Book review: Tell me lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, David Miller (ed.), Pluto Press, 2004.
The book contains a collection of well-chosen articles from a range of knowledgeable writers and activists. These writers comprise eminent journalists (Pilger, Fisk, Llewellyn), academics (Philo, Miller), media critics (Solomon, Herman, Edwards, Cromwell, Chomsky), gov’t propaganda specialists (Snow), Middle East experts, and people working in alternative media. The articles complement each other very well and don’t seem to overlap thus minimizing the amount of repetition – a risk when so many authors contribute to such a book.
The first few articles are by John Pilger, and these help one reminisce on recent history. His accounts convey a moral outrage, these “drip with anger” (as Robert Fisk would say), and they highlight why it is important to be concerned about the mass deception. Pilger’s articles stand in stark contrast to the pap that passes for news in the execrable “tabloid press”. Once Pilger has set the stage, other authors delve into mechanics and history of propaganda. Several articles describe both the British and American propaganda machines and how they operate. Nancy Snow presents an insider’s account of the American “public diplomacy” machinery. Another article presents a similar account of the British propaganda operations (aka, I/Ops).
Two articles provide some wider historical context in terms of how propaganda campaigns have evolved in recent wars. Knightley and Freedman demonstrate that there are trends indicating that government propaganda machines increasing control over the flow of information. Lessons were learned in Vietnam where journalists had considerable leeway; the tendency since then was to severely restrict access to war zones, and to expunge all images that convey the ghastly aspects of wars. Taken together with the US-Iraq propaganda campaign, it is clear that the tendency is for more control, for longer periods, and over a wider range of media coverage – even MTV had an embedded journalist during the war!!
Two articles by Edward Herman and Greg Philo/M. Gilmour are the most valuable contributions in the book. Edward Herman, true to form, demolishes the propaganda claims in the run up to the war, and this article clarifies the pattern of propaganda. The importance of the article resides in finding one searing analysis of a wide range of issues, especially the string of justifications leading up to the war. Philo/Gilmour’s article examines the knowledge of history of university students – an evaluation obtained by studying focus groups. It is disturbing to find that only 8% of British students interviewed knew the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem and only 5% of them knew what a “gulag” was. The implication is that television, the main source of information, is not providing the general population with basic contextual information. Propaganda campaigns are very effective because they target a population with very poor general knowledge about political issues. Most people don’t realize that they are being manipulated because they don’t have key contextual information. One disturbing implication of these findings is that propagandists may seek to keep this general level of knowledge very low so that media deceptions will be effective. Propaganda campaigns not only surround key events like the US-Iraq war, but their effects may be found all the time in the major media.
Mark Curtis certainly found a nugget in the UK Ministry of Defense website:
“Increasing emotional attachment to the outside world, fuelled by immediate and graphic media coverage, and a public desire to see the UK act as a force for good, is likely to lead to public support, and possibly public demand, for operations prompted by humanitarian concerns.”
And hence, public attitudes must be shaped so that military activities aren’t constrained, or let alone face demands to have the military be used in legitimate peacekeeping! If propaganda is seen to have a role to counter such perceptions and demands, then the implications are far ranging indeed. The more disturbing aspects dealt with in the book are indications that mass deception campaigns can also be used to subvert the nature of our democratic societies. If the will of the people can be manipulated to make wars possible, then other aspects of a democracy can be subverted too. The deceit is not restricted to wars, but may increasingly influence other political issues.
In an interview, Robert Fisk presents his journalistic philosophy and further proof of his courage in covering events in the Middle East. If only more journalists would take their duty to inform their public more seriously, and if they would show some more backbone, then our media would be more exciting, and it would certainly hamper propagandists’ possibilities to deceive their target populations. Fisk discusses what he considers the essential role of journalism, and it certainly goes counter the recent trends in American journalism – where the journalist is a moral eunuch just seeking to present what people say without much interpretation or opinion. This article indicates that another media world is possible.
The answer to the mass media deception campaigns is not to switch off the TV or turn to light entertainment. The implications of inaction are far too stark – wars, the misery of millions of people, and democracy itself are involved. The only alternative is to actively confront propaganda and to seek out alternative information. Tell me lies is an important case study of a huge propaganda campaign, and it provides the framework needed to understand what we were subjected to and how it was done. This is essential knowledge to counter the insidious phenomenon that is becoming entrenched in our societies.
Paul de Rooij is a writer living in London, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (all attachments will be automatically deleted.) ©2004 Paul de Rooij.
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