Fresh from a short, but illuminating conversation with ex-comedian Emma Kennedy* on Twitter in which she fell into the classic error of mistaking tabloid journalism for propaganda.
Talking to Alexei Sayle this pm, I realised one of worst tricks The Sun ever played is persuading the working class to vote Conservative EmmaK67
I hate this assumption – almost always held by those on the left – that the working classes they claim to represent are thoughtless schlubs who bend with whatever wind happens to be blowing through the pages of the press. Which I pointed out in return:
“Those working classes, eh? Such gulluble dupes.” carpsio
“It’s not that. Media manipulation is very powerful”
I think you can only assume that the media is powerful by also assuming that people are malleable.
And her final reply:
but they are. And always have been. Propaganda is as old as the hills. It goes back to Roman Times
I think this exchange is very instructive. Firstly, there is the aforementioned casual equation of tabloid journalism with propaganda. Like so much of what the Left believe, this has come straight outta academia – represented (surprise!) by our old friend Noam Chomsky. He decided that:
“The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”
Well that’s certainly one point of view. Another might be that the story of the 20th century was actually about the apogee of State Collectivism – represented by such luminaries as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hirohito, Mugabe, Castro and any number of murderous regimes responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocents. None of those were noticeably in favour corporate power. Indeed, most of them positioned themselves explicitly against corporate power – and this largely through propaganda as you, I and most sensible people would recognise it: total control of all media outlets. It’s of a different order to, say, Aon buying advertising space on Wayne Rooney’s chest.
The message in almost all cases was and is the same: the people/volk/working classes have been laid low by foreign/corporate interests and only Obergruppenfuhrer X or Ayatollah Y can deliver salvation. On the back of such populism are dictatorships made. At one of the spectrum the international jewry – at the other end bolshevik intellectuals or capitalist pigdogs. It doesn’t really matter where the spectrum is to some degree – it’s always about identifying an enemy and ultimately justifying their slaughter.
How does this tally with – to use Kennedy’s own example – The Sun? Well firstly, The Sun isn’t in any way mandatory. It’s not in the national curriculum, nor is it illegal to travel in public without it under your arm. “The Sun Says” is not read out over stirring patriotic songs every evening on the radio. It represents a certain political viewpoint, for sure, but it isn’t ‘propaganda’ in any serious sense. The paper was originally Labour supporting and spent a decade from 1995 onwards back in that mode so it isn’t even consistent with itself unless you belong to the ‘Tony Blair was just a Tory in a pink tie’ club.
Indeed, for supposed ‘corporate propaganda’ tools, it’s notable that the tabloids have often taken up arms against energy companies, banks and insurance companies for their profiteering ways (cast your mind back but a couple of years to the ‘Rip Off Britain’ campaigns, which were pure tabloid). Sure, they balance their interests carefully as they rely on advertising revenue but corporations are every bit as fair game as cheating footballers when the opportunity arises.
Secondly – and more tellingly – is the assumption that people just suck up whatever the papers tell them like animated, tracksuit-wearing sponges. In fact, as study after study has shown, journalism is (and was – long before the hacking scandal) among the least trusted of professions. At the danger of falling into anecdote, certainly most people I know treat newspapers and most popular magazines as little more than entertaining bullshit.
At the secondary danger of boringly fighting academics with academics, a study by Oxford academics found that the influence of the media was overestimated by most people when thinking about other people. Just as most people think themselves to be above average drivers, so most people think that other people are easily swayed by the media. It’s known as the ‘third person effect‘ – which is summarised thus:
“People exposed to a potentially persuasive communication will expect the message to have a greater effect on others than on themselves.”
So Kennedy believes that the Sun persuaded the working classes to vote Tory and that’s an end to it. Or to put it another way: the working classes are thoughtless sheep who’ll do whatever Rupert Murdoch tells them to do, unlike well-read academics and comedians who just know better.
And furthermore the final – if largely unspoken – assumption is that the Tories do/did nothing that benefited the working classes ever and that therefore any working class person voting for them was stupidly voting against their own interests.
Doesn’t that strike you as patronising as shit?
It is this underlying assumption that informs all this ‘nudge theory’ and ‘behavourial change‘ horseshit to which we’re subjected to (at our own expense, if you please!) We can’t be trusted to eat well because we’re blinded by advertisements for Poptarts. We can’t be trusted not to vote for the Nazis, make the right choice about our membership of the EU or decide the best way to get to work so either we’re not allowed into the debate, or are subject to relentless propaganda (irony of ironies). The Great and the Good – from David Cameron to dreary indie frontmen, every hand-wringing pulpiteer or well-intentioned comedian starts from this basis: they know best, so basically fuck you.
*Her The Tent, The Bucket and Me is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. As no stranger to camping disasters, it very much struck a chord with me. A shame to discover that she is of this intellectual bent.