Tag Archives: Noam Chomsky

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 March 2019

Fuelled by charges of anti-semitism, Brexit and the breakaway Independent Group of MPs, we are in the midst of another anti-Corbyn media feeding frenzy.

As with the British press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn analysed in the 2016 London School of Economics study, the current attacks are often highly personalised, such as the Daily Mail’s serialisation of Dangerous Hero, Tom Bower’s “exposé” of the Labour leader. The book includes such “bombshells” as Corbyn apparently liking to eat baked beans straight from the can, and that he was on the brink of retiring to Wiltshire to keep bees before he was persuaded to run for the leadership.

However, as media analysts Media Lens highlight in their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality, it is important to understand the liberal media have also played a central role in attacking Corbyn. For example, while she dismisses many of the accusations presented in Dangerous Hero, in her recent review of the book in the Guardian former Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff argues some “charges… are harder to dismiss.”

“Perhaps the most telling criticism is that Corbyn is simply not very bright, or certainly not as bright as leaders are traditionally expected to be,” she notes, her words positively dripping with contempt and condescension.

“A teacher’s son, educated at a fee-paying grammar, he nonetheless scraped only two Es at A-level before dropping out of a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic because the academic work (at least in Bower’s telling) was beyond him.”

And here is the similarly disdainful Oxford-educated novelist Martin Amis speaking to the Guardian Weekend magazine in September 2017: “Two E grades at A-level. That’s it. He certainly has no autodidact streak. I mean, is he a reader?” (Answer: yes, Corbyn has publicly, repeatedly and extensively discussed his love of literature).

I really didn’t expect to ever write an article explaining how problematic it is to uncritically elevate “intelligence” and formal qualifications.

Mainly because I’ve always found most people with a pulse have a broad understanding that “intelligence” is difficult to pin down; that there are many different types of intelligence; that IQ and exams are a pretty bogus way of measuring anything; that some people who don’t seem intelligent may well be, and vice versa etc. Indeed, does anybody, other than A-level students in the halcyon days between getting their exams results and the first insecure weeks at university, actually give two shits about what grades someone got for their A-levels?

There are, of course, many other problems with Hinsliff’s argument. The importance she clearly gives to the head of a political party being “bright” assumes a very conservative, simplistic view of the world — that it is great leaders and their personality and intellect which make history. Very obviously, Corbyn, whether as leader of the Labour Party or the next prime minister, is not running the show on his own, but works with a close unit of advisers, a core group of supportive MPs, teams of press, campaigns, strategy and admin staff, and a broader movement keeping his back.

Luckily, what the vast majority of the 500,000-plus Labour Party members seem to realise is that Corbyn — intelligent or not — is pretty much the surfer on top of a gigantic wave, with all this implies.

What all this shows is whether Corbyn is the smartest guy in the room or not isn’t that important to whether Labour win power, or its ability to institute significant, progressive change if they do form a government.

And anyway, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all went to Oxford, and therefore are presumably considered “bright” by Hinsliff. Need I bother saying anything more?

So how should we begin to understand this fetishisation of “intelligence” and formal education being propagated by elite university graduates?

Though their target is nominally Corbyn, I would contend their contempt — and fear — is actually directed at the mass, grassroots movement he heads. “You can do analysis of Corbyn and his ‘movement’ (I have done it) but the essence of the whole thing is that they are just thick as pigshit,” tweeted Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh (Warwick University and UCL) in 2016.

This elitist contempt for mass participation — democracy, really — has been amplified by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the US.

“That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobinin 2017.

“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”

“For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage,” she continues. “While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?”

In 2017 a Sutton Trust report found 54 per cent of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, even though privately schooled individuals account for just 7 per cent of the school population.

Speaking to Andrew Marr (Cambridge University) in 1996 for the BBC’s The Big Idea programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky explained the significance of so many influential members of the media being educated at elite institutions.

“There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 per cent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination,” he argued. He went on to highlight George Orwell’s suppressed introduction to his 1945 book Animal Farm as a good summary of why the mainstream media tends to reflect the interests of elites.

“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… not because the government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact,” Orwell wrote.

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.”

Like Chomsky, Jeff Schmidt, former editor of Physics Today magazine, believes the education and employment systems in capitalist democracies generate a conformist professional class trained to work within a very narrow political framework — Disciplined Minds he called them in his 2000 book of the same name.

How disciplined, you ask? Here are just a few examples of the power-friendly ideological blinkers a top education can provide. Commenting on the recent debate about Winston Churchill’s legacy, in January comedian and writer David Baddiel (Cambridge University) described the former British Prime Minister as “the man who saved Jews from complete destruction,” which is, er, certainly an interesting take on the second world war.

In a lengthy 2013 essay about democracy in the Guardian, David Runciman (Eton and Cambridge University, where he is now Professor of Politics) repeatedly referred to the UK as a “democracy” during World War One — news, I’m sure, to the women and millions of poor men who didn’t have the vote at the time.

And Hinsliff (Cambridge University)? A few months after admitting she got Corbyn’s electoral viability completely wrong, in January 2018 she tweeted the following canard about Syria: “I honestly don’t know if intervention would have made things better or worse. Not intervening has been pretty bloody dismal tho.”

In the real world, by 2018 the US and UK had carried out hundreds of air strikes against Isis in Syria, the US had 2,000 troops occupying parts of the country, and the US and UK had been working closely with Saudi Arabia and others to send massive amounts of support to the rebels fighting Assad, with the CIA having trained and armed 10,000 rebels, according to the Washington Post.

Further reminders — if any more were needed — that members of the liberal commentariat such as Hinsliff are the last people who should be questioning how “bright” the Labour leader is.

Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 February 2019

Clearly intended to shock, last month the Guardian published a report titled Climate Risks ‘Similar To 2008 Financial Crash’.

The problem with this formulation, to partially quote the soon to be iconic first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, is that “it is worse, much worse” than this.

“What climate change has in store is not… a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying”, David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine, argues.

The 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to an increase of 2°C on pre-industrial levels, gave hope to many. Wallace-Wells injects a dose of frightening realism into the debate, noting all the commitments made at the summit by the 195 signatories would still mean 3.2°C of warming by 2100. And most terrifyingly of all, as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, he explains.

What does all this mean? “Warming of 3 or 3.5°C degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”.

The twelve chapters which make up the core of the book flesh out this alarming reality, looking at how climate change is raising sea-levels, increasing wildfires and disease, reducing crop yields, killing the oceans and making conflicts more likely. An expansion of his 2017 magazine article that went viral, he is right when he says this section contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.

For example, he notes the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves since 1980.” Even if warming is limited to an increase of 2°C, big cities in the Global South like Karachi and Kolkata “will become close to uninhabitable”, contributing to a massive increase in refugees. A 4°C increase will mean the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 people, “will be a normal summer.”

Frustratingly, when the mainstream media reports on climate change it invariably uses 2100 as the end point for projections. In contrast, Wallace-Wells inconveniently highlights that the death and destruction will not end there. Infact, some observers call the 100 years after 2100 “the century of hell.”

A necessary and urgent wake-up call, The Inhabitable Earth is the most important book about climate change since Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. But while Klein focused on the ideology of economic growth as the central driver of climate change, the topic is largely – and strangely – absent from Wallace-Wells’ work. And though he emphasises how climate change is “the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced”, highlighting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s push for an immediate global mobilisation on the scale of World War Two, exactly how people should organise to stop climate change is also not something he dwells on.

“I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement”, was US academic Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the necessity of large-scale activism on climate change. Likewise, Klein recently tweeted three central questions for assessing the candidates in the upcoming 2020 US Presidential election: “1. Who best understands that anything short of transformative action on climate is tantamount to genocide? 2. Who, if elected, will be most porous to social movements/ least likely to seal themselves off with elite consultants? 3. Who has a solid chance of beating Trump if we all work like hell?”

Similar questions need to be asked at the next UK general election and across the globe if humanity is to stand any chance of arresting the ongoing and escalating existential threat of climate chaos.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 February 2019

Named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017, “Fake News”, along with Russian interference in Western political systems, has become an obsession for the UK and US media and political classes.

David Edwards and David Cromwell – co-editors of media analysis website Media Lens – don’t buy into this convenient, self-serving framing. “That fake news is a systematic feature of BBC coverage, and the rest of Western mainstream media, is virtually an unthinkable thought for corporate journalists”, they noted recently.

The corporate media “fundamentally distort every significant issue they touch”, they argue in their brilliant new book. “Exposing the fraudulence of the ‘free press’ is therefore highly efficient for positive change.”

Based on their Media Alerts – timely critiques of news reporting they have been publishing regularly since starting Media Lens in 2001 – they look at how the media provides state and corporate-friendly coverage of Western foreign policy, climate change, NHS privatisation and the Scottish independence referendum. Compared to their previous books there are fewer illuminating exchanges with journalists – the truthtellers in the newsrooms seem less willing to engage with the authors than they used to. However, their correspondence with Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and ITV News’s Bill Neely regarding the definition of terrorism are both surreal and revealing. As ex-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism.”

The Guardian plays a key role in this corporate news ecosystem, sharply defining and defending the bounds of acceptable debate. From Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership to Julian Assange seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and Russell Brand’s political awakening, Edwards and Cromwell highlight how the UK’s supposedly most left-wing mainstream newspaper sides with the status quo and assails those trying to create significant progressive change.

Best of all is their Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz, a six-step model for how the media attack and discredit enemies, preparing the way for (Western) intervention. The 2002-3 media-assisted propaganda onslaught in advance of the invasion of Iraq is a good example of this kind of campaign, as is the 2018 antisemitism controversy and the current Venezuelan crisis. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model and Stanley Cohen’s theory of Moral Panics, this should be required reading on every university journalism and media studies course.

Essentially a £14.99 course in intellectual self-defence against thought control in a democratic society, Propaganda Blitz is an indispensable read for anyone who consumes the news.

Propaganda Blitz is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2018-January 2019

This is an essential read for anybody – activists very much included – who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of the 2007–2008 economic crash and its subsequent political after-shocks, from the election of Donald Trump in the US to Brexit and rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

However, first and foremost, the book is a sharp critique of the media’s coverage of the economic crisis.

As well as interviewing journalists, Laura Basu, a researcher at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University, has analysed 1,133 news items from the GuardianTelegraphSunMirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model – along with other theoretical frameworks – is cited as relevant to the patterns of media coverage set out in the book.

Basu’s central, very persuasive, thesis is that a ‘phenomenon of media amnesia [concerning the history and causes of the crisis]… has been created purposely by politicians and sections of the press’. Facts and arguments go unreported, presenting audiences with a very particular ideological framework that has legitimised neoliberal ‘solutions’ to the crisis.

Basu argues there are three primary characteristics of the media coverage that have contributed to this political con trick: a lack of historical context, a narrow range of elite perspectives, and a dearth of global context.

For example, she highlights how, after the crisis was successfully framed as an outcome of overspending by previous Labour governments, the media and focus groups largely accepted that austerity should be the response.

Of course, this makes sense if the problem was Labour profligacy, though it ignores the structural and global causes of the crash, and sidelines the Keynesian responses to the crisis advocated by Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (who advocated policies such as ditching austerity, fundamental reforms to the financial system, and kickstarting the economy with ambitious government spending).

With the media defining the bounds of debate as the positions of the main political parties, Labour’s decision, under Ed Miliband, not to significantly oppose the Coalition government’s cuts was disastrous.

Indeed, this political weakness likely influenced the progressive media like the Guardian, which Basu notes accepted some degree of austerity.

‘The Guardian projects an image of representing a social democratic agenda, but when social democrats begin to attain positions of power the paper closes ranks’, she argues, referencing the paper’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Detailed and academic with a wide-ranging bibliography, this is an accessible and engrossing read, concluding with a range of potential cures for the Media Amnesia that are worthy of activists’ attention, from greater media plurality to Dan Hind’s intriguing proposals for the public and democratic commissioning of investigative journalism.

Basu has also co-edited The Media and Austerity (Routledge, 2018) which, judging from her references to it here, should also be revelatory.

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?

Russian Interference in Western Politics? What about Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2018

With almost the entire Western media in a constant state of mass hysteria about Russian interference in Western political systems, it’s worth considering some pertinent information largely missing from the debate.

First, it is likely the scale and effectiveness of Russian interventions has been greatly exaggerated. “The simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it”, argued Masha Gessen, a US-Russian journalist and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, when asked about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election by National Public Radio.

“I feel a lot of pressure… from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat”, said New Yorker’s Adrian Chen – one of the first to write about Russian internet trolls – agreeing with Gessen. “People want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There’s not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue.”

Turning to the Brexit vote, research by the Oxford Internet Institute looked at 22.6 million tweets sent between March and July 2016, finding just 416 tweets from the Russian Internet Research Agency – the organisation the US Senate says is involved in interfering in Western elections. A second report from the University of Edinburgh discovered 419 accounts operated by the Agency attempting to influence UK politics. However, the study’s lead researcher told the Guardian these 419 accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of just 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Second, when asked about US claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential race, US academic Noam Chomsky replied “My guess is that most of the world is just collapsing in laughter.” Why? Because when it comes to undermining democratic systems Russia is an absolute beginner compared to the United States.

Here is the New York Times in February 2018: “Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades.”

According to a database compiled by political scientist Don Levin from Carnegie Mellon University, the US attempted to influence elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. In contrast, he found the Soviet Union/Russia had attempted to sway 36 elections in the same period. Reporting on the database in December 2016, the Los Angeles Times notes the US figure “doesn’t include military coups and regime change efforts following the election of candidates the US didn’t like, notably those in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.”

On top of all this, the evidence clearly shows other nations have exerted a level of influence on Western governments and political systems that Russia could only dream of.

Chomsky again, this time speaking to Democracy Now! in August 2018: “If you’re interested in foreign interference in our elections, whatever the Russians may have done barely counts or weighs in the balance as compared with what another state does, openly, brazenly and with enormous support.”

Chomsky is referring to Israel, whose “intervention in US elections vastly overwhelms anything the Russians may have done”, he says. “I mean, even to the point where the Prime Minister of Israel, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, goes directly to Congress, without even informing the president, and speaks to Congress, with overwhelming applause, to try to undermine the president’s policies” —a reference to Netanyahu’s attempt, in 2015, to destroy the US-led deal to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Back in the UK, in January 2017 the Middle East Eye reported on “undercover recordings” that “revealed how an Israeli diplomat sought to establish organisations and youth groups to promote Israeli influence inside the opposition Labour party, in an effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” Shai Masot, the Israeli diplomat, said he had helped set up other groups in the UK which, although they presented themselves as independent, received support from the Israeli Embassy.

Israel is not the only Middle East nation who works to undercut Western democracies. In 2006 the Guardian reported that the British government – citing ‘national security’ concerns – had halted a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged corruption by the arms company BAE Systems, connected to their dealings with Saudi Arabia. According to the article “In recent weeks, BAE and the Saudi embassy had frantically lobbied the government for the long-running investigation to be discontinued.”

Like its regional ally in Riyadh, the United Arab Emirates has also been busy, carrying out an “intense lobbying campaign… over the last few years” in the UK, according to a new Spinwatch report. This campaign has “helped shape UK government policy towards Muslims at home, and UK and US foreign policy in the Middle East”.

This “massive” PR effort by the corporate-friendly Gulf dictatorship appears to have “had the desired effect”, Spinwatch notes. “With pressure building on Downing Street… the Emiratis pulled off” a “spectacular lobbying success… in March 2014, [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, out of almost nowhere, announced a review into the Muslim Brotherhood” – a useful folk devil for the UAE government.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to influence the heart of global power in Washington. For example, the Associated Press noted the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the UAE that started in June 2017 “ignited a multimillion-dollar battle for influence” with the two rivals spending “heavily over the last year on lawyers, lobbyists, public relations and advertising to seek better trade and security relationships with the United States”.

In a March 2018 article the New York Times reported on “an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of the two oil-rich Arab monarchies” UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim? “Pushing the White House to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and “backing confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar” – something Tillerson was seen as a block on.

This lobbying seems to have achieved one of its goals, with the New York Times’s Roger Cohen revealing that a European ambassador had told him about a December 2017 dinner party in Washington he attended along with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. After the ambassador had complained to Kushner that his nation’s foreign minister was having difficulty organising a meeting with Tillerson, apparently Otaiba said “Things will be much better when Mike’s installed.” Tillerson was sacked four months later, replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

What all this confirms is that media reporting and commentary is largely framed by the concerns of the governing elite. Which explains the difference in the size and tone of coverage – Russia has been designated an Official Enemy of the West, while Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE are close allies. However, it is important to separate the interests of Western elites and those of the general population. So while it is obvious why the British elite would want a close ties with the authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, it is difficult to see what the British public get out of these unholy associations.

The obsessive focus on Russian interference serves a couple of important functions. First, as highlighted above, it hides inconvenient but important truths – that many of our so-called allies are carrying out sophisticated and long-running campaigns to undermine the will of Western publics. And second, it acts as a displacement activity – instead of looking at the deep-seated domestic reasons behind Trump’s victory and why the UK voted for Brexit we continue to be fixated on the all-powerful evil Disney villain Putin.

As always, to see through the fog of propaganda and gain an accurate understanding of the world citizens need to be careful and critical consumers of the mainstream corporate news, making sure to combine their intake with a healthy dose of alternative and independent media.

Ian Sinclair tweets at @IanJSinclair

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2018

‘The biggest immediate single problem we face… is mainstream media reporting’, British historian Mark Curtis recently argued in an Open Democracy interview about UK foreign policy.

Florian Zollmann’s deeply impressive first book – which expands on his PhD, supervised by Professor Richard Keeble – goes a long way in engaging with this long-running issue for peace activists.

‘The news media in liberal democracies operates as a propaganda system on behalf of state-corporate elite interests’, he argues, using Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as the foundation of his study.

Analysing elite newspapers in the UK, US and Germany, Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, compares and contrasts nearly 2,000 news, editorial and comment items covering human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

Zollmann’s findings are deeply worrying, with huge ramifications for journalists, activists and British democracy itself. ‘If countries designated to be “enemy” states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses’, he notes. ‘If, on the other hand, Western states or their “allies” are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.’ The level of indignation, the seniority of the officials blamed, and whether the media call for sanctions, action from the United Nations or so-called humanitarian military intervention – all largely depends on the identity of the perpetrators. It isn’t included as a case study, but the media’s (lack of) coverage of the Western-backed assault on Yemen is a further damning illustration of Zollmann’s thesis.

In addition to extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence, a wealth of references and an in-depth bibliography, the book also includes important accounts of the two devastating US-led assaults on Fallujah in Iraq, as well as critical facts and arguments effectively excluded from the mainstream media’s reporting of the West’s interventions in Libya and Syria.

At £29, this is a pricey purchase, and though it is clearly written and logically argued, the academic style may make it a little dry for some readers. However, I would strongly recommend peace activists get hold of a copy of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention as it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the media’s propagandistic role in the West’s often deadly and counterproductive foreign policy.

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 February 2018

Last month Guardian columnist and leader writer Natalie Nougayrède wrote an op-ed examining propaganda in our supposed age of “lies and distortion”.

Focussing on “Russian propaganda” and “Russian meddling” in the West’s political systems, Nougayrède argued “citizens who live in an authoritarian, disinformation-filled environment deal daily with the reality of propaganda in ways we can’t fully experience, because we live outside of it.”

The former executive editor of Le Monde newspaper in France couldn’t be clearer: propaganda is what ‘they’ – Russia and other official enemies – do, not something the West dirties its hands with.

In actual fact, as the academics David Miller and William Dinan argue in their 2007 book A Century of Spin, sophisticated propaganda has played a central role in Western societies, particularly the United States, since the early twentieth century. US dissident Noam Chomsky calls this “thought control in a democratic society”.

As the “father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays explained in his 1928 PR manual: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.” This echoes the thoughts of another influential intellectual of the period, Walter Lippmann, who believed the elite needed to be protected from the “bewildered herd” – the general public. How? By “the manufacture of consent”.

Indeed the term ‘Public Relations’ is itself a brilliant bit of spin, with Bernays noting: “Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it [in 1914-18]. So what I did was to try to find some other words. So we found the words Council of Public Relations.”

As the quotes from Bernays and Lippmann highlight, Dinan and Miller note “Public Relations was created to thwart and subvert democratic decision making” – to “take the risk of out of democracy”, to paraphrase the title of the seminal 1995 book written by Australian academic Alex Carey.

With the US and UK at the heart of the global advertising and marketing industries, and corporations funding thinktanks and huge lobbying efforts, today the general public face hundreds of thousands of talented professionals spending billions trying to influence their thoughts and actions.

For example, in 2013 The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported that between 2002 and 2010 conservative US billionaires had covertly provided $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change. “Americans are now being exposed to more public relations than even before”, Sue Curry Jensen, professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, wrote on The Conversation website last year.

Western governments become especially interested in manipulating public opinion during wartime. In 1990 we had the confected story about Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait throwing babies out of incubators, masterminded by the US PR firm Hill & Knowlton. In the late 1990s Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service carried out Operation Mass Appeal aimed at gaining support for sanctions and war against Iraq. Stories were planted in the foreign media “with the intention that they would then feed back into Britain and the US”, British historian Mark Curtis explained in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. In 2002-3 the British government carried out a long campaign, complete with dossiers, sexed-up intelligence and dirty tricks at the United Nations, to persuade the British public to back the invasion of Iraq – what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. In 2011 the public was told that NATO’s intervention in Libya was essential to stop Libyan government forces massacring civilians in Benghazi. Five years later the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into the UK’s role in the conflict concluded “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

The military itself is a huge source of propaganda. In 2016 the Mirror newspaper reported the British armed forces employ 122 press officers and spends £41.4 million on press and public relations. Across the pond the Pentagon spends “nearly $600 million annually on public relations” in an attempt “to shape public opinion”, according to Chatham House’s Micah Zenko. It is likely US propaganda is directed at the UK population as well as the American public. For example, in 2010 Wikileaks published a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memo proposing how European support for NATO mission in Afghanistan could be sustained. Concerned that “indifference” to the war in nations like France and Germany “might turn into active hostility” the memo recommends “a consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors”. This will create “a buffer” to future opposition, thus “giving politicians greater scope to support deployments in Afghanistan.”

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] role in combating the Taliban”, the CIA notes. “Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories… could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.”

Though the liberal view is of a media that is cantankerous and highly critical of power, some basic facts suggest something else is going on. “Research indicates that as much as 75 percent of US news begins as public relations”, Curry Jansen notes. Investigative journalist Nick Davies confirmed similar figures for the UK press in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. In addition, in the US there are now five PR people for every reporter.

More broadly, Chomsky has long noted that mainstream news media play a key role in relaying corporate and government propaganda to the general public. In their book Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Chomsky highlight an “observable pattern of indignant campaigns and suppressions, of shading and emphasis, and of selection of context, premises, and general agenda” which “is highly functional for established power and responsive to the needs of the government and major power groups.”

Which brings us back to Nougayrède, who has been spreading fake news and propaganda about the West’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. In August 2015 she wrote in the Guardian that President Obama has “refrained from getting involved in Syria”, noting that “the US has this year found only 60 rebels it could vet for a train-and-equip programme”. In the real world mainstream newspaper reports had already noted the US (and UK) had been working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in hundreds of tons weapons to Syrian rebels. Moreover, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated that the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme in Syria — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” – was spending $1 billion a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Pushing for Western military intervention in July 2015, Nougayrède highlighted what she saw as the hypocrisy of the anti-war left in the West: “there have been no significant street demonstrations against the war that Assad and his allies have waged on Syrian civilians.”

Chomsky explored the laser-like focus many intellectuals had for the crimes of opposite states in his 1992 book Deterring Democracy: “Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies”, he noted, while “those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment.”

There are, of course, very real consequences for those criticising the government in authoritarian states, so it’s understandable why commentators living under oppressive governments might toe the party line. Nougayrède, on the other hand, continues her Western power-friendly crusade against the West’s official enemies freely of her own volition, no doubt thinking she is a questioning, adversarial commentator – a perfect illustration of the power of Western propaganda.

As George Orwell once said, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.