I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I recently rediscovered a book I’d forgotten I’d read back in 2009, Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies. It’s very relevant to my current interest in the propaganda-world in which we now seem to live, and move, and have our being.
Davies, a seasoned journalist mainly on the Guardian, exposed devastatingly the decline in the effectiveness of the press as a force for speaking truth to power, or even for speaking truth at all. Writing before the dramatic rise of social media and what we now call “fake news” (whatever different individuals may mean by that), his thesis is a rather seedier explanation of press failure than any kind of scurrilous political conspiracy.
Rather, the kind of things he explores are the takeover of the ownership of traditional news media by monopolists primarily interested in profit, their political interference being more about what will gain them benefits in money and power from politicians, rather than, like the previous owners, what will further their own political ideology.
Accordingly, costs were cut (that’s even worse now, of course, as the internet’s independent operators have eaten into the mainstream media’s market share), staff were fired, and newspapers and their online versions became increasingly beholden to recycled and embellished partisan press releases from governments, NGOs, PR companies, and the big news agencies, for their stories. Since the news agencies have also been cash-strapped, their stories, fed to every actual news outlet from your local paper (owned by a conglomerate somewhere) to the international broadcasters, are similarly limited in their actual investigative, or original, journalistic content. Mostly they are not even fact-checked.
Davies also describes the dirty tricks of editors to increase circulation, still continuing because of the toothlessness of regulatory bodies, despite the exposure of illegal surveillance of “persons of interest” and even blatant lying. Editors know that whether they’re inventing a celebrity’s scandalous relationship, or falsely implicating some innocent civilian in murder, at most they’ll be printing a small back-page correction months later, long after lives and reputations are ruined. But if it turns a profit, there’s no problem for them.
A decade on, I suspect there are other factors in press corruption than those Davies mentions. Whistleblowers (real ones, I mean) like Edward Snowden have lifted the lid on state mass surveillance, and senior intelligence officers lied under oath to the US Congress to deny what was later partially admitted, was weakly legislated against, and in practice cannot be controlled because of state secrecy. Snowden is in exile, rather than being given a medal. Katharine Gun only avoided prosecution because it would have revealed the UK Attorney General’s advice that the Gulf War was illegal.
Even back in the 1950s, the western press was used to convey state intelligence propaganda to control the beliefs of ordinary people in the Cold War, and that process now shows every sign of having become pervasive and overt political manipulation. Whether that’s due to the State, a Deep State, or just to Davies’s government and NGO press offices, it produces a press uniformity that is stunning in its international nature.
Today’s example, to avoid anything too overtly political, is the present salacious Royalty scandal – Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein. I’m as much of a Royalist as the average Brit, having been born the week that Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. I’ve never met a Royal, though my brother received an award from Prince Charles and even “shook the royal glove” when he met the Queen.
But Prince Andrew’s troubles are certainly of his own making, whether he is innocent or guilty of debauching young girls: we do need to remember that guilt in such matters ought to come from disproving presumed innocence in a court, not from the public’s feelings about a TV interview. It’s certainly a legitimate story for the press to cover, though.
But the issue is how they cover it, on both sides of the Atlantic, since by rights you’d expect the angles to be somewhat different in the different countries, and even the different news outlets, and yet they are not. Just a week or two ago, in the US, Project Veritas disclosed video of an ABC news anchor complaining that her team had had full information on the Epstein case, Prience Andrew and all, years ago, but that it had been blocked from appearing. Even after this disclosure, not only did ABC not present their findings posthumously, but the video was barely, if at all, mentioned on other networks. No public interest? Tosh!
Now, the current coverage in the American press seems to be, in essence, that Epstein was a paedophile who (good riddance) committed suicide while awaiting trial, and that Andrew has a lot of explaining to do about his relationship to him, especially in the light of the allegations of victims.
But to me that rather conveniently focuses all the current attention on a “foreign celebrity,” and better still on a British Royal descended from George III. This angle could happily hog the entire Epstein case as the media discuss whether the Prince will testify anywhere to anybody, get away with criminal activity or not (who is going to attempt to extradite an English Prince?), or even simply lose his reputation.
But that isn’t the real heart of the Epstein case at all. Notorious paedophile he may have been, but where he differs from our notorious paedophile, Jimmy Savile, is that for the most part the Establishment evil over Savile was to cover for his individual perversion, because he was “talent” highly marketable both as a celebrity and as a charity saint. In contrast, Epstein seems to have made his money largely by setting up high-spec illicit sex for the rich and powerful, and then blackmailing them with the videos he made. The victims who have come forward implicate many others besides Andrew, so who is interviewing them on TV?
Epstein’s “suicide” is highly controversial, “…and Epstein didn’t kill himself” has even become a meme. If there were powerful figures involved in his death, it would certainly be both in their interest and in their power to minimise the press’s attention on them, and to stress instead Epstein’s personal abuses. Even better, it would be advantageous to direct attention outside America altogether, to the complicity of a close friend over in that quaint and overprivileged British Royal Family. It’s safe for the US press to implicate Prince Andrew – less so, Bill Clinton. Scapegoats are always useful to the guilty, yes?
That’s how I read it anyway. But the really depressing thing is that exactly the same spin is being given to the story over here (where, but for the royal connection, interest in Epstein would obviously be minor). We have extensive coverage of all the fallout from the Prince’s disastrous TV interview, but as context, all the BBC or the papers gives us is that Epstein was a convicted paedophile, who committed suicide (no ifs or buts) in jail. There is no mention of the other rich and powerful associates, except to say that Andrew’s excuse, that he liked Epstein because through him he met many interesting people, is weak, given that as a Royal he could meet people anyway.
A properly journalistic press would be asking exactly which interesting people he met, and when, and where, and what they did. In Britain, that investigation would be to the advantage both of royalist journalists, who could spread the blame back to the influence of those randy Americans, and republican writers, who could slag off the Royal Family even more by implicating it in an élite sex ring.
Instead, Britain’s press has followed the banal narrative of the American press, on what at this stage ought to be a British story. And that narrative seems to be calculated as a damage limitation exercise on a major American scandal at he highest levels. It makes our infamous Profumo Affair of the 1960s appear like a minor peccadillo in comparison, both in who was involved, and the evil of what they did.
My conclusion: the people who understand most about the world nowadays are probably those who never pick up a newspaper or watch a news bulletin. The more you follow the news, the less you know. That conclusion would be consistent with Jacques Ellul’s observation that those most susceptible to propaganda are the “well-educated,” because they are the ones most exposed to the message.
Well, check out where all the insanely “woke” people are – you won’t find them in the factories or building your extension, but you may well among the journalistic studies graduates in the offices of the Independent.