anyway. In a democracy, nobody is ever told so overtly that what their Government is preaching is bullshit.

It is essential that the propaganda be sufficiently convincing, that it be assimilated to a broader discourse of less controversial assumptions. Yet, as Chomsky points out, even this propaganda is failing. Others, such as those at Larvatus, have pointed to the growing disconnect between the commentariat, and the public to whom the attempt to peddle their shoddy wares.

Clearly, as we have seen above, part of the role of the MSM is propagandist. Paradoxically, however, the propaganda does not entirely succeed. This raises the question of whether 'true' democracy may emerge through the cracks of a decaying media.

As we have seen the tactics of newspapers such as The Australian (known unaffectionately as The Government Gazette), have at times been so crude as to almost resemble the methods adopted by totalitarian states. Yet even the more subtle and sophisticated methods have also been failing. Polls are still showing strong support for the Labor Party, in spite of the overwhelming opposition to Labor by the Murdoch media (though, perhaps sniffing Liberal blood, this support has waned of late).

I contend that much of the utter irrelevance of the MSM is, far from merely being a manipulative influence, is actually an accurate reflection of our democracy at this time. The press mostly contains editorial lines that are completely removed from the concerns of ordinary people; however, the political process itself is largely conducted along similar lines.

Take, for example, the incessant debates about 'economic growth', a topic about which most Australians could not give a flying, and over which even fewer have any real input.

Or look at the faux 'debate' over 'union bosses'. The Liberal Party, and the media, depict a situation whereby, should Labor win power later this year, Australia will rapidly deteriorate into something resembling Zimbabwe. The 'union bosses' themselves are portrayed as working-class, thuggish individuals, and both parties, as well as the media, take this 'debate' seriously. This is in spite of the fact that most Australians would never have had any negative experience in relation to a so-called 'union boss', or the fact that Australia has not seen any major industrial action for some years, despite the Labor Party controlling every State and Territory. In this instance, as in many others, the media is only (more or less) accurately depicting the absurd preoccupations of our Parliament, with its stage managed press conferences, game-playing, and 'wedges', none of which have anything to do with the experiences of Australian people.

So, contemptible and propagandist as our media may be, it is just the symptom of the illness, not its cause. The media may be manipulative and deceitful; it may harp on about faux 'issues' that are worlds away from ordinary people's concerns; it may be a mouthpiece for an elite political and corporate class: but it is not only these things. It is also the mirror of our 'democracy'. Or, to put it slightly differently, our media is Dorian Gray, our democracy, his portrait.
After all, democracy is a Greek word (δημοκρατία), meaning 'the rule of the people'. When the people have no control of their politicians' agendas, over the unpopular wars in which their country is involved, over the economic, industrial, and social service policies that are presented to Parliament, when their political cynicism and disengagement are not merely provoked, but actively encouraged, it is only fitting that the media should capture this profound disconnect between 'the people', and 'the rule'.

This is what is meant as a 'free press'. Its influence is not as great as its proprietors would like. This is heartening - only a truly sinister and comprehensive propaganda machine could depict the gulf between people and politics, at the same time as persuading 'the people' that this gulf does not exist. As I said earlier, there a cracks in the facade - we shall see if the light gets in.