The BBC’s ‘The Century of the Self’

On April 3, 2002, Media Lens published a Media Alert: The Unspoken Rule of Media Reporting: The BBC’s Century of the Self.

Our suggested action included writing to the producer and writer of the series, Adam Curtis. We finally received a reply on June 5, 2002. This is what we received:

I read with interest your piece on the second part of Century of the Self. It struck me – reading the last paragraph – that you might not have seen the first part of the series which is all about the roots of NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] propaganda in the 1920’s and 30’s. I wondered whether you might like a copy?


Adam Curtis
Producer – Century of the Self

Media Lens responded to this email on the same day, June 5, 2002:

Dear Adam Curtis,

Many thanks for your email. I wrote the Media Alert, so I’ll respond. I did see the first part of your series. It contained some excellent material, particularly by the standards of mainstream analysis. But what was so disturbing was that while you at times really did touch on issues that are all but taboo in our society, you ultimately reproduced exactly the kind of deceptive spin that Bernays used to camouflage the truth about big business control. A good example was the framing explanation of the issues presented, and repeated, in several parts of the series:

“Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

As you’ll know, if you’ve read Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s study of the period, Alex Carey’s work, and countless books by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, and many others, this could not be further from the truth. Post-1945, as now, the real fear of politicians and planners was the existence of dangerous +rational+ desires and fears – popular desires for equity, justice and functioning democracy; popular fears that unbridled capitalism and militarism would once again lead to horrors on the scale of the two world wars. Freud’s theories were incidental – useful in refining traditional methods of popular control perhaps, but a sideshow.

Do you really believe that big business was fundamentally motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of Nazi Germany, as this passage explicitly states? Even a glance at the detail of the massive business-labour conflict that raged in the US during the first half of the last century – a conflict all but ignored by your series – demands a very different formulation; one along these lines, perhaps:

Politicians and planners became convinced that popular expectations, heightened by impassioned talk of the ‘fight for freedom and democracy’ during two world wars, had raised the real possibility of a democratic threat to elite control of society. Employing tried and tested methods of popular control rooted in fear (of ‘Communism’) and greed (for consumer goods), elites attempted – then, as now – to associate ‘Americanism’ and ‘freedom’ with ‘free enterprise’ in the public mind. The goal, very simply, was, and is, the protection of entrenched profits and power. The results included countless repetitions of Nazi-style barbarism throughout the Third World, as US business – ostensibly defending the West against ‘communism’ – exported the battle against popular interference abroad. Time and again interventions sold to the public as struggles against ‘Communism’, turned out to be struggles for Western profits against independent nationalism supported by impoverished people. The cost in human suffering has been beyond belief – literally millions of people killed, tortured and disappeared.

Why did you not mention the full price played by 150,000 people in Guatemala as a result of the machinations of Bernays et al? Would this not have contradicted your own claim that US politicians and planners were fundamentally motivated to avert barbarism? This, for Guatemala, +was+ a holocaust. It was also remarkable that you failed to mention that this was only one small example of the murderous consequences of US elite actions throughout the Third World. Why, after all, would the effects of US power politics be felt only in Guatemala? How could the really appalling wider picture not be worth even mentioning?

It’s a while since I saw your series, but a couple of other observations spring to mind. Your programme accepted that Bernays set out to paint Arbenz as a Communist:

“In reality Arbenz was a democratic socialist with no links to Moscow. But Bernays set out to turn him into a Communist threat to America.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)

In other words, US elites did not play on Cold War fears; they created and then exploited them. And yet you then went on to say:

“Bernays had manipulated the American people, but he had done so because he, like many others at the time, believed that the interests of business and the interests of America were indivisible, especially when faced with the threat of Communism.”

But isn’t this precisely the deception that Bernays and others tried to spin, rather than the actual truth?

After seeing the first part of the series I was really intrigued to see how honest the series would become as it got closer to the present day. You could have delved into the enormous ‘green backlash’ (see Andy Rowell’s book of the same name) of big business today in working to prevent action on climate change in the name of ‘jobs’ and ‘American economic security’. You could have looked at the role of business in boosting National Missile defence in response to ‘rogue states’, in demonising foreign ‘enemies’ to boost arms sales, in preventing the lifting of sanction against Iraq, in undermining democracy, and so on (see our Media Alerts section: www.Media for more on all of these) – this would have represented a logical continuation of the themes of the earlier parts of your series. But you gave no indication of just how all-powerful and corrupting business propaganda has become – in government, in schools, in the corporate media, in the culture generally. Instead, the focus suddenly became limited to how ‘Third Way’ politicians were seeking to use business techniques to sell politics as a kind of product to voters – interesting but trivial.

Mr Curtis, your programme made some important points, but the end result was to present business control as much more benign, much less lethal, than it really is. Ultimately, you kept a lid on the ideas and understanding that have the power to wake people up – exactly the kind of thing that Bernays, and all PR gurus ever since, have worked tirelessly to keep from the public. If you had told the truth, your efforts would not have been appreciated or well-received, I can assure you.

Best wishes
David Edwards
Co-Editor – Media Lens

Having received no response from Adam Curtis to this email, we wrote again on June 11, 2002:

Dear Adam Curtis,

Nearly a week has gone by since I replied to your email – it’s disappointing not to have heard from you. If there is to be any hope of democracy – of escaping the culture of dishonesty you described in Century of the Self – then we surely have to welcome opportunities for honest debate, not reject them.

Best wishes
David Edwards

Another week on, we have still not heard from Adam Curtis. It may be that he is too busy to reply to our emails. Or it could be that, like so many mainstream journalists, he sees our attempts at honest debate as a threat rather than an opportunity.


Write to Adam Curtis, the maker of The Century of the Self:

Email: [email protected]

Ask him why he has failed to respond to the articles and letters that have been sent to him. Ask him why The Century of the Self gave so much detailed attention to Guatemalan history, and yet failed to mention U.S. responsibility for the 150,000 civilians killed as a result of its assault on Guatemala. Ask why the series focused on this isolated U.S. intervention without mentioning that it was a small part of similar interventions elsewhere in Latin America and in the Third World generally. Is this wider pattern not central to understanding the real significance, and costs, of corporate control of domestic and foreign societies in the 20th and 21st centuries?

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.