14 August 2003
The events of the past few days reveals just how much the media and the state work hand in glove in projecting a view of the world that maintains the fiction of the ‘terrorist threat’ and what the objectives of the West really are.
The ‘plot’ thickens?
On the one hand we have the extremely fishy story about a British ‘arms dealer’ (described in the Guardian as an “Indian Del boy” a reference to the lead character in BBC TV’s hit comedy show “Only Fools and Horses”) who bought an ‘Igla’ surface to air missile from the Russian factory that produces them.
In an article from the Janes Intelligence Digest website, that is not fooled for one minute by the setup, we read the following:
13 August 2003 Missile smokescreen in Moscow
“When the history of this week’s ‘breaking story’ about the alleged smuggling of a Russian Igla surface-to-air missile into the USA is finally written, the subtitle should run as follows: ‘State set-up; no relevance to terrorist threat’. JID sheds some light on a much hyped tale of stupidity, greed and political spin.
“Despite the plethora of over-excited media headlines earlier this week, the classic ‘sting’ operation, which was organised by the Russian secret service (FSB) and the USA’s FBI to entrap an alleged arms dealer allegedly seeking to sell an Igla missile to what he apparently believed was a group of Islamic terrorists in the USA, revealed little beyond the intelligence services’ insatiable desire for positive publicity. Put bluntly, there was no realistic prospect of this sort of advanced weapon being supplied to anyone without the active collusion of the Russian state authorities.”
A Russian specialist interviewed on BBC Radio ( ‘Today’ programme, 13/08/03) was asked if he felt this showed that Russian arms factories were “porous” to which he answered yes. But the fact is, far from being porous, the Russians made the missile available to the dealer. It had even been rendered unusable. Without the active participation of Russian, American (and apparently UK) intelligence agencies, the arms dealer would not have been able to buy the missile in the first place.
Threat to aircraft?
And in a remarkable ‘coincidence’, a story surfaces about a plot to shoot down British aircraft in Saudi Arabia, with BA halting its flights to Riyadh. Interestingly, no other airline in Europe that flies to Saudi Arabia followed BA’s lead.
What both stories hold in common is the role of the media in uncritically reporting these stories pretty well verbatim. The FBI spokesman for the ‘Igla’ setup, crowed about how this was the first time they had ‘uncovered a terrorist plot’ and collaborated with their Russian counterparts.
As predicted in these columns some time ago, it’s time to ratchet up the ‘terrorist threat’ using various and sundry ‘plots’. With boring predictability, both these stories have the common theme of the threat of surface to air missiles. The mass media plays its part in putting the frighteners on the populace, who lacking any critical counterpoint to these obvious propaganda ploys, are once more, spooked into supporting the imperialist agenda.
Constructing the ‘news’
Organisations such as Glasgow University’s Media Group in the UK, and FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) in the US, focus in detail on such elements as language, selection, emphasis and so forth, unpacking the way the dominant culture controls the picture we receive of the world and its workings.
The essential problem however, still remains, as organisations such as the ones mentioned above, are also locked out of the debate by the media they critique.
The central challenge then, still remains. How to reach people? And just as importantly, the nature and form of the ‘message’ that has to be presented to a populace that is saturated with disinformation.
FAIR for example, has a network of activists who are encouraged to phone/fax/email major news outlets and challenge the content they spew out ad infinitum. GMG produces detailed analysis for example, of the words used to describe events that depend on loading a description with specific kinds of meanings, which when used over and over again, build a picture that reinforces a pre-ordained agenda and interpretation of the world. Their reports and books rarely, if ever, reach the audience they are intended for, just as surely as genuine coverage of events rarely do.
Credibility is the number one hurdle. FAIR specifically targets the workers who write the ‘news’. This problem is linked intrinsically to culture ie, education and social class, the coopting of the intellectual in promoting the state’s agenda. The professional elite broadly share a common world view, based upon a set of inculcated assumptions about the way the ‘world works.’ And where editorial control is seen as too crude, self-censorship can be relied upon to do the job.
These assumptions reinforce an ideology that projects the values and objectives of the dominant economic and political class. The attitudes taught also embody racist assumptions and preconceptions about the way the world works, as we see in the coverage of events in Africa or in Iraq for example. The dominant ideology, through its intellectual elite continually reinforces the dominant view through relentless repetition of ideas that overwhelm everything else.
So for example, political change that promotes the ‘free market’ whether or not the country in question is democratic or not is promoted. The issue of a ‘free’ society is conveniently dropped or its importance downgraded. The emphasis the media puts on a particular issue relies not just on what it decides is of greater importance, but the relentless repetition of a ‘line’ which has built-in assumptions about the way the world works.
Given the complete blanketing of the public with news whether from the high- or low-brow media, creates the impression that the way the world is reported, is ‘normal’. Failing that, the events are simply ‘disappeared’ from the news entirely.
News and information from so-called alternative sources is deliberately marginalised as part of the process of projecting the state’s agenda. This is a subtle and slippery process to deal with. The ‘credibility’ of corporate and state news organisations depends on presenting a coherent picture of events, with variations of course, but always within sharply defined limits. Hence, regardless of the news outlet, events are presented within a defined set of parameters. News that introduces the possibility of an alternative interpretation is simply excluded.
There is moreover, the elusive concept buried in the idea of the ‘established press’ that because it allegedly possesses expertise and infrastructure, that somehow, this attaches a validity to its news, that for example, this essay doesn’t.
Take the issue of Iraq’s WMDs and the question of whether or not, the Blah government lied. Throughout the entire coverage spanning many months, not once, except in the occasional coverage that amounted to cries of outrage that such a suggestion amounted to treason, was the idea presented that the government lied to us. The issue was and still is, presented as one of “exaggeration” or “emphasis” over the issue. Hence the basic premise is held to be true, ie the existence of WMDs, if not now then at some time in the past. This is the core of Goebbelian propaganda mechanism, that every lie contains an element of ‘truth’ even if the truth in this case, is an historical one, that at some time in the past, Iraq did indeed possess so-called WMDs.
But the ‘truth’ even goes beyond this Orwellian process, as buried inside one lie is yet another lie, namely the nature of Weapons of Mass Destruction. This is yet another assumed ‘truth’, that the kinds of weapons that Iraq used are indeed Weapons of Mass Destruction. Upon on analysis, we find that far from being able to inflict mass destruction, they are in fact, incapable of doing anything of the kind. What they are capable of doing is inflicting terror on an enemy. Indeed, their origins in WWI were based precisely on this objective. They are by their very nature, indiscriminate and localised. Unlike nuclear weapons or carpet bombing, or the destruction of the physical infrastructure that supports a country’s population, chemical and biological weapons, are by definition, incapable of inflicting mass destruction.
This doesn’t make them acceptable of course, but the point of the West’s propaganda campaign is not based on the reality of the nature of the weapons themselves, but on creating the idea that the people who possess them are evil monsters, capable of anything, against which, the use of our own ‘good and just’ terror is permissible.
Hence littering Iraq with thousands of ‘bomblets’ as they are euphemistically described (in reality they are horrific anti-personnel mines whose objective is to maim rather than kill) is justified by the argument of the ‘greater good’ or of an overarching ‘military necessity’ that reluctantly, the ‘enemy’ has forced us to use.
Were the press to write endless pieces, day after day, on these awful weapons of indiscriminate destruction (or WIDs), you can be sure that the populace would be justifiably outraged by their government blowing the limbs off children in their name. Of course, there’s as much chance of this happening as pigs flying. It is no exaggeration to call this process a conspiracy, a conspiracy of silence and omission.
The second line of defence that the mass media and the state use, is to belittle or even ridicule ideas that fall outside the accepted ‘norms’. The obvious connection between oil and the invasion is shunted into ‘conspiracy corner’. So too are the increasing questions being asked about what the US government knew in advance about 9/11? Having planted the idea that any fundamental challenge to the status quo is per se, ‘eccentric’ or ‘whacky’, any subsequent enquiries along the same lines are ipso facto, tainted and suspect.
The promise and the reality of the Web
The Web, in its early days was seen as a real breakthrough for challenging the establishment stranglehold on news and information. However, fundamental problems still remain.
Although the Web has created unprecedented opportunities for alternate channels of information, it suffers from a number of fundamental problems, some of which I have alluded to above. It still doesn’t address the issue of the domination of the mass media through which the majority of the population receive their ‘news’. So for example, in spite of all the alternate sources of news on Iraq available on the Web, in the US, some 70% of the population still get their information primarily from ABC TV news.
Passive consumption versus active participation
There is also an even more fundamental question and that is what is commonly referred to as the ‘dumbing down’ of the population, which is in reality, the stunting of the citizens’ critical abilities. Unlike the TV, which is a passive medium of consumption, using the Web means actively searching for information. In turn, this implies that an individual is already questioning the status quo by searching out alternative sources of information.
And whilst there is no denying the fact that the Web is a powerful tool of communication, especially because it creates access to sources of news and information that would otherwise not exist, it is diffuse and fragmented and lacks the cohesion of the mass media. In fact, it more closely resembles a myriad of individual ‘conversations’ than a coherent broadcasting of news. Websites, outside of the dominant corporate portals, create vertical, ‘niched’ markets and in doing so, fragments the audience into ‘ghettos’ of like-minded individuals who lack the ability to connect.
Moreover, the very nature of the Web medium mitigates against the creation of a ‘syndicated’ news service, whereby a genuine ‘mass’ alternative to the corporate press can be developed. It surprises me however, that a ‘community of interests’ has not been created that links like-minded individuals together, after all, the technology exists to do it.
The fragmented nature of the Web unlike TV or newspapers, precludes the creation of a shared space of experience. We are unlikely to hear people when they socialise, referring to the news they read on a particular Website, simply because the odds of them visiting the same Website are extremely small.
This is I believe, the major challenge that confronts us in an age of increasingly concentrated ownership of the means of communication. Without external connections that links information on the Web to social structures in the real world, it is difficult to see how we can leverage advantage from such a potentially powerful tool of communication.