The most potent propaganda relies on language loaded with hidden implications. In a recent speech, journalist Robert Fisk noted:
“When we westerners find that ‘our’ enemies — al-Qaeda, for example, or the Taliban — have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it ‘a spike in violence’. Ah yes, a ‘spike’!
“A ‘spike’ in violence, ladies and gentlemen is a word first used, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase.”
It seems reasonable to assert that violence has ‘spiked’ in, say, Afghanistan because violence +has+ increased. But having accepted this reasonable, open implication, we will likely also accept the hidden prediction – that the rise in violence will be followed by a rapid decline. This is important because if we believed the violence might be long-lasting, perhaps worsening, then we might become concerned, outraged – we might even feel prompted to take action. A ‘spike’ suggests that, by the time we get round to doing something, the problem may already have gone away.
Similarly, on June 25, 2006, an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was captured by Palestinian militants at an army post near Gaza. The BBC and ITV news, the Guardian and the Independent all described the action as a “kidnapping”. Guardian journalist David Fickling wrote:
“Israeli troops arrested dozens of Hamas ministers and parliamentarians today as they stepped up their campaign to free a soldier kidnapped by militants in Gaza at the weekend.”
We wrote to Fickling and asked him why Israeli militants “detain” and “arrest” while Palestinian militants “kidnap”. Fickling replied:
“There is a well attested distinction between arrest — an action carried out by a state as the first step of a well-defined legal process — and kidnap, which is an action carried out by private individuals with no defined outcome, enforceable purpose, or rights of review or release.”1
In reality, these “arrests” occurred in occupied territory in violation of international law. The notion of a “well-defined legal process” was laughable — Israel has no legal jurisdiction whatever in the territories.
As Fickling’s answer makes clear, the hidden ideological source empowering much propaganda is the presumed legitimacy of the state and its actions. We are trained, not just to respect, but to revere the state, the shining “city upon a hill”. We lower our heads before ‘the flag’ and the national anthem much as we would before religious idols. Indeed, people receive an insult to ‘the flag’ much as they would an insult to their God. This seems just ‘the way things are’ now, but in 1937 political analyst Rudolf Rocker explained how state managers had very consciously emulated organised religion in their attempts to manipulate the public mind:
“Every church is constantly striving to extend the limits of its power, and to plant the feeling of dependence deeper in the hearts of men. But every temporal power is animated by the same desire, so in both cases the efforts take the same direction. Just as in religion God is everything and man nothing, so in politics the state is everything, the subject nothing.”2
“The Crusader’s cry, ‘God wills it!’ would hardly raise an echo in Europe today, but there are still millions of men who are ready for anything if the nation wills it! Religious feeling has assumed political forms.”3
‘Balanced’ news reporting of state action comes laden with this highly suspect, quasi-religious baggage. Notice how respectable Fickling’s “troops” who merely “arrest” seem compared to the “militants” who “kidnap”. The “troops” are “security forces”, responsible agents of the hallowed state. A “militant” is any Tom, Dick or Harry with a gun. And of course a “terrorist” is a kind of devil.
It sounds much worse when journalists report that civilians have been killed by “militants” or “terrorists” than by “security forces” or “peacekeeping forces”. The latter terms instantly tone down the psychological impact of state violence, suggesting that the motive was to maintain order — any civilian casualties must have been an unintended outcome, a tragic mistake. By contrast, the word “terrorist” suggests that civilian suffering was the intended outcome. To propose that “security forces” might be “terrorists” — that they might be intimidating through terror — is dizzying. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, a reversal of the truth.
The end result is that we are trained to react to violent acts, not on the basis of their objective legality and human cost, but on the basis of the perceived legitimacy of the people committing the act. Violence committed by authority figures will tend to be viewed as legitimate and well-intentioned. Violence committed by non-state actors or “rogue states” resisting the state will tend to be seen as illegitimate and malevolent.
This means that the public, in a sense, does not receive “news” — it receives the +same+ event repeated over and over again. The same “security forces” are always taking regrettable but necessary action against “terrorists” and “militants”. The public no longer sees real, changing, complex events; it sees the same frozen, benevolent image of the world. As we have seen in recent years, almost literally any horror, any act of mass murder, can take place behind this image with few public attempts to intervene or stop what is happening.
It is the role of the mass media to use language to keep this frozen image fixed before the public mind.
Kidnapped: Iran Provides a Casus Belli
Needless to say, devotion to the state religion is promoted only for “respectable” members of the “international community”. Mere “rogue states” are a crude parody of the real thing. Like dressed up chimpanzees, their armed forces are in reality “militants”, their political commanders “terrorists”. It makes no difference that they wear the same uniforms ‘we’ wear, ape our quasi-religious state pomp and ceremony, or cover themselves in shiny medals.
Just three years ago, on March 23, 2007, 15 British sailors were detained by Iranian forces and held captive for twelve days. The mainstream media immediately described the sailors as “hostages” who had been “kidnapped” in Iraqi waters (in fact the sailors were part of an illegal occupation force in Iraq that had strayed into Iranian waters). A Guardian report was titled:
“Timing: Kidnappings came day before UN resolution.”4
A Times leader commented:
“Bordering on Barbarity: Iran’s despicable treatment of British hostages leaves it isolated.”5
This was an act of “piracy”, obviously. But more than that, it was a casus belli. Melanie Phillips wrote in the Daily Mail:
Britain seems to be in some kind of dreamworld. There is no sense of urgency or crisis, no outpouring of anger. There seems to be virtually no grasp of what is at stake.
Some commentators have languidly observed that in another age this would have been regarded as an act of war. What on earth are they talking about? It +is+ an act of war. There can hardly be a more blatant act of aggression than the kidnapping of another country’s military personnel.
What clearly +does+ belong to another age is this country’s ability to understand the proper way to respond to an act of war. When his Marines were seized by the Iranians, the commander of HMS Cornwall, Commodore Nick Lambert, did nothing to stop them and later said it was probably all a misunderstanding. If Nelson had been such a diplomat in such circumstances, Trafalgar would surely have been lost.6
None of the British sailors were harmed. None were killed while unarmed at point blank range with multiple shots to the head and body. None were grievously wounded, beaten, Tazered, tear-gassed or stun-bombed. None were refused medical attention while they lay dying at the point of a gun. Despite the complete absence of Iranian violence, journalists were appalled that the sailors had not responded with force. Tony Parsons wrote in the Mirror:
The Americans are calling us wimps for allowing British sailors and marines to be kidnapped without a fight, and even bigger wimps for being so pathetically toothless in our response…
There was a moment when military action was a possibility, and indeed the best option — and I’m not talking about sending a gunboat or sabre rattling. The 15 being held hostage were not bob-a-jobbing. They had guns, too — but they didn’t use them to defend themselves. And HMS Cornwall, armed with enough firepower to blow a few Revolutionary Guards all the way back to downtown Tehran, was about as much use as a rubber duck.7
Writing in the Daily Mail, Michael Seamark noted the “embarrassment over how and why Iran was able to seize the servicemen… without a shot being fired…”8
Stephen Glover wrote in the same paper:
When the commander of a powerful Royal Navy warship allows a detachment of his personnel to be captured by a small Iranian force, it suggests that the British rules of engagement are at fault. So, too, the fact that the sailors failed to put up any fight in their own defence.9
Melanie Phillips agreed:
The reason Commodore Lambert did nothing to stop the Marines being taken was because the current rules of engagement forbid action which might escalate a crisis. That must change. We should state publicly that our rules of engagement are now being altered to allow us to defend ourselves.6
Not only did journalists lament the lack of a violent response to the non-violent Iranian action, the expectation indeed hope, Peter Wilby noted in the Guardian, was for a violent conclusion to the affair:
The storyline had been mapped out. There would be blindfolded captives, torture and show trials. Britain would respond with Churchillian rhetoric, gunboats, SAS raids and stiff upper lips and, if it didn’t, Tony Blair, along with Margaret Beckett’s caravan, could be given one last kicking. Instead, we had an Easter ‘gift’ from President Ahmadinejad. The newspapers’ disappointment at the peaceful end to a story that had been boiling up nicely was palpable.10
The disappointment was doubtless shared by the United States, which “offered to take military action on behalf of the 15 British sailors”, the Guardian reported:
“Pentagon officials asked their British counterparts: what do you want us to do? They offered a series of military options, a list which remains top secret given the mounting risk of war between the US and Iran.”11
The Telegraph was incensed by the “hostage-taking”, which it deemed an “outrage”.12
A Times editorial raged:
For more than four days British sailors and Marines have been imprisoned in Iran. They have been interrogated, psychologically abused, denied access to the outside world and pressured into giving ‘confessions’. The 15 were seized at gunpoint by armed Iranian Revolutionary Guards… Their kidnapping is an outrage. In earlier times it would have been an immediate casus belli [for war]. It would fully justify the use of force to obtain their release. There is, however, an even greater outrage compounding this insult to international law: the pusillanimous timidity of British officials and politicians, who have failed disgracefully to confront Iran with the ultimatum this flagrant aggression demands.13
The Times’ editors sneered bitterly at Iranian propaganda claims that the sailors were being “well-treated”:
“What ‘well treated’ means can well be imagined: some of the Britons who were seized in a similar incident three years ago have described the mock executions, the psychological torture and the intimidating way that their captors tried to force admissions of guilt.” 13
Truly the Iranians must be demons in human form. The crew +were+ repeatedly questioned, the Sunday Times reported two years later, “but in a friendly way,” according to the sailors. One of them, Bloomer, recalled:
‘For the first few days the door was locked all the time, then gradually it was left open more often, till one evening one of the guards asked if we wanted to sit out on the patio and watch a football match on TV,’ Bloomer says. The Iranian guards were, in fact ‘excellent hosts’.
‘We were brought three meals a day, crisps and snacks. We always had a bowl of fresh fruit. If anything, we may be a bit overweight because they were feeding us so much. They discovered one of us liked Iran tea, so it arrived by the flask.’
There were two beds in the room. The younger guys allotted one to Bloomer and took turns at sleeping on the floor. ‘It was a bit like a camping trip, actually. It wasn’t bad at all.’14
Part 2 will follow shortly…
- Email, June 29, 2006. [↩]
- Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.55. [↩]
- Ibid, p.252. [↩]
- The Guardian, March 26, 2007. [↩]
- The Times, March 31, 2007. [↩]
- Phillips, ‘The appeasement of Iran,’ Daily Mail, March 28, 2007. [↩] [↩]
- Parsons, ‘Toothless Britain takes it lion down,’ The Mirror, April 2, 2007. [↩]
- Seamark, ‘Freedom!: Huge relief as our sailors head home,’ Daily Mail, April 5, 2007. [↩]
- Glover, ‘Thank God our servicemen are free, but make no mistake, this has been a humiliation for Britain,’ Daily Mail, April 5, 2007. [↩]
- Wilby, ‘A sailors’ story told without a hint of scepticism,’ The Guardian, April 9, 2007. [↩]
- Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Michael Howard and John Hooper, ‘Iran crisis: Diplomacy: Americans offered “aggressive patrols” in Iranian airspace,’ The Guardian, April 7, 2007. [↩]
- Leading article, ‘Iran’s actions will only increase its isolation,’ The Telegraph, March 29, 2007. [↩]
- Leading article, ‘Britain’s Hostage Crisis,’ The Times, March 27, 2007. [↩] [↩]
- Margarette Driscoll, ‘Ordeal or adventure? I can’t decide,’ Sunday Times, December 6, 2009. [↩]