Propagating propaganda

The murky world of the three P's - propaganda, politics and PR.


If it weren't the sad case that he is in a position to play our civil rights like an accordion – squeezing our freedom of assembly here, expanding our right to privacy there – Michael McDowell would be a source of some amusement.
From this column's perspective, the funniest McDowell joke is the one where the media keep insisting he is some sort of intellectual heavyweight, albeit a slightly punchdrunk one lately. Even keeping in mind the standard journalistic definition of intellectualism – “is willing to talk to us, and uses complete sentences” – there is something absurd in this insistent, unsupported caricature.
Even as an Irish Times editorial (mildly) criticised the justice minister for recent outbursts, it called him “articulate and intelligent”. It took John Waters to point out with somewhat deceptive politeness that when McDowell called Richard Bruton “the Dr Goebbels of propaganda”, he was using a “tautological construction”. Like, say, “the James Joyce of literature”, “the Roy Keane of football”, “the Rottweiler of German dog breeds”, or “the Michael McDowell of tautology”. A genuinely clever McDowell could only have said “Richard Bruton is the Dr Goebbels of propaganda” if he continued: “but I am the Winston Churchill!”
Perhaps McDowell's remarkable, if puzzling power over the media makes him the Dr Goebbels of the PDs, or maybe the Britney Spears of propaganda. At any rate, one of the important though unremarked-upon functions of a controversy like last month's brouhaha is to maintain the P-word as a term of abuse among politicians, as if propaganda wouldn't melt in their mouths.

Relating to the public
Indeed, you could argue that the existence of a public-relations (PR) industry that is apparently separate from political and corporate elites serves a similar purpose: to disguise the fact that every calculated public utterance of such elites is PR, or propaganda.
The distinction between the two terms is merely historical. PR is the term that took over when “propaganda” got too joined in the public mind with, say, “Nazi” or “commie”. Prior to that, the Daily Mail's founder, Lord Northcliffe, was happy to be called Britain's “director of propaganda in enemy countries” during the first World War; and even after 1945 Lord Beaverbrook proudly declared that his Daily Express had never wavered from his original purpose: to produce “propaganda”.
As the testimony of the two great British press barons of the early 20th century suggests, the corporate media cannot be separated from the powerful, well-financed reality of PRopaganda any more than can other social elites. It's not just that many journalists use the PR industry as a lucrative early-retirement option, or that PR is taught in the same departments as journalism in many third-level institutions (including DIT, where I teach the latter). The fact is that our media outlets are mainly outlets for PR of one sort or another, making a mockery of the oft-heard nostrum that “news is something that someone, somewhere doesn't want you to know”.
By and large, our “news” is stuff that someone rich and/or powerful has gone to some trouble to make sure you know, feeding the press's need for material with information, interviews and pseudo-events such as photo-calls and press conferences. Journalism's image as something ethically above this fray is, well, propaganda.

Profitable ethics
The public is not stupid. For most people “PR” is as contemptible as “propaganda” – at least until their daughter gets a job in the industry. Jack Abramoff, just convicted on corruption charges in the US, gets called a “lobbyist”, but his business is essentially a branch of PR. A key job for the industry is to keep its activities, and those of its clients, ahead of the curve of public consciousness about their corruption and mendacity. Thus PR helps companies into media-friendly areas such as “corporate social responsibility” and “ethics”. For example: in the States the Washington-based “Ethics Resource Center” has a board of directors including Bush Snr aide-turned-lobbyist Brent Scowcroft, and executives from such ethical giants as Merck pharmaceutical.
This is, in part, the context for the arrival at Dublin City University (DCU) – a college notoriously eager to forge corporate links – of an “Institute of Ethics”. The normally straight-shooting Irish Times columnist Eddie Holt cautiously welcomed the development with a rambling “on the one hand, on the other hand” article, without mentioning that he himself is a DCU lecturer who teaches, uh, ethics.
Holt allows himself a couple of paragraphs of hand-wringing about when “ethics and money mix”, sympathetically quoting the director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, Arthur Schafer, in a moment of similar worry. Schafer's centre, Holt didn't say, is mostly funded by “the Imperial Oil Ethics Endowment Fund”: Imperial Oil is Canada's largest oil company, controlled by the moral philosophers at ExxonMobil.
Goebbels wouldn't stand a chance.