Manufacturing Ignorance: Keeping The Public Away From Power

In their classic book on the news media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky presented a ‘propaganda model’ of how the major broadcasters and newspapers operate. Whereas the ‘mainstream’ media declare that their aim is to educate, inform and entertain the public, their actual societal purpose ‘on matters that are of significance for established power’ is to avert any ‘danger’ that the public can ‘assert meaningful control over the political process’.  ((Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Vintage, 1988/1994, p. 303.))

As media analyst Lance Bennett wrote:

‘The public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and is unable to communicate meaningfully through the media in response to these messages…. Leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the political system by using the media to generate support, compliance, and just plain confusion among the public.’ (Ibid., p. 303)

Thus, rather than manufacturing public consent for elite policies and priorities, manufacturing public ignorance is the more desirable and effective goal. After all, explicit public ‘consent’ is typically not required for the UK government, for example, to attack the welfare system, underfund and carve-up the NHS for commercial purposes, sell arms to Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemeni civilians, sabre-rattle in the Indo-Pacific to ‘counter’ China, or increase its nuclear weapons arsenal by 40 per cent.

Significant public activism and opposition to state-corporate power needs to be rooted in widespread shared public knowledge. But, in the absence of adequate public knowledge, and thus the reduced ‘threat’ of an informed populace participating in a real democracy, power is more or less free to do as it pleases.

Take a recent Reuters news report following the death of Colin Powell, one of the perpetrators of the supreme international crime of invading and occupying Iraq. Like a parody from the satirical website The Onion, the article was titled: ‘Powell remembered as “one of the finest Americans never to be President”’.

As Matt Kennard of Declassified UK noted:

‘The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence.

‘They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.’

Recall that, in February 2003, as the US and allies were preparing to invade Iraq, US Secretary of State Colin Powell had addressed the United Nations Security Council, dramatically holding up a small glass vial he said could contain anthrax, a biological weapon.

‘Saddam Hussein and his regime will stop at nothing until something stops him,’ stated Powell, arguing that Iraq was deceiving UN weapons inspectors. He claimed that he was providing ‘facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence’. Powell’s presentation was seemingly watertight, based on supposedly undeniable evidence, and it was reported as such by an obedient ‘mainstream’ news media across the globe.

But it was all lies, and it is ‘irrefutable’ that Powell ‘consciously deceived the world’, as US political analyst Jon Schwarz noted. Around one million Iraqis died as a result of the invasion-occupation, while many more millions became refugees, the country’s infrastructure devastated.

With her customary sardonic wit, the Australian political writer Caitlin Johnstone described the infamous image of Powell holding a vial while addressing the UN Security Council as a ‘viral anti-war meme’:

‘Over the years Powell’s meme has been an invaluable asset for opponents of western military interventionism and critics of US propaganda narratives about empire-targeted nations, serving as a single-image debunk of any assertion that it is sensible to trust the claims US officials make about any government that Washington doesn’t like.’

For the benefit of credulous, power-friendly journalists and anyone else who believed that Powell had made just one mistake that he bitterly regretted for the rest of his life, she added:

‘Powell’s other contributions to the world include covering up and participating in war crimes in Vietnam, facilitating atrocities in Central America, and destroying Iraqi civilian infrastructure in the Gulf War. But it’s hard to dispute that his greatest lasting legacy will be his immortal reminder to future generations that there is never, ever a valid reason to trust anything US officials tell us about a government they wish to bring down.’

She added:

‘Be sure to remind everyone of Powell’s sociopathic facilitation of human slaughter often and loudly in the coming hours. Public opinion is the only thing keeping western war criminals from The Hague, after all, and those war criminals are keenly aware of this fact. At times like these, they suddenly become highly invested in making sure that regular people “respect the dead,” not because they respect any human alive or dead, but because they cannot allow the death to become an opportunity to amplify and change public opinion about their egregious murderous crimes.’

The Persecution Of Julian Assange

As we have recently observed in media alerts (here and here), the state-corporate media, including and especially BBC News, have been complicit in keeping the public largely ignorant about the case of Julian Assange. Likewise, the case’s likely terrifying implications for further limiting public knowledge about what governments and big business actually get up to. As founder of WikiLeaks, Assange has probably done more than anyone in at least a generation to expose the war crimes of the US and its allies.

The revelations that the CIA had plans to kidnap or even kill Assange, almost entirely ignored by BBC News, has prompted concerned calls from advocates of ‘press freedom’ (such as it is in the West). The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Knight First Amendment Institute, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders are among the signatories of a letter demanding that the case against Assange be dropped.

Next Wednesday, a substantive U.S. appeal hearing will be heard at the High Court in London. Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde, the High Court judge who reversed an earlier court order to bar the U.S. from appealing Assange’s medical issues, will preside over the hearing. According to Consortium News legal analyst Alexander Mercouris:

‘It is highly unusual for a judge who has already ruled in favour of one party to continue on the bench. In most cases, fresh judges would be brought in who have had no part in earlier rulings for either side.’

Mercouris called the decision ‘extremely disturbing news’ and ‘very worrying. Nothing in this case is proceeding as it should do.’

Nina Cross has examined the insidious role of the BBC in the state-sponsored persecution of Assange. First, in an overview of BBC history, she showed that:

‘Britain’s most powerful “national asset” helps keep the British people in check while serving imperialism.’

In the case of Assange, the BBC has helped ‘to control the narratives around the stripping of Assange’s asylum’, typically presenting him as someone who is attempting to evade the law.

Cross added that the BBC is serving:

‘the interests of the British state apparatus, enabling a culture of impunity by spoon feeding its audience government narratives, manipulating perception, and promoting ridicule and disdain. The persecution of Assange that increasingly looks like a slow assassination by the UK and US authorities could not be so conceivable without a servile media.’

She continued:

‘The impunity to persecute Assange has been enabled by the BBC through omission and silence. Instead of practising journalism it has turned a blind eye to abuses of the British authorities and those of its allies. The BBC’s behaviour is contrary: anti-journalism, anti-truth.’

This is not new. As Noam Chomsky has observed:

‘Governments will use whatever technology is available to combat their primary enemy – their own population.’

In this sense, BBC News is a form of technology that the UK government deploys to keep the British population away from the levers of power.

The ‘Illusion Of A Democratic System’

Take the case of UK arms sales. A new film and report by Matt Kennard and Phil Miller of Declassified UK investigated the largely-hidden role of a factory owned by arms exporter BAE Systems in the Lancashire village of Warton. The factory supplies military equipment to the Saudi Arabian regime, enabling it to continue its devastating attacks on Yemen which, for years, has been suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Kennard and Miller noted that:

‘Boris Johnson recently visited Warton and claimed the BAE site was part of his “levelling up agenda”. No journalist covering the visit seems to have reported the factory’s role in a war.’

Back in London, Declassified UK interviewed Molly Mulready, who was a lawyer at the Foreign Office from 2014-19. She was responsible for giving legal advice in relation to exporting arms to the Middle East. She said:

‘Boris Johnson was very casual and jokey when we would go in to talk to him about arms to Saudi Arabia. We would go in to brief him about Yemen and he would joke around and waste everybody’s time and it was a bit mind blowing because you know, you’re discussing civilian casualties, you’re discussing the fact that innocent people have died and that British supplied bombs have played a part in that.’

In 2017, Campaign Against Arms Trade took the UK government to court over the export of weaponry from places like Warton to Saudi Arabia. Mulready was tasked with trying to defend the government: ‘something she now bitterly regrets.’ Clearly upset, she told Kennard and Miller:

‘I’m so ashamed that I had anything to do with it. There have been tens of thousands of civilians killed in the bombing and there are millions of people who are food insecure. There are children in Yemen who are starving to death. The Saudis seem to have absolutely no compassion whatsoever.’

The arms sales violate the UK government’s own licencing laws, Mulready believes, and contribute to Saudi war crimes.

As Kennard and Miller concluded:

‘Yet they [UK arms sales] continue, along with the weekly cargo flight we filmed.’

The Morning Star reported Mulready’s important testimony. But, according to our search of the ProQuest newspaper database, no other British newspapers have done so.

In a recent interview with Lowkey, the British rapper and political activist, Kennard said that in his work as a journalist he wants to ‘pierce the propaganda bubble’. He emphasised the ‘illusion of a democratic system’ in the UK:

‘We do not live in a democracy. That’s what people need to understand. This is not a democratic state. Britain is an oligarchy.’

On the tragicomic notion that ‘Britain is a force for good in the world’, he commented:

‘It’s an amazing mythology. It’s mirrored by the US. They have this thing called “American exceptionalism” which is how America operates very differently along principled lines; very differently to all superpowers. They don’t deal with [their own] interests, etc. It’s literally the intellectual level of about a five-year-old.’

Kennard continued:

‘But the interesting thing about our society is you cannot work in any elite part of the intellectual industries unless you believe it…I’m looking every day at the reality of what Britain does in the world. And they are a force for reaction. They are a force for repression. They’re a force for militarism. They’re a force for destroying hope wherever it appears. They’re a junior partner to the US, but they’re actually an integral player. And the imperial operations of both are quite similar.’

What is the way ahead then? Rather than looking for a ‘saviour’, such as Labour centrists Sir Keir Starmer or Andy Burnham, Kennard suggested:

‘Let’s focus on different strategies, i.e. building extra-parliamentary movements and understanding what Labour’s role in the British polity is, which is to support the British establishment, and absorb the radical left and neutralise it.’

‘There Are No Climate Leaders’

As we have often emphasised in our work, in this era of worsening climate instability, time is rapidly running out. Climate activist Ben See observes:

‘Very few people seem aware that we only have about three or four years left before Earth’s species start being smashed by catastrophic 1.5°C of global warming in the context of toxic pollution, deforestation, etc. Perhaps our media and education systems are…utterly inadequate?’

The forthcoming United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, starting on 31 October, will doubtless generate yet more ‘blah, blah, blah’, as Greta Thunberg so memorably summed up all the decades-long, political hot air on climate. She rightly observed that:

‘no one treats the crisis like a crisis, the existential warnings keep on drowning in a steady tide of greenwash and everyday media news flow.’

She added:

‘The truth is there are no climate leaders. Not yet. At least not among high-income nations. The level of public awareness and the unprecedented pressure from the media that would be required for any real leadership to appear is still basically nonexistent.’

During COP26, we can expect plenty of coverage of tense negotiations and exhausted delegates finally delivering an ‘agreed’ outcome. But there will be zero or negligible attention given to the unjust system of global economics that is driving humans into oblivion.

The endless corporate drive to privatise the planet was highlighted in a recent article by journalist and researcher Whitney Webb titled, ‘Wall Street’s Takeover of Nature Advances with Launch of New Asset Class’. She reported:

‘Last month, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) announced it had developed a new asset class and accompanying listing vehicle meant “to preserve and restore the natural assets that ultimately underpin the ability for there to be life on Earth.” Called a natural asset company, or NAC, the vehicle will allow for the formation of specialized corporations “that hold the rights to the ecosystem services produced on a given chunk of land, services like carbon sequestration or clean water.” These NACs will then maintain, manage and grow the natural assets they commodify, with the end of goal of maximizing the aspects of that natural asset that are deemed by the company to be profitable.’

Simply put, capitalists are seeking to control, not just ecosystems as ‘financial assets’, but the rights that people around the world have to ‘ecosystems services’, including the benefits that humans receive from Nature:

‘These include food production, tourism, clean water, biodiversity, pollination, carbon sequestration and much more.’

The estimated ‘monetary value’ of Nature’s ‘assets’ have been priced at $4,000 trillion. Webb concluded:

‘Thus, NACs open up a new feeding ground for predatory Wall Street banks and financial institutions that will allow them to not just dominate the human economy, but the entire natural world.’

The obscenity of this is almost beyond belief. Randall Wray, a professor of economics in New York, warned:

‘From the get-go, capitalism has been all about exploitation. Marx’s followers will point to exploitation of workers, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Capitalism originated in the large plantations of the New World, exploiting the slaves, and Africa itself — which bore the burden of producing the humans that would be kidnapped and shipped across the seas to create the Old World’s wealth. It exploited the environment of America’s seemingly infinite natural resources, abandoning the land it exhausted, moving ever westward in its genocidal conquest of the continent. It spewed its waste into the water, the air, and the bodies of creatures great and small. It put a money price on the formerly free communal resources so that it could exploit them to extinction.’

He added:

‘Capitalism has always been celebrated for its presumed efficiency. In fact, it is supremely inefficient. It survives only because it is the greatest system ever developed for exploitation of man and nature. It pushes costs off to the environment, “other” people, families, governments, and our “future.” It is ever on the lookout for new frontiers of exploitation. And in that quest, human survival is at risk.’

Do not expect to be hearing much, if any, about all this from the state-corporate media in the weeks, months and years ahead; or however much time homo sapiens has left.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.