Images of war

20 Aug

If Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq by PR Watch editors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber is a difficult book to review, it was also a difficult book to have written. It is notoriously hard to gain perspective when writing contemporary history, and this book discusses events of recent weeks and months.

Only yesterday, Alastair Campbell faced the Hutton Inquiry in London. Questions of government spin are still open on both sides of the Atlantic.

Within the last week, Libya’s acceptance of responsibility over the Lockerbie bombing has shed startling new light on the British-backed US bombing of Libya in the 1980s.

To its great credit, Weapons of Mass Deception, does show perspective. It is well-researched and sourced, and is a dispassionate account of recent events. Of course, it’s not comfortable reading for those of us who supported the US or UK governments, or for those of us working in public relations. But this is not itself a work of propaganda.

Instead, it contributes to our understanding of the uses of propaganda and mass media. For those who assumed that democracies were immune from manipulation, there’s a chilling quotation from Hermann Goering arguing otherwise.

The book attempts a historical analysis of terrorism, concluding that terrorism is now ‘a form of propaganda’, dependent on mass media coverage. I would have liked their analysis to have gone further, because this raises many difficult questions for free societies and the mass media.

The authors are damning of the saturation media coverage of the war – so extensive and yet so limited. They also identify the hours of TV coverage as open to manipulation through government-controlled photo opportunites (the examples of this will be easily recalled). Yet they neglect to mention that individual voices could also be heard during this period, in a new form of unspun media. One Iraqi citizen became celebrated for his warts-and-all recounting of events in a weblog written from Baghdad in between power cuts. He is still writing.

Above all, the book provides perspective on the image of America around the world, during this period of Pax Americana. If I may be permitted a British historical perspective: when you’re in a position of power, it’s possible to act out of good intentions and still to be disliked. That’s the hardest of public relations problems to solve.

Brian Eno’s Observer review of Weapons of Mass Deception

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