As tensions continue to rise between the West and Russia, increasing attention is being paid in Western media to what are frequently described as the ‘propaganda’ activities of Russia. Regarding the recent setting up of Sputnik News in Edinburgh,The Sun headlines “Putin’s glamorous propaganda girls who front a new UK-based news agency ‘that aims to destabilise Britain’” whilst the Mail describes how ‘Vladimir Putin is waging a propaganda war on the UK’.
In 2016 The Times, a study by an MPhil student at the University of Oxford, Monica Richter, is reported to confirm that people who watch Russia Today are more likely to hold anti-Western views. The tone of the The Times article is clear: Russia Today uses unqualified and ‘obscure’ experts, is frequently sanctioned by Ofcom for bias and failure to remain impartial and, worst of all, actually seems to be ‘turning viewers against the West’. Perhaps the intended sub-text of this particular news story is to warn people off from watching non-Western media for fear of their betraying the West in some way.
Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT Today and whatever its impact on Western audiences actually is, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries/enemies as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, whilst the output of ‘our’ media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful ‘public relations’, ‘strategic communication’ and ‘public diplomacy’ whilst the Russians lie through ‘propaganda’.
Neither of these claims receive little support from academic research. A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between Western news media and their respective governments especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For reasons of overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old fashioned patriotism, mainstream Western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence. In our own study of UK media coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion, we found that most UK mainstream media performed to reinforce official views rather than challenge them.
As for the supposedly benign communication activities of our own governments, again, there are ample grounds to challenge the understanding that the ‘strategic communication’ activities of our governments can be understood as free from the kind of manipulative ‘propaganda’ that the Russian government is accused of. Indeed Western governments frequently engage in strategies of manipulation through deception involving exaggeration, omission and misdirection. This was recently observed quite clearly during the run-up to the Iraq War when intelligence was manipulated in order to mobilise support for the Iraq invasion.
Moreover, the recent Chilcot Report describes how, in the early days after 9/11 and in the context of “regime-change hawks” in Washington arguing that a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region’, Tony Blair had discussed how phases 1 and 2 of the ‘war on terror’ would require a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit”.
What one might reasonably conclude from all this evidence is that Western public fell foul of a major deceptive propaganda campaign which involved exploiting terrorism threats in order to ‘clear up other problems’ and which was instigated by our own governments and communicated through ‘our’ media. Propaganda and deception is not, it would appear, the sole preserve of non-Western states, it is alive and well in Western democracies.
These are confusing times for consumers of the news and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict that the world is currently witnessing, and pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation. The first step toward becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation whilst demonising ‘foreign’ governments and media as full propagandistic lies.
The second step is to then recognise that one might gain useful insights and information from a variety of news sources including those who are derided as ‘propaganda’ outlets: Russia Today, Al Jazeera and Press TV should certainly not be off limits. Third, mainstream media, wherever, are widely acknowledged to be overly deferential to political and economic power and that means, as consumers of news, we also need to think about exploring alternative news and information sites such as Media Lens and Spinwatch. Fourth, and more broadly, publics need to become more aware of the strategies of manipulation that all governments employ in order to shape opinions and conduct.
In an age when think tanks and ‘public relations’ experts dominating media output, it might also be time to engage academics more fully as sources of (relatively) independent comment and analysis. These steps might strike many as all too demanding and time consuming, but we live in demanding times and the stakes are getting higher every year. The need for publics to get informed and defend against manipulation is greater than ever.