Introduction - the crisis for Mr Sincerity
What's the hallmark of a world class liar? If you think about it, it is surely that such a person needs to appear as the living embodiment of honesty.
So perhaps it is not surprising that, for the last few years, there has been a paradox at the heart of British political life. Tony Blair has been regarded as Mr Sincerity himself - even while, at the very same time, his government has acquired a reputation for "spin". You could notice this in the newspaper editorials leading up to the Iraq war. Editorial writers routinely questioned the politics of the government, but equally routinely said that they did not question the sincerity of Tony Blair. They routinely suggested that he might really believed what he was saying about weapons of mass destruction and how to rid Iraq of them. All the fuss currently is about trying to rebuild this illusion.
The irony of this now is that, for Tony Blair, it is a futile game anyway. Because if he did believe about the weapons of mass destruction then it reveals him to be a remarkably stupid, arrogant and pig headed man. More and more information is coming out about how evidence and the experts, whether the UN or Dr David Kelly, available to him a long time beforehand, were very sceptical. So if he believed there were such weapons he ignored his experts - he pushed all their expertise aside in his mind, and pressed ahead with the war preparations. Which would he like us to believe - a criminally negligent fool who ignored the evidence in order to start a war or a previously accomplished liar who has been found out?
Either way we cannot fail to notice that deceiving people is at the heart of politics. In fact, deceiving and misleading people has become central to the organisation of modern society - not just in politics but also in economic relationships.
Of course governments have been deceiving people for a very long time, not just for the last few years. It is very easy to get the impression that deception is a product of New Labour. It isn't. The surface message did change when the Labour became the New Labour party. "New Labour" did abandon any distinctively "labour movement" or "socialist" message and thoroughly and enthusiastically gave itself into the hands and techniques of the PR industry. It embraced as its slogan what philosophers would call a "Hurrah word" - a word that sounds progressive and laudable, but a word that is also suitably empty and vague, namely "modernisation" - which enabled it to push through the agenda of the British and global business elite.
But if we think of "Spin", in its essence, as deceit, as intentionally misleading the public in order to pursue the interests of the well connected and well resourced, then there is nothing new going on at the higher reaches of government at all. Intentionally misleading the public is the core of British government and of most, perhaps of all governments. This is especially true in relation in the most controversial areas of state policy, namely the prosecution of wars and most things connected to them.
When deceit is needed most - war politics
In his book "Web of Deceit. Britain's Real Role in the World" Mark Curtis gives many demonstrations of this (Vintage Books, 2003).. He quotes Lloyd George in World War One, for example, who confided to the editor of the Guardian "If people knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow, but they don't know, and they can't know".
The key institutions of foreign policy and "defence" have been constructed to prevent information coming. This has been true for a long time. Curtis has many other quotes which show the attitude very clearly. Here, for example, is one from Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's Press Secretary. "There is no freedom of information in this country; there's no public right to know. There's a common sense idea of how to run a country and Britain is full of common sense people....Bugger the public's right to know. The game is the security of the state - not the public's right to know"
Or again, there are the extraordinary quotes from civil servants to the Scott Inquiry, which was held in the early 1990s, into arms exports to Iraq. This showed that not just the public, but even Members of Parliament, have very limited rights in regard to information. e.g. "The Secrecy Culture of Whitehall is essentially a product of British parliamentary democracy; economy with the truth is the essence of a professional reply to a parliamentary question." Sir Patrick Nairn, former Whitehall permanent secretary, told Scott.
Power structures and social communications - the gravitation curve in the field of social meanings.
Of course, if you go far enough back, ruling circles did not need to hide things from ordinary people who were mostly illiterate. There were no mass communications systems and people did not usually have a chance to see the monarch, let alone understand and question state policy. It has always been the case too that power relationships in the organisation of society effect the way things are described and perceived. Einstein suggested that space is curved by the gravitational mass of very large objects. The communications channels and systems or any unequal society are also distorted by the social power structures in them. The articulate people dominate the systems and channels of communication and describe things in a way that take for granted their concerns, their priorities and their wishes. In the early English world, for example, there were at most one or two thousand people, out of a population of about a million or so who could read and write at all. They were mostly church people - many of the warlord aristocracy were illiterate - but when they wrote about secular affairs they wrote for and with the indulgence of the warlords, whose world view they largely shared.
The pressure and priorities of powerful vested interests are all pervasive still today. If you want to produce an alternative news service, for example, to get out the plain truth about things - then you must think about how it is to be funded - you are immediately tempted to think about advertising, giving yourself over to the priorities of people with money. The next thing you know, you are wondering whether this or that article might upset your main advertisers.
Literacy, education and deception
Mass literacy and mass communications have however changed the conditions under which deception takes place - and that change continues to develop as large numbers of people have gone through higher education and have access to the Internet. This is a global phenomenon and one aspect of the current crisis of globalisation is that although the US is the leading world economic and military power, it is comparitively poor in the educations of its citizens. At least one reason for explaining the growing rejection of scientific explanations of the world, in favour of religious ones is sheer ignorance.This is a rather old quote from a book first published in 1993 , but it makes the point that this has been the case for many years now - and you find much the same conclusion from Michael Moore's more recent book, Stupid White Men.
"In a recent standardised science test adminstered to ninth graders in seventeen countries, American students finished behind those in Japan, South Korea and every Western European country, and ahead only of those in Hong Kong and the Philippines......Surveys of the average high school pupil's knowledge of basic history revealed great ignorance (for example, what the Reformation meant), ecliped only by their geographical illiteracy; one in seven Americans tested recently could not locate his or her country on a world map and 75% could not locate the Persian Gulf." (Paul Kennedy. Preparing for the 21st Century. Fontana 1994 p 306)
Clearly this is a population very susceptible to being duped and very open to naive and irrational ideas.
However, there are other parts of the US, British and world population that are much more able to see through the manipulation once they become aware of the need, and if they take the time and trouble to put their minds to it. As education develops there is a need for extraordinary levels of resources to be put into hiding things, to mislead, to distract, to channel public attention, and to parry inquiries. This is particularly the case when state policy is promoting hidden vested interests and/or is operating in areas of high conflict and has, accordingly, a highly controversial character. 'Communication management' has become the key to government. That is what the current crisis, after the Iraq War, is all about. A communications strategy, to justify a war, has gone very wrong.
Go back to sleep - keeping the comfortable comfortable, the process of reassurance.
Government is not just constructed around secrecy, it is constructed around deliberately misleading. It is constructed around "reassuring". Whenever I write letters to my Member of Parliament about matters of concern what come back are bland replies, usually written by civil servants (perhaps signed by junior ministers). The covering letter from my MP, John Heppell, then always ends with the words. " I hope that this reassures you". That is the function of government "communications strategy - to send you back to sleep.
In fact, this is one of the roles of the intelligence services. It's called psychological warfare. According to Britain's leading expert on the Security Services, Stephen Dorril,in his book on MI6, the psychological warfare section of that department has the role "Massaging public opinion into accepting controversial foreign policy options" (quoted by Curtis)..
At the moment we have the extraordinary spectacle of the government and the intelligence services appearing to fall out about who is going to take the rap about the failure to find the "weapons of mass destruction". As far as I can see, the intelligence service PR strategy in all of this is to argue that "intelligence material" was misused. Don't blame us, they are saying, our material is often tentative, unclear, imprecise, hearsay - so we cannot be absolutely sure about it. If politicians used this material to claim there were weapons of mass destruction ready for use in 45 minutes then they drawing too definite a message from material that was never claimed to be as hard and definite as this. The Communication Strategy misused the intelligence material and abused the "intelligence community".
I'm not an expert in these matters, but I would have thought that one way of 'massaging public opinion', a role of MI6, would be to use "tentative" intelligence material which makes the case that they wanted to make to the public - because they always have the option, if that information turns out to be false, of saying "well we never said that you could be 100% certain about it".
The intelligent scrutiny of intelligence services - fooling people becomes more difficult.
To be fair, in February, there are newspaper articles (e.g. In the Independent) which show intelligence sources being a bit cautious about the use of intelligence material - at that time, however, UN agencies and investigative reporters were scrutinising all this material closely. The suspicious character of this material was getting around. Thank goodness the UN agencies existed to do that scrutinising. The UN did not stop the war, but its officials helped millions of people keep track of the truth of what was going on. They and some critical press and the anti war movement forced the "intelligence community" to become aware of the danger to their credibility. There are a lot more people about nowadays who are keeping abreast of whether intelligence material is fake or not - that is what has begun to change, perhaps. The "intelligence services" are operating in an much more intelligent and clued up environment. ( Albeit one in which many questions do not get dealt with. I would like to know, for example, who actually produced the Niger forgeries? Who commissioned them? Who had an interest in commissioning them?).
So 'spin', as in deceit, hiding the truth and deliberately misleading, is very old. And yet, as I have shown, there clearly are new elements in this situation - both in regard to the ways the deceit is organised and in regard to large elements of the public's reaction to it. It is becoming more difficult to get away with crude spin. Governments are being found out more often - at least by those parts of the population who are clued up enough to understand and care.
Understanging message manipulation is becoming the key to modern politics and increasing numbers of people are getting good at noticing and understanding it. There is, for example, a PR Watch Web Site with a "spin of the day" news item and the chance to discuss and share ideas about it - www.prwatch.org/
At the time of writing, for example, there was a discussion on PR Watch's Spin of the Day section that:
"Columnists for the Washington Times write that "the Pentagon adopted a new strategy in its search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It is called the "big impact plan". The plan calls for gathering and holding on to all the information now being collected about the weapons. Rather than releasing its findings piecemeal, defense officials will release a comprehensive report on the arms, perhaps six months from now. The goal of the strategy will be to quiet critics of the Bush administration who said claims of Iraq's hidden weapons stockpiles were exaggerated in order to go to war." Source: Washington Times, August 1, 2003.
There are then two comments on this which have been e mailed in. One, by "termigator" from Texas suggests, for example,
"My guess that any report will be coordinated with Bush's re-election campaign. Also, by public stating that the Pentagon will wait until they have "full" report about Iraq's weapons, it may cause Presidential hopefuls to be more hesitant about criticizing the administration about Iraq for fear that the report may have some "meat" and could prove politically damaging to any candidate that is too aggressive about criticizing Bush."
With the opportunity that it gives to exchange ideas and its useful sources of information, sites like PR Watch are very useful antidotes to the tide of manipulation. We need such help for, as I have argued, the organisation of deceit has massively increased and changed in the last few decades with the commercial expansion in the PR industry, running alongside technological developments in broadcast and communications media.
The Organisation of Attention Seeking
There has been a rapid growth in those agencies and organisations whose aim is to manipulate what the population devote their attention to. Who and what we give our attention to in the course of our everyday lives, and what messages we take in, is the subject of fierce competition by a mass of sophisticated "attention grabbing" techniques organised by commercial enterprises.
In the commercial world the aim, essentially, is to get us to focus on symbols and styles (labels, logos, colour schemes) and an attempt to set us particular emotional associations with particular product lines. Various carbonated sugar drinks are associated with adolescent sexuality in blue jeans for example. In the political world the aim is to try to get us to identify with equally shallow and superficial slogans like "modernisation" and suggestive associations, misleading messages and downright lies which will enlist our support for war and the foreign business interests of the elites.
Just as important as the message in politics are the faces, the perceived personalities and the characters of politicians considered as media created celebrities - and the emotional associations people set up when they listen and watch them in the media. This is about clothing, body language, mannerism, speech, emotions. When we are not directly involved in the practical facts of a situation, our reactions to people are based on superficial reactions to their appearance. If they appear friendly, affable, well meaning, we tend to take to them. By contrast angry, flustered, upset people tend to be those we do not take to - because were we to know such people in our veryday life, we associate them with the importation of trouble, aggression, chaos into our lives. But of course, these are superficialities and we may not be aware that angry and upset people are like that because they are being messed around, persecuted, mismanaged, or because they have taken on important causes in which they are blocked and frustrated.
The PR industry are well aware of the need for grooming for the superficial and immediate impressions of the public opinion market. Thus Teflon Tony Blair, for example, is the very embodiment of what a fresh faced, tie wearing, middle class, decent family man should be like. He is self assured and comfortable and thus immensely reassuring. You can tell what he embodies - because he dresses like the head boy of a public or grammar school and speaks with the same sincere earnestness to us as if we were listening to him in school assembly. Some one like this could not possibly be lying could they? (In America the need in regard to front men is a bit different. It doesn't matter that Bush seems a bit dum sometimes, that makes his even more a man of the people - where a large number, but by no means all, of the people, pride themselves on not knowing what is going on).
Deceptive Reassurance though entertainment and Cultural Manipulation
Another dimension to the persuasion politics of PR is the manipulation of the entertainment industry. Hollywood and the Pentagon work closely together to create messages that reassure - there is an office in the Pentagon which provides access to troops, ships and aircraft in return for suitably reassuring, heroic and patriotic messages. Through this medium it was possible, in the film Blackhawk Dawn, to turn the humiliation of the US armies Somalian intervention, into a heroic episode. In Iraq, the film crews create heroic stories for the people back home which are complete fiction.
Computer games are also used as entertainment vehicles for political messages. A friend's son, who is an computer game enthusiast, tells me with complete conviction that "war is fun". He plays war games, which are now offered by the Pentagon. His logic runs as follows - computer games are becoming more and more realistic. He shows me how realistic situations are from the pages of a computer game magazine. The images are very detailed and clear. The situations are complex and put you on the ground. (In the virtual sense). It follows for him that you can experience war realistically. And what you discover is that war is fun. This follows because the computer games are fun. The Pentagon is using thes games to recruit its killers and its canon fodder.
Operation Iraqi Freedom - A Product Launched with 110,00 dead and wounded
Their media wise techniques PR are therefore modernising the process of deceit and giving it a wall to wall character, which invades every aspect of daily perception. The role of Joseph Goebells has been taken over by the commercial PR sector. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber from the organisation PR Watch put it, Bush was intent on attacking Iraq, even before he took office. However he need to persuade the American public. This process was quite literally called a "product launch". The world's top ad agencies and media empires were brought on board to create "Operation: Iraqi Freedom" - a product no decent, patriotic citizen could possibly object to. (See their book Weapons of Mass Deception:The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq Constable & Robinson
ISBN 1-84119-837-4 http://www.prwatch.org/books/wmd.html ).
However, as I have said, in a significant part of the population, there is a reaction against PR manipulation. You can see it in the sales of books like Naomi Klein's No Logo. People are discovering what rottenness is under the labels, the sweat shop labour, the exploitation of children, the environmental damage, the intimidation. Increasing numbers of people are also discovering that PR is impinging on them in their everyday life. They are discovering it is being used to manipulate them in their choice of food, and in regard to the medicines that they might want to take. They have become aware that supposedly independent expert panels are funded by, and staffed by, people from the GM or the pharmaceuticals industry. They notice when the rhetoric of "modernisation" that they hear on radio and TV is such a contrast with what is actually happening in the school or hospital at which they work. There is a generalised weariness and hatred of "spin", alongside a cynicism about the "label culture". They are pre-disposed to being sceptical about the foreign policy messages of governments too. A generalised cultural struggle is developing against the systematic mental and emotional manipulation.
What makes this potentially dangerous for government is not only that a large part of the population are more educated, a large part are also older - they have a lot of experience in the world of work and, often enough, in politics and community affairs. They can see bullshit for what it is. In addition the Internet enables this group to acquire information from alternative reliable information - from foreign newspapers and agencies, from non governmental organisations, direct from the web sites, data bases and the internal discussions of government itself. Much of this information is of a much better quality than that available to, and in, governments because it is not distorted by vested interest and because it can be checked from different viewpoints. (e.g. Different national viewpoints). In practice, over many matters, governments are no better informed than anyone else and in many regards a lot worse informed. As an increasingly large number of people can see this, they are getting wise to the "communication strategies" of government and there are grounds for hope.
Collective insanities - populations more and more out of touch
Unfortunately there are grounds for pessimism too. Particularly in the USA, where the education is poor, and in many cases getting worse, the PR machine has an easy target. This creates a level of deliberately created misperception that is nothing short of grotesque. Huge numbers of people believe, for example, that Iraqis were involved in September 11th and even that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. For political purposes large numbers of people lose touch with any kind of reality and are incapable of understanding anything about the world they live in. They merely function obediently as workers and consumers, roles to which they devote their entire attention.
More generally millions of people are pulled into, what has been aptly described as startling and frightening "advances in shallowness".
Thus, while in Canada, France, Portugal, Mother Nature is, quite literally, going up in flames, why should American consumers worry?
" American consumers are offered a way to get back to nature without ever having to leave the safety of their favorite shopping malls. The Ogden Corporation, taking advantage of their vast experience catering airplane food, opened eight American Wilderness exhibits as part of what they call "shoppertainment." For a mere $10, customers can view 60 different animal species in six different wilderness settings, traveling through desert, forest, mountain, valley, and seashore ecosystems. To enhance the experience, artificial trees and plants were added as well as hidden canisters that emitted natural fragrances. After a brief tour, customers are returned to their natural habitat, the mall, where they can shop at the Naturally Untamed Boutique or eat in the Wilderness Grill. The experience, says Ogden V-P Jonathan Stern, is ideal for "people who prefer nature in small doses." (Isn't that the best way?) Stern adds that people are so accustomed to hurrying today, the average visit to the Grand Canyon is only 22 minutes long, coincidentally the same length as the average TV show minus commercials. Time for another channel, I guess." http://www.scn.org/news/newspeak/
The growth of irrationalism
At every level the modernisation of manipulation and deceit leads to a florid growth of fantasy. Without access to the information that would allow them to make sense of the world, and manipulated in every aspect of their lives, huge numbers of people are lapsing into total irrationalism. Because they lack the ideas and the information that would enable them to critically evaluate anything, and because cannot see at all the influence of powerful institutions are having moulding and channelling their everyday attention to, they are lost when it comes to explaining the way the world works.
Yet everyone seeks to make sense of what is happening around them. We all need to make sense and find orientation in the world, to make our choices. We all need to know what the hell is going on.
The result is that, in American now, millions of people find their orientation to the wider world by joining groups led by charismatics who are 110% certain about what is happening. These preachers explain the complexities of the world all in terms of one book - the Bible. They claim that the Bible resolves all doubt, all uncertainty, in its promise and prophecy of an amazing future. (Of course, if their flocks were to read the Bible on their own, they would mostly be able to make no sense of it. They would notice that it is a mass of contradictions, a jumbled maze of different stories and messages about societies and people dead for a very long time. How very convenient then that there are preachers and charismatics around to give them the secure and certain interpretation which, it just so happens, is the one that they have received from God personally. As Albert Einstein put it "To be a spotless member of the flock, one must be, before anything else, a sheep").
This flood tide of irrationalism goes right up into the US government and into the US judiciary.
"Consider President George W. Bush's current nominee for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alamba Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. Who deems it 'acceptable to execute our mentally retarded', replace the Constitution with the Bible, and asserts that 'We derive our rights from God and not the government'.
Since God is more elusive than government, the likelihood of outrageously subjective interpretations of God's will can only run rampant. This has been amply demonstrated in pronouncements by such divinely-inspired political stalwarts John Ashcroft and Tom DeLay."
Quote from "Religious zealotry and the crisis of American democracy" by Khoren Arisian
Why did George Bush wage war on Iraq? Because God told him too - just trust him. Tony Blair trusted him and you can tell, just by looking at him, that Tony Blair is a very trustworthy man.
© BRIAN DAVEY