Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple

In my previous article on Public Relations, I mentioned the social justification often touted as the rationale for the trade; namely to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate.’[1] As one former head of the Institute of Public Relations argued, PR professionals see themselves as paid advocates, representing the interests of their principal.[2] Indeed, Edward Bernays spoke of the PR counsellor pleading his client’s case before the ‘court of public opinion’ and, with characteristic outrecuidance, coined the term ‘Public Relations Counsellor.’[3] Such legalistic allusions pepper his writings and the PR literature generally.

A second purported purpose for PR, which Bernays and others have claimed, is that it lubricates the cogs of democracy. Lesly’s Handbook argues that PR is an ‘essential element in the communications system that informs individuals on many aspects of subjects that affect their lives’ and a ‘safety valve for freedom.’[4] Not only that but it ‘provides a means by which the public communicates its desires and interests to the institutions in our society. It interprets and speaks for the public to otherwise unresponsive organizations, while also speaking for those organizations to the public.’[5] I shan’t belabour the question of what happens when the public tries to communicate desires and interests that don’t involve purchasing decisions.

The problem with democracy, as Robert Dahl argued, is complexity. Simply put, the general public cannot have a competent grasp of the intricacies of every issue of concern. All that is practicable is a passing acquaintance with the majority of policy issues and a somewhat deeper understanding of perhaps a handful. The formal remedy to this problem is for the electorate to set broad parameters of both ends and means, which are gradually refined, at each stage, by legislatures, policy committees, and administrative bodies.[6] This democratic gearing mechanism is embraced and developed in some of the PR literature. Bernays, for instance, believed that society needed people like him to sort through ideas and reduce the otherwise baffling plethora of options to a manageable choice.[7] Therefore, we consent to let an ‘invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.’[8]

Society, then, is a courtroom in which competing ideas, programmes, and interests are debated in the cause of The Greater Good with PR practitioners on every side looking to persuade we, the jury, to find in their favour. As John Milton said of ‘Truth’, ‘let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’[9] There are of course many instances when PR is in Truth’s corner, for instance last year when Pepsi and New Balance found themselves sparring with both pro- and anti-Trump news sites.[10] Unfortunately, when the encounters are so often neither free nor open, Truth takes a beating.

I’m going to discuss two sides to this problem. Firstly, the disparity between corporate PR and its opponents; secondly, the disadvantage the public finds itself at when trying to decide between competing ideas.

smoke-screen-camelsTo anyone who’s read my previous posts on the great US campaigns of the 20th century, the power and technique of corporate PR will be no surprise. Recall the Committee on Public Information’s 75,000,000 publications and more than $30m of advertising in service of selling the Great War or, later, the National Association of Manufacturing’s ‘almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine’ to sell the American Dream. Nor is mere marketing communication the only tool in the PR locker. Take for example Edelman’s advice to TransCanada in 2014 that they launch a ‘perpetual campaign to protect and enhance the value of the Energy East Pipeline and to help inoculate TransCanada from potential attacks in any arena’. This plan, in service of the then stalled[11] Keystone XL pipeline, was to be an ‘aggressive’ campaign to ‘add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.’ The targets of this ‘pressure’ campaign, which would include detailed investigation and background research, would be opposition groups, such as the Council of Canadians and the David Suzuki Foundation, as well as a ‘small community group in Ottawa that usually fights for more bike lanes and park enhancements.’[12] This case is quite typical of the mobilisation of resources involved in large scale corporate PR when public opposition is anticipated.[13]

Big business has more money, more time, more persistence, more connections, more experience and more resources that private citizens. The residents opposed to a local fracking application or an incinerator or a new road will have limited funds, either their own or donated. They will have their own lives, families, and jobs. Where big business can lobby government, individuals can only petition. Over time, a war of attrition can erode their finances, their commitment, their relationships, and their health. Not always. But often.[14] Legal remedies often provide at best pyrrhic victories with fines that aren’t large enough to effectively constrain behaviour making prosecutions merely an annoyance. Note the remarkable elision here, for instance, in a discussion of PR best practice in Managing Activism:

‘Through its experiences, this company has learnt that openness is a must. Because it operates in a ‘heavy industry’, it is occasionally prosecuted.’[15]

The other key way in which PR nobbles the jury is through its liberal use of what is known as the Third Party Technique, which has been described as ‘the heart of public relations’ and was pioneered during the promotion of tobacco.[16] Edelman, for instance,  told TransCanada that it would ‘work with third parties and arm them with the information they need to pressure opponents and distract them from their mission . . . . Third-party voices must be identified, recruited and heard to build an echo chamber of aligned voices.’[17] The Third Party Technique can involve suborning individuals thought to have authority or credibility with an audience or manufacturing ‘front groups’ or fake grassroots groups (a practice known as ‘astroturfing’),

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief…. And if the NutraSweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either…. But if the ‘American Council on Science and Health’ and its panel of 200 ‘expert’ scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen…. And if the ‘Calorie Control Council’ reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concerns.[18]

As a Communications Services manager for Burson-Marsteller told an advertising conference in 1995, third party support is essential for the ‘basic risk messages of the corporation’ and this support should ‘ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators.’[19]

In 1993, for instance, Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP), launched a highly publicised campaign in Australia against plastic milk bottles; alleging their carcinogenic properties, difficulty of disposal, and the deleterious effects of sunlight upon milk.  Their lead spokeswoman, ‘Alana Maloney’ was later revealed to be Janet Rundle, head of PR company J. R. and Associates and business partner of Trevor Munnery. Munnery owned Unlimited Public Relations, which just happened to hold the account of the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC). MOP was later exposed as a front group created to disparage plastic milk bottles in order to boost ALC sales.[20]

In 2016, the Canadian comedian Cathy Jones and Dr. Vivien Brown (assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto) fronted a campaign to get women to start talking about post-menopause female sexual health and vaginal atrophy. What people would not have known, were it not for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation, was that the project was initiated and funded by Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., which makes a vaginal hormone pill.

No parties including GCI want any mention of the drug or drug company,” CBC was told. “It’s an unbranded campaign.[21]

Pharmaceutical companies employ a similar strategy, known as ‘selling in’. PR firms pay medical journalists to write articles favourable to a product in return for conferences junkets, a fee, or other incentives. Crucially, the articles are most effective when the remuneration given to the writer remains undisclosed. A similar practice occurs in the travel section of newspapers, however, in this instance it is generally made clear if a journalist has received free flights or accommodation.[22]

A further example of the believability of ‘independent experts’ can be seen in the proliferation of ‘independent’ think-tanks whose spokespeople appear in the media. Generally speaking, the political allegiance and commercial backing of these organisations is not revealed. For example, in 2001 a fellow of the right wing Institute for Economic Affairs, the philosopher Roger Scruton, wrote a pamphlet attacking the World Health Organisation − without revealing that, at the time, he was in the pay of Japan Tobacco.[23] In 2006, it was revealed that the world-renowned epidemiologist, Sir Richard Doll, had spent 20 years in the pay of Monsanto. During that time, he had written to a royal Australian commission investigating the potential cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, made by Monsanto, averring that there was no evidence it was carcinogenic.[24]

The problem here is honesty. MOP might have been right about plastic bottles, Roger Scruton and Sir Richard Doll might have been sincere in everything they said, and Cathy Jones might be struggling every day against vaginal atrophy. The ethical problem, in each case, lay in the failure to disclose that they were representing an interest. Without this honesty, to return to the legal metaphor, the jury cannot know how much credibility to give the witness on the stand.

Add to this the problems of an enfeebled press watchdog that I discussed here and one can see how unconstrained by countervailing power corporate PR frequently is. PR professionals fancy that they contribute to the marketplace of ideas but too often they belong to its dark corners with the hustlers and the card sharps. Persuasion becomes propaganda when motives are disguised and words are put in other people’s mouths. Of course, it’s impracticable for the individual to investigate every story they hear but one should always treat purportedly ‘neutral’ expertise with scepticism and ask the basic questions: Who does this ‘expert’ work for? Who commissioned this research or survey? And, most importantly, who benefits from me believing this claim?



[1] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[2] Simon Lewis, quoted in Carol Midgley, “All that spin makes many feel queasy” in The Times, 14th November 1997.

[3] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” p. 45.

[4] Philip Lesly (1998) “Lesly’s Handbook of Public Relations And Communications,” p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert Dahl (1989) “Democracy and its Critics,” It is this arrangement that Dahl calls ‘a process of successive approximation’ (pp. 336-338).

[7] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 92

[8] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” pp. 10-11.

[9] John Milton (1644) “Aeropagitica”.

[10] Pro-Trump websites misquoted Indra Nooyi (Pepsi’s CEO) suggesting Trump supporters ‘take their business elsewhere.’ The sports shoe manufacturer, New Balance was forced to respond when its vice president of public affairs was misquoted by an anti-Trump website as saying that New Balance was the ‘official brand of the Trump revolution.’ (Ilyse Liffreing “So your brand is the victim of fake news. Now what?” PR Week 21st November 2016 available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1416264/so-brand-victim-fake-news-what )

[11] The proposed pipeline, no longer quite so stalled thanks to the intercession of President Trump, would span the 1,179 miles between the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and Steele City in Nebraska.

[12] Ian Austin “P.R. Firm Urges TransCanada to Target Opponents of Its Energy East Pipeline,” New York Times 17th November 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/business/pr-firm-urges-transcanada-to-target-opponents-of-its-energy-east-pipeline.html See also Lisa Graves “Edelman TransCanada Leak: Aggressive PR for Keystone Alt,” PR Watch 18th November 2014.

[13] For more detailed discussions of specific cases, see John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”; Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!”; Nicky Hager and Bob Burton (2000) “Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign”; Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota (2000) “Image Makers, Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy”; Sharon Beder (1990) “Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism”; or Sharon Beder (2006) “Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values”.

[14] As Stauber and Rampton (1995, p. 14) put it twenty years ago, ‘[r]aw money enables the PR industry to mobilize private detectives, attorneys, broadcast faxes, satellite feeds, sophisticated information systems and other expensive, high tech resources to out manoeuvre, overpower and outlast true citizen reformers.’

[15] Denise Deegan (2001) “Managing Activism: A Practical Guide for Dealing with Activists and Pressure Groups,” p. 102.

[16] The [a]rt of public relations is to have the appearance of disinterestedness. It stands to reason that the facts regarding the merits of any company or product are more readily believed if they are put forward with apparent spontaneity by a person or body not directly concerned with increasing its sales ( Jim Dunn (1999) “Public Relations Techniques that Work”, p. 7.) One leading PR firm employed by Monsanto, the Bivings Group, used to have an article on its website, entitled which warned that, ‘…there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first “listen” to what is being said online … Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party. … Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously’ (George Monbiot “The Fake Persuaders,” Guardian 14th May 2002 available at http://www.monbiot.com/2002/05/14/the-fake-persuaders/  )

[17] Austin, op. cit.; Graves op. cit.

[18] M. Megali and A Friedman (1991) “Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Group in America,” p. 3.

[19] No author “Third Party Techniques,” available at http://www.tobaccotactics.org/index.php?title=Third_Party_Techniques

[20] Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (2001) “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” p. 16.

[21]  My emphasis added. Kelly Crowe “Ads disguised as news: A drug company’s stealth marketing campaign exposed,” 5th October 2016 available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/vaginal-atrophy-analysis-1.3786547

[22] Nic Paton “When is a story not a story?” Guardian 22nd October 2001 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/oct/22/mondaymediasection5

[23] Helena Paul, Richarda Steinbrecher, Devlin Kuyek, Lucy Michaels (2003) “Hungry Corporations,” p. 66.

[24] Sarah Boseley “Renowned cancer scientist was paid by chemical firm for 20 years,” Guardian 8th December 2006 available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/dec/08/smoking.frontpagenews


In Flight from Peace

It’s an unspoken assumption of mainstream political commentary in the US and UK that ‘we’ mean well. We might be naïve, idealistic, bungling, or occasionally foolish but, a few rotten apples aside, the ‘we’ nations are fundamentally benign. Official enemies, on the other hand, are always up to something, have selfish, ulterior motives and are generally bad eggs.

These two assumptions frame intellectual and media debate. When ‘enemy’ states act, such as Russia in Syria, their public statements are evaluated according to their actions and their blandishments about freedom, democracy, self-defence, and bringing stability are not taken at face value. Strategic interests are evaluated and motives deduced. This is as it should be. When the US and UK ‘intervene’ the blandishments are taken at face value, strategic interests are absent (or couched in simple terms of defence) and our actions are interpreted and, if necessary, sifted to fit with the blandishments. Words are the sole prerequisite for demonstrating intent. Imagine for a moment a BBC journalist reporting that the British or American government’s real motive in a given conflict was to exacerbate it for selfish reasons. It’s almost inconceivable. We are assumed always to desire peace and stability and toseek strenuously to avoid conflict.

I’d like to illustrate the falsity of this assumption with a handful of examples of Anglo-American interventions in the past thirty years: Iraq in 1990, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq (again) in 2002, and North Korea today. I hope these examples will demonstrate that the US and its lackey, far from being in pursuit of peace, often make strenuous attempts to avoid it.

On 2nd August 1990, long-standing US and UK ally, Saddam Hussein, ordered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Within two days Iraq had fully annexed the small country and the world was in uproar. When Saddam realised his miscalculation, that the US would not permit the annexation, he made several attempts at a negotiated withdrawal. Ten days after the invasion, he proposed a settlement linking Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to withdrawals from other illegally occupied Arab lands: Syria from Lebanon and Israel from the territories it conquered in 1967.[1] As the New York Times reported,

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq suggested that he might withdraw his forces from Kuwait if Israel first withdrew from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and if Syria pulled its soldiers out of Lebanon. Washington and Israel dismissed such a deal.[2]

A few days later Iraq made another offer, described by one official who specialised in Middle East affairs as ‘serious’ and ‘negotiable’, to withdraw from Kuwait and allow foreigners to return in exchange for sanctions being lifted, guaranteed access to the Persian Gulf, and sole control of the Rumailah oil field, which extends two miles under Kuwait. Significantly, it made no mention of the previous precondition that the US pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia.[3] The proposal again received little response.

In December that year, Iraq made another proposal to exit Kuwait in exchange for a US commitment not to attack its soldiers as they withdrew. They also asked for foreign troops to leave the region, for an agreement on the Palestinian issue, and a ban on all WMD in the region (a goal formally adopted a year later in Security Council Resolution 687). US officials described the offer as ‘interesting’ and signalling ‘Iraqi interest in a negotiated settlement.’ A State Department Mideast expert described the proposal as a ‘serious prenegotiation position.’ The demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories was dropped and it was made clear that a deal over Palestine was not a precondition for Iraq’s withdrawal. The White House, as Newsday reported, ‘immediately dismissed the proposal’.[4]

Were the offers genuine? Was it justifiable to give Iraq any sort of concession for withdrawing? We’ll never have an answer to the first question but, for the second, it seems clear that while Saddam was looking for a way to withdraw while saving face, the US appeared bent on backing him into a corner. One might argue that invaders should not be negotiated with, that they should never gain one iota from their criminality but that was not the US (or Israeli) position, then or now.

Iraq’s peaceful withdrawal might well have happened without a further shot being fired. It seems, however, that the US Government was intent on making war happen, presumably seeing the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate its hold on the region. Why else did Pentagon officials claim, in an allegation later disproved but never retracted, that satellite images (which were never provided) showed Iraq had massed 250,000 troops and 1,500 tanks on the Saudi border?[5] A diplomatic solution, particularly with UN involvement, would have undercut US prestige and delegitimised future US military interventionism. Instead rejectionism and falsification to fight peace.

In 1999, at the Rambouillet Conference, the US again acted to forestall the possibility of a peaceful resolution; this time to the Kosovo War. It did so by adding conditions to the text of the  proposed Rambouillet Agreement that were calculated to be unacceptable to the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Annex B of the proposed ‘peace treaty’ included a Status of Forces Agreement, which required that NATO forces ‘under all circumstances and at all times, shall be immune from the Parties’ [i.e. FRY], jurisdiction in respect of any civil, administrative, criminal, or disciplinary offenses which may be committed by them in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ and would ‘enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY including associated airspace and territorial waters.’[6] Note that this applied not merely to Kosovo but that NATO was demanding absolute, unfettered reign in the entirety of the FRY.[7]

In other extraordinary provisions, NATO insisted that ‘the economy of Kosovo shall function on free market principles’ and that state assets be privatised. No less extraordinary, when this was reported by the Australian journalist, John Pilger, the Guardian’s diplomatic Editor, Ian Black, went so far as to flatly deny that this first passage existed at all.[8] The reader may verify this for themselves.[9] As Michael Parenti put it, the ‘agreement’ was not an agreement at all but an ‘ultimatum for unconditional surrender’.[10] This was conceded later by the second most senior British defence minister during the conflict, Lord Gilbert, in testimony to Parliament:

I think certain people were spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time. I think the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable: how could he possibly accept them? It was quite deliberate.[11]

Henry Kissinger – never one to let a war go unmongered – judged that the Rambouillet text was ‘a provocation, an excuse to start bombing,’ while James Rubin (then Assistant US Secretary of State for Public Affairs) conceded in 2000 that the US’s ‘internal goal was not to get a peace agreement at Rambouillet.’[12]  The combination of the unacceptable demands of access and immunity coupled with the remarkable inclusion, in a supposed peace treaty, of US demands about how the Kosovan economy was to operate, is perhaps best explained by John Norris, former communications director for the then US deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott:

It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war.[13]

The US justified their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 on the grounds that the Taliban had refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, whom they suspected of involvement in the September 11th atrocity.  Yet in fact the Taliban made several offers to extradite bin Laden; their mistake was to ask the US to provide evidence. The Independent reported at the time,

[Afghanistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir] said: “If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate.” Mr bin Laden could be handed over to a third country for trial, he said. “We could discuss which third country.”

But… Washington rejected the Taliban offer out of hand. “When I said no negotiations I meant no negotiations,” Mr Bush said. “We know he’s guilty. Turn him over. There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt.”[14]

In fact, the US had demanded bin Laden’s extradition for several years but had always refused to provide evidence -generally held to be a normal component of an extradition request. The offers culminated in a proposal in October 2001, reported by the Daily Telegraph, when a delegation from Pakistan, led by Qazi Hussain Ahmadn (leader of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami party) went to Afghanistan to negotiate with the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar:

Omar agreed that bin Laden should be taken to Pakistan, where he would be held under house arrest in Peshawar. The proposal, which had bin Laden’s approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar’ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the American attacks would be placed before an international tribunal.

The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America.[15]

This deal was reportedly blocked by the then dictator of Pakistan (and off-and-on US client) General Pervez Musharraf. One doesn’t need to read between the lines much:

Gen Musharraf and Wendy Chamberlain, America’s ambassador to Pakistan, were told of the mission in advance and yesterday Qazi met the Pakistani president to relay the proposal.

“He was told that, while he backed the idea, the stumbling block was that he could not guarantee bin Laden’s safety”…’.[16]

Could the Taliban have been trusted? Would they have handed bin Laden over? We can’t know for certain because the avenue was closed off. Even if one does accept (and I do not) the proposition that it is acceptable to bomb a country when its government refuses to hand over a suspect, it is even more outlandish to suggest that no evidence need be laid as part of a strenuous effort to avoid violence. The US made no such effort.  As with Iraq in 2003, war was not ‘the last resort’.[17]

I won’t unearth the complex tale of US and UK machinations that led in 2003 to our second major attack on Iraq. The inspections were a failed attempt to give the imprimatur of due process to a calculated act of aggression, betrayed by the obvious frustration shown by US and UK officials every time inspectors failed to find any proscribed weapons. Nor is there space to discuss in detail Iraq’s last minute, desperate offers to avert an invasion, which included allowing in thousands of US troops to look for weapons and an offer to hold internationally-monitored elections.[18] It’s enough to draw attention to three matters to further illustrate my argument.

Firstly, during 2002 – before the invasion-proper – the US and UK intensified their decade-long bombing of Iraq, in order to ‘put pressure on the regime’ and provoke the Iraqi government into action that would justify war. Regime change being a crime in international law it was necessary to do something that would ‘create the conditions in which [Britain] could legally support military action.’ [19]

Secondly, in March 2003, as a supposed compromise, the British attack dog proposed six requirements that Iraq would have to satisfy in order to avert war.  One was to commit to ‘surrender all mobile bio-production laboratories for destruction’ – a demand with which Iraq could never have complied because it never had any. Another demand, which was either inexcusably inept or monstrously cynical was,

A public statement by Saddam Hussein, broadcast in Iraq, admitting possession of weapons of mass destruction, stating his regime has decided to give them up and pledging to cooperate with UN weapon inspectors.[20]

Of course, there are some who say that the invasion was never about WMD (they are correct) but instead was about removing Saddam Hussein (they are wrong). On the eve of the invasion the BBC reported,

President George W Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said allied troops were going to enter Iraq “no matter what”.

“If Saddam were to leave, American forces, coalition forces, would still enter Iraq – hopefully they would then be able to enter peacefully because the Iraqi army would not have been given orders to fire on them, and then they could carry out the disarmament of Iraq,”[21]

Iraq was to be invaded one way or another. If a direct casus belli could not be manufactured through bombing then one of several pretexts would do. And obviously cynical attempts at ‘compromise’ -with demands so unreasonable only trained journalists could take them seriously – would be used to provide a veneer of reasonability.

Fast forward to today and the US is threatening North Korea and demanding an end to its nuclear programme but refusing to explore what might be the most straightforward route to achieving this: to accept North Korea’s offer to freeze its nuclear programme. As the New York Times reported only in June,

The Trump administration has come under growing pressure to open negotiations on a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in return for reducing the American military footprint in the Korean Peninsula, according to American officials and foreign diplomats.

Versions of the proposal, floated by Beijing for several months… But White House officials say they are not interested in any proposal that would require the United States to lift military or economic pressure on the North, even in return for a moratorium on tests.[22]

A similar offer, made to the Obama Administration in 2016, was rebuffed on the grounds that it was insincere; the North Koreans would ‘have to do better than that.’[23]

The relationship between the US and N. Korea has always been riddled with mistrust and the latter’s record of compliance has been far from spotless. As Robert Carlin and John W Lewis noted in 2007, the underlying perception in the US has long been, ‘you can’t deal with them’. Yet, as they observed, this neglects a long history of cooperation. ‘Forgotten in the reality that from 1993 to 2000, the U. S. Government had twenty or more issues under discussion with the DPRK in a wide variety of settings. A large percentage of those talks ended in agreements or made substantial progress.’[24]

Yet, on occasions when an agreement has been reached, the US has done something to blow it and the media has compliantly blamed DPRK.  Significant progress in denuclearizing N. Korea had been made by 2005 when the incoming Bush Administration wrecked the deal. As Bruce Cumings recorded in Le Monde Diplomatique,

On September 19, 2005, the United States and the DPRK agreed on certain principles leading to denuclearization, including the US commitment not to attack North Korea. Three days later, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the DPRK, which it accused of engaging in illegal activities with Banco Delta Asia in Macau, China, Cutting the country from the international financial system. It is now known that very few incriminating evidence was included in the US Treasury file, which was intended to torpedo the September negotiations.[25]

There’s a recurring patter to the US and UK’s ‘search for peace’ in the world. Arrogant ultimatums, a refusal to compromise, unreasonable demands calculated to be rejected, and attempts to manufacture justifications. All the while, instead of benevolence, a cynical opportunism that sees every crisis as an opportunity to extend and entrench power. In each case, the only peace sought is that found while strolling through a graveyard of one’s enemies.



[1] Editorial, “The issue is still Kuwait,” Financial Times (London), August 13, 1990, p. 12

[2] Michael R. Gordon “Confrontation in the Gulf; Bush orders navy to halt all shipments of Iraq’s oil and almost all its imports,” New York Times 13th August 1990 available at http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/13/world/confrontation-gulf-bush-orders-navy-halt-all-shipments-iraq-s-oil-almost-all-its.html?pagewanted=all

[3] Knut Royce “Middle East Crisis Secret Offer Iraq Sent Pullout Deal to U.S.; [ALL EDITIONS]” Newsday 29th August 1990, archived copy available at https://www.scribd.com/document/38969813/MIDDLE-EAST-CRISIS-Secret-Offer-Iraq-Sent-Pullout-Deal-to-U-S-ALL-EDITIONS

[4] Knut Royce “Iraq Offers Deal to Quit Kuwait U.S. rejects it, but stays `interested’” 3rd January 1991, archived copy available at https://www.scribd.com/document/38969954/Iraq-Offers-Deal-to-Quit-Kuwait-U-S-rejects-it-but-stays-interested-NASSAU-AND-SUFFOLK-Edition See also PATRICK E. TYLER “Confrontation in the Gulf; Arafat Eases Stand on Kuwait-Palestine Link,” New York Times 3rd January 1991, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/03/world/confrontation-in-the-gulf-arafat-eases-stand-on-kuwait-palestine-link.html

[5] Scott Peterson “In war, some facts less factual,” Christian Science Monitor 6th September 2002. See also John MacArthur (1992) “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War,” pp. 173.

[6] See “Text of Military Annex to Draft Rambouillet Accords” paras. 6a,b,c, 8 and 9 available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmdfence/347/34726.htm

[7] In fact, the text does contain a qualified promise to abide by FRY law in para. 2, which states that ‘…all NATO personnel shall respect the laws applicable in the FRY, whether Federal, Republic, Kosovo, or other, insofar as compliance with those laws is compatible with the entrusted tasks/mandate and shall refrain from activities not compatible with the nature of the Operation.’ However, since the clause begins by stating that this is  ‘without prejudice to their privileges and immunities under this Appendix,’ the promise is almost meaningless.

[8] Ian Black rubbished Pilger’s claims, stating: “In an earlier version of his thesis, billed without irony as ‘amazing’ in last week’s New Statesman, Pilger provided more detail. He quoted (correctly) from section 11 of appendix B, about NATO’s use of airports, roads, rails and ports. Inexplicably, he then added the sentence: ‘The economy shall function in accordance with free market principles.’

“Damning stuff that. Proof that Nato really is the military arm of unreconstructed international vampire capitalism. But that sentence does not exist.” (Ian Black “Bad News” Guardian 19th May 1999, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/may/19/balkans9 emphasis mine)

[9] http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/990123_RambouilletAccord.pdf The relevant passage is Chapter 4, paragraph 1 on page 46.

[10] Michael Parenti (2002) “To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia” p. 112.

[11] Gilbert quoted in Patrick Wintour “War Strategy Ridiculed” Guardian, 21st July 2000 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/jul/21/balkans1

[12] Henry Kissinger quoted in Ian Bancroft “Serbia’s anniversary is a timely reminder” Guardian 24th March 2009, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/mar/24/serbia-kosovo ; James Rubin on the Charlie Rose Show 18th April 2000, transcript and video available at https://charlierose.com/videos/28943

[13] John Norris ( 2005) “Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo” p. xxiii. As this is a central contention of the book for which Talbot himself wrote the foreward, I think it’s reasonable to assume it has Talbot’s support.

[14] Andrew Buncombe “Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden,” Independent 14th October 2001 available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bush-rejects-taliban-offer-to-surrender-bin-laden-9143208.html

[15] Patrick Bishop “Pakistan blocks bin Laden trial,” Daily Telegraph 4th October 2001 available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1358464/Pakistan-blocks-bin-Laden-trial.html

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sir John Chilcot’s damning conclusion at the end of his inquiry was that ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/the-inquiry/sir-john-chilcots-public-statement/

[18] Julian Borger, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war” Guardian 7th November 2003, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/07/iraq.brianwhitaker

[19] Michael Smith “The War Before the War” New Statesman 30th May 2005 available at http://www.newstatesman.com/node/195307 Smith article quotes the infamous ‘Downing Street Memo,’ written by civil servant Matthew Rycroft in July 2002, which was minutes of a meeting of  senior British government, defence and intelligence personnel including the head of MI6. The full text can be read here: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB328/II-Doc14.pdf

[20] Staff and Agencies “Straw spells out key tests for Saddam,” Guardian 12th March 2003 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/12/iraq.uk1 1

[21] BBC News “Saddam rejects Bush ultimatum” 18th March 2003, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2861029.stm

[22] David E. Sanger and  Gardiner Harris  “U.S. Pressed to Pursue Deal to Freeze North Korea Missile Tests,” New York Times 21st June 2017 available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/asia/north-korea-missle-tests.html

[23] Associated Press “Obama rejects North Korea’s nuclear offer: ‘You’ll have to do better than that’” Guardian 24th April 2016 available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/24/obama-response-north-korea-nuclear-tests-deal

[24] Robert Carlin and John W Lewis (2008) “Negotiating with North Korea 1992-2007” available at http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Negotiating_with_North_Korea_1992-2007.pdf

[25] Bruce Cumings “Et la Corée du Nord redevint fréquentable” Le Monde Diplomate October 2007, available at https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2007/10/CUMINGS/15210 I have relied on Google Translate for the English version.

The Timorous Watchdog

The history of Public Relations did not end in the 1950s although, for the time being, my history of it does. It suffices to say that, while the past 70 years have seen its fortunes rise and fall, the trend has always been upward.

In 2015, the top five largest PR firms globally (Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Fleischman Hillard, Ketcham, Burson Marstelller, and MSL Group) had combined revenues of $3.7bn. All but MSL are American. The largest British firm was Brunswick (twelfth on the list), with revenues in 2015 of $220m.[1] It’s perhaps a portent that ninth on the list, BlueFocus, is Chinese.

The industry today has resources, reach, and techniques that would doubtless dazzle pioneers like Ivy Lee, George Creel, and Edward Bernays but, beneath the 21st Century lustre, they’d recognise the same driving purpose. While still deployed to sugar the pill of bigotry, mendacity, and atrocity we call ‘war,’ PR has long been used mainly to further private interests: businesses, charities, public institutions, and so forth. In short, to sell.

The social justification for public relations in a free society, Scott Cutlip argues, is to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate. It is a basic democratic right that every idea, individual, and institution shall have a full and fair hearing in the public forum  that their merit ultimately must be determined by their ability to be accepted in the marketplace.’[2] I’ll examine the practice of this theory next week. Right now, however, I’ll concern myself with what should be a bulwark against the hucksters, the flimflam, and the snake oil: the free press.

In terms of boots on the ground, journalists in the US have long been outnumbered by PR battalions. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, as of May 2016 there were 40,090 reporters and correspondents compared with 226,940 PR specialists; a ratio of 5.6 to 1 in PR’s favour.[3] In the UK, matters are rather different. The most recent Labour Force Survey estimates that, in 2016, there were 84,000 journalists and 49,000 PR professionals but this does encompass an unexplained single year increase of 20,000. Most of that increase is accounted for by those describing themselves as self-employed or freelance. With those excluded entirely, the overall number of journalists drops to 47,000.[4]

The relationship between journalism and PR has traditionally been held to be uneasy at best.  In 2011, for instance, a YouGov survey of journalists found that just one percent of respondents trusted PR agencies ‘a great deal’ and sixty-one percent did not trust them ‘very much’ or ‘at all’.[5] The Senior Principal at Flatiron Communications, Peter Himler, writes of the ‘historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals,’ which results not merely from mistrust but also competing priorities and pressure of work (for instance, PR professionals using electronic systems to deluge journalists’ inboxes with ‘greater volumes of misguided or inane story pitches’).[6] The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade describes journalists as the people with the  ‘requisite scepticism about PR blurbs and supposed knowledge of the topic to provide readers/consumers with an analysis that will allow them to make an informed decision/choice.’[7]

The conflict model, however, has recently been recast as a “trading” relationship in which journalists, working in under-resourced and under-staffed newsrooms, increasingly rely on PR sources for editorial copy in return for access to editorial columns for PR stories. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies paints a fascinating picture of an emaciated and timorous watchdog: starved of time and money, in thrall to the powerful, and forced to run cheap, safe stories to attract new readers and affirm the prejudices of those they already have,

The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media –  which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into our news channels , without the old-fashioned need to use proprietors or advertisers as levers.[8]

The advent of audience analytics means that for many major news retailers content is no longer driven by journalists’ intuition but a data-driven assessment of consumer preferences.[9] A recent survey of British journalists argues that it ‘remains unclear to what extent they feel bullied by this into the clickbait game, rather than feeling that they can use the data to make better, independent decisions about how to provide a service the audience values.’[10] Journalists at the large UK regional news publisher Trinity Mirror, for instance, have reportedly been told to ‘focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort… and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t,’ with regular performance assessments ‘taking into account audience traffic’ to their content.[11]

In fact, this is merely the latest development in a much longer trend. As far back as 1955, the then Daily Herald (now The S*n) used market research to review its content before deciding to ‘devote less space to political and industrial coverage and more to human interest stories, photos, and strip cartoons.’[12] This was identified as the best way to rebuild circulation and attract women who were ‘vital to the advertising department.’[13] Newspapers have also long been divided into sections to facilitate advertisers targeting of specific audiences.

Without time to check details, to go out into the world and make contacts, reporters are reduced to ‘churnalism,’ to the ‘passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR.’[14] One source reported this month in the Press Gazette ‘painted a picture of a working life where journalists do little other than rejig the work of others, adding pictures, headlines and adjusting the copy to avoid falling foul of copyright laws.’[15] A survey in 2015 found a large majority believe time for researching stories has decreased and the influence of profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations has strengthened.[16] An ironic consequence of this is that at least one national newspaper website is haemorrhaging its graduate trainees – to PR and marketing roles. 

Writers such as John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton and Jeff & Marie Blyskal have attested over the past thirty years to a similar picture in the US with genuinely independent journalism gutted as a handful a mega corporations have swallowed thousands of titles. Today, ninety percent of US media companies are owned by six corporations.[17] Thousands of local  newspapers have been asset-stripped until only small, demoralised workforces remain; incapable of investigative journalism. Instead, ‘news’papers become merely avenues for marketing material, celebrity gossip, and anything else thought to increase circulation and, therefore, the available acreage of  ‘brain space.’[18] As PR Week recently said of the US scene, hacks ‘cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more page views than ever before.’[19]

The increase in the media’s reliance of PR material is deeply concerning given that it began from an already high base. One British study in 2006 found that almost twenty percent of newspaper stories and seventeen percent of broadcast stories in their sample were ‘verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material or activity.’[20] In a further eleven percent of press, and fourteen percent of broadcast stories, PR had an ‘agenda setting role’. Interestingly, for broadcast media, stories presented by news anchors alone tended to be sourced ‘mainly or wholly’ from PR material. Making journalists reliant on PR material means that PR sets the agenda. Financial Times journalist and Director of Journalism at Reuters Oxford International Institute for Journalism John Lloyd concurs,

The normal journalistic approach to PRs i.e. dogs and lampposts is grossly self-serving from the point of view of journalists. It glosses over, ignores or even denies the fact that much of current journalism both broadcast and press is public relations in the sense that stories, ideas, features and interviews are either suggested, or in the extreme actually written by public relations people. Until that becomes open and debated between PR people and journalists, we will continue to have this artificially wide gulf where journalists pose as fearless seekers of truth and PRs are slimy creatures trying to put one over on us. It is not remotely like that.[21]

And PR isn’t just about promoting stories, it’s also about suppressing them. PR agencies can threaten to cut off the drip feed of stories on which harried journalists are dependent or they can offer ‘better’ stories in exchange for silence. Or they use stronger measures, as when Ketchum put pressure on US TV stations not to promote David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet.

Ketchum obtained details of the book tour and TV and radio appearances that Steinman had planned. They called each media outlet and hassled them to drop the interview or to allow an industry spokesman on the show to present a balanced case. Through the American Council on Science and Health, an industry front group and client of Ketchum, they lobbied the US government to work against the book. Dr William Marcus, a senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, who had written the book’s foreword was pressured to withdraw it. He refused and was later fired from the EPA.[22]

It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect the corporate press to hold PR to account. They are, after all, merely subdivisions of the same business architecture, both intended to make a profit and dependent on the corporate capitalist structure to exist. PR is concerned with selling a product, the corporate media is concerned with selling an audience to advertisers. But there are still decent journalists trying to work within the corporate structure whose ability to do what should be their job is undercut by every new round of ‘rationalisation.’

The more the press is denuded of its muscle the more ‘source-based’ journalism -printing what people want you to know – will consume investigative journalism -printing what people don’t want you to know. And news, as Randolph Hearst said, ‘is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.’



[1] Figures sourced from The Holmes Report “Global Top 250 PR Agency Ranking 2016,” available at https://www.holmesreport.com/ranking-and-data/global-communications-report/2016-pr-agency-rankings/top-250 Note that six firms are listed as Burson Marsteller and MSL Group were joint fifth.

[2] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics   https://www.bls.gov/oes/#data

[4] Office for National Statistics (August 2016) “EMP04: Employment by occupation,” available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyoccupationemp04

[5] Unknown Author (2011) “Over 60 per cent of journalists think PR agencies cannot be trusted,” in PR Moment, available at


[6] Peter Himler “The Journalist And The PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” Forbes 14th March 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhimler/2013/03/14/the-journalist-the-pr-pro-a-broken-marriage/#51da87a33a41

[7] Roy Greenslade “More PRs and fewer journalists threatens democracy,” The Guardian Online Thursday 4 October 2012 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2012/oct/04/marketingandpr-pressandpublishing

[8] Nick Davies (2008) “Flat Earth News,” p. 167.

[9] The shift from print to online readers, along with software such as  Chartbeat, NewsWhip, and Parse.ly, generates huge amounts of data on what is read and shared and by whom. This information is increasingly being used to prioritise stories (Neil Thurman, Alessio Cornia, and Jessica Kunert (2016) “Journalists in the UK” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, p. 36 available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Journalists%20in%20the%20UK.pdf )

[10] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 4.

[11] Dominic Ponsford “Journalists to be given personal online audience growth targets after job cuts at Trinity Mirror Midlands” Press Gazette 9th June 2015, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/journalists-be-given-personal-online-audience-growth-targets-after-job-cuts-trinity-mirror-midlands/

[12] James Curran and June Seaton (2010) “Power Without Responsibility. Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain,” p. 85.

[13] ‘Daily Herald reader interest surveys recommendations,’ p. 8 quoted in Curran and Seaton (2010), p. 85.

[14] Davies (2008) p.73.

[15] Dominic Ponsford “Source: ‘Ripping culture’ at national newspaper website prompts most graduate trainees to leave journalism for PR,” Press Gazette, 3rd August 2017, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/source-ripping-culture-at-national-newspaper-website-prompts-most-graduate-trainees-to-leave-journalism-for-pr/

[16] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 7.

[17] See John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You!” or Jeff and Marie Blyskal (1987) “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”. See also Michael Corcoran “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act,” Truthout 11th February 2016 available at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34789-democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act

[18] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’ The same reasoning applies to print media.

[19] Dylan Tweney (2017) “What Responsibility Does PR Have to the Dying Media?” PR Week, 28th February 2017, available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1425774/responsibility-does-pr-dying-media

[20] Justin Lewis, Andrew Williams Bob Franklin (2008): A Compromised Fourth Estate?, Journalism Studies, 9:1, 1-20.

[21] Quoted in Lewis et al. (2008).

[22] Corporate Watch “Public relations and lobbying industry an overview,” April 2003, available at https://corporatewatch.org/content/corporate-watch-pr-industry-pr-and-media