“Captive TV:” A New Reality Format

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

The deep involvement of television in the conduct of war and conflict, not just as an agency of relay but as a constituent factor in the construction of political and military “reality,” is well documented in the literature of international research. However, a new marker of its defining impact would appear to have been reached with the coverage given last month to the Royal Navy’s 15 “hostages” detained in Iran for some 13 days after their seizure in the Persian Gulf while on patrol, allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. This coverage, initially for Iranian television but broadcast selectively across the world, got eerily close to a Big Brother-style reality show in aspects of its portrayal, although how far this was by conscious design remains unclear. The implications of the styling, and of the performances that were required for its “successful” projection, continue to be a major factor in the debate about the whole incident and its aftermath.

Of course images of captives, and of hostages, have a history, one which goes back to forms of triumphal exhibition well before the availability of the symbolic currency of photography, film and television, which so crucially extends the terms and modes of display. More recently, these terms have increasingly shifted towards strategic use – the photo or video sequence as a counter in a game of pressure and sometimes negotiation often played-off in relation to a watching “public” placed by the media in the role of bystander, as well in relation to specific political and military authorities.

What was so different about this affair, this use of “display,” however, was the way in which the whole “theatre of captivity” constructed by Iranian television drew so strongly (and to a degree, persuasively) on benign framings, on the idea of the prisoners as “guests.” The open indication of subjugated status (blindfolds, signs of physical violence, ragged appearance or prison clothing) which has accompanied previous imagery was exchanged for a bizarre range of more affirmatory signs. These included performances not only of “admission” (carried out briskly in confident lecture style, accompanied by maps and pointers), but also of sociability (eating together, smiling and joking, playing chess and table tennis, watching television and reading).

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the theatricalization extended to a final performance of gratitude at release, including handshakes with the Iranian president, much open celebration among the group, interview comments into reporters’ microphones, acceptance and opening of presents and a seemingly cheerful group waving of farewell (dressed not in uniform but in civilian suits).

Not surprisingly, this all presented the British media with some challenges as to how precisely to handle the story in relation to expectation and dominant values. These challenges to tone and to reported detail affected both coverage at the geopolitical level and its routine pitching at the level of the individuals and their families. Uncertainties were latent in nearly all the reporting and explicit in some of it. Even before the captives’ release, media accounts criticising their behaviour and comparing it unfavourably with more conventional notions of prisoner-of-war “refusal” to cooperate were widespread, some issuing from journalists and some from former military personnel and not all from Britain. With the further “performance” of their release in Iran, accompanied by scenes that could, indeed, have come straight from a reality series, the talk of “humiliation” and of “embarrassment” increased.

This caused noticeable tensions in the reporting of their return, where a strong early move to emphasise the need for privacy and to respect personal feelings outside of the limited accounts offered at the press conference was quickly thrown into crisis (indeed contradicted) by the news that those involved would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in some cases for six figure sums. Such an open commodification of the captivity experience, an experience whose public representation had already been the subject of massive, strategic styling by the Iranians, opened up further lines of public opposition and dispute. However, the continuity of media logic was clear. Having been made against their will into kinds of reality show performer, the sailors and marines were being transformed into what in many ways is a now familiar kind of transient celebrity – their temporary but intensive tele-presence as “news” generating further audience “attraction,” the economic justification for a little longer in the mediasphere. Once again, established ideas of “proper behaviour” were initially no match for the volatile dynamics of mediation and the belief, by at least some senior navy officers and their political managers, that to risk playing directly into the media appetite for the story was worth it in order quickly to counter the Iranian-generated version. This phase lasted only two days, after which the earlier decision about allowing stories to be sold was reversed by the Government as a result of a huge political backlash, partly fuelled by the continuingly unflattering portrayal of events coming through from even the captives’ own accounts.

The tensions at work in media and public engagement with the incident were both political and cultural. In both cases what had been seen on television was an absolutely central reference point, even if different interpretations of its status were also part of what was being contested. That levels of duress had been applied to obtain the “performances” was hardly ever in question (although pointed reference to the established record of treatment at Guantánamo was made a comparative marker by some). However, the issue of precisely what degree of co-operation was justified in the circumstances remained in play, however mutedly or with whatever qualification.

British sailors waving goodbye

British sailors waving goodbye

How can we summarise television’s involvement in this incident, the political implications of which are still reverberating? Clearly, the main emphasis must be placed on the way in which the Iranian version of events offered a developing narrative of apparent well-being and co-operation rather than the isolated or at least sharply episodic moments of hardship, suffering and the possibility of imminent death which most previous exercises in captive or hostage images have entailed. This version was certainly not believed “straight” by most of the British audience who watched the sequences, and it is certainly possible that it was not believed (and nor, therefore, was the authenticity of the “confessions”) by many in the Iranian audience either. However, as a performance whose precise conditions of fabrication were unknown, it achieved a sufficient legitimacy of reference beyond that of the complete and obvious “fake.” It was this interweaving of doubtfulness and plausibility which connected it, if only indirectly and by disturbing parody, with the performances of mainstream reality television and which, for many viewers, made the experience of watching it, right through to the handshakes, presents and farewells, so much a matter of conflicting and perhaps alternating frameworks of interpretation and assessment.

Such a strong core of visual portrayal, watched by millions (and often used in loop format by the channels to extend its durational impact) was always going to be central to any subsequent expansion of the range of accounts. This included those short statements issuing from the press conference and follow-up interviews back in the UK (the BBC rolling news channel actually ran the Iranian-sourced “captive” footage on a split screen alongside images of the same person talking live at the British press conference).

Finally, we can note how this whole project of strategic mediatization only worked effectively within the terms of global television, its technology of trans-national relay and its dedicated news channels being quite central to the impact (varied though this is likely to have been) on distant publics.

At the UK press conference on the day following their release one of the marines remarked that the whole thing had been a “media circus.” He would not have known then quite how apt this metaphor would continue to be as the focus of managing, and attemptedly re-working, the depiction of “what had happened” shifted from Iran to Britain.

Image Credits:
1. British navy personnel on Iranian TV
2. British sailors waving goodbye

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Enemies Within

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

Spooks Series 1 cast

Spooks Series 1 cast

The fifth season of the BBC drama series Spooks, about Britain’s security service MI5 (screening in the USA as MI5) is now moving towards the end of its run. The series has been a successful one with audiences, bringing tight storytelling, crisp direction and perhaps surprisingly nuanced characterisation to the theme of working life (the word “normal” is not applicable) within a national intelligence organisation.

Misgivings about the political orientation of the series seemed well founded at the start of the first season. The promotional catchline “MI5, not 9 till 5” appeared clearly designed to project a strong and positive view of the service, contrasting its 24/7 watchdog commitments to the “terror” agenda with the humdrum routine of a conventional office job.

Immediately, a number of predictable “distortions”, intrinsic to the generic format, were established. Of these, perhaps the most obvious is that of the small group (not much more than half a dozen) of variously engaging and/or attractive men and women who seem, without complaint, to be handling most of the priority workload of a national organisation employing thousands of staff. This narrative premise, guaranteeing high levels of character recognition and development, is perhaps more noticeable when the organisation is not a fictional one (as it has been with so many previous exercises in “secret agent” fiction) but an actual state institution. It is a radical foreshortening that the series largely gets away with since its connections with the world of policy and bureaucracy, with the departmental life of committees and reviews (what we might see as a West Wing agenda) are almost as thinned down as those of a purely fictional agency would be. I say “almost” and I’ll come back to that point later. Nevertheless, the small, tight and terrifically up-for-it team, developing engaging interpersonal relationships at the same time as working against the clock to save Britain (usually a part of London) from disaster once a week is the main event.

What makes it interesting though (not just “watchable”, which I think it also is) is precisely its mode of theming “intelligence work” in relation not only to previous excursions in this area but to the climate of debate about risk, security and civil liberty which has developed in Britain since the Iraq War and then the London bombings. It is useful to note here how much previous fiction about British intelligence (Bond, of course, but also the much darker fictions, and television adaptations, of John Le Carré) largely concerned the activities of some fictional variant not of MI5 (the internal security service) but of MI6, Britain’s overseas secret intelligence service. It is the recent development of a busy and potentially “action-packed” homefront in intelligence work which provides Spooks with its plotlines, otherwise it might be an unpromising (and probably unmade) drama about people listening to other people’s telephone conversations all day and processing vast amounts of online data.

Spooks logo

Spooks logo

By focusing, most weeks, on London-based contexts for its action (the iconography of the city is, as in so many series, an important part of the package) Spooks is immediately faced with a challenge in its overall narrative economy. This is challenge not faced either by those espionage fictions that have deployed the “exotic locale” as their setting (and usually the individual agent rather the organisation itself as their focus) or by the varieties of cop show, with the almost endless permutations of criminality and approach they are able to work with. It has, on a weekly basis, to come up with “threats requiring action” that can only marginally include overseas locations and must show some degree of freshness and avoidance of repetition.

Whether by initial design or pragmatism following the success of the first series, one of the ways in which Spooks has attempted to rise to this challenge is by increasingly moving from an emphasis on one kind of “enemy within” (home-grown or imported terrorists variously linked to Al Qaeda) with another (ostensibly legitimate organisations supposed to be “on our side”). Here, the options have involved other British agencies of the state — with elements of MI6 commanding a strong lead in perfidy — corporate multinationals and foreign governments — with Israel and the USA being particularly foregrounded (along with Mossad and the CIA). In one episode, a British Foreign Secretary was shown protecting an African head of government guilty of genocide and a political assassination in which the British government was complicit by ordering the shooting dead of the woman who sought, with MI5 help, to kill him. In other, an MI6 agent conspired with Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) to mount an attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy with a group disguised as Islamic extremists. Spooks’ core team only just managed to crack this one in time.

Even allowing for the established “noir” tendencies of “secret state” fiction (on both sides of the Atlantic), this sense of a policy world characterised by betrayal and corruption comes across with a distinctive impact. Primarily it does so because the present, real circumstances of state policy and nightly news can hardly be simply disregarded in watching and responding to the series.

Spooks Series 4 cast

Spooks Series 4 cast

This takes me back to my earlier “almost”. The series is almost thinned down to nothing in its bureaucratic, as opposed to action narrative, connections. But it has enough (little scenes in Whitehall, in arranged meeting places, on the phone) to connect with those documentary elements which most audiences will inevitably bring to its viewing along with the primary wish to be entertained.

So initial judgements about the politics of the series were inclined to get its trajectory wrong or least underestimate the capacity for complexity that its dramas of geopolitical and state intrigue could develop. It’s true that the kind of balance it wishes to strike between its “right-on” and its cynical moments (both sometimes internalised in character mood) is now uncertain. It is not, nor is it becoming, a subversive text, but its handling of the contradictions in play, structural and ethical, is often engaging and sometimes genuinely provocative. Its value in the schedules might be seen to amount to more than just another hour of tele-excitement a week.

Note:
Like most successful shows, Spooks has a quite detailed website involving viewer’s reviews of each episode. It also has a link to the official MI5 website, although one might imagine that the series’ capacity to generate recruits has been complicated a bit by the darker plot tendencies I have described. Opting for “9 to 5” might seem the wiser choice.

Image Credits:
1. Spooks Series 1 cast
2. Spooks logo
3. Spooks Series 4 cast

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Television and the Practice of “Criticism”


TV Criticism Cartoon

The idea of “criticism” as a practice of analysis and of knowledge in the arts has long been a matter of dispute. What is the function of criticism? What kind of connections between an artefact and social and political contexts should it seek, and how equipped is it to extend its range beyond the object (novel, painting, score, film, television program) which is its immediate concern? How openly subjective should it be, stressing a personal relationship (“response”) between critic and work or, conversely, what level of objectivity can it attain, what “scientific” support can it draw upon?

Questions such as these have recently been heard more often in television studies. A complicating factors here is that many people seem unsure as to whether television really warrants the seriousness indicated by the idea of a body of criticism. Television may deserve criticising, yes, but that is (perhaps confusingly) rather different from criticism, which often includes appreciation as a primary goal (as, for instance, in the strong tradition of literary criticism). It’s quite interesting to compare television with film in this respect. Film studies has now, internationally, achieved the status of an art form that deserves a serious body of critical attention, which it has certainly acquired, although its history shows the tensions between attention to Hollywood and to forms of “Independent” and Art Cinema.

Television raises questions of “value” of a more openly contested kind than cinema, even though individual films frequently raise important issues of value. This is partly because television is regarded as inherently systemic (and the system often judged as dubious). Although cinema is also seen as, partly, systemic (e.g. the changing economics and parameters of the Hollywood system), individual films are largely treated by scholars as “works.” Another point, related to this, is that television is rightly seen as more pervasively social than film both in its range of contents, its modes of address and, of course, the range and character of its delivery to audiences. This presents a challenge to the “critical stance”, which traditionally tends to work with a sense of the aesthetic object as possessing a certain level of autonomy from the conditions in which it is produced and consumed. We might call this a relative level of aesthetic density, providing sufficient richness, contemplative depth and scope for the exercise of criticism as an intellectually challenging practice. Not everyone is quite sure TV is up to offering this on a regular basis. The way in which newspaper and magazine TV critics regularly use their column to make humorous points about life in general and enjoy nothing better than to “rubbish” a bad program seems to be one indication of this.

There is a further difficulty too. Television is generically heterogeneous, in particular across the boundaries of fictional narratives, factual accounts and various kinds of entertaining event, some presenter-led. One might think the safest bet for someone setting up as an academic critic of television is to stay with “high end” drama, slipping across to pick up the occasional sitcom or soap now and again and maybe the more interesting (e.g. symbolically dense) documentary. Indeed, quite a few critics do this (particularly those who still operate from a firm base in Film Studies). However, the emergence of more work wishing to centre itself on television has produced academics who want to talk about the full range of output. Often, those who have a “critical” inclination find themselves in tension with those who are coming at things from the point of view of sociologists or political analysts or historians, bringing with them the toolkits of the social sciences and also its particular concerns for data and method. The social scientists are often not hugely impressed by an activity that seems dangerously close to a kind of “personal phenomenology”, is which media productions are “read” and judged for their qualities and wider meanings largely in relation to the views, predilections and insights of the critics themselves. The tension is increased by the fact that those taking the “critical approach” don’t simply want to talk about programs and let the sociologists do all the detailed inquiry into politics and society. They want to talk about social and political implications too (indeed some appear to want to do this more they want to talk about programs, a very odd thing to find in an art or music critic, or even a literary or a film critic).

It is clear that some of the writers who contributed most importantly to the development of inquiry into television employed forms of engagement that drew on literary critical models. What emerges from this body of writing is a rich, sensitive and complex sense of how television works as a medium of communication. What also emerges, if by no means always, is a level of evaluative assertion about “quality” and the impact upon audiences and even the whole socio-political system that begs a lot more questions than were often recognised. Critics not only “read” the programs, they “read” the audience. For many years, they tended to read the audience pessimistically, as part of a general view of the consequences of the television system for society. More recently, some have read the audience optimistically, writing from the vantage point of a “fan” themselves. The new position carries with it a more democratic ethos, but some underlying problems concerning the basis and function of the judgements offered remain. With simplification, one can see the rise of audience studies in the 1980s as in part an attempt to expand the terms of engagement beyond the terms of criticism, whilst not giving up on the possibility of offering a critique and not slipping into the more reductive categories of media sociology when it discusses questions of meaning.

Where does this leave the possibilities for an academic television “criticism”? There are certainly challenges here. It lacks the self-conscious “critical community” of the other arts (including film). It often attempts to engage with diverse materials far from the core aesthetics and artistic ambitions that have provided the focus for “criticism” elsewhere. It is frequently in danger of being drawn into either polemical opposition or seductive alliance with the industrially championed imperatives of “popular taste.” If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the rival claims and sometimes open hostility of media sociology to take into account.

What we perhaps need is more inquiry that locates critical “readings” within a wider array of approaches. Criticism can also benefit by bringing its perspectives into further and deeper engagement with what we are learning, and have still to learn, about the working criteria of media production and about how the taste cultures of television are generated and sustained through audience attributions of “worth.”

Criticism’s mix of subjectivity, analysis and evaluation, though problematic, is valuable. Its assertiveness and occasional tendency towards the wacky carry benefits. We need to sustain a good level of openly judgemental debate about the kind of television we have and the kinds we might have. But increased self-awareness, more care in its claims-making beyond the immediate focus on textual form and meaning and stronger connections with other (not necessarily more “objective” but often cooler) modes of inquiry would help “critical” work on television develop better as a discourse of knowledge as well as a discourse of cultural dispute.

Note: This is part of a longer commentary, in preparation, on television and the “critical” idea.

Image Credits:

TV Criticism Cartoon

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The Dynamics of Political Re-Branding

David Cameron on the cover of GQ

David Cameron on the cover of GQ

Among political communication analysts in Britain, a lot of recent interest has been generated in “political re-branding.” This phrase indicates a project that, using some of the methods developed in commercial marketing, attempts to reposition a political party within political space (to a large degree a matter of cultural space and media space).

The idea of “branding” carries further the notion that political party and leader identities have become even closer to brand identities, built by a combination of close attention to existing market profiles and customer preferences (to some, this latter factor gives a democratic dimension which older forms of political “hard sell” lacked) together with abilities in promotional strategy. One has to be careful about collapsing the real differences between commercial and political practice but nevertheless the comparison is useful. In a number of countries, a variety of factors have combined to make it so, albeit with strong national differences. Among these factors we can note a weakening of traditional party loyalties, a reduction of key ideological differences (notably, a convergence on basic economic policy), intensified conditions of media visibility and an electorate increasingly used to behaving as a “consumer” as well as (if not rather than) a “citizen.”

Commercial brand theory sees “brand personality” as a key integrating factor in building brand value. In politics, such “brand personality” is inevitably personified by political party leaders, a group with a long history of iconic public projection.

Why “re-branding” is so interesting and significant is because it replaces the relatively stable, or at least slow-moving, character of traditional political identity which a much more aggressively and strategically mobile version, alert to the conditions of the “political market” and the changing profile of media relations. This version appears to give added emphasis to “managerialist” concerns, the ability not simply to inspire but “to deliver.”

In Britain, David Cameron, elected as leader of the Conservative Party last year, is the obvious focus. Since taking office, he has gone about the re-branding of his Party in a way that is unprecedented in its scale and styling. In fact, it raises questions about whether re-branding is really the right word for what might appear to be a major shift in the essential nature of the product itself. Reference by commentators is frequently made back to the emergence of “New Labour” as a restyling of the Labour Party in the early 1990s, although this was accomplished across a period of years and several leaders, however decisive Tony Blair was to its success. Interestingly, this was also a change that, cosmetic or semiotic as it might appear at one level, was actually about key values and policy commitments.

One of Cameron's first moves was to adopt a softer version of Labour's re-labelling tactic. Although a change to the actual name of the Party was considered and rejected, Cameron began to use “compassionate” in front of “Conservative” and “Conservativism” on all possible occasions, a direct semantic counter to the idea of “hardheartedness” that had become strongly attached to the Party, even by those who applauded it for being so. Then followed his first policy emphasis, which was to project deep environmental concern. Again, this had a novel semiotic dimension in the “Vote Blue, Go Green” slogan for the Spring 2006 local elections (Blue is the traditional colour of the party). Other, equally bold, shifts in political space were undertaken, with speeches emphasising the need for happiness to be seen as a greater value than money, for gender equality and for a greater recognition of the value of the public services. Rather than opening up clear space to the conventional “Right” of the Labour Party, which is what his predecessors had usually been forced to attempt, Cameron's tactics seem to have been to go radically “central” by actually placing some of his policy lines to the “Left” of Labour!

Cameron's media visibility has been marked by a calculated emphasis on the informal, taking this further than level of “casual politics” (home with the family, taking the children to school, relaxing at weekends) already established as a brand requirement for most leading politicians. The most defining image to appear in the press in the first few months were photographs of him cycling to Parliament, with full cycling gear and helmet. BBC television helped establish this, choosing to cover his journey to the House of Commons to hear the result of the leadership election in 2005 by tracing his cycle journey from a helicopter! Even the recent news that a chauffer-driven car follows him carrying his suit and his papers has not entirely subverted the strength of this projection. A few months ago, it was reinforced by press agency shots of him driving a dog sled on a Norwegian glacier as part of a fact-finding trip about global warming. This June, in a rather different framing, pitched more at smart, cooler aspects of professional culture, he appeared on the cover of the men's magazine GQ with the headline “Mr Ambition.”

It seems clear that Cameron's key tasks as a re-brander are not only those of getting the public to accept the new brand values he is promoting but of getting existing party members to “switch” from the old values which many of them continue to find attractive. If he achieve some success here, then this “turn” in mediated politics will almost certainly require the Labour party to undertake some “re-re-branding,” meeting Cameron's challenge and distancing itself from what is now seen as the negative part of Labour's ten year period of office under the once unbeatable brand-leadership of Tony Blair. British politics is about to enter a new and volatile phase of promotionalism, one in which television will, as ever, be key strategic ground.1

1I discuss the broader issues of political culture and media power implicated here in my chapter “Media, Power and Political Culture” in Eoin Devereux (ed.) Media Debates, forthcoming from Sage.

Image Credits:

David Cameron on GQ

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Simply Propaganda?

Fox News Goebbels Lives

Fox News Goebbels Lives

Routinely used — both in everyday talk and in academic argument, to indicate a kind of “bad communication”, related to “bad politics” — how helpful is the idea of “propaganda” for the development of our critical understanding?

Writers on “propaganda” tend to vary on the extent to which the term now carries an ineradicably negative meaning. They have also varied on what precisely it is about “propaganda” that earns the negative judgement. Many accounts reach back into history to the positive 17th century use of the term by the Roman Catholic Church in the formulation of strategies for world propagation of its message. For those who opposed the message, this helped give the word a negative slant too. Of course, many more recent examples of positive self-ascription can be found, including Dr. Goebbels and his Nazi Ministry for Propaganda and National Enlightenment. Again, it is not hard to see why a reactive, negative meaning was also thereby encouraged. Self-ascription still occurs today (interesting to see just which groups are prepared to do this) but is far less common. Calling yourself a publicist, a promotionalist or even saying you want to “propagate your message” may be OK but calling yourself a propagandist is decidedly unwise. And when in 1988 Herman and Chomsky chose to call their account of US media-political relations “The Propaganda Model”, they strategically deployed the condemnatory meaning to strong effect, essentially using the label that was widely used by Western governments to describe (and denounce) the political publicity and political news reporting of the Communist bloc.

Writers who, against the trend, still want to talk about the possibility of there being “good propaganda”, like for instance health awareness and road safety campaigns, put the emphasis almost entirely on the ends to which propaganda is employed rather than its nature as a means. As I noted, partly as a result of routine association with bad ends, this is now a very hard position to sustain. For those (many) others who regard it as inherently negative, this negativity can be seen to follow from the cynicism of its motives. But do we have to speculate about motives — doesn’t propaganda have some intrinsic ethical deficiencies as a communicative mode?

Outfoxed

Outfoxed

In looking at the very broad range of practices that have been described and (mostly) condemned as propaganda, we can identify key components.

1. Lying. The deliberate construction and circulation of false information. Although there is much argument that propaganda cannot be reduced to a matter of lying, it is a major element in a high proportion of cited examples. So “the truth” (conceived of with varying degrees of simplicity or complexity) is the chief standard against which “propaganda” is judged as deficient and bad.

2. Strategic selectivity. The deliberate omission from an account of important information that works against the viewpoint being promoted.

3. Exaggeration. This involves a distortive presentation either of positive or negative facts in a way that fits the case being promoted. What does and does not count as “distortion” will, of course, be open to dispute against other accounts.

4. Explicit or covert appeals to desire or to fear, seeking to exert persuasive force outside the terms of normative or factual argument.

More could be added but this is enough for my purposes here. 1 and 2 involve practices of deception. But 2 and 4 have become routine practices of promotionalism applied in a wide range of contemporary settings including commercial advertising and corporate and public sector publicity as well as in politics. 1 is often widely used too, but in many cases (e.g. advertising, employment law affecting false CV’s) is subject to legal constraints.

Given that examples of propaganda as cited in studies may involve all four features, do any of them, either together or in specified combination, constitute a sufficient case for description of what is produced as “propaganda”? It cannot usefully be argued that any of the practices is sufficient to use this description, since this would extend the idea of propaganda to cover virtually all forms of publicity and promotional discourse. It would thereby lose any definitional specificity as well blocking any sense of what are “bad” and what are “legitimate” practices within the complexity of current communicational ethics. In fact, only practice 1, lying, has firm enough discriminating potential to allow identification of a “bad” subgroup of promotional communication. And since lying itself is not necessarily propagandist, even if we take this route then 1 is only a necessary factor, requiring combination perhaps with 2 to provide the barest minimum conditions for such a category. Is this enough to firm it up as a term of analysis?

I think not. We may go on using the term to indicate communication with a level of strategic distortion that we find offensive to rationality and democratic deliberation but as a term it is low in analytic power. It risks some over-simplification and question-begging over both the origin and the nature of “bad communication.” As far the media are concerned, research has established a strong agenda about the kinds of framings, labellings, differential accessing of interviewees, pictorial cueings, narrative resolutions and evaluative moves that make up reporting. Application of the idea of “propaganda” here may mean missing much of the routine, subtle play of inequality and power over meaning that goes on. As for political discourse itself and its bid to win public acceptance if not agreement for policies and positions, well there’s certainly a lot of “propagating” around, but we might usefully put a sharper focus on the changing forms of political deceit. Political lying has been around for a very long time but we need to know more about its current conditions and practice. In short, then, we need to push past “propaganda” to some of the issues about the ethics of politics and journalism in a promotional culture that lay behind it. Issues that at the moment it has a tendency to either foreshorten or block from our view.

Image Credits:

1. Fox News Goebbels Lives

2. Outfoxed

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