Managing the media for propaganda

Last November, Julia Gillard entered a small auditorium at Sydney’s Australian Technology Park to rapturous applause.

Cascading down to the podium, the fixed seating was packed full of women, many wearing red T-shirts bearing the words “Equal Work, Equal Pay” on the front, and “Pay Up!” on the back. They were community workers and Australian Services Union officials who gathered to hear Gillard adopt Fair Work Australia’s equal pay decision. At the end of her address, and a few ovations, she wandered up the rows of seats to “mingle” with the audience, pursued by a camera. The scene captured on the evening news bulletins was curious. At one point she was surrounded by a group of beaming admirers, straining to demonstrate their approval. They stood symmetrically to her left and right, forming a tableau with Gillard conspicuously at the centre. The scene looked anything but natural or spontaneous. Gillard seemed barely interested in the people around her, fixing her gaze on the camera, studying it with a frozen smile.

This type of choreographed event is something of a ‘house style’ for Gillard’s government, designed to produce visual images at variance with her dismal standing in the electorate. Another notable case was her visit to a primary school two days before Kevin Rudd’s leadership challenge. The highlight came when students formed an honour-guard lining both sides of a long outdoor passageway, followed by Gillard’s slow procession down the middle, turning left and right as she extended a limp hand to the children on either side. The cameras were stationed at the end of Gillard’s route, facing her, so the news footage again showed her at the centre, flanked by excited onlookers.  

At times she has appeared on factory floors, always the focal point, cheered by burly, fluoro-jacketed workers and union officials. Her locations vary according to the issue du jour: a media splash about manufacturing subsidies will draw her to a factory, about education funding to a school, about health care to a hospital. Wherever she turns up, she is “spontaneously” mobbed like a celebrity.   

It’s hardly news that politicians try to control the images and messages that define them. But government-media relations are also a function of the political system and culture around them. In liberal democratic societies, the state’s influence over media can only be partial, limited and contingent, and accountable to alternative power-centres. In authoritarian systems, leaders aspire to exercise comprehensive, or total, control over the received narrative. While democratic governments derive their legitimacy from elections and constitutional processes, authoritarian regimes rely on various forms of media for validation, along with the threat of violent repression.  They are free to fabricate narratives that serve their purposes, mostly to discredit or intimidate opponents.   

In terms of a broad classification, democratic leaders practise media management, since control is beyond their grasp, while authoritarian regimes resort to rank propaganda. It’s like the difference between editing a given text and rewriting it from scratch. If the health of a democratic society is linked to whether the line separating them is observed, there are grounds for concern about where we are headed.

Fair-minded observers concede that in terms of media manipulation, the Rudd Government was a quantum leap ahead of every preceding federal government.  Everything from constantly repeated phrases and spin-lines, practised hand gestures, scripted interviews, staged events and press conferences, coordinated announcements, strategic leaks, online videos, social media forums and Orwellian policy titles (“Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme”, “Building the Education Revolution”) were deployed as a continuous wall of sound and vision.

Much of this was the work of Labor apparatchiks who pride themselves on being at the cutting-edge of social and technological change, masters of the new 24-hour media cycle. But it also reflected the contemporary Left’s deeply patronising views of the public’s intelligence and attention span. Perhaps surprisingly, given widespread disillusionment with these techniques toward the end of Rudd’s reign, under Gillard they have not been scaled back. If anything, they have intensified. 

A handy definition of propaganda is any attempt at mass persuasion which focuses on eliciting a subconscious or emotional response, at least predominantly, rather than a rational response. This is why factual accuracy is of only incidental importance, though outright falsehoods are not an essential feature of all propaganda. One authority, Richard Nelson of the University of Louisiana, has defined propaganda as "a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels”. Again, in its purest form this type of persuasion flourishes in authoritarian rather than democratic systems. Who can deny, however, that many Rudd and Gillard “innovations” represent a marked shift toward propaganda as defined?

Nor can it be denied that some of these were pioneered by totalitarian movements in the early twentieth century. After all, communist and fascist propagandists were responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the use of mass communication technologies like radio, cinema and sound recording for political purposes. A few of these methods survive today, though in a modified form. It’s necessary here to avoid infringing Godwin’s Law, which says, generally, that anyone who resorts to calling their opponent a Nazi has lost the argument (the same goes for calling them a fascist or communist). This is a wise and valuable rule of debate.

It would be absurd to call the Labor Government communist or fascist, but Godwin’s Law should be subject to a qualification. Sometimes it’s valid to compare contemporary political practices to limited aspects  – and only limited aspects, not whole programs – of past totalitarian movements, if only to shed light on the origins and implications of those practices. One example is reiteration. In her televised “address to the nation” on the carbon tax package, for instance, Julia Gillard repeated the loaded words “pollution” or “polluter” 14 times in the space of five minutes. Most observers will agree that the following corresponds to a widely held belief in political circles: “the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” It’s actually a passage from Mein Kampf.

Also current is the Goebbelsian maxim that reiteration works better in the case of a “big lie” than a small one. Broad propositions like “the stimulus package saved Australia from recession” or “pricing carbon is essential economic reform” or “women are paid less for the same work” – relatively difficult to falsify – are easier to drum into the public consciousness than a narrow claim like “I did not lie about the carbon tax”.  

Anyone who still doubts that we are seeing a dangerous slide toward a propaganda mindset should contemplate two recent events.

First there was the extraordinary attempt by a member of Gillard’s staff to manufacture an anti-Abbott demonstration on Australia Day. This highly significant episode, which opened a window into the propagandistic ethos at the highest levels of the government, deserved more scrutiny from the toadying press gallery. While there is no direct evidence to implicate Gillard or her inner circle, it stretches credulity to call the staffer a rogue actor. More virulent than the artificial love-ins described earlier, the scheme was classic agitprop, a sub-set of propaganda concerned with the demonstrative power of political agitation.

Then there is the disturbing outcome of Ray Finkelstein’s media inquiry:  an ominous pitch for more regulation. Propaganda and censorship are two sides of the same coin. When one raises its ugly head, the other is sure to follow. As an effort to present a “one-sided” version of events, propaganda fails if someone presents the other side. To complete the equation, opposing voices must be suppressed. Given the apologetics that pass for mainstream journalism, in fact, Gillard is already half way there.        

The crucial question is whether this government’s infatuation with propaganda is an aberration linked to character flaws in Rudd and Gillard or the unique circumstances of a hung parliament. Or is it, rather, an enduring feature of Labor’s degeneration into the political wing of a culturally powerful but narrowly based, sectional interest. All indications point to the latter.  

Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here…

Leave a Reply