The mass production of ignorance: The media’s propaganda role

This is an edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

by Mark Curtis


“The news is not a neutral and natural phenomenon; it is rather the manufactured production of ideology” (Glasgow University Media Group).


As several chapters in this book show, Britain’s mainstream media provide critical support for the elite’s promotion of foreign policy. Even though it is possible to express almost any view somewhere in a very diverse variety of media, there is a strong tendency to favour certain views over others, and on most issues a consensus within the mainstream. There is only a small space in the mainstream for alternative views that fall outside this consensus and, although there are some outstanding journalists, only a few are able to report genuinely independently.

The political bias of the different media is not the issue; the mainstream media generally supports elite strategies across the political spectrum. I believe that mainstream academic study of foreign policy is even more disciplined in its support of foreign policy. What exists overall is an ideological system working to support elite interests.

I like Edward Said’s description of how the ideological system, and consensus, works in the US:

“The simplest and, I think, the most accurate way of characterising it is to say that it sets limits and maintains pressures. It does not dictate content, and it does not mechanically reflect a certain class or economic group’s interests. We must think of it as drawing invisible lines beyond which a reporter or commentator does not feel it necessary to go. Thus the notion that American military power might be used for malevolent purposes is relatively impossible within the consensus, just as the idea that America is a force for good in the world is routine and normal”.

We might say the same about Britain in the British media.

Several media analysts have long shown this ideological function. One leading academic, Brian McNair, of Stirling University, concludes in a major study:

“On the basis of the evidence gained by content analysts over a period of more than twenty years, we can state with some confidence that the news media of a particular society – press and broadcasting – tend to construct accounts of events which are structured and framed by the dominant values and interests of that society, and to marginalise (if not necessarily exclude) alternative accounts. In this sense, the evidence supports the materialist thesis that there is a link between the power structure of a society and its journalistic output; that journalism is part of a stratified social system; part of the apparatus by which that system is presented to its members in terms with which they can be persuaded to live”.

The news produced by the media is partly determined by their economic structure. The most influential mainstream media outlets – the national newspapers and television – are large corporations in the business of maximising profits. It is obvious that they will have a tendency to be less than challenging of business and the corporate system or have an institutional interest in promoting alternatives. Four corporations control 90 per cent of the British press; a handful control the commercial broadcasting organisations. How news is made, and what the news is, increasingly takes place within a fiercely competitive market. The audience is the primary commodity – stories have to attract audiences to sell to advertisers in competition with soap operas and game shows.

The Royal Commission on the Press stated as far back as 1947-9 that the press was failing to adequately inform the public because it was a product of the market. It said that “the failure of the press to keep pace with the requirements of society is attributable largely to the plain fact that an industry that lives by the sale of its products must give the public what the public will buy”. The Guardian‘s Nick Davies has written that the demand for investigative journalism “is being smothered by the creeping commercialism of our profession”. “Marketing experts have rewritten news values so that it is now commonplace for news editors to demand a particular story in order to appeal to some new target group in the market place”.

Elements of media distortion

Let us now turn to some of the specific ways in which media reporting distorts the reality of Britain’s role in the world. The major ways include:

  • by not reporting some policies at all (ie, by setting the agenda of what is important and what is not)
  • by framing discussion within narrow parameters
  • by ignoring relevant history
  • by parroting and failing to counter elite explanations

One of the ways in which discussion is framed is by giving equal balance to pro-government and (usually only mildly) critical of government views. The voices critical of government that appear in the media tend to drawn from within the mainstream, such as opposition politicians and middle-of-the road NGOs and academics. Giving equal balance to views implies both are equally valid and simply a question of “perception”, and provides the illusion of “objectivity”. The reality is that often one of the views is straightforward government propaganda while the other is the most mild criticism possible.

The media also has an important function in labelling opponents and categorising behaviour as “deviant”. This includes scapegoating vulnerable groups in society for social or political crises, like refugees and asylum seekers. Another leading media analyst, James Curran, notes that “the modern mass media in Britain now perform many of the integrative functions of the church in the middle ages”. The two engage in very similar ideological work, especially in stigmatising “outsiders” – like drug addicts and trade union militants – and in branding dissenters as virtual “infidels”. The parallel is with the church’s medieval function of hunting down and parading witches in order to protect the established order. The mass media have assumed the role of the church in interpreting and making sense of the world to the mass public, legitimising the current social system and order.

A critical role of the media is deciding what it is important (what gets covered) and what isn’t (which is often buried completely). In the “buried” camp can be “big” stories like British complicity in slaughters in Rwanda and Indonesia. In the “covered” camp can come many stories of political tittle-tattle like intra-party squabbles (often of no interest to anyone apart from the individuals concerned), not to mention pure irrelevancies like Posh and Becks. The system works by marginalising unwanted views or facts, however “big”. The only issue regularly addressed in some of the media highlighting that Britain might depart from pursuing otherwise ethical foreign policies is arms exports. Even here, reporting takes place within very narrow limits.

The media often gives the appearance of making trouble for politicians, sometimes posing toughish questions and following up stories, but usually on only the minor issues, while ignoring bigger ones. Here, the media plays the same game as the political elite – both helping to ensure that many real issues are avoided altogether.

Thus “gaffes” by ministers can get endless coverage, whereas policies pursued by them often receive none. The media seemed to love reporting Clare Short’s comments saying that the people of Montserrat would be asking for “golden elephants” from the British government in aid following the volcanic eruption there. They have failed to show any vigour – at any time – in reporting Short’s vision for the future of the global economy.

The framing of discussion on issues is critical in setting the boundaries of debate. The programme Question Time is a good microcosm of how the media works here. Previously, the format was always four people answering questions from the audience – a representative of each of the three largest parties, plus one other, such as a businessman or academic. No seriously critical voices appeared. The format recently changed to five people, usually adding a “non-political” person like an entertainer. Again, rarely are critical voices invited. If they are, it is so rare that their views can end up sounding ridiculous in comparison with the “normal” and “balanced” views of the other panellists. It is acceptable for Question Time panellists to criticise each other from within the elite consensus but not for anyone to criticise all of them from outside that consensus.

Question Time shows that a major function of the ideological system is to restrict debate to the best way of managing the existing system and exclude the possibility of alternatives. For example, the choice for postwar economic policy has been presented as between Kenynesian and monetarism only. In foreign policy, the choice has simply been presented as whether Labour or Conservative should manage the same set of policies within the single ideology, outlined in chapter 13. Major alternatives are rarely presented in the media, and thus become largely inconceivable.

John Birt, Director General of the BBC has said:

“The BBC fosters a rumbustious, vigorous and informed democracy. We strain to ensure that all voices are heard, however uncomfortable, that they are given a fair hearing and are tested. In recent times we have seen the collapse of deference”.

If John Birt really believes this, then I apologise for saying that he needs serious medical attention. The evidence is overwhelmingly that BBC and commercial TV news report on Britain’s foreign policy in ways that resemble straightforward state propaganda organs. Although by no means directed by the state, their outputs might as well be. It is not even subtle. BBC, ITV and Channel 5 television news simply report nothing seriously critical on British foreign policy. The exception is the odd report on Channel 4 news. TV news – the source of most people’s information – provides the most extreme media distortion on all the examples covered in the previous chapter and plays a greater ideological function than the press.

The role of TV news has been well-analysed by the Glasgow University Media Group. Its conclusions have been that “the news is not a neutral and natural phenomenon; it is rather the manufactured production of ideology”. And that TV news is “a sequence of socially manufactured messages which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society”. On issues where the state is very sensitive, such as on Northern Ireland, it notes that “the news can become almost one-dimensional – alternatives are reduced to fragments or disappear altogether”. This is certainly true of coverage of Britain’s role in the world, in my view.

The concept of basic benevolence

The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, and at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits that show “exceptions” to, or “mistakes” in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence. It also means that government statements on their always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and almost never ridiculed. These assumptions and ways of reporting are very deep-rooted.

Thus Guardian editors can write of “Britain’s reputation as both a respecter and champion of human rights”. One of its regular columnists can write that “the foreign policies of democratic states, beyond the basic requirement of ensuring physical security, are now based firmly on two pillars – trade advantage and human rights”. In their book on the new Labour government, two Guardian writers can refer to Blair as “a high minded champion of human rights”. Similarly, an academic can write of “Britain’s commitment to third world development” – a fact, requiring no justification. The list could go on, and cover the entire mainstream.

Indeed, it is only us who are benevolent. As the New Statesman‘s John Lloyd has written: “the defence of human rights – or more accurately, the aggressive promotion of human rights in an arena, such as Kosovo, where they are being brutalised – is a posture confined to the rich and secure world”.

Beneath this overarching concept of basic benevolence stands a set of pillars – key strategies promoted by the elite that are assumed to contribute to Britain’s benevolent role in the world and promotion of high principles. These strategies are those that make up the single ideology on which there is consensus across the elite, as outlined in chapter 13 – such as strong support for the US, in the context of a special relationship, promotion of global economic “liberalisation”, support for key repressive elites, and a strong military intervention capability. Reporting and analysis that fall outside this construct – and certainly that directly challenge it – will tend to get excluded.

The ideological system gears into particular action in war, both providing justification for the government’s resort to force and backing its (always noble) aims. In war, the public is in effect actively mobilised by the various components of the elite in support of state policy. TV news becomes even more extremely ideological at these times, usually abandoning any pretence of objectivity and acting simply as the mouthpiece of the state, though trying to preserve an aura of independence. Only rarely is real dissent possible in such crises in newspapers and never on television.

Consider how the media supported Blair in mobilising the nation in bombing Yugoslavia in support of the highest humanitarian values in 1999. This was no easy task since it soon became very clear to any remotely independent onlooker that it was the NATO bombing that precipitated, rather than prevented, the humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time, our allies in Indonesia were engaged in atrocities in East Timor similar to Milosevic; while a few months later the same values were still relevant as Putin’s Russia was committing crimes in Chechnya greater in scale than those of Milosevic in Kosovo. But in these cases the values that provided the pretext for bombing Yugoslavia needed to be buried. After a few (hard to completely avoid) parallels were drawn between the situations in the media, the previous humanitarian pretexts were indeed safely forgotten.

Criticism in the mainstream of British wars tends to be restricted to the tactics used to achieve the assumed noble aims, and whether the government has chosen the right strategy to discharge its high nobility or whether it will make “mistakes”.

The debate in the mainstream on bombing Yugoslavia over Kosovo, did involve argument over whether it was a “just war” or not; but both sides of this debate generally accepted that the government was seeking to achieve its stated humanitarian aims. That the government may have been acting out of other motives entirely was almost never questioned, despite the evidence.

The same goes for Iraq. Almost no reporting questions British aims as being basically benevolent towards Iraq – the only criticism is whether government strategy is the right one to achieve noble objectives. But media reporting on Iraq in 2002/3 has been much more critical about war than was the case over bombing Yugoslavia. The reason is that there is no elite consensus on war with Iraq, which is rather being promoted by a small band of people around the prime minister. Many parts of the establishment are opposed to war (for tactical reasons to achieve British objectives, not for moral reasons, which are irrelevant). Therefore, the media framing can be much wider and include many more critical voices.

The Guardian‘s coverage of the war in Afghanistan was a real exception to normal reporting, in my view, in which a series of comment pieces over several months put various critical perspectives and exposed much of the reality of the war and its motives. This unusual occurrence was due to a comment editor – Seumas Milne – keen to allow a diversity of views, evidence in fact of how individuals can help change even well-established systems. This did not, however, stop some other reporters from towing the state line in numerous cases elsewhere in the paper.

It is interesting to note that there is only one British military intervention over the past fifty years that has been severely criticised and government motives questioned in the mainstream – the invasion of Egypt in 1956 (usually called the “Suez crisis” or “fiasco” in the ideological system). There are many horrible British interventions worthy of attention and condemnation, with effects worse than in Egypt in 1956, so why is this singled out for criticism? The reason is obvious – Britain lost. It therefore deserves a lot of soul-searching within the elite. Other interventions where we successfully blasted the nips deserve no such criticism since we won, therefore what could possibly be the problem?

A leading US analyst of the media and foreign policy, Edward Herman, has said that “it is the function of experts and the mainstream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public”. This role sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as “normal”. Current examples include the death of tens of thousands of children in Iraq through sanctions, war crimes in Kosovo, mass civilian deaths in Afghanistan, complicity in the human rights abuses of favoured regimes, and so on. All these are supported in the mainstream; none elicit the horror they deserve nor receive much attention; all are normal.

The French philosopher Jean Guehenno has said that “the worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is”. But this is often a key function of the expert, to explain the everyday as normal, justifiable, requiring little change, but rather “stability” and few upsets to “world order” unless controlled by us. In fact, the everyday is a horror for many people – the half the planet that lives in absolute poverty and the victims of torture and repression in the US and British-backed client states, for example.

Elites throughout history have presented their policies as in the natural order of things, which helps to obscure the pursuit of their own interests. An important aspect of the ideological system is rendering a single view dominant or “natural”, presenting current policies as inevitable, and excluding the possibility of alternatives. “Globalisation” is presented by elites as such a natural phenomenon, and critics ridiculed as Luddites who cannot stop the inevitable march of history. These curiously Marxist, determinist views mask the elite’s goal under globalisation of promoting total global economic “liberalisation” – a far from inevitable outcome, but a strategy chosen by the new liberalisation theologists of new Labour, and their allies among the transnational elite.

If the current horrible policies are “normal”, the alternatives are “unthinkable”. Even to mention the indictment of Tony Blair for war crimes, to oppose British  cooperation with the US because it is a consistent human rights violator, or even to end arms exports is “unthinkable” in the mainstream and would invite ridicule.

Take the Guardian‘s Ian Black, who writes that a key aim of the International Criminal Court was to avoid:

“politically motivated or frivolous investigations – what one expert calls the ‘nutcase factor’: for instance, of the possible pursuit of [Northern Ireland secretary] Mo Mowlam or Tony Blair for crimes against humanity”.

Only “nutcases” could possibly believe Our Leader could ever be guilty of crimes against humanity. One such “nutcase” is former US Attorney General, Ramsay Clark, who lodged a complaint against Britain in July 1999 for war crimes during its assault on Yugoslavia.

A traditional way for the elite to deflect criticism is to term it a “conspiracy theory”, which is common across the ideological system. There is a good reason for it. British elites have built a fundamentally secretive political system for which they are minimally accountable to the public. As noted in chapter 13, they do not believe the public should have a say in this system, and – to judge from some of the views expressed in the Scott enquiry – neither do they think the public should even know what the decision-making processes are. Elites are especially keen to deflect criticism exposing how the system works, which is more threatening than criticising specific policies (which can be dismissed as “exceptions”). The term “conspiracy theory” tends to be deployed once criticism has moved beyond the specific and is closer to exposing how the system as a whole works.

My view is that “ordinary people” – and I count myself as one of these – generally distrust their sources of information and know, ultimately, not to believe what they read or see. This is partly because ordinary people, in my view, have a much healthier scepticism towards those closer to power than the latter and those aspiring to the political class. People have little stake in the elite and therefore have no reason to trust it.

But I do not believe that people can be aware of the extent to which they are being misinformed. Foreign policy is different than domestic issues, where you only have to spend time in a hospital or have a child who goes to school, to know the state of public services. But with foreign policy people are overwhelmingly reliant on news rather than personal experience. This makes indoctrination much easier. Even if people have enough self-defence mechanisms to avoid being directly told what to think, it is very likely that the media tells them what to think about.

It is not that one cannot discover much about the reality of government policy. All the sources I have used in this book are public. But you have to make a real effort, and spend considerable time, which is simply not possible for most people. It involves proactively looking for alternative sources of information, usually a variety of different sources, to piece together an accurate picture, and then weighing these against mainstream sources.

It also involves what the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo has called “decolonising the mind”. Ngugi was referring to Africans needing to free themselves from ideologies often subconsciously imposed under colonialism. The British public needs, in my view, to do the same thing, and consciously unlearn most of what they have been informed about and “educated” on regarding Britain’s role in the world. This means not only in the media, but in school and university too. Again, these are not easy tasks.

Overall, I believe that it is inevitable that people are being indoctrinated into a picture of Britain’s role in the world that supports elite priorities. This is the mass production of ignorance. It also actively works against our interests, which is precisely why the ideological system is critical to the elite, who essentially see the public as a threat.

The basic fact is that anyone who wants to understand the reality of Britain’s past and current foreign policies cannot do so by relying on the mainstream. As the chapters on Kenya, Malaya, British Guiana, Iran and others have shown, the reality of British policy is systematically suppressed; whole episodes in Britain’s history have in effect become unknowable. Interpretations of history that accord with the preferences of elites are the dominant ones.

What has happened is the destruction of history. The task of any independent historian is to reconstruct history, to rescue it from oblivion.

In the chapters that follow in this section I try to recover from the official memory hole the terrible reality of some buried government policies. Big policies – such as complicity in the slaughter of a million people in Indonesia and the removal of the entire population of Diego Garcia – can be excised from history and deemed Officially Unimportant across all sections of the mainstream.

1 comment

  1. Jackie says:

    Wonderfully clear and well-researched and written. Sadly I fear the most indoctrinated with) not read it.

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