I See No Ships…

Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader,  one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.

On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:

For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.

The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media  — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.

I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.

The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii]  In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv]  In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:

…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 object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]

The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,

I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]

Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]

It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.

It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it  wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.

The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was  27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.

Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.

Correction 9th August 2018

Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-08/heres-why-the-media-is-banned-from-reporting-on-general-election-campaigning-while-the-polls-are-open/

For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook: https://www.channel4.com/producers-handbook/media-law/other-laws-affecting-broadcasting/election-reporting



[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 [2010]) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.

[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.

[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at  https://fair.org/extra/fear-amp-favor-2000-the-first-annual-report/ (accessed 06/08/2018).

[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.

[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005,  available at  http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temps_de_cerveau_humain_disponible (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.

[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at   http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/interviews/80-interview-with-alan-rusbridger-editor-the-guardian.html (accessed 06/08/2018).

[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here:  https://youtu.be/GjENnyQupow

[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).

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

The Science of Persuasion

Last week, I discussed WWI as the great testbed for the techniques of manipulation. It was, at that point, the most successful use of propaganda in history, using forms of deception still effective a century later when, in September 2002, the US and UK prepared the ground to seize Iraq with a $200m ‘PR blitz’ of domestic and foreign audiences; particularly ‘sceptical Arab populations.’[1] In this article, I’ll cover the post-war rise of PR through to the beginnings of the WWII.

Modern Public Relations rose like a poppy from the battlefields of the Great War. George Creel’s vast programme ‘released into the American private sector a demobbed army of public relations experts’ and, by the end of the war, companies such as AT&T, Swift, Bethlehem Steel, and Du Pont, as well as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), had established PR operations. Business, conscious of being ‘a small minority highly vulnerable to political attack’, valued the practical application of scientific persuasion and ‘regimenting the public mind’.[2] WWI had demonstrated that,

…wars are fought with words and ideas as well as with arms and bullets. Businessmen, private institutions, great universities –– all kinds of groups –– became conditioned to the fact that they needed the public; that the great public could now perhaps be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and that the same methods could do the job.[3]

The techniques for which the war provided such a splendid test bed were refined as PR professionals became students of the psyche, particularly Freudian psychology. In so doing, they largely abandoned the Progressives’ original belief in a reasonable public and instead aimed their efforts at manipulating the ‘crowd’. In this they followed the French philosopher and polymath, Gustave Le Bon, who argued that, while an individual person might be civilised, educated, and reasonable in isolation, in a crowd they become an unreasoning barbarian.[4] Danny Baker, for instance, supports Millwall.



Edward Bernays

Symbolic imagery became the currency of a new form of communication that appealed to the psyche, emotions, and instincts. The ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Edward Bernays, was moulded by his experiences in the Creel Committee and also by his heritage: he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Yet while Freud ‘sought to liberate people from their subconscious drives and desires,’ Bernays wanted only to exploit them for his clients.[5] Nor was Bernays shy; speaking and writing with his characteristic brio of the need to ‘manipulate the public mind’ and using, with almost gleeful abandon, a word that among intellectuals had become virtually profane, ‘propaganda’.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.[6]


NAM ‘This is America’ poster, circa. 1925

As the Twenties began to roar, the PR industry grew in size, if not stature. The war vastlyexpanded America’s productive base and created a demand for consumer goods after several years of relative austerity. In the afterglow of its recent triumph, PR shared the general economic trajectory, supplying experts in advertising, marketing, fundraising, and boosting generally. While most PR still boosted individual products and companies, post-war corporate propaganda began the process of fusing business values with ‘traditional’ American values –  transmuting ‘private advantage into the public good.’[7] PR trumpeted the abstract tenets of the ‘American Way’ – individualism, independence, freedom, and social harmony – and made fashionable consumption, the crucial economic motor, their durable incarnation.[8]

The effect on public opinion was substantial. ‘So profoundly pro-business was the national temper and so successful were business efforts in keeping the favor of the public,’ that no other group could withstand them.[9] The ‘business of the United States is business’ proclaimed President Coolidge joyously. Jeremiads on the stump against ‘industrial feudalism’ by firebrands likes Upton Sinclair seemed distant indeed, as the major presidential candidates proclaimed ‘their faith [in] Wall Street and the self-regulating economy’ to maintain good times for all.[10] This was in 1927.


The Great Crash

The Wall Street crash in November 1929, and the Great Depression that followed, shattered the American economy. Between 1929 and 1933 US Gross National Product (GNP) fell from $103.1bn to $55.6bn. 100,000 businesses failed and there were 23,000 suicides during a single year.[11] For a time, capitalism itself was thrown into question.[12] Popular discontent was high and a ‘series of coordinated actions took place on a nationwide basis’ lead by political radicals including the Communist and Socialist Parties.[13] Despite repression and concerted state violence, however, for a remarkable period advocacy of  government ownership, socialism, and even communism became respectable in mainstream American discourse.[14] When Franklin Roosevelt entered office  in 1933, one of his closest advisors warned that they faced either an ‘orderly revolution’ – the New Deal – or the ‘violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure.’[15]

The New Deal heralded a move from 1920s laissez faire economics to increased government intervention, and modernization, curbing some of the Depression’s triggers, notably currency speculation.[16] Facing trenchant business animosity, Roosevelt’s publicity team introduced many of the modern techniques of political PR.[17] In doing so they deployed publicity against the failed ‘religion of private enterprise’.[18]


NAM billboard, circa. 1937

The business press reported this with characteristic candour and, by 1934, the captains of industry realized the renewed threat to their estate. Several organisations, including the NAM[19] set their muscle to the task of disseminating ‘sound American doctrines to the public’.[20] The PR industry counselled them to sell ‘the American way of life to the American people’; a statement that is intelligible only when one interprets the ‘American way of life’ as business’s way of life.[21]

During the next thirteen years, the NAM spent more than $15 million on leaflets, school films, article reprints and short movies seen by millionin order to fight  the ‘newly realized political power of the masses’ and their ‘many strange and bewildering doctrines’ that were such a ‘hazard to industrialists’. In the words of the NAM’s president, they blanketed every media in order to ‘[pound their] message home with relentless determination’: the centrality of business to American life and the ‘unabashed assertion of the profit motive in U.S. Civilization.’[22]

Major concerns, such as Ford, Du Pont, and General Motors (GM), sponsored network radio programmes with messages designed to improve their image. Radio had begun operating in the 1920s with a mix of profit and non-profit broadcasters but, by the end of the decade, two major networks – National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBC) – had begun operations, and radio commercialized rapidly. The number of homes with radios reached 30% by 1928, doubling between 1930 and 1940.

NAMThe use of radio was extensive and effective. The NAM’ radio series, ‘The American Family Robinson’ – described by Variety as a ‘thinly veiled attack on the policies of the Roosevelt administration’ was being broadcast by 207 stations within 6 months of its inception and, by the late 30s almost 300 small non-network stations carried it. According to the NAM’s PR director, the programme was ‘industry’s effective answer to the Utopian promises of theorists and demagogues at present reaching such vast audiences via the radio.’ To take another example, from 1934 to 1936, a group of conservative business leaders calling themselves the  ‘Crusaders’ fought the New Deal on a programme broadcast on 79 CBS stations. This was backed by the executives of General Foods, Du Pont, General Motors, Nabisco, Heinz, Sun Oil, Weirton Steel, and Standard Oil of Indiana.

In 1939, the US Senate’s  La Follette Commission reviewed business’s assault on popular opinion. It condemned the activities of the NAM in particular as a ‘propaganda which in technique has relied upon indirection of meaning, and in presentation of secrecy and deception.’[23]  1939 marked a major moment in the history of PR. Though it had decried Roosevelt’s plans as but a shade off communism and  fascism, business still recognised the authentic face of tyranny, and so it called a brief ceasefire in its war on the American public, in order to direct its might against the Axis Powers.[24] Next week, this story of PR comes to World War II.



[1] Tim Reid, ‘America Plans PR Blitz on Saddam,’ in the Times (London), September 17th 2002. They chose September because, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card put it, in marketing ‘you don’t introduce new products in August’ (quoted in William Schneider ‘Marketing Iraq: Why now?’ Cable News Network, 12th September 2002, available at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/09/12/schneider.iraq/ ).

[2] The description of business is from V. O. Key (1964) “Politics, Parties & Pressure Groups,” p. 91.

[3] Edward Bernays (1952) “Public Relations,” p. 78.

[4] Gustave Le Bon (1895) “The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind”.

[5] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 97 and Chapter Nine.

[6] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda”, p. 9.

[7] Borrowing a phrase from V.O. Key.

[8] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (1994) “Selling Free Enterprise,” p 16.

[9] Cochrane and Miller, (1961) “The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America”, pp. 343-44.

[10] Quoted in Fones-Wolf (1994), p 16.

[11] Ewen 1996, p. 233; C N Trueman “Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its aftermath,” The History Learning Site, 22 May 2015, available at http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/america-1918-1939/wall-street-crash-of-1929-and-its-aftermath/

[12] Eric Hobsbawn in “The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991” (1994 p. 87) observed that, while economies have always had their heady ups and chilly downs, the crash was genuinely ‘system-endangering’. The reaction to the crash was all the more intense because the Soviet Union, derided and vilified for its decision to break free from capitalism [at least western capitalism], appeared utterly immune from the slump.

[13] The Communists organized Unemployed councils and, in Chicago in March 1930 alone, they distributed 200,000 leaflets, 50,000 stickers, and 50,000 shop papers (Meyer Weinberg (2003) “A Short History of American Capitalism” p. 219).

[14] During one demonstration in 1930 in New York City, ‘Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting… all with whom they came in contact. … A score of men with bloody heads and faces sprawled over the square with police pummelling them.’ At Ford plants in Highland Park and Dearborn, near Detroit, Communists led 3,000-strong march of unemployed people. Police responded with tear gas and machine guns against the unarmed marchers (who responded by throwing stones), killing four and wounding many more. According to the executive committee of the Detroit American Civil Liberties League, ‘most of the injuries received by the paraders consisted of gunshot wounds in their sides and backs.’ (Weinberg, p. 219-220). Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 24.

[15] Rexford G. Tugwell, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 237. The New Deal was praised by many as a return to Progressivism and the re-emergence of a ‘disinterested’ class. The Supreme Court judge, Felix Frankfurter, for example, wrote that it had put ‘more intelligent and more purposeful and more disinterested men in the service of government than there has been for at least half a century’ (quoted in Judis (2000) “The Paradox of American Democracy, Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust,” p. 17).

[16] Stuart Ewen (1996), “PR! A Social History of Spin,” pp 238-239.

[17] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power,”p. 526.

[18] Ewen (1996), p. 246.

[19] National Association of Manufacturers.

[20] ‘NAM Historical Highlights’ available at http://www.nam.org/About/History-of-the-NAM/

[21] Fones-Wolf (1999).

[22] Cutlip (1994): 107; Fones-Wolf (1999). ‘Many strange and bewildering doctrines’ was the phrase used by the DuPont family to described the various socialistic and radical ideologies being expressed (Ibid). To ‘blanket’ the media and ‘pound home’ the message are the words of  President of the NAM, speaking to a meeting of business leaders in 1935 (Rippa, 1958, p. 60, quoted in Carey, p. 24). Jackall & Hirota (2000) “Image Makers,” p. 47.

[23] US Congress 1939, p. 218, quoted in Carey, p. 24.

[24] Carey, p. 27.

Regimenting the Public Mind

Last week, I made a sketch of one of the dominant strains of establishment intellectual thought: disdain for the masses and, by extension, genuine democracy. ‘The scholar,’ wrote the noted American economist Edwin Seligman, ‘must possess priestly qualities and fulfil priestly functions, including political activity’ in order that the people learn their true needs and the means of their satisfaction.’[1]

Democracy is, of course, notoriously difficult to define and I’m not going to take Dahl, Beetham, and Sartori from the shelf now. It’s enough to say that by democracy I mean a thing deeper than merely the occasional popular ratification of political decisions made by elites in a political sphere kept carefully separate from its economic foundations (largely the system we have today). I mean genuine popular participation in the formulation as well as the contestation of policy.

Business has done its best to keep democracy in its place by using two principal tools. First, by lobbying for and buying legislation at source and, secondly, by attempting to control popular opinion. It’s the control of opinion that concerns me here. The problem of business manipulating public opinion was predicted long ago. In 1909 Graham Wallas, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, warned of the consequences should business feel its position threatened by a surfeit of democracy,

Popular election may work fairly well as long as those questions are not raised which cause the holders of wealth of and industrial power to make full use of their opportunities… If they did so there is so much skill to be bought, and the art of using skill for the production of emotion and opinion has so far advanced, that the whole condition of political contests would be changed for the future.[2]

Business’s interest in public opinion arose from the drubbing it took during the Progressive Era (circa. 1890-1920) when ‘muckraking’ journalism had enjoyed a golden age. A succession of often sensational newspaper and magazine articles revealed gouging, quackery, mountebankery, vice, corruption, and criminality. Meanwhile, anti-trust laws challenged property rights and virtually every populist politician made play of their opposition to ‘industrial feudalism’ and the ‘conspirators of Wall Street.’[3] Yet while the middle and intellectual classes had initially been behind using the ‘great moral disinfectant’ of publicity, they soon came to revile it. The Progressives wanted greater social equity but they did not want revolution. Muckraking  – to the Progressive eye – soon went beyond smoothing the rough edges from corporate industrialism to having the potential to punch a bloody hole through the capitalist machine and undermine belief in the equity of the business system itself. ‘There is in America to-day,’ wrote Walter Lippmann in 1914, ‘a distinct prejudice in favor of those who make the accusations.’ He continued,

“Big Business,” and its ruthless tentacles, have become the material for the feverish fantasy of illiterate thousands thrown out of kilter by the rack and strain of modern life… all the frictions of life are readily ascribed to a deliberate evil intelligence… that ten minutes of cold sanity would reduce to a barbarous myth.[4]

As Fortune magazine recorded years later, ‘business did not discover… until its reputation had been all but destroyed… that in a democracy nothing is more important than [public opinion].’ Alex Carey argues that, with the extension of the franchise impossible to reverse, business aimed to ‘corrupt’ the electorate by manipulating public opinion. So, business became determined to fight ‘words with words’ and hired former newspapermen to act as publicity advisors. America’s first publicity firm, The Publicity Bureau, was founded in 1900 and over the years that followed a number of larger companies created their own in-house PR departments.

The techniques of early PR were comparatively crude, with unsophisticated dishonesty and whitewash commonplace. Despite the immaturity of the profession, it nevertheless fulfilled Abraham Lincoln’s prediction, that big business would try to ‘prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people…’[5] As it developed in the first decade of the 20th Century, PR also took the first steps to moving beyond the simple ‘fact-based’ press agentry approach of the Progressive journalists, to develop a more symbol-orientated approach that would eventually become known by scholars of the field as the two-way asymmetric model or ‘scientific persuasion’.[6]

BruteIt was World War One that is arguably the single most important event in the development of modern PR, as it marked the formation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The US Government was keen to participate in the War, as it and American liberal intellectuals generally had been successfully propagandized by the British. The details of this effort are too extensive to go into here but for years the British Establishment had been drumming into the British people (and American intellectuals) the absolute and unconditional evil of the German people. Sir Norman Angell wrote of a ‘propaganda which did not even pretend to tell the truth since its object was to make us hate the enemy and want to go on fighting him,’ which span fables of Germans ‘boiling down the dead for glycerine and of cutting off babies’ hands for amusement’.

I turn over my note-book to find similar signs that will record the time when men, educated men, took leave of sense and reason. Here are the papers printing long letters protesting violently against giving Christian burial to the Germans brought down in a destroyed Zeppelin… Half a page devoted to a debate in Parliament about leaving an elderly German archaeologist in charge of ancient documents in a museum. There is a great slaughter, it appears, of dachshunds, though one correspondent with qualms wants to be quite sure that the dogs really did originally come from  Germany. The Evening News prints lists of those who had undertaken to help feed the children of interned Germans, harrying with headlines (“ Hun-coddlers” was the invention for the occasion) Quakers and others who had been guilty of, explains the Evening News, “ feeding the tiger’s cubs with bits of cake.[7]

Though there was a kernel of truth, presumably, to some accounts of atrocities, the bulk was lies and exaggeration. Little has changed in the hundred years passed: the swindle of Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on cold floors during the first Gulf War in 1990; the myth of Saddam’s human shredders in 2003; and the tall stories of an impending massacre in Benghazi that were without foundation are but three examples. The bitter rhyme of this unreason, of course, was that the public scepticismroads_bprop_1 of government pronouncements WWI propaganda engendered  burned into the late 1930s when stories of real Nazi atrocities reached our shores.

Whatever the long term folly of the British propaganda, it secured US elite opinion. In the country at large, however, the war was unpopular. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the platforms ‘He kept us out of the war’ and ‘Peace Without Victory.’[8] The working classes, particularly socialists and trade unionists, saw the war as a ‘rich man’s conflict’ and had no yearning – to borrow trades unionist Eugene Debbs’ phrase – to ‘furnish their corpses’ for other people’s property. Similarly, large parts of middle class America were still strongly isolationist and wanted to hold Wilson to his slogans. While privately he had said I will be with you, whatever, a considerable effort was still needed to instil in a timorous America the necessary ‘blazing passion of retaliation.’[9] How time turns the tables.

In April 1917, Wilson put newspaperman George Creel in charge of the newly-formed Committee for Public Information and charged it with securing popular support for the war. Creel had himself urged Wilson to create an agency to coordinate ‘[n]ot propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.’’[10] This was to be an effort on many fronts, to reach ‘every community in the United States by written or spoken word or motion picture; until every individual, native, naturalized, or alien, has it seared into his consciousness that this war is a war of self-defence, and that it has got to be master of his every thought and action.’[11]

The CPI’s task was ‘so distinctively in the nature of an advertising campaign’ that they turned almost instinctively the advertisers and the fledgling PR industry.[12] By this time, the advertising industry was moving from simply describing goods and services towards using symbolism and psychology. Rather than merely informing consumers of their wares, advertisers pioneered a  ‘seductive mix of words and images’, which they attempted to associate with the public’s ‘emotional lives’, ‘needs, cravings, aspirations, and fears…’

The advertising industry furnished many willing servants who had boasted for some time that, since their techniques moved recalcitrant consumers to buy their clients’ products, they could also sell ideas. The CPI, with half a million dollars, 250 employees, 5,000 volunteers, and 75,000 speakers, supplied articles to 30,000 newspapers, produced 75,000,000 books and pamphlets, and secured $30m of free advertising.  Creel’s committee sustained a ‘general climate of thought control,’ facilitated by espionage, censorship, and Sedition Acts under which critics were rounded up and tried.[13] As the President warned his people, ‘conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.’[14]

The catalogue of malign idiocies that ensued almost defeats comprehension. 14 states passed laws forbidding the teaching of the German language; Iowa and South Dakota outlawed the use of German in public or on the telephone; German-language books were ceremonially burned;  the Philadelphia Symphony orchestra and the New York Metropolitan Opera Company were refused permission to perform Beethoven, Wagner, and other German composers; German Shepherd dogs were renamed Alsatians; and Sauerkraut became known as ‘Liberty Cabbage.’

And if the intervening century stales some of the poison in that, recall that after the French insisted on more time for UN weapons inspections in 2003, French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries, alleged appeasers were addressed as ‘Monsieur,’ and Country band The Dixie Chicks had their ‘treachery’ punished with ‘possibly the biggest black balling in the history of American music.’[15] Educated people may still be induced to ‘take leave of sense and reason.’

The techniques of the CPI were so successful that Hitler later credited them as a key factor in Germany’s defeat; praising the ‘amazing skill’ and ‘really brilliant calculation’ that achieved such ‘immense results.’[16] Though much of the Committee’s output, following the British model, was later found to be distortion, exaggeration, and lies, at the time it did the job: the beat of propaganda summoned up the blood and drove the nation to war. As Voltaire is generally held to have said, ‘anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit atrocities.’

As the ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Edward Bernays, later said, ‘it was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind’.[17] And it is to that I will turn next week.


[1] Quoted in Fink (1993) “Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Documents and Essays,”

[2] Quoted in Alex Carey (1995), “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” pp. 134

[3] Thomas Frank (2001) “One Market Under God. Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy,” p. 37.

[4] Walter Lippmann (1914) “Drift and Mastery,”p. 23-24.

[5] Quoted in David Korten (1995) “When Corporations Rule the World,”) p. 58.

[6] Grunig and Hunt (1984) “Managing Public Relations,” p. 35.

[7] Norman Angell (1926) “The Public Mind its disorders: its exploitation,” p. 31

[8] Larry Tye, L. (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Spin,”  p. 18.

[9] Norman Angell’s description of the similar fury ignited by propaganda in Britain.

[10] Quoted in Jackall & Hirota (2000) “Image Makers, Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy,” p. 13. Creel was referring back to the origins if the word ‘propaganda,’ which stem from the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, a committee established by the Vatican in 1622 to propagate Roman Catholicism

[11] War Information Series, No. 17 (February 1918) excerpted in Delorme & McInnis (1969) “Antidemocratic Trends in Twentieth-Century America,” pp. 66-77

[12] Quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Secret History of Spin,” p. 113.

[13] Ewen (1996) p. 121.

[14] Z, Mickey (2002) ‘Convincing the Skeptics,’ (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/convincing-the-skeptics-by-mickey-z/ ).

[15] The Chicks had the temerity to tell a British audience  “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In return, a full-on boycott of their music was called for by pro-war groups. ‘Radio stations who played any Dixie Chicks songs were immediately bombarded with phone calls and emails blasting the station and threats of boycotts if they continued… Dixie Chicks CD’s were rounded up, and in one famous incident were run over by a bulldozer… The Dixie Chicks lost their sponsor Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band, fearing it would draw the ire of the boycott. The Dixie Chicks also received hundreds of death threats from the incident.’ http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/destroying-the-dixie-chicks-ten-years-after/ and https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/19/the-dixie-chicks-tour-is-country-music-ready-to-forgive

[16] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001) “Age of Propaganda. The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” p. 317

[17] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” available at http://www.historyisaweapon.org/defcon1/bernprop.html

The Voters Have Spoken – the Bastards.

I voted Remain and, like Corbyn, I’m a 7/10er. I think there is much to criticise about the EU, which is an undemocratic, business-dominated behemoth but, on balance, I think that we are now, if not heading off a cliff, certainly rattling down a steep hill in a tin bath. But that was the verdict of the referendum and, flawed as it was, I think there’s no alternative but to respect it. Not everyone agrees with me and, if you’ve spent any time on social media or reading the press in the last year, you’ll know that opposition ranges from ‘call another referendum’ to ‘It. Never. Happened’.

I’m not going to waste time surveying the case for opposing the referendum result here. If you’re reading this, you’ll know the outlines:

A) the campaign was riddled with lies, distortion, and scaremongering.

B) the majority wasn’t big enough.

C) the referendum was only ‘advisory’.

D) the result was wrong. Idiots.

As it happens, in my opinion, all four points are correct although C is specious. It’s also the case that A might well be true but we still have no way of knowing that, had the campaign been of unimpeachable honesty and clarity, the result would have been any different. Had the vote gone the other way by the same margin, the first three of these points would still be correct and D would be correct for almost as many people as it is now, just different people. And the victorious Remainers would be making none of them – while sneering at Leavers who did. A. C. Grayling stood for the rest when he wrote,

But MPs live with a fetish: the fetish of the plurality in a ballot… The structures of representative democracy exist to provide a filter against mob rule moods and errors. In that respect MPs have the kind of responsibility that we are all pleased to think airline pilots feel for their passengers. In a case like the madness of Brexit, we want them to exercise it.[i]

So there you have it, the public are passengers – a mob – who need to be protected when their betters judge that they’ve made a mistake. This recalls 2004 when the people of the Irish Republic rejected the Nice Treaty on EU enlargement and were castigated by the British press for their ‘civic infantilism.’[ii] New Labour’s Peter Hain, then UK Minister for Europe, was reported as saying that the Irish hadn’t really rejected the Nice Treaty, as they couldn’t have ‘known what they were voting about… because if they had, they would have voted in favour of it.’[iii] Doubtless Grayling would have agreed with the deputy head of the German Social Democrats’ Party who observed that sometimes ‘the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.’[iv]

Strangely, voter ignorance about the Treaty was only a problem after the ‘no’ vote, despite pre-referendum polls indicating that 50% of the electorate ‘did not understand it, or know even vaguely what it was about.’[v] Nor did the Irish Government seem eager to encourage careful deliberation for the rerun in October 2002; deciding on a 30 day campaign despite evidence that just 16% ‘felt they understood the issues’.[vi] This second referendum was duly won, allowing EU enlargement to proceed unhindered by popular interference. Indeed, it brought the added benefit of endorsing a provision to keep the public out of future decisions.[vii]

Intellectual disdain for democracy is nothing new. The US, for instance, is pleased to present itself as the pinnacle of democracy with a constitution that is venerated as a model for all other societies. Yet, as Gordon Wood noted, the Constitution was ‘intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period’ that would bestow power upon the better people and exclude ‘those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power.’[viii] James Madison himself, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, said,

In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, them property of landed proprietors would be insecure…Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.[ix]

The fear of the rabble is aggravated in particular during periods of wider social discontent when demands from below risk jeopardising the position of those above. Historically, the upper middle classes have always walked a tightrope between wanting more rights and liberties and a fairer society for themselves but not wanting this to spill over and allow the lower classes to get out of hand. The ruling class, of course, uses this fear to maintain control.

The current period of economic upheaval, popular unrest, and right and left populist leaders like Trump, Sanders, Le Pen, Mélenchon, Farage, and Corbyn is reminiscent of late 19th Century America when there were similar popular anxieties; particularly a widespread mistrust of big business, anger about egregious inequality, and fear of immigration. A Dickens of his day, Upton Sinclair summed up late 19th and early 20th Century America:

See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed.[x]

I won’t belabour the obvious parallels with today’s conflict between The Many and The Few.

Intellectuals recognise the reality of popular sovereignty but, as the noted American intellectual Walter Lippmann put it in 1925 in The Phantom Public, it must be ‘put in its place, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd.’[xi] For Lippmann, democracy was merely a ‘pacific substitute for civil war in which opposing armies are counted and the victory is awarded to the larger before any blood is shed.’ In Britain, Sir Norman Angell’s treatise on the ‘disorders’ and ‘exploitation’ of the public mind maintained that the ‘hope of democracy’ lies in ‘fully realising the truth that the voice of the people is usually the voice of Satan.’ Furthermore, Angell held that, while there was ‘no alternative to popular judgement as the basis of government, ’ it was necessary to ‘correct and guide the [public’s] natural tendencies…’ with ‘the right social disciplines and educational processes…’[xii]

One of the most eminent American political scientists of the 20th Century, Harold D. Lasswell,  was similarly contemptuous of ‘democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests’. Education’s failure to eradicate ‘ignorance and superstition’ necessitated propaganda as ‘the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques…’[xiii] ‘If the mass will be free of chains of iron,’ Lasswell declaimed, ‘it must accept its chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction.’[xiv]

In essence, Lippmann, Lasswell et. al. advocated a theory of ‘democratic elitism’ in which rival elites would define policy and compete for the public’s approval – expressed through electoral ratification. This doctrine relies on a ‘division of labour’ between pilots and passengers and the idea that, once installed, elites should be left to carry out policy free from interference from the ‘bewildered herd’.

In the 1960s, there was much academic literature on the so-called ‘crisis of democracy’ or the ‘overload’ thesis, which was a response to another period of political and social turbulence, particularly in the US and Western Europe. A variety of movements emerged – student rights, environmentalism, anti-nuclear, regionalist, and feminist, for example; all of which challenged the existing social order and demanded new forms of participation.  Michael Crozier, considering the ‘crisis’ within Europe, noted that the ‘superiority’ of European democracies had been built on a ‘subtle screening of participants and demands’. The ‘overload thesis’, however, held that the ‘information explosion’ was eroding the ‘traditional distance’ deemed necessary to govern.[xv]

Britain, the leading political scientist Anthony King concurred, was once thought an ‘unusually easy country to govern, its politicians wise, its parties responsible, its administration efficient, its people docile’. Yet things had now ‘gone wrong’. Modern problems were ever more intractable and the people had become ‘increasingly bloody-minded.’ Increased complexity, diminished government capacity, and increased public expectations had combined to create ‘mass dissatisfaction’ that threatened to jeopardize ‘political arrangements’.[xvi] What were those ‘arrangements? The noted British politician, Norman St. John-Stevas, succinctly characterised them as policy ‘defined by the executive and made acceptable to the man in the street through propaganda and advertisement.’[xvii]

In 2003, New Labour launched its ‘Big Conversation’, touted as a massive consultation exercise in which the Blair Government would listen to its electorate. This exercise in ‘conspicuous listening’ was lauded by the former Deputy Leader of the Party, Roy Hattersley, as ‘clearly bogus – and greatly to be welcomed.’ The dialogue, wrote Hattersley cheerfully, was really ‘a monologue in disguise’ but this did not obscure the welcome fact that ‘[a]n obeisance is being made in the direction of the humble and the meek.’[xviii] And the scraps of New Labour still apparently retain the same inclusive attitude. ‘In the unlikely event Corbyn wins,’ stated John McTernan in 2015, something would have to be done “swiftly and quickly to restore the party to its sense… who cares about the grassroots? if you get a strong leader, it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say.’[xix] Well, of course squire, we’re only passengers.

This has been a necessarily short survey of a recurrent theme in the thought of the priests of our day. I’ve not even touched on the attitude of our ruling class to whether the bewildered herds of other countries be allowed to rule over themselves.

Next week, I’m going to continue with this theme by looking at business’s response to democracy during the past century.


Note: The title to this piece is a quote generally attributed to the American politician Morris Udall after he failed, in 1976, to secure the Democratic Presidential nomination.

[i] AC Grayling, “Article 50 ruling: the EU referendum was only ever “advisory” (3/11/16) http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/article-50-ruling-eu-referendum-was-only-ever-advisory

[ii] John Plender, “From disenchantment back to democracy…,” Financial Times June 22nd, 2001

[iii] “Fortress Europe”, Telegraph 17 Jun 2001 ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4263094/Fortress-Europe.html )

[iv] Quoted in Tony Paterson ‘Change law to give us vote on EU, say Germans. Schroeder comes under growing pressure to hold referendum on new constitution,’ Sunday Telegraph, August 1st 2004.

[v] Quentin Peel, ‘An Upset for Europe…’ in the Financial Times, June 11th 2001.

[vi] John Murray Brown And George Parker, ‘Ireland fixes date for re-run of referendum Nice Treaty Yes Vote Urged To Pave Way For Enlargement,’ in the Financial Times, September 20th 2002.

[vii] The second referendum also asked for approval for future moves on EU integration to be put to a parliamentary vote instead of a referendum. Leader, ‘EU Gets The Vote It Wanted,’ in The Scotsman, October 21st 2002.

[viii] Gordon Wood (1972) ‘The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787’pp. 513-14

[ix]  James Madison (1787) Term of the Senate, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0044

[x] Quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Social History of Spin”, p. 49.

[xi] Lippmann (1925), ‘The Phantom Public’, quoted in Rossiter & Lare (1963) “The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy”, p. 91

[xii] Angell (1926), “The Public Mind its disorders: its exploitation,”  pp. 175, 177.

[xiii] Lasswell (1933) ‘Propaganda,’ in Edwin R.A. Seligman, (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, New York: Macmillan, 1933, Vol. 12 (reprinted in 1954 edition), pp. 527, 523-526

[xiv] Ewen (1996) p. 175; Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” p. 23.

[xv] Crozier (1975), pp. 12-14.

[xvi] King, A. ‘Overload: Problems of Governing in the 1970s,’ in Political Studies vol. 23 (1975): 284-96.

[xvii] St. John-Stevas in King, A. (Ed.) (1976) ‘Why is Britain Becoming Harder to Govern?,’ London: BBC Publishing.

[xviii] Roy Hattersley, ‘A confidence trick in a good cause Labour’s exercise in listening is bogus – but to be welcomed’, in The Guardian, December 1st 2003.

[xix] Sebastian Payne, “John McTernan: if Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, he should be deposed immediately,” The Spectator July 2015 https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/07/john-mcternan-on-labour-leader-who-cares-about-the-grassroots/