Public Relations or Propaganda? How the News Is Spun
"He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind. Repeat mechanically your assumptions and suggestions, diminish the opportunity for communicating dissent and opposition. This is the formula for political conditioning of the masses." - Joost Meerloo The Rape of the Mind
Everyone has opinions.
According to the definition in my on-line dictionary, an opinion is:
- a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
- a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.
The dictionary also very helpfully provides a quote, from Friedrich Nietzsche: "One sticks to an opinion because he prides himself on having come to it on his own, and another because he has taken great pains to learn it and is proud to have grasped it: and so both do so out of vanity."
That’s a good quote and worth keeping in mind.
The word is from the Latin opinan, to think.
Thus an opinion is a thought, but not one based on fact.
It is one of my observations that people will give their opinions freely without necessarily knowing the source. They think the source is in their own head. It is their opinion, after all. They own it, like a piece of property. But then, when you question them about it, you discover that they cannot tell you how they arrived at their opinion. They cannot tell you where it comes from. They cannot even tell you the facts behind their opinion. Very often what facts they can cite are wrong, or questionable in some way.
What’s more, you soon learn that almost everyone you speak to on any one topic has exactly the same opinion. The same thought exists in everyone’s head. So everyone has an opinion, everyone thinks it’s their opinion, and yet they share the opinion with everyone else. This is what is referred to as Public Opinion. It’s like a virus: the mind-flu. Only it’s not an airborne virus which you catch when someone sneezes, it’s a thought-borne virus which you catch by listening to other people’s opinions.
The problem with opinions is that, once having arrived at them, we then think we know all there is to know about a situation, and that no further thought is required. We are all guilty of this, on the left as well as on the right.
People in the Public Relations Industry refer to themselves as “opinion makers”. They work through people they call opinion leaders. Opinion leaders are people who are able to influence other people in their thinking. In other words, their job is to implant opinions into other people’s heads.
The pioneer of the modern Public Relations Industry, Edward Bernays, said: "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."
In fact even the term “Public Relations” is a public relations exercise. What Bernays meant was propaganda, but he recognised that that word had negative connotations, so invented the term “public relations” to cover it.
An early success for Bernays’ newly conceived industry was a campaign to persuade women to smoke. This was in the early 1920s. There was already a great social movement towards women’s emancipation, but Bernays managed to link this to the idea of women smoking. Smoking in public was interpreted as an act of personal and political emancipation.
You can see from this example that the industry is both opportunistic and clever. The movement toward women’s emancipation already existed. Bernays’ great achievement was to link this to a specific product. It was to take a thought that already existed and to turn it to particular ends. So cigarettes became a symbol of individual emancipation. Women adopted the symbol en masse without realising that they were being manipulated.
There’s an irony here. The more general an idea becomes, the more people will adopt it for themselves. The mass media’s great success is that it makes an appeal to the individual. People use certain products in order to display their individuality. You hear people talking about their movies, their music, their food, their lifestyle, as if these things really belonged to them. Adverts for hair gel, for example, emphasise individuality. Individuality is contrasted with regimentation, while the product is used by millions of people. Millions of people all wearing the same hair gel, all doing so in order to be unique.
Likewise people have their opinions. They wear their opinions like hair gel. It’s a statement of individuality. I’m this kind of person, I’m that kind of person. We divide ourselves into tribes using our opinions. Once we discover what a person’s opinions are then we think we can assess them. We can dismiss them or embrace them on the basis of their opinions. We don’t have to listen to them any more. We know what their opinions are. We check their opinions against our own in order to judge them. Whole swathes of the human race are categorised in this way. We are like football supporters at a football match, wearing our opinions like scarves around our necks to show which side we are on.
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." - Joseph Goebbels
The same techniques which are used to sell us hair gel or lifestyle options can also used to sell us war.
It is to do with the management of perceptions. Human beings are not rational creatures. We do not make judgements based on fact. Rather we can be manipulated by emotion. The news is spun to create certain narratives. There are good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the good guys turn into the bad guys, as in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was once an ally, and then became an enemy. Sometimes the bad guys turn into good guys, as in Germany after the 2nd World War, or Japan. It all depends on the story line that is being constructed and for what purpose.
Take the situation in Iran. Everyone has opinions about this. In the latest of a long line of news items on the matter, William Hague has just warned us that Iran is a threat to the peace of the world. According to the BBC: “He cited an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, plus alleged involvement in recent attacks in New Delhi, Georgia and Bangkok.”
Mr Hague is quoted as saying that it showed "the danger Iran is currently presenting to the peace of the world".
Of course the BBC is committed to impartiality, and dutifully adds: “Iran denies any involvement in the recent attacks”. That’s one line out of 70 on Iran’s response to the accusations.
Other lines accuse Iran of “secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb” and of potentially triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
There is also an ominous suggestion of a threat to the London Olympics. Mr Hague says that there is “no specific information” on such a threat, but adds, "clearly Iran has been involved increasingly in illegal and potentially terrorist activity in other parts of the world".
Did you get that? While telling us that there is no information about such a threat, he is also simultaneously warning us to be worried about the threat, based on unverified accusations of events in far-off countries which Iran has denied having had any part in.
This is how the news is spun.
It is a constant slow drip of propaganda disguised as news. The only reason this counts as news at all is because William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, made these statements on the Andrew Marr Show. They are opinions being expressed by one who is supposed to know on a TV programme we are supposed to trust. But that’s all they are: opinions. They have no more validity, really, than the opinions expressed by the man on the bar stool next to you down the pub.
William Hague is an “opinion leader”. The Andrew Marr Show is his platform. We assume he is more informed than the rest of us, and yet he is making statements which, when investigated, can be shown to be untrue.
Take the line about Iran secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb. This is repeated over and over and over again. It has been said so many times, in so many different forms, that it has almost acquired the status of a truism. It is “an undoubted or self-evident truth: one too obvious to mention,” to give you a dictionary definition of the word.
On the other hand the statement has also been repudiated almost as many times: the difference being that the repudiations don’t appear in the mainstream media, or they appear as one-line denials by the Iranian authorities which we are encouraged to dismiss.
To quote, January the 18th 2012 on Israeli Army Radio:
- Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?
- Barak: … Confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible. Apparently that is not the case.…
Or again, on January the 8th, US Defence Secretary Panetta told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that “the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them [the Iranians] … and to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”
Are the Iranians trying to develop a nuclear weapon?
You can’t get clearer than that.
So how come William Hague is saying the opposite? Does William Hague know something that Leon Panetta and Ehud Barak do not?
Of course not.
Is he just wrongly informed?
One would hope not.
Which leaves just one other possibility: that he is deliberately misinforming the public.
Smears and innuendoes
In fact the whole of the statement is a web of lies and distortions and false accusations mixed with smears and innuendoes, most of which turn out to be little more than advertising slogans for the war we are being sold.
Take the one about Iran starting a nuclear arms race. Firstly, as we’ve already seen, it isn’t trying to acquire nuclear weapons: but then, even if it was, it couldn't ever use them. It is surrounded by nuclear states. The United States is a nuclear state and has troops in Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Iraq; its 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain; there are undoubtedly nuclear weapons aimed at Iran right now. Israel is a nuclear state, as is India and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has no need of acquiring nuclear weapons as it is protected by the United States. In other words, if Iran ever attempted to use its newly acquired nuclear arsenal, it would be blown to smithereens a hundred times over.
Or the one about the supposed attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador using Mexican drug cartel assassins, which was so insane that it was almost borders on self-satire, and has been effectively dismantled a number of times. And yet William Hague can still reel it out as if it is a fact.
It goes along with the rest of the rag-bag collection of misrepresentations we’ve been landed with over the years: Ahmadinejad wants to “wipe Israel off the map” (he never said that); Iran is a terrorist state (it isn’t); there was wide spread vote-rigging at the last election (there wasn’t) and the opposition won (it didn’t); Iran supports terrorism (it doesn’t); it is a threat to its neighbours (it isn’t); it is engaged in illegal activities (it isn’t); Ahmadinejad is irresponsible and insane (he isn’t); he doesn’t care about the outcome of a nuclear war (he would have to be insane not to be).
The propaganda is almost mind boggling in its audacity. To threaten Iran while accusing it of being a threat. To commit terrorist acts against it while accusing it of terrorism. To support terrorist organisations in Iran while accusing Iran of supporting terrorism abroad.
This is some achievement: to have almost exactly reversed the actual situation in the public’s mind so that it appears that the opposite is true.
In other words: a highly successful advertising campaign.
Iran: surrounded by nuclear states
- Manufacturing Consent for an Attack upon Iran
The phrase “the manufacture of consent” was originally used by Walter Lipmann in his book Public Opinion. In fact the term “public opinion” is a euphemism for propaganda, since the book is about the control and manipulation of public opinion
- Behind the Deepening Crisis with Iran: the Real Story Versus the Cover Story | Foreign Policy Journa
The American people need to know the truth. This is a phony crisis. Yet the danger is very real. Now is the time to speak out with all of our strength...
- An attack on Iran must be stopped | Andrew Murray | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Andrew Murray: As the US and UK gear up for another senseless war in the Middle East, one thing is certain – it will end in disaster
- Divining the Truth About Iran by Ray McGovern -- Antiwar.com
- The New York Times misleading public on Iran - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
The paper has made faulty allegations about Iran's nuclear programme without running proper corrections.
- NYT Misleads Readers on Iran Crisis
In two articles yesterday (1/5/12), the New York Times misled readers about the state of Iran's nuclear program.
© 2012 Christopher James Stone