The Chains of Seduction

“If the mass will be free of chains of iron, it must accept chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction.” (Professor Harold Lasswell, quoted, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Alex Carey, University of Illinois Press, 1995, p.23)

It’s an age-old conundrum for rulers everywhere. How can those who govern keep those who are governed from the levers of power? In ‘free’ societies lacking the option of “chains of iron”, devotion to consumerism and unthinking acceptance of the inequitable distribution of power have to be inculcated and maintained by a constant stream of state-corporate propaganda. This propaganda is invariably based on appeals to universal values: freedom, democracy, justice and human rights. Indeed, it has been standard practice for over a hundred years to forge an inviolable link in the public mind between these values and the alleged virtues of free enterprise and capitalism.

The Australian social critic Alex Carey, author of the seminal book, Taking The Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, once noted:

“Consider for a moment the symbols by which Americans defined their dream and pictured social reality: the Statue of Liberty with its Christlike promise of succour and compassion to the poor and wretched of the earth; the Declaration of Independence with its noble proclamation of respect for the equal and inalienable rights of all men and women; the unending public litany of adulation for American freedom, American individualism and American democracy; a near religious commitment to the American form of free-enterprise economic system, with its supposed almost immaculate joining of private interest to public well-being.” (Carey, ibid., p.75)

Or consider Tony Blair’s recent speech to Congress:

“Members of Congress, ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, any time ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police. The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defence and our first line of attack…

“But, members of Congress, don’t ever apologize for your values. Tell the world why you’re proud of America. Tell them when the Star-Spangled Banner starts, Americans get to their feet, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Central Europeans, East Europeans, Jews, Muslims, white, Asian, black, those who go back to the early settlers and those whose English is the same as some New York cab drivers I’ve dealt with, but whose sons and daughters could run for this Congress. Tell them why Americans, one and all, stand upright and respectful. Not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, colour, class or creed they are, being American means being free. That’s why they’re proud.” (‘Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress’, The Guardian, July 18, 2003)

Selling Free Enterprise

The original purpose of the ‘public relations’ industry that took root in the United States in the early part of the last century, and which rapidly spread to other western-style liberal democracies, was to sell corporate interests to the public as ‘national interests’, thus protecting the enormous power and wealth enjoyed by a narrow sector of society: industrialists, investors and their political allies. American Historian, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, writes of the 1940s and 1950s:

“Manufacturers orchestrated multi-million dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system… This involved convincing workers to identify their social, economic, and political well-being with that of their specific employer and more broadly with the free enterprise system.” (Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.6)

Mainstream media professionals continue to play a crucial role in this protection of private power by maintaining the illusion that members of the public are offered an ‘impartial’ and wide selection of facts, opinions and perspectives from which any individual can derive his or her own well-informed world view. But what +is+ this notion of ‘impartiality’ that is trumpeted so loudly from the media ramparts? And how do mainstream commentators define it?

Consider a recent example from the media section of the Independent in which Tim Luckhurst quoted the journalist and broadcaster Brian Walden with approval:

“The demand for impartiality is too jealously promoted by the political parties themselves. They count balance in seconds and monitor it with stopwatches.” (‘Time to take sides’, The Independent, 1 July, 2003)

This, writes Luckhurst, is a “telling point”. Indeed it is, for it presumes that “impartiality” equates to one major political party receiving identical, or at least similar, coverage to another. But when all the major political parties have almost identical views on important issues, barring tactical differences, how can this possibly be deemed to constitute media impartiality?

The problem is a glaring consequence of the unmentionable truth described by political scientist Thomas Ferguson in his book Golden Rule: namely, that when major backers of political parties and elections agree on an issue – such as international ‘free trade’ agreements or retaining a massive ‘defence’ budget – then the parties will not compete on that issue, even though the public might ardently wish for a real alternative.

One likely possibility, ignored by Luckhurst and virtually all mainstream media analysts, is that the public is well aware that a huge constituency of opinion is reflected neither in what the major political parties are offering them, nor in what the major broadcasters and newspapers are offering them. When politicians of all major political parties assume that benign notions of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ really do shape foreign policy, for instance, where might one access reporting that does +not+ assume the benign intent of major power as Eternal Truth?

Richard Falk, Professor of International Relations at Princeton, rightly points out that western foreign policy is propagated in the media “through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted violence”. (Quoted, John Pilger in the introduction to ‘Web of Deceit’ by Mark Curtis, Vintage, 2003, p.xiii)

Such a perspective is well beyond the framework of what is considered ‘impartial’ or ‘responsible’ news reporting. Despite much navel-gazing and insider media gossip that might suggest a healthy state of affairs to news ‘consumers’, the media is actually loath to subject itself to critical examination. UK-based media commentators will occasionally subject the US media to mild criticism – perhaps acknowledging the agenda-setting power of elites in Washington and at the Pentagon – but we never see a journalist placing the performance of their own paper – the Independent, the Guardian, the Scotsman or any other British newspaper – in a similarly broad political context. We rarely, if ever, see anything in the print or broadcast media about the role played by the media in boosting state-corporate power, of which it is a major component. This also would mark out a journalist as ‘crusading’, ‘unreliable’, or simply ‘off the rails’.

Following The Lead Of Power

Independent columnist Adrian Hamilton, probably regarded by many of his readers as comparatively liberal/ progressive, recently mused over whether “Washington will still keep its shoulder to the wheel of a Middle East settlement” and whether “it make[s] sense to put all the burden of hope on America”. This rhetoric fits the standard picture of the US government as a neutral, even benign, force in the search for a just peace in the Middle East. This is summed up in the article’s title: “Not even the US can impose peace in the Middle East”. (The Independent, June 12, 2003)

This is a singularly inappropriate and ironic headline, given that the US has a long history of supporting Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian rights in opposition to an almost unanimous global consensus. The US exerts enormous leverage over Israel through its huge military aid, as well as its considerable political and diplomatic support. As Israeli linguistics professor Tanya Reinhart has noted:

“If the US ever wanted to halt Israel even temporarily, it could do so easily and at any moment by immediately freezing all military aid.” (Reinhart, Israel/Palestine – How to End the 1948 War, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p.144)

Hamilton’s article is wholly typical for the mainstream in overlooking this blindingly obvious context.

Another standard feature of the liberal press is to assist in the promotion of fear in pursuit of geopolitical control and ‘Third World’ resources. Thus, prior to the launch of the invasion of Iraq, the Independent ran two news stories, revealing the existence of “three mystery ships” in the Gulf possibly carrying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Various other newspapers and broadcasters picked up on the Independent’s exclusive. The first article – the Independent’s lead story on 19 February – claimed that “three giant cargo ships are being tracked by US and British intelligence on suspicion that they might be carrying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction”. It added: “the movement of the three ships is the source of growing concern among maritime and intelligence experts”. (‘Iraq crisis: three mystery ships are tracked over suspected weapons’ cargo’, Michael Harrison, The Independent, 19 February, 2003)

There was a short follow-up the next day on an inside page by reporters Nigel Morris and Ben Russell. The article stated:

“Security experts and senior MPs expressed alarm last night at the prospect that three giant cargo ships are being tracked by Western intelligence agencies because they could be carrying deadly Iraqi weapons”. (‘Alarm over cargo ships tracked by intelligence’, The Independent, 20 February, 2003)

But then the story disappeared from the Independent’s pages, a curious fate given its initial headline prominence and the purported “growing concern among maritime and intelligence experts”. What happened next? Were the ships ever found or investigated? What about the newspaper’s claims that they were carrying WMD? When, if ever, will the Independent follow this up? Was it, in fact, a bogus story?

In an online Guardian debate on 5th June, Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor of the Observer, said of the story: “just goes to show, we can all make mistakes. ie the story was – as far as i know – a load of cobblers.” Beaumont added: “but we’ve all written cobblers, myself included.”

On 17 June, we asked Michael Harrison, author of the original article in the Independent, what had happened to the story. Harrison responded:

“Thanks for your email about our ‘mystery ships’ article. My apologies for taking time to reply. The paper spent several days checking and verifying the story before running it. We are confident of our sources and satisfied with the veracity of the story. Indeed, we are continuing to pursue the story with the intention of reporting on it further. Hope this is of help.” (Email to David Cromwell, 19 June, 2003)

A month later, we prompted Harrison again, mentioning Beaumont’s views and adding our own questions:

“How confident can you be that you were fed accurate US and British intelligence? Who are the maritime and intelligence experts to whom you referred? When will the Independent publish a follow-up, either refuting or further detailing the original story?” (Email from David Cromwell to Michael Harrison, 16 July, 2003)

Harrison responded briefly:

“Peter Beaumont is welcome to his opinion. All I can do is refer you back to my previous email.” (Email from Michael Harrison to David Cromwell, 22 July, 2003)

Perhaps the story was true. If the Independent really was “confident of our sources and satisfied with the veracity” of reports that Iraqi WMD were being transported by three giant cargo ships, then they presumably passed the details onto Hans Blix.

There are curious parallels here with the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 in which US destroyers supposedly came under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. The alleged provocation was exploited by politicians and military planners to escalate the US assault on Vietnam. Media analyst Daniel Hallin has noted that the episode “was a classic of Cold War management… On virtually every important point, the reporting of the two Gulf of Tonkin incidents… was either misleading or simply false” and was, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky note, “in accordance with the needs of the US executive at that crucial moment”. (Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky, Vintage, 1994, p.208)

It remains an open question whether the Independent’s reporters, doubtless unwittingly, were acting in accordance with the needs of the US-UK administrations to find evidence of an Iraqi threat. However, as we have shown in scores of Media Alerts over the last two years, there is certainly no question that reporters and editors at the Independent, the Guardian, BBC, Channel 4 News, and elsewhere, did little to challenge the US-UK lies, distortions and omissions that enabled a brutal and illegal invasion of Iraq to take place.

And now at a crucial moment for the British government, as media debate and a judicial inquiry focus on the tragic but narrow issue of the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, Tony Blair is resorting to ever greater exhortations of messianic belief in his own righteousness – where “every fibre of instinct and conviction” tells Blair that he +is+ right. In his recent address to Congress, Blair made a desperate appeal:

“Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together? Let us say one thing. If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that is at its least responsible for human carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.” (‘Blair: History will be my judge’, Donald Macintyre and Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, 18 July 2003)

It is remarkable that Blair could fail to recognise the irony in his reference to “human carnage”: the kind of carnage that the US-UK “coalition” has wrecked in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed in so many places where the Washington consensus of corporate-led globalisation holds sway.

But Blair is surely right to trust that history will forgive both him and Bush. Indian statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru, explained it all:

“History is almost always written by the victors and conquerors and gives their viewpoint.” (Quoted, The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, Antony Jay ed., Oxford, 2001, p.265)


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.

Write to Tim Luckhurst, occasional media analyst at The Independent:

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