| Alastair Campbell: one more strategy
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the historian, E.H. Carr, published a little pamphlet called Propaganda and International Politics. “The art of persuasion”, he wrote here, “has always been a necessary part of the equipment of a political leader.” For “power over opinion is not less essential for purposes of government than military and economic power, and is closely associated with them”. Propaganda was useful and necessary in times of peace, and critical and indispensable in times of war. Carr quoted the political scientist, Harold Laswell, for whom the central lesson of the conflict of 1914-18 was that “psychological war must accompany economic war and military war”.
Carr pointed out that it was the Catholic church which first realized the power of controlling the minds of the people. In the Middle Ages, the church “created the first censorship and the first propaganda organisation”, both intended to promote certain kinds of opinion and to suppress other kinds. However, in the 20th century the importance of thought control had multiplied manifold. The “broadening of the basis of politics” had “vastly increased the number of those whose opinion is politically significant. Until comparatively modern times, those whose opinion it was worthwhile to influence were few in number, united by close ties of interest and, generally speaking, highly educated; and the means of persuasion were correspondingly limited”. To control the medieval subject, the church and its clergy would suffice; but to persuade the modern citizen, the state had to use the multiple instruments of radio, film, and the popular press — these identified by Carr as the three chief “instruments of mass appeal”.
E.H. Carr made a distinction between international propaganda, aimed at delegitimizing foreign governments in the eyes of their citizens; and national propaganda, aimed at legitimizing one’s own government for one’s own citizens. Writing on the eve of a major world conflict, he naturally focussed on international propaganda. But recent events in the United Kingdom, particularly, have shown that the two are inseparably connected. This is especially so in times of war, when one must both motivate and manipulate those who are asked to support, in whatever fashion, the fight for King and Country.
For two weeks in July, I was in London, and, as ever, looked forward to reading a press I regard as the most vigorous and entertaining in the world. But for much of my visit the newspapers were dominated by a single story — the fight between the prime minister, Tony Blair, and the BBC. Back in the last week of May, the journalist, Andrew Gilligan, had suggested, on BBC’s influential “Today” programme, that the government had “sexed-up” a dossier they presented to justify the war in Iraq. Specifically, they had claimed that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction which could be used at forty-five minutes’ notice. Gilligan said that a source had told him that the government printed this information while knowing all along that it was wrong (or at least unproven). He followed up his radio story with a signed article in the press claiming that the report was embellished on the specific instructions of the prime minister’s all-powerful director of communications, Alastair Campbell.
The prime minister and his men were already prejudiced against Gilligan, who had previously reported on how the people of Iraq disliked the invading Americans even more than the odious Saddam. Campbell angrily denied that he was responsible for the “sexing-up”, and demanded an apology. The BBC stuck by Gilligan. Abuse and innuendo flew thick and fast. Supporters of the BBC felt that the credibility of the government, and of Campbell in particular, had been called into question. In turn, Blair and his supporters accused the BBC of left-wing anti-war bias.
With the possible exception only of the National Health Service, the BBC is Britain’s most respected public institution. A fight between it and the government made for very good copy indeed. For the first week of my visit the press, and much of the public, seemed to be on Gilligan’s side. The resignation of Campbell was widely called for. But then the spotlight shifted away from Blair’s spin doctor to an authentic PhD. This was for David Kelly, the biological scientist who was identified by the government as the most likely person to have spoken to Gilligan. Under interrogation, Kelly admitted to having spoken to the journalist, but added that his words had not been accurately reported. While he had not found any weapons of mass destruction on his visits to Iraq, he had nothing to do with the preparation of the dossier which advanced the infamous “forty-five minute” claim. In other words, Gilligan had “sexed-up” his report. Asked by the chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee what lesson he had learnt from the episode, Kelly answered, with a wry smile: “Never speak off the record to a journalist.”
Three days after his testimony to parliament, Kelly was found dead in the woods near his home. He had apparently committed suicide by slashing his wrists. The press now looked for a suitable scapegoat. Some sections claimed that the “outing” of Kelly was done to save Campbell’s skin, and that the public exposure had created, for the scientist, an unbearable crisis of conscience.
Others felt that the blame should be shared equally between the government and Gilligan, the journalist whose own reliability was no longer being taken for granted. By the time I left England, the focus had shifted to the future of Tony Blair himself. There was talk that perhaps he would not survive this crisis, and that there might be a change in the leadership of the Labour Party before the next election.
State propaganda is normally associated with totalitarian regimes, with the likes of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. But to me, the lesson of the Blair-BBC tangle is that propaganda plays an even more important role in democratic countries. General Pervez Musharraf has no reason to feed the press, for in the next Pakistani election he intends to run only against himself. But in countries like Britain and India, where the press and television can genuinely influence popular opinion, politicians in power who wish to retain power must take proper heed of it. They have to work subtly at making sure that their work and their lives are presented in the best, or perhaps I should say, least unflattering, light. Hence the importance of “spin”, of selective presentation and interpretation of data on the affairs of the state.
In the years since Carr wrote, the influence and reach of the media have greatly expanded. This has made propaganda even more central to democratic politics. Where voting is free and fair, and regular, politicians naturally want the voter to think well of themselves. However, the urge to be in or stay in power can be so overwhelming as to lead to embellishment, exaggeration, or plain untruth. Hence also the increasing suspicion among ordinary people of what politicians say or think.
Consider, in this connection, the annual surveys conducted in Britain over the last twenty years by the polling organization, MORI. These reveal a noticeable decline in the status and credibility of government. Between 1987 and 2001, the percentage of those Britons “who trust the government to place the nation’s needs above party interests always or most of the time” has declined from 47 per cent to 28 per cent. Political parties are the institutions, and politicians the class of individuals, that the public most distrust.
Correspondingly, they have most trust in the army as an institution, and in doctors, among classes of professionals. An intriguing finding was with regard to the media, with television ranked second among institutions that were trusted, but the press ranking second last. There was thus a clear difference between attitudes to images and print respectively. It seems that in Britain to see is to believe but to read is to doubt or question.
Reading the latest MORI results made me speculate as to the likely results of such a poll in India. Admittedly, it would be far more difficult to conceive and carry out here, given the staggering heterogeneity of our population. And, given the greater personalization of our politics, it would probably have to centre more sharply on individuals. Thus the British question: “Do you trust the government to place the nation’s needs above party interests always or most of the time'” would perhaps have to be reformulated as follows: “Do you trust Laloo Yadav (or Vajpayee or Sonia Gandhi) to place the claims of social justice (or Hindu pride or social peace) above their personal interests always or most of the time'”