Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, page 88
Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq
By David Miller (editor), Pluto Press, 2004, 310 pp. List: $19.95; AET: $14.50.
Reviewed by Paul de Rooij
The 2003 U.S. war on Iraq was accompanied by one of the largest propaganda campaigns in history—in which the American and British publics were subjected to a barrage of misinformation, lies and outright attempts to induce fear. Opposition to the war in Europe and elsewhere required a massive campaign to cow people into silence while George Bush and Tony Blair pursued their elective war. The implications of this propaganda campaign range much wider than just the policy consequences in the Middle East, extending to the survival of Western democracy and the nature of our societies. Tell Me Lies, David Miller’s very important book, helps us understand what we were subjected to, how this was done, how this has evolved in recent history, and what media alternatives are available to counter this trend. A multifaceted examination of this phenomenon, Miller’s book is a welcome addition to an expanding literature on this topic.
Tell Me Lies contains a collection of well-chosen articles from a range of knowledgeable writers and activists. These writers comprise eminent journalists (John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Tim Llewellyn), academics (Greg Philo, Miller), media critics (Norman Solomon, Edward Herman, David Edwards, David Cromwell, Noam Chomsky), government propaganda specialists (Nancy Snow), Middle East experts and people working in alternative media. The articles complement each other very well and don’t seem to overlap—a risk when so many authors contribute to such a book.
The first few articles are by Pilger, and help one reflect on recent history. His accounts convey a moral outrage and highlight why it is important to be concerned about the mass deception. Once Pilger has set the stage, other authors delve into the mechanics and history of propaganda. Snow presents an insider’s account of America’s “public diplomacy” machinery; another article provides a similar account of the British propaganda operations (aka I/Ops).
In their articles considering the historical context of how propaganda campaigns have evolved in recent wars, Philip Knightley and Des Freedman demonstrate that government propaganda machines increasingly control the flow of information. Lessons were learned in Vietnam, where journalists had considerable leeway; the tendency since then has been to severely restrict access to war zones and to expunge all images that convey the ghastly aspects of war. Taken together with the U.S.-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!!
The articles by Herman and Greg Philo/M. Gilmour are the most valuable contributions to the book. Herman demolishes the propaganda claims of the run-up to the war, and clarifies the pattern of propaganda. Philo/Gilmour’s article examines university students’ knowledge of history—an evaluation obtained by studying focus groups. It is disturbing to find that only 8 percent of British students interviewed knew the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem, and only 5 percent 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 effective because they target a population with poor general knowledge of political issues. Because they don’t have key contextual information, most people don’t realize they are being manipulated. 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.
Mark Curtis certainly found a nugget in the UK Ministry of Defense Web site:
“Increasing emotional attachment to the outside world, fueled 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.”
Hence, public attitudes must be shaped so that military activities aren’t constrained, 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 as well.
In an interview, 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 the public more seriously, and show some more backbone, our media would be more exciting—and it would certainly hamper propagandists’ opportunities to deceive their target populations. Fisk discusses what he considers the essential role of journalism, which certainly goes counter to the recent trends in American journalism—where the journalist is a moral eunuch, only seeking to present what people say without 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. For the implications of inaction are far too stark—wars, the misery of millions of people, and democracy itself are involved. The only alternative is actively to confront propaganda and seek out alternative information.
As an important case study of a huge propaganda campaign, Tell Me Lies 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.