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april 2004

On propaganda


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: Brian Eno, author of "Lessons in how to lie about Iraq"

When Brian Eno first visited Russia, in 1986, he made friends with Sacha, a musician whose father had been Brezhnev's personal doctor: "One day we were talking about life during "the period of stagnation" — the Brezhnev era. "It must have been strange being so completely immersed in propaganda," I said. "Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda," replied Sacha. "That is the difference. Russian propaganda was so obvious that most Russians were able to ignore it. They took it for granted that the government operated in its own interests and any message coming from it was probably slanted — and they discounted it."

  Propaganda is a term not much in use nowadays for we associate it readily with a regime that has absolute power to get certain things propagated — or suppressed — by all media. To put it in a more "neutral" way: propaganda consists of a deliberate attempt at controlling, or altering, peoples attitudes, hoping that a predictable behaviorial change would take place — this can be done in a variety of ways: most recently, governments that were for going to war with Iraq resorted to — if we believe their critics — hyping-up, distorting, manipulating, ignoring, and so on, and so on, information until it was to their liking: attitudes, clearly, were shaken.
  In "democratic" societies this is called spin, news management, information management, issues management — terms, with the exception of spin, of course, that radiate an aura of neutrality and thus, ultimately, confound more than they illuminate — probably on purpose. As much as can be described what propaganda is doing — policy, output, technique, methods — there is, so far, no way of establishing if it is actually "working" the way it was intended to. In other words: its effectiveness can't be measured — in the sense that it cannot be directly attributed to the propaganda output — neither can it be proven that it does not work — it is commonly, and quite rightfully, I believe, assumed that the rise of communism and fascism as well as the Second World War appeared to demonstrate the power of propaganda quite effectively.
Next There is however quite a different type of propaganda that hardly ever gets mentioned. "Its greatest triumph is," Brian Eno wrote in his article for The Observer, "that we generally don't notice it — or laugh at the notion it even exists. We watch the democratic process taking place — heated debates in which we feel we could have a voice — and think that, because we have "free" media, it would be hard for the Government to get away with anything very devious without someone calling them on it. It takes something as dramatic as the invasion of Iraq to make us look a bit more closely and ask: "How did we get here?" How exactly did it come about that, in a world of Aids, global warming, 30-plus active wars, several famines, cloning, genetic engineering, and two billion people in poverty, practically the only thing we all talked about for a year was Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Was it really that big a problem? Or were we somehow manipulated into believing the Iraq issue was important and had to be fixed right now — even though a few months before few had mentioned it, and nothing had changed in the interim ... It isn't just propaganda any more, it's "prop-agenda." It's not so much the control of what we think, but the control of what we think about."
  Right. The agenda-setting then. But haven't we been thinking, and for quite some time now, that the media are setting the agenda? So have we been wrong all along and the governments are setting it? Well, why make a distinction between media and governments in the first place? Why buy the crap that there is such a thing as independent media? The media, as we all know, are owned by people with money — and not by idealistically motivated rebels — and people with money usually see to it that their interests are represented by the boys and girls in government.
  By the way, the media we're talking about here need to be correctly labelled: mass media, that is. Anybody ever heard of independent mass media?
  When Saddam Hussein was captured, BBC and CNN repeated all day long the sequence that showed an old tramp being examined by a medical doctor. It was obvious: the man should be humiliated, and he should be shown being humiliated. Extraordinary footage, indeed. Made available by courtesy of the American government. And the mass media jumped on it. Too good not to be used. Even if it was pure propaganda. The Geneva Conventions? Sure but, again, simply too good not to be used.
Next Every other month or so, according to Jaap van Ginneken in his Understanding global news, the US government, the world's most powerful agenda-setter, "claims satellite observations show that this or that hostile government is importing sensitive technology, is building unconventional weapons plants, is redeploying army units along its frontiers in a threatening way." Most of the time, the world media devote ample time to such accusations. The question whether these other governments have a right to do so — or are bound by international treaties to refrain from doing so — is often completely bypassed on such occasions ... The opposite hardly ever occurs, that is to say, the same sources and media drawing attention to the fact that the US itself is also constantly developing new non-conventional weapons systems and deploying them in ways which their opposite numbers might perceive as threatening."
  Is there a way out? The journalist John Pilger once said that when reading a newspaper he only reads articles by people he knows he can trust. So what should we, ordinary people, who probably do not personally know people who work for the mass media, do? For example: ask ourselves if we need the information we are provided with. Konrad Kellen wrote in the introduction to Jacques Ellul's Propaganda. The formation of men's attitudes that Ellul designated "intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reasons: (1) they absorb the largest amount of second-hand, unverifiable information; (2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important issue of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; (3) they consider themselves capable of "judging for themselves."
  They literally need propaganda. Not exactly comforting news. But then: this was written in 1965. And we surely have become much more savvy since, haven't we? Nowadays, intelligent people deplore that African villages, for lack of electricity, can't connect to radio, TV, and the internet. One can't help wondering if that is not a blessing.
  • Ellul, Jacques (1962), Propaganda. The formation of men's attitudes. New York: Knopf, 1965 (originally published in 1962 as: Ellul, Jacques, Propagandes. Paris: Armand Collin; translated from the French by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner with an introduction by Konrad Kellen).
  • Eno, Brian (2003), "Lessons in how to lie about Iraq." In: The Observer, Sunday, August 17, 2003.
  • Van Ginneken, Jaap (1998), Understanding global news. A critical introduction. London: Sage, 1998.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes