Jake Lynch

Public space is shrinking. Shopping malls cover it over on the ground; even publicly owned TV channels accept advertising. The shirt of your favourite sports team is incomplete without at least one corporate logo, often many more. Media of all kinds have become ever more explicitly geared to selling; a function that has infected and overlaid the telling of stories, as Danny Schechter pointed out, over the role of broadcast news in the US, which presented the invasion of Iraq as just one more product, shiny and new.

One interesting and increasingly prominent source of resistance comes from the set of activities and cultural productions known as culture-jamming. Its aim is to bring about detournement, a phrase originated by the French ‘situationist’ movement, which works by defamiliarising the familiar image or narrative form. David Cox defines culture-jamming as “experimental and playful activities that question underlying social relations with the place of the media in society”.

Once you have seen the Nike ‘swoosh’, say, juxtaposed with the bowed heads of child labourers in sweatshops, you cannot, arguably, see the image again in any advertising without simultaneously thinking of the ‘subvertisement’. It automatically evokes a frame, which we then use to negotiate our own meanings.

Most culture-jamming has focused on avowedly commercial messages as the target. Television news itself is a domain overdue for such treatments, which have so far been relatively scarce. It is a discursive practice that, in Stuart Hall’s terms, “naturalise[s] representation to the point where you cannot see that anyone produced it”. Not for nothing did Walter Cronkite, the legendary anchor of CBS News, sign off every night with the phrase, “that’s the way it is”.

This renders it especially prey to propaganda, defined, by two scholars, Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, as attempts to “shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour”. Its habitual orientation towards official sources – a key characteristic of war journalism – underpins its claim to authority but also represents a hostage to self-serving agendas since, as former Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian puts it, in his classic study, The Media Monopoly, “in the nature of public relations, most authority figures issue a high quotient of imprecise and self-serving declarations”.

It is, in other words, the very familiarity of television news as a medium, attributable to its habit of effacing its own construction, that puts it at the mercy of powerful interests with an axe to grind. In a famous aphorism from another scholarly work, a study of newsroom procedures, Gaye Tuchman notes: “the acceptance of representational conventions as facticity makes reality vulnerable to manipulation”. This might be disturbing to viewers, especially when a campaign of war propaganda is underway: news consumers are, Annabel McGoldrick avers, “disturbed because [they] are drawn into a conspiracy of meaning-making”.

So we might all benefit from a bit of culture-jamming as applied to television news, appropriating its distinctive phrasings, narrative structure and visual grammar to a very different message. One example is our film from the Peace Convergence protest at the Talisman Sabre military exercise, involving thousands of forces from the US and Australia, held recently in central Queensland. I’ve reproduced the script below. The perspectives it offers find no place at all, in mainstream, corporate television news. In neither country can you generally see anyone calling for a reduction in defence spending or an end to the war in Afghanistan, for instance. Form and content diverge, therefore.

To view the film, visit the following link:

…and see what you think.

Talisman Sabre script

Shots: Demonstration sequence:

Voice1 :
The peace convergence at Operation Talisman Sabre takes its message to the streets of Yeppoon. It’s a classic seaside town, and the nearest point on the map to the Shoalwater Bay training area of the Australian military. (Pause for upsot) A carefree afternoon at the beach is an Aussie birthright – but it’s also a privilege. The next stop, for troops going through their paces a few miles north of here, couldn’t be more different.

Shots: Troops in Afghanistan:

Voice2 : They’re practising to join the fight against the Taliban, in Afghanistan, but the reason why thousands of American troops have come to the Queensland coast to join in, is called “interoperability”.

Shots: Map shots:

Voice 3: The live-fire exercises, involving fifty combat aircraft and more than fifteen hundred armoured vehicles, amount to a rehearsal for future invasions of other countries alongside the United States. And they’re taking place around Australia’s world-renowned ecological treasure, the Great Barrier Reef.

Shots: Public meeting shots showing Jeannette and Judith:

Voice 4: Those who’ve come to speak out against the military exercise include a local Aboriginal elder from the Darumbal people, Jeannette Yow Yeh, and a prominent peace campaigner from the US, Judith Le Blanc, who’s also a member of the indigenous Caddo Tribe from Oklahoma.

Shots: Band shot then three-shot:

Voice 5: As we listened to the Yeppoon peace concert, I asked them for their reflections.

Interview grabs with Jeannette and Judith

Shots: Helicopter + aircraft + military movements at airport:
Voice 6: Rockhampton airport, a growing tourist hub but also a key point in the military exercise. Protestors pass warplanes parked on the tarmac on their way to barricade the gates of the local barracks.

Shots: GVs of barricade, then arrest:

Voice 7: It’s good-natured, even low-key, then suddenly one braves the police lines in an attempt to infiltrate the base. (Pause for upsot) He doesn’t get far before being arrested. What’s the point? A small breach of local laws and a signal that our consent to Australia’s involvement in war crimes like the invasion of Iraq cannot be taken for granted. Aggressive warfare and the mass killing of civilians put the offence of trespassing into perspective.

Grab with Brian Vavasour

Shots: Hokey-pokey

Voice 8: Indeed, there’s more than a hint of the absurd about the security arrangements – police set up a cordon five kilometres from the base perimeter to stop us entering the ranges and causing live fire exercises to be suspended. (Pause for upsot) Hence the hokey pokey – you can put your left leg in, even your whole self, but if you stop to shake it all about, instead of jumping straight back over the line, you’ll be arrested.

Piece-to-camera: “It does seem a bit rich for these protesters to be told by police that if they move across that line they’ll be committing an illegal act and therefore making themselves subject to arrest, when you consider that what’s happening over there is preparations by the Australian Defence Force, alongside the Americans, for the invasion and occupation of another country. In other words, a premeditated war crime is under active preparation. You might think anyone concerned with law enforcement would be more focused on that illegality than this”.

Shots: More hokey-pokey, showing veteran activist

Voice 9: Think your way on to the outside of militarism and there’s no going back. Cooling off in the shade, I spoke to Ray, a veteran of the peace movement for half a century.

Interview grab with Ray

Shots: Navy ad

Voice 10: The Talisman Sabre exercise came as the Australian navy was having difficulties in recruiting – hence these adverts showing the fun side of a forces career.

Shots: Shots of protestors and Hannah Middleton

Voice 11: The way the military is seen and thought of by society is important. The men and women of the Australian Defence Force do valuable work in peacekeeping operations, but preparing to fight in America’s illegal wars has tarnished their image. If the protest draws attention to that, it will have done its job.

Interview grab with Hannah Middleton

Shots: More of concert

Voice 12: Australia’s government is pressing ahead with more military spending even though most Australians don’t want it. Most of us never wanted to join the invasion of Iraq and opinion polls suggest our part in the occupation of Afghanistan has lost majority public support. Mostly those issues remain hidden. Here, they’re out in the open.


Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Jan 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: CULTURE-JAMMING, is included. Thank you.

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