"Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers." David Hume, 'Of the First Principles of Government', 1768.Brief: The use of propaganda and censorship is more frequently associated with totalitarian, corrupt and/or despotic regimes, not modern democracies in the West. Yet the history of how western governments and their ever vigilant overlords in the media, financial and business spheres have controlled the political narrative of the time via these means is a long, storied and ruinous one, going back well before 1914. Along with serving the contemporaneous political objectives of its perpetrators as contrived, such activities often continue to inform our understanding, and cement our interpretation, of history. If as the saying goes, “history repeats itself”, we need look no further as to the main reason why. In this wide ranging ‘safari’ into the disinformation, myth-making, fake news wilderness—aka The Big Shill—Greg Maybury concludes that “It’s the narrative, stupid!”
Greg Maybury:Controlling the Proles
The following yarn may be apocryphal, but either way the ‘moral of the fable’ should serve our narrative well. The story goes like this: sometime during the height of the Cold War a group of American journalists were hosting a visit to the U.S. of some of their Soviet counterparts. After allowing their visitors some time to soak up the media zeitgeist stateside, most of the Americans expected their guests to express unbridled envy at the professional liberties they enjoyed in the Land of the Free Press.
One of the Russian scribes was indeed compelled to express his unabashed ‘admiration’ to his hosts...in particular, for the "far superior quality" of American "propaganda". Now it's fair to say his hosts were taken aback by what was at best a backhanded compliment. After some collegial ‘piss-taking’ about the stereotypes associated with Western "press freedom" versus those of the controlled media in the Soviet system, one of the Americans called on their Russian colleague to explain what he meant. In fractured English, he replied with the following:
‘It's very simple. In Soviet Union, we don't believe our propaganda. In America, you actually believe yours!’As highly amusing as this anecdote is, it masks a disturbing reality—the Russian journo’s jibe doesn’t simply remain true now; that ‘belief’ has become even more delusional, farcical, and above all, dangerous. One suspects that Russian journos today would think much the same.
And in few cases has the “delusional”, “farcical”, and “dangerous” nature of this conviction been more evident than with the West’s continued provocations of Russia, with “Skripalgate” in Old Blighty (see here, and here), and “Russia-Gate” stateside (see here, here, and here) being prime, though far from the only, exemplars we might point to.
Of course just recently we were all subjected to the ludicrous dog n’ pony show that was the much touted London "media freedom” conference, organised under the auspices of the so-called Media Freedom Coalition (MFC), a UK/Canadian ‘initiative’. As the name suggested, this was the establishment’s lip-service effort to be seen to be supporting or ‘defending’ media freedom, and initiating strategies and frameworks for the ‘protection’ of journalists. Lofty stuff to be sure. For my part I can’t recall another recent event that so perfectly embraced the Orwellian playbook, absent any hint of irony or embarrassment from the parties involved.
To illustrate, after noting that ‘the world is becoming a more hostile place’ for journalists, the MFC website then righteously intones:....’[they face dangers beyond warzones and extremism, including increasing intolerance to independent reporting, populism, rampant corruption, crime, and the breakdown of law and order….’. The cynic might be tempted to add: ‘And that’s just in our Western democracies!’
And who can forget the fatuous “integrity initiative” that preceded it, whose lofty ambitions aimed to ‘defend democracy against disinformation’? This is elite code for limiting free speech, already happening at a rate of knots, with the powers that be ‘setting up new perimeters’ online and offline. The prevailing efforts by a range of people to make it a crime to criticise Israel or boycott the country is arguably the most insidious, egregious example. As well, the attempts by the MSM to designate genuine, independent analysis by alternative media as “fake news” is another one.
Such is the sophistication and ubiquity of the narrative control techniques used today—afforded increasingly by ‘computational propaganda’ via automated scripts, hacking, botnets, troll farms, and algorithms and the like, along with the barely veiled censorship and information gatekeeping practised by Google and Facebook and other tech behemoths—it’s become one of the most troubling aspects of the technological/social media revolution. (See also here, here, here, and here.)
Notably, the MFC conference came and went after organisers saw fit to exclude legitimate Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik, an ideological ‘fashion statement’ thoroughly at odds with the purported premise upon which it was instigated. Moreover, there was little mention of the ‘elephant in the room’ Julian Assange—the person who embodies foremost the disconnect between the practice and the preaching of Western media freedom, to say little of underscoring the irony, self-serving opportunism, and double standards that frequently attend any mainstream debate about what it actually means.
Put bluntly, “media freedom” in the West is increasingly ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance', with the London confab all about keeping up appearances to the contrary. This was an event conceived of by soulless, demented, establishment shills, ‘...full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. The surreal spectacle though must have induced cognitive dissonance even amongst the pundits, and many head-shaking moments for Assange supporters and genuine truth-seekers alike.
As for Wikileaks and Assange himself, it’s worth noting the attitude of the national security state toward him. After accusing Assange of being a “narcissist”, “fraud”, and “a coward”, and labelling WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared he [Assange] was ‘eager to do the bidding of Russia and other American adversaries.’ Either way, his comments can be taken as more or less representative of Beltway and broader Western opinion, including in my own country Australia. Along with noting that official Washington’s hatred of Assange ‘borders on rabid’, Ted Carpenter offered the following:
‘[Assange] symbolizes a crucial fight over freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to expose government misconduct without fear of prosecution. Unfortunately, a disturbing number of “establishment” journalists in the United States seem willing—indeed, eager—to throw him to the government wolves.’
Lapdogs for the Government
Here was of course another surreal spectacle, this time courtesy of one of the Deep State’s most dangerous, reviled, and divisive figures, a notable protagonist in the Russia-Gate conspiracy, and America’s most senior diplomat no less. Not only is it difficult to accept that the former CIA Director actually believes what he is saying, well might we ask, “Who can believe Mike Pompeo?”
And here’s also someone whose manifest cynicism, hypocrisy, and chutzpah would embarrass the much derided scribes and Pharisees of Biblical days. We have Pompeo on record recently in a rare moment of honesty admitting—whilst laughing his ample ass, as if he was recalling some "Boy's Own Adventure" from his misspent youth with a bunch of his mates down at the local pub—that under his watch as CIA Director, ‘...We lied, cheated, we stole...we had entire training courses.’ It may have been one of the few times in his wretched existence that Pompeo didn’t speak with a forked tongue.
At all events, his candour aside, we can assume safely that this reactionary, monomaniacal, Christian Zionist ‘end-timer’ passed all the Company’s “training courses” with flying colours. According to Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times, all this did not stop Pompeo however from name-checking Wikileaks when it served his own interests. Back in 2016 at the height of the election campaign, he had ‘no compunction...about pointing people toward emails stolen* by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and then posted by WikiLeaks.’
[*Author Note: Rosenberg’s omission of the word “allegedly”—as in “emails allegedly stolen”—is a dead giveaway of bias on his and the part of his employer the NYT, one of those MSM marques leading the charge with the “Russian Collusion” ‘story’. For a more insightful view of the source of these emails and the skullduggery and thuggery that came with Russia-Gate, readers are encouraged to check this out.]
And this is of course The Company we’re talking about, whose past and present relationship with the media might be summed up in two words: Operation Mockingbird (OpMock). Anyone vaguely familiar with the well-documented Grand Deception that was OpMock, arguably the CIA’s most enduring, insidious, and successful psy-ops gambit, will know what we’re talking about. (See here, here, here, and here.) At its most basic, this operation was all about propaganda and censorship, usually operating in tandem to ensure all the bases are covered.
After opining that the MSM is ‘totally infiltrated’ by the CIA and various other agencies, for his part former NSA whistleblower William Binney recently added, ‘When it comes to national security, the media only talk about what the administration wants you to hear, and basically suppress any other statements about what's going on that the administration does not want get public. The media is basically the lapdogs for the government.’ Even the redoubtable William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director back in the day was reported to have said something along the following lines: ‘We know our disinformation program is complete when almost everything the American public believes is false.’
In order to provide a broader and deeper perspective, we should now consider the views of a few others on the subjects at hand, along with some history. In a 2013 piece musing on the modern significance of the practice, my compatriot John Pilger ecalled a time when he met Leni Riefenstahl back in 70s and asked her about her films that ‘glorified the Nazis’. Using groundbreaking camera and lighting techniques, Riefenstahl produced a documentary that mesmerized Germans; as Pilger noted, her Triumph of the Will ‘cast Adolf Hitler's spell’. She told the veteran Aussie journalist the "messages" of her films were dependent not on "orders from above", but on the "submissive void" of the public.
All in all, Riefenstahl produced arguably for the rest of the world the most compelling historical footage of mass hysteria, blind obedience, nationalistic fervour, and existential menace, all key ingredients in anyone’s totalitarian nightmare. That it also impressed a lot of very powerful, high profile people in the West on both sides of the pond is also axiomatic: These included bankers, financiers, industrialists, and sundry business elites without whose support Hitler might’ve at best ended up a footnote in the historical record after the ill-fated beer-hall putsch. (See here, and here.)
“Triumph” apparently still resonates today. To the surprise of few one imagines, such was the impact of the film—as casually revealed in the excellent 2018 Alexis Bloom documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes—it elicited no small amount of admiration from arguably the single most influential propagandist of recent times. [Readers might wish to check out Russell Crowe’s recent portrayal of Ailes in Stan’s mini-series The Loudest Voice, in my view one the best performances of the man’s career.]
In a recent piece unambiguously titled “Propaganda Is The Root Of All Our Problems”, my other compatriot Caitlin Johnstone also had a few things to say about the subject, echoing Orwell when she observed it was all about “controlling the narrative”. Though I’d suggest the greater “root” problem is our easy propensity to ignore this reality, pretend it doesn’t or won’t affect us, or reject it as conspiratorial nonsense, in this of course she’s correct. As she cogently observes,
‘I write about this stuff for a living, and even I don’t have the time or energy to write...about every single narrative control tool that the US-centralized empire has been implementing into its arsenal. There are too damn many of them emerging too damn fast, because they’re just that damn crucial for maintaining existing power structures.’
The Discreet Use of Censorship and Uniformed Men
‘It is hardly surprising that those who hold power should seek to control the words and language people use’ said Canadian author John Ralston Saul in his 1993 book Voltaire’s Bastards–the Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Fittingly, in a discussion encompassing amongst other things history, language, power, and dissent, he opined, ‘Determining how individuals communicate is’...an objective which represents for the power elites ‘the best chance’ [they] have to control what people think. This translates as: The more control ‘we’ have over what the proles think, the more ‘we’ can reduce the inherent risk for elites in democracy.
‘Clumsy men’, Saul went on to say, ‘try to do this through power and fear. Heavy-handed men running heavy-handed systems attempt the same thing through police-enforced censorship. The more sophisticated the elites, the more they concentrate on creating intellectual systems which control expression through the communications structures. These systems require only the discreet use of censorship and uniformed men.’ In other words, along with assuming it is their right to take it in the first place, ‘those who take power will always try to change the established language’, presumably to better facilitate their hold on it and/or legitimise their claim to it.
For Oliver Boyd-Barrett, democratic theory presupposes a public communications infrastructure that facilitates the free and open exchange of ideas.’ Yet for the author of the recently published RussiaGate and Propaganda: Disinformation in the Age of Social Media, ‘No such infrastructure exists.’
The mainstream media he says, is ‘owned and controlled by a small number of large, multi-media and multi-industrial conglomerates’ that lie at the very heart of US oligopoly capitalism and much of whose advertising revenue and content is furnished from other conglomerates:
‘The inability of mainstream media to sustain an information environment that can encompass histories, perspectives and vocabularies that are free of the shackles of US plutocratic self-regard is also well documented.’ Of course the word “inability” suggests the MSM view themselves as having some responsibility for maintaining such an egalitarian news and information environment. They don’t of course, and in truth, probably never really have! A better word would be “unwilling”, or even “refusal”. The corporate media all but epitomise the “plutocratic self-regard” that is characteristic of “oligopoly capitalism”. Indeed, the MSM collectively functions as advertising, public relations/lobbying entities for Big Corp, in addition to acting as its Praetorian bodyguard, protecting their secrets, crimes, and lies from exposure. Like all other companies they are beholden to their shareholders (profits before truth and people), most of whom it can safely be assumed are no strangers to “self-regard”, and could care less about “histories, perspectives and vocabularies” that run counter to their own interests.
It was Aussie social scientist Alex Carey who pioneered the study of nationalism, corporatism, and moreso for our purposes herein, the management (read: manipulation) of public opinion, though all three have important links (a story for another time). For Carey, the following conclusion was inescapable: ‘It is arguable that the success of business propaganda in persuading us, for so long, that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda achievements of the twentieth century.’ This former farmer from Western Australia became one of the world's acknowledged experts on propaganda and the manipulation of the truth.
Prior to embarking on his academic career, Carey was a successful sheep grazier. By all accounts, he was a first-class judge of the animal from which he made his early living, leaving one to ponder if this expertise gave him a unique insight into his main area of research! In any event, Carey in time sold the farm and travelled to the U.K. to study psychology, apparently a long-time ambition. From the late fifties until his death in 1988, he was a senior lecturer in psychology and industrial relations at the Sydney-based University of New South Wales, with his research being lauded by such luminaries as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, both of whom have had a thing or three to say over the years about The Big Shill. In fact such was his admiration, Pilger described him as "a second Orwell”, which in anyone's lingo is a big call.
Carey unfortunately died in 1988, interestingly the year that his more famous contemporaries Edward Herman and Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media was published, the authors notably dedicating their book to him. Though much of his work remained unpublished at the time of his death, a book of Carey’s essays—Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty—was published posthumously in 1997.
It remains a seminal work. In fact, for anyone with an interest in how public opinion is moulded and our perceptions are managed and manipulated, in whose interests they are done so and to what end, it is as essential reading as any of the work of other more famous names. This tome came complete with a foreword by Chomsky, so enamoured was the latter of Carey’s work.
For Carey, the three “most significant developments” in the political economy of the twentieth century were:
a) the growth of democracy;
b) the growth of corporate power; and
c) the growth of propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.
Carey’s main focus was on the following:
a) advertising and publicity devoted to the creation of artificial wants;
b) the public relations and propaganda industry whose principal goal is the diversion to meaningless pursuits and control of the public mind; and
c) the degree to which academia and the professions are under assault from private power determined to narrow the spectrum of thinkable (sic) thought.
For Carey, it is an axiom of conventional wisdom that the use of propaganda as a means of social and ideological control is ‘distinctive’ of totalitarian regimes. Yet as he stresses: the most minimal exercise of common sense would suggest a different view: that propaganda is likely to play at least as important a part in democratic societies (where the existing distribution of power and privilege is vulnerable to quite limited changes in popular opinion) as in authoritarian societies (where it is not).’ In this context, ‘conventional wisdom” becomes conventional ignorance; as for “common sense”, maybe not so much.
The purpose of this propaganda barrage, as Sharon Bader has noted, has been to convince as many people as possible that it is in their interests to relinquish their own power as workers, consumers, and citizens, and ‘forego their democratic right to restrain and regulate business activity. As a result the political agenda is now...confined to policies aimed at furthering business interests.’
An extreme example of this view playing itself right under our noses and over decades was the cruel fiction of the “trickle down effect” (TDE)—aka the ‘rising tide that would lift all yachts’—of Reaganomics. One of several mantras that defined Reagan’s overarching political shtick, the TDE was by any measure, decidedly more a torrent than a trickle, and said “torrent” was going up not down. This reality as we now know was not in Reagan’s glossy economic brochure to be sure, and it may have been because the Gipper confused his prepositions and verbs.
Greg Maybury is a freelance writer and blogger based in Perth, Australia.