The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.
Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)
No one wants to think they’re being persuaded what to think or feel, even though that’s precisely the objective of modern political spin doctors, advertisers and media barons. The techniques for pulling the wool over our eyes these days have to be ever more subtle, as more people seem to waking up to such manipulation. We need to resist! It’s time to Think for Yourself! But, hang on a minute, maybe we’re not quite as sophisticated as we think:
‘Without an awareness of the grave consequences involved with an increasingly concentrated media environment the public (i.e. non-elites) will continue to be systematically brainwashed by the propagandist arm of the government that is the mass media and will unknowingly acquiesce to the interests of the dominant elites.’1
Phew! This sounds like it comes from the most rabid conspiracy theorist; in fact it comes from an academic study, a Master’s Degree Thesis published in 2012 on Propaganda in the US mass media. Maybe this systematic brainwashing by TV and newspapers isn’t as bad in the cynical old UK? Not so, it would seem. On the TruePublica website (in an article entitled How Britain’s Propaganda Machine Controls What You Think, 22nd September 2015) Graham Vanbergen writes that:
‘Just 5 billionaires and 5 ISP’s and about as many government officials are controlling what you read and see and manipulate what you believe to be factual and real. Propaganda works! It appears that it isn’t enough that government officials and their agencies do things such as listen in on phone calls, take illicit images of you and your family, read your emails and troll through the web browsing histories of everyone. They want to control not only what you read and see, they want you to believe a manufactured story to keep them where they are and keep you where you are.’
The American philosopher Professor Noam Chomsky on the RT news programme Sputnik explained that:
“Media creates artificial wants, atomizes people and separates them from one another, making sure regular folks don’t disturb political elites. Major media corporations turn people “into isolated atoms of consumption, obedient, having the ‘right’ opinions which don’t bother political elites … when media and modern technology get into the hands of wrong people — private tyrannies or totalitarian states — it can become a dangerous tool for suppressing the masses and serving the interests of the few governing elites“.
In short, the Establishment wants to control the Narrative – the Propaganda we’re invited to adopt about how the world really is. And forget about brave, crusading journalism that might hold the powerful to account – there’s almost none of this left these days. Apart from noble exceptions like John Pilger and the Independent columnist Robert Fisk, most newspaper content is just an echo chamber for the Narrative. Plus – whether tabloid gutter press, or the ‘respectable’ broadsheets – newspaper content is determined by the way in which editors are in thrall to Big Business, to the people who own the paper. This fact, well known to researchers and journalists themselves, was summarised neatly in Owen Jones’ book, The Establishment and How They Get Away With It (2013):
‘Behind our democracy lurks a powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge profits in the process.’
The Narrative as such usually boils down to whatever your government wants you to believe about so-called democracy and freedom, the improving economy, its ‘help’ of war torn nations abroad. (In reality, it is more likely that the government is spying on you, the economy is in dire straits and its ‘assistance’ of the foreign country was an illegal invasion.)
However, these days, when the media is everywhere and news gets around faster (due to the digital revolution) governments know they have to be smarter in keeping you ‘on message’. Certainly, anything that casts your government in a bad light (such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq) is played down, or its details distorted and veiled in mist. Hence the amount of spin that is given to ‘military interventions’ and the ‘use of force’ – basically war, where people will die. Horribly.
Truth, it is said, is the first casualty in wartime. One technique for controlling the Narrative is to make sure that reports coming out of war zones never have a negative impact. All they need do is manipulate the language – hence we enter the realm of the euphemism, which is designed to make the harsh truths sound more easy on the ear. You will hear them all the time during ‘military interventions’ – you probably heard all of the following during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan:
Collateral damage: A way of making the accidental killing of innocent civilians sound nicer;
Enhanced interrogation: A new name for torture
Extraordinary rendition: Kidnapping terrorism suspects and transporting them to other countries for torture (sorry ‘extraordinary rendition’)
Friendly Fire – Accidentally killing one of your own side
Extreme prejudice: Instead ‘kill the bastard’ – a soldier’s order might be to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’.
Non-operative Personnel: Basically, dead soldiers killed in action
Transfer Tubes: These are the body bags which the dead soldiers or latterday Non-operative Personnel: are put first put into
The novelist George Orwell wrote that a government can enhance its’ power by telling the public that they are in a war, even a perpetual war. And it can attain some success by clouding over its real horrors and human suffering. As one commentator wrote: “The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost.”2
Another euphemism is Normal Involuntary Attrition, which sounds suspiciously like it might refer to some war-like condition. In fact, it comes from the sphere of work and employment and means ‘getting the sack’. In turn, this can also be called “dehiring,” or the equally absurd “negative employee retention”. A piece I wrote for the quarterly magazine Verbatim (Winter, 2004) called Let’s Ban These Words also covered euphemisms in the workplace where we find,
‘job titles like floor technician (cleaner), refuse collector (as in dustbinman), and–believe it or not–glass technician (window cleaner) … [H]aving secured work, you may at some time be involved with industrial action (going on strike) whereupon the company may retaliate by downsizing, which means you will soon be out of work again. After being dehired (made redundant), you may make a successful benefit claim (go on the dole), though if you buck the system and commit benefit fraud (an illegal, though often ingenious, way of increasing one’s income), you may have to serve some prison time at her Majesty’s pleasure. (This latter prompts me to wonder: does her Majesty actually derive pleasure from having her subjects locked up?).’
In spite of all this, spin doctors know the Propaganda (which they now call ‘perception management’ – another handy euphemism) can still work quite well. This is because many folk cannot be bothered seeking out the real facts for themselves. Back in 1928, Edward Bernays wrote that ‘What the newspaper does strive for is that the news which it publishes shall be accurate, and (since it must select from the mass of news material available) that it shall be of interest and importance to large groups of its readers.’ This is either hopelessly naive or plain dishonest – maybe back in smug old 1928 we believed that newspaper editors had no agenda in what they published. Not any more.
If editors really were prompted by what was interesting and important, there would not be the shameful example of the Observer newspaper prior to the invasion of Iraq. In the autumn of 2002, the journalist Ed Vulliamy had a major story to tell, based on an interview with Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst with access to highly classified documents. Goodman had gone on record to say that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and would even name names. This was clearly a coup for Vulliamy and would make a significant impact on the then debate over the expected military attack. And yet – mysteriously – the Observer refused to print it.2
There were seven versions of this interview – none of which saw the light of day. I will cover in more depth the reasons why in a future post. Suffice it to say for now that the Observer did not run this story as it contradicted the Narrative.
1. Gonzaga University Master’s Degree Thesis by Frank McCoy, submitted on December, 2012: The Propaganda Model: Corporate And Political Collusion In The Creation Of An Oligopolistic Mainstream U.S. Media.
2. David Bromwich: http://vizettes.com/kt/american_empire/pages/euphemisms-glossary.htm
3. See Flat Earth News, Davies, Nick, Vintage, 2009.