Friday, August 5, 2022

The Lying Game (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
Our rulers have a long and inglorious tradition of lying to stay in power. Our only defence against this is to understand the basis of this lie machine.
Just ask anyone, they’ll tell you. “Of course the press lie,” they’ll say, and whip out the latest tabloid, and show you proof incontrovertible that there are porky pies in the Currant Bun. It’s so obvious that the media are liars that one paper—the Daily Sport—can trade off on its pastiche of the press, telling blatant and obvious lies, wherein the pleasure for the reader lies precisely in spotting that it’s all false.

It is, though, precisely through reference to the blatancy and flippancy of the so-called “yellow press” that the power of media propaganda lies. That the tabloids’ allergy to accuracy is passed off as playfulness in the face of the grim-faced puritanism of the “serious” media and apparent attempts to impose any agenda on them, means that the reputation for honesty and accuracy of the broadsheet and broadcast media is maintained. Yet, it is precisely through the “serious” media that many of the lies that sustain the system are promulgated.

A simple examination of the modern media suffices to demonstrate that propaganda is the norm, not the exception. You just have to look at who the media are to begin to understand that they have a material interest in going out of their way to defend the current system. The media is composed of capitalist businesses, selling their news, dependent on the markets; and—more specifically—they are dependent upon selling advertising (i.e. getting money from other capitalists) in order to keep operating. A careful glance at, say, the Guardian would demonstrate just how much page space is given over to advertising in proportion to the space given over to reports. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press, and capitalists own the press, both individually through media firms and collectively through advertising. The threat to withdraw advertising income from firms that incur the displeasure of the capitalist class means that the media firms have a direct interest in avoiding certain controversies.

This situation pertains, even in the supposedly non-commercial BBC, since it exists in competition with the other news providers, and is subject to similar funding threats as well as political pressure, the ending of the licence fee, or the appointment of governors, for example. The model for government intervention in the culture industry is “the arm’s-length principle”, thus the BBC, and various arts boards are given grants and are nominally independent, but, they are capable of losing funding, or being otherwise pressured if they get too much out of control. This “arm’s-length principle” is in effect the way that the whole capitalist class relates to the media, preserving the appearance of neutrality and objectivity, whilst retaining ultimate control.

Researching and gathering information requires lots of time, patience and diligence, something which adds to a media firm’s overheads—thus cutting into profits. The pressure to lower costs, to churn out copy on time, means that media firms cannot waste much time independently searching out and verifying information. Thus they are heavily dependent upon publicists (like the ubiquitous Max Clifford) and public relations officers of both the state and other firms to provide them with newsworthy items. Capitalist institutions collectively spend billions of pounds per year on public relations and media management.

Selected news
The relationship to official sources can be seen in the build-up of the Zimbabwe story, which began with news stories reporting comments by Robin Cook and Peter Hain expressing their concerns about conditions in Zimbabwe. These comments, highlighted, no doubt, by so-called “spin doctors” meant these concerns became a top news item. In contradistinction, the fact the Cook did not give the story of the British government negotiating Foday Sanko into coalition with the Sierra Leonean government last year, meant it did not make the news. The same holds true of the collapse and invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the bloodbath of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war: without being placed on the official agenda by the powers-that-be these stories have only been given footnote treatment in the British media. Even the collapse of liberal-democracy from the military coup in Pakistan has been consigned to acceptance.

Private Eye (2 June), in uncovering a significant aspect of the Sierra Leone story—that the Sierra Leonean army is equally as murderous as the RUF—makes a significant observation: when the embarrassing story came to light, the government reacted by “burying the story by ensuring the non-availability of official spokesmen or ministers”. Without official documentation, and without the opportunity for “balance” the news media did not run with the story. The power of the information providers to withhold both data and access provides a key strategy in their control of the news media.

These international stories help highlight the way in which the supposedly “free” press follows the line of their masters. Are media in France or Germany putting the Zimbabwe story as their lead news item? Undoubtedly not, because Zimbabwe is not an area of their concern, so they do not focus on it so intently. Hence while thousands die each year in Laos from bombs dropped by America in the 1970s, while thousands are slaughtered in Colombia—all without a single comment in the media. The murder or beating up of a single farmer in Zimbabwe is top of the six o’clock news, complete with tearful interviews from the victims and their families. Along with that, every news report of the killings in Zimbabwe lists the number of white-skinned farmers first, and then relegates the murdered black-skinned MDC supporters to a footnote on that figure.

This highlights a classic manoeuvre on behalf of the media—the selection of worthy and unworthy victims. Two months back, people facing starvation in Ethiopia were presented as, again, the worthy recipients of the West’s largesse and charitable concern, yet, when people starve and die in Iraq—as a direct consequence of the policy of the Western powers—their story does not make the news headlines. Acting to help worthy victims, and punish “bad guys” serves our masters’ ends in that it helps them justify and thus mobilise for their interventions.

A part of the response of the British media to the Zimbabwe story owes itself to older forms of class rule, in that the editors of the newspapers, or their staff, have friends or relations living in Zimbabwe who went over to administer colonialism. These personal relations give further impetus to placing the story up the news agenda.

Scare stories
The control of personnel is in fact another key factor in ensuring the capitalist control of the news agenda. A glaring example of this in practice was evidenced by the Mayday riots in London this year. Almost inexplicably the BBC sent along Nicholas Witchell, their “Royal” correspondent, to cover the events. Obviously, anyone who gets the “accolade” of being a royal correspondent is sufficiently tame to serve their masters’ interest with gusto, as indeed, Witchell did in his reportage of the day. The very fact that he was moved from his usual brief to cover what was, in effect, a small protest (with only 5,000 or so people present in Westminster) clearly indicates the propaganda intentions of his editors.

In the days leading up to the protest the media ran scare story after scare story, about the police being prepared for massive violence, about the army being on standby (and these stories were spread by the “respectable” media, such as Radio 4’s Today programme). It was clear that the agenda was worked out in advance, and carefully prepared.

The behaviour of reporters at the scene gives other indications how the media coverage was an a priori agenda. Camera folk were seen hunting out any grungy-appearing anarchist who’d overdone the drink and was being sick. The Channel Five reporter described largely peaceful events as “simmering all day”, in flagrant contradiction to the experience of the vast majority of people attending. Indeed, the media as much as possible pushed the line that the police were merely responding to the thuggery of the protesters; repeating time after time that the riot suits only came out after McDonald’s was trashed; whereas eye-witness reports from Trafalgar Square note that police there were waiting in riot gear, and could not have got changed after the vandalism began. It was clearly in our masters’ interests to maintain that the police response was a reluctant intervention, and that the blame lay on the protesters.

The disorganisation and the non-accountable actions of individuals in trashing the shop and vandalising the statues represented a gift to the media so they could ignore the point of the demonstration and push home their masters’ line and scare people into accepting more control. Spectacular dissent failed dramatically because the protesters had no means of controlling the social and political context into which the protest was placed by the propaganda system.

The mandarins of the state and their commissars in the media occasionally and inadvertently admit the importance of media structures. During the Kosovan war, they were forced into openly having to bully John Simpson for his reports from Serbia for falling out of step with the official line, while every other reporter placidly accepted the daily dole of information from Jamie Shea. Further, by attacking the Serbian broadcasting service, and claiming it as a legitimate target of war, the powers-that-be revealed their true and thorough understanding about the role of propaganda. The event was not without precedents, as NATO forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina seized a Bosnian-Serb television transmitter (see Socialist Standard, January 1997) because it was broadcasting “enemy” propaganda.

Our rulers have a long and inglorious tradition of lying to stay in power, and our only defence against this is to understand the basis of this lie machine, and to work to expose their lies as often as possible. They tell different lies in different circumstances, and set different agendas according to the intended news audience they anticipate. Our interest lies in exploiting the divisions between the divergent interests of different groups of capitalists, and showing the contradictions involved. Thus our best weapon against the lies of our masters, is to understand that we the workers of theworld have a common interest, and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing information between ourselves, deliberately and consciously working for our liberation without borders.
Pik Smeet

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