The Achilles’ Heel of Propaganda – Julian Assange, Nick Cohen and Russell Brand

MEDIA, 16 Oct 2023

Media Lens - TRANSCEND Media Service

11 Oct 2023 – In the second decade of the 21st century, after much empty talk of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, it was discovered that people weren’t even capable of governing their own media consumption. Huge, artificially intelligent computers revealed that while 49.5% of the population was drowning in a ‘post-truth’ sea of ‘disinformation’, another 49.5% was away with the fairies in ‘filter bubbles’ borne aloft by nothing but hot air.

This left the 1% to cope with the crisis. Giant media corporations recruited ‘disinformation experts’ – savant guardians uniquely qualified to distinguish between rational and propaganda journalism. Their mystical powers are such that, working within profit-maximising, billionaire-owned, advertiser-dependent, government-subsidised media, they are nevertheless exposing ‘disinformation’ without the slightest trace of bias. If CEOs, ad department managers and others privately despise these truth-tellers fearlessly biting the many hands that feed, they are holding their tongues, presumably out of deep respect for their noble cause.

In all the endless blather about ‘misinformation’, you will see precious little recognition of the great Achilles’ heel of propaganda journalism, the characteristic by which it is instantly exposed, rooted in the fact that it has fundamentally different goals from rational journalism.

The goals of rational journalism are honesty, accuracy, completeness and clarity. Rational journalism will, of course, present the US-UK governments’ explanation for why they invaded Iraq, and it will present honest, credible, authoritative sources challenging that explanation.

Notice this claim to rational, honest journalism is not a claim to objective journalism. Judgement about which individuals and organisations are honest, credible and authoritative is a subjective one. We might insist that we are choosing credible sources based on rational, testable evidence, but rational thought is a subjective phenomenon that occurs inside a human head – it is not objective. Our reasoning might be faulty – we might simply be mad.

Rational, subjective journalism requires that you and I play our parts as honest, rational readers and viewers checking the claims and forming our own subjective opinions. We cannot take the arguments of purportedly honest, subjective journalists on trust – we have to do the work ourselves.

The goals of propaganda journalism are different: it aims to lead readers and viewers to a particular conclusion. In this case, honesty, accuracy and clarity are subordinated to the needs of persuasion. As for completeness, because it works against the goals of propaganda, it is not merely omitted; it is a threat to be attacked.

This, then, is how we can distinguish rational journalism from mere propaganda. The great Achilles heel of propaganda journalism is that:

  • It necessarily combines meticulous, detailed, forensic analysis of the facts with vast, ‘inexplicable’, counter-intuitive gaps. The propagandist will collect every tiny detail in favour of the required conclusion but – as though mentally impaired – will ‘fail’ to notice any number of lounge-based elephants leading away from the desired conclusions. The aim is to present a clear-cut, black and white view of the world with no room for doubt.
  • It will find reasons to attack anyone suggesting that this filtered, black and white version is incomplete. Any rational journalist interested in completeness, in doubt, will be attacked as an ‘apologist’, a ‘traitor’, a ‘Lord Haw-Haw’-type character undermining the nation’s moral and intellectual health with ‘disinformation’. Any other rational journalists who then seek completeness in responding to these first claims of ‘treachery’ will be accused of ‘treachery’ in the same way. It is a logical closed-circle – vital because, for a propagandist, victory is all that matters. The flourishing of rational debate is both a threat and a defeat.

Nils Melzer – ‘I Had Been Blinded By Propaganda’

In 2019, while working as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer – a highly experienced practitioner in the field of international law who was the Swiss Chair of International Humanitarian Law at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and who is now Director of Law, Policy and Diplomacy of the International Committee of the Red Cross – commented on Julian Assange:

‘Surely, I thought, Assange must be a rapist! But what I found is that he has never been charged with a sexual offence. True, soon after the United States had encouraged allies to find reasons to prosecute Assange, Swedish prosecution informed the tabloid press that he was suspected of having raped two women. Strangely, however, the women themselves never claimed to have been raped, nor did they intend to report a criminal offence. Go figure. Moreover, the forensic examination of a condom submitted as evidence, supposedly worn and torn during intercourse with Assange, revealed no DNA whatsoever — neither his, nor hers, nor anybody else’s. Go figure again. One woman even texted that she only wanted Assange to take an HIV test, but that the police were “keen on getting their hands on him”. Go figure, once more.’

Melzer added:

‘In the end it finally dawned on me that I had been blinded by propaganda, and that Assange had been systematically slandered to divert attention from the crimes he exposed. Once he had been dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide. And thus, a legal precedent is being set, through the backdoor of our own complacency, which in the future can and will be applied just as well to disclosures by The Guardian, the New York Times and ABC News.’

Melzer, clearly an impeccable source on these issues, offered this opinion piece to the Guardian, The Times, the Financial Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Canberra Times, the Telegraph, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Newsweek. The result:

‘None responded positively.’

Why not? Because Melzer was dealing with The Medium, a state-corporate propaganda system that needed the Assange case to be presented in black and white terms to neutralise public support so the state could ‘deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide’.

This propaganda requirement is so important, so relentlessly pursued, that many state-corporate propagandists – people who genuinely imagine they are rational journalists – felt authentic revulsion for anyone interested in challenging the official narrative. As we found out, although no charges had been brought against Assange, and although he had not been convicted of any crime, to promote completeness by challenging the various claims was to be branded ‘a rape apologist’.

Regardless of the truth of the claims made against Assange, the very fact that expert, rational journalism seeking completeness was not only ignored, but was barred, was the great Achilles’ heel indicating that Assange was indeed the target of a state-corporate propaganda blitz. This automatically meant that, whatever the claims against Assange, The Medium was already guilty of a profound subversion of democracy, civilised debate and freedom, because it was acting as an agent of state, not as an impartial source of information. It was treating the domestic population as an enemy to be controlled and manipulated.

To summarise, then: when meticulous detail is widely combined with elephant-sized gaps, and when interest in completeness is widely denounced as ‘treachery’, or ‘immorality’ of some kind, this is the Achilles’ heel exposing a propaganda blitz.

‘La, La, La!’ The Medium Puts Its Fingers In Its Ears

In June we were one of a tiny number of outlets who supported women exposing the sexual abuses of high-profile former Observer columnist Nick Cohen in a front-page article published by the New York Times. Seven women told the NYT that Cohen ‘had groped them or made other unwanted sexual advances over nearly two decades. Four insisted on anonymity, fearing professional repercussions. In each case, The Times reviewed documents or otherwise corroborated their accounts’. This was not trial by media – the NYT report followed an internal investigation by Guardian News & Media, after which Cohen had left the Observer.

The contrast with the media reaction to the Assange allegations could hardly be more disturbing. The NYT’s report on Cohen was published on May 30. Our ProQuest media database search on June 15 of UK newspaper mentions after May 29 gave the following results:

‘Nick Cohen’ = 9 mentions

This was the sum total of interest in the entire UK press. The story was simply buried and was not covered by the Guardian or the BBC.

We were one of very few outlets to quote sexual abuse survivor Lucy Siegle:

‘In 2018, Freelance journalist and BBC One Show reporter Lucy Siegle – who wrote an Observer column on ethical living and launched the newspaper’s Ethical Awards – reported Cohen to the Guardian for groping her in the newsroom, but “nothing had happened”. Siegle described her 1 February 2018 meeting with senior Guardian management as “aggressive”, an “absolute car crash”, in which she felt “gaslit” and that they “basically spent half the time trying to diminish what I was saying and then the other half of the time sort of putting their fingers in their ears and almost going “la la la”.”’

‘La, la la’, pretty much sums up the reaction of the entire state-corporate Medium to the scandal.

Compare, again, the response to claims against comedian and dissident political commentator Russell Brand, accused of rape by one woman, and of sexual abuse by three other women. The Metropolitan Police subsequently reported that it had also received a ‘number of allegations of sexual offences’. The World Socialist Network (WSWS) commented:

‘The hysterical response to the Brand story in the media, with the Guardian and other nominally “liberal” newspapers far in the lead, undermines basic legal and democratic principles. It has pre-emptively judged Brand guilty, rendering him a pariah and jeopardising any chance of a fair trial if that were ever on the cards in the future…

‘Legal and democratic rights must be defended to put an end to the situation where public figures and artists can be torn down purely through maliciously intended allegations and gossip. It should not need explaining what enormous power this gives those with the most influence on the media and politics, and the injustice which can be wrought.’

And indeed, anyone who has followed the Assange case will have been alarmed when Foreign Secretary James Cleverly commented publicly on the claims against Brand:

‘We have to be particularly careful when we listen to the voices of the people who are relatively powerless. Because we, I think, collectively have missed opportunities to do the right thing and intervene much, much earlier.’

This, of course, strongly implied Brand’s guilt, helping to set the tone for the subsequent trial by media. One might, of course, wonder why such a senior Foreign Office politician responsible for British relations with foreign countries and governments was speaking out on claims targeting a British comedian and actor. After all, Britain’s Foreign Secretary did not comment on the Cohen sex scandal.

Dame Caroline Dinenage, chair of the House of Commons media committee, wrote to the media platform, Rumble:

‘We would be grateful if you could confirm whether Mr Brand is able to monetise his content, including his videos relating to the serious accusations against him. If so, we would like to know whether Rumble intends to join YouTube in suspending Mr Brand’s ability to earn money on the platform.’

To their credit, Rumble replied:

‘Today, we received a deeply disturbing letter from a committee chair in the UK parliament…

‘We regard it as deeply inappropriate and dangerous that the UK Parliament would attempt to control who is allowed to speak on our platform or to earn a living from doing so.

‘Singling out an individual and demanding his ban is even more disturbing given the absence of any connection between the allegations and his content on Rumble. We don’t agree with the behavior of many Rumble creators, but we refuse to penalize them for actions that have nothing to do with our platform.

‘Although it may be politically and socially easier for Rumble to join a cancel culture mob, doing so would be a violation of our company’s values and mission. We emphatically reject the UK Parliament’s demands.’

Dinenage has also written to TikTok, and also to GB News, commenting:

‘… it is concerning that Beverley Turner, who described Mr Brand as “a hero” and invited him to appear on her show, subsequently fronted GB News’s coverage of the allegations regarding Mr Brand on the morning of 18 September’.

Tweeting over a letter he sent to Dinenage, US journalist Glenn Greenwald asked:

‘Since when do Western political officials have the power to impose extra-legal punishment on people for alleged crimes they’ve never been charged with? What gives US and UK officials the right to demand that tech companies remove or demonetize speakers?’

No government ministers wrote to the Guardian Media Group demanding the demonetisation of Cohen’s articles. The BBC and Guardian, which failed even to report the Cohen scandal, have lavished coverage in dozens of news and comment pieces on the claims against Brand.

Once again, the Achilles’ heel of propaganda is clearly visible: meticulous claims with astonishing gaps – for example, the fact that the government is applying enormous pressure to silence Brand, though he has not been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime – while rational journalists seeking completeness are widely shouted down as ‘rape apologists’, exactly as they were in the Assange case.

Critics have argued that to suggest Brand is being targeted with a propaganda blitz is to dismiss the women’s claims as propaganda fabrications. This does not follow at all. It is quite possible, for example, that the claims are both true and being used by unscrupulous forces to silence Brand.

Critics have also asked why we haven’t commented on the plausibility of the women’s allegations – how can we doubt the claims of four women speaking independently? The Assange case, and especially Nils Melzer’s expert analysis of that case, convinced us that it is frankly absurd for people like us – and people like the many people passing instant judgement on social media – to affect to offer an informed opinion on these complex legal issues based on media reports and commentary.

Is Brand A Leftist?

As ever, nothing is allowed to interfere with the required, black and white version of events. Cover for the propaganda blitz has even been provided by the assertion that Brand cannot be the subject of an Assange or Corbyn-style blitz because he is not a left dissident at all.

Whether we call Brand a ‘leftist’ or not, the fact is that over the last decade he has done much to challenge and offend state-corporate power. This year, he has interviewed radical leftists like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Aaron Maté. He has long and vocally supported Corbyn and Assange, and in the last couple of years he has interviewed Max Blumenthal, Edward Snowden, Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jimmy Dore, Joel Bakan, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Vandana Shiva and many others. This is important work giving a voice to leftists and environmentalists who are completely ignored by ‘mainstream’ media, when they aren’t being slandered and abused.

Brand has consistently challenged the official narrative on the Ukraine war. On YouTube last February, he conducted the first interview given by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh after Hersh had published his damning claim that the US was behind the Nord Stream 2 terror attacks in Europe.

As we documented, Hersh’s claims were either ignored, or at best ridiculed, by the likes of the Guardian, BBC and The Times as part of another suppression of dissent. Apply whatever label you like, the fact that Brand conducted this first interview with Hersh on YouTube, that he has 6.6 million YouTube subscribers, and that the video has been viewed 855,000 times, was a serious contribution to anti-war dissent.

The Hersh interview alone and the fact that Brand is consistently reaching a large audience with his dissent – former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook argues ‘He is possibly the most influential critic of capitalism in the English language’ – means Brand is certainly going to be targeted by the state-corporate propaganda system that successfully destroyed Corbyn’s political project, and Assange’s reputation, for fundamentally the same reasons.

Indeed, as we discussed at the time, Brand had already been subjected to a Corbyn-style, media trashing a decade earlier, involving pro-war big hitters like David Aaronovitch, then of The Times, and Nick Cohen. Brand’s high-profile, 2014 book, ‘Revolution’, described as ‘anti-capitalist’, sold 22,000 copies in the first 11 days and cited the likes of Noam Chomsky and David Graeber. It was targeted because of comments of this kind:

‘Today humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.’

‘The reason the occupants of the [elite] fun bus are so draconian in their defence of the economy is that they have decided to ditch the planet.’ (Brand, ‘Revolution’, Century, 2014, ebook, p.345)

The reality is that ‘we live under a tyranny’. (p.550) The US, in particular, ‘acts like an army that enforces the business interests of the corporations it is allied to’. (p.493) Brand noted that 70 per cent of the UK press is controlled by three companies, 90 per cent of the US press by six, and ‘the richest 1 per cent of British people have as much as the poorest 55 per cent’. (p.34)

On possibilities for radical change, Brand wrote:

‘Remember, the people who tell you this can’t work, in government, on Fox News or MSNBC, or in op-eds in the Guardian or the Spectator, or wherever, are people with a vested interest in things staying the same.’ (p.514)

Anyone who has read Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’, will know that dissidents reaching a massive audience with messages of this kind will certainly be subject to intense, escalating attacks from establishment media. Brand doesn’t need to be as radical as Assange, or as politically influential as Corbyn, to qualify. Even comparatively low-profile, UK academic dissidents like Piers Robinson, Tim Hayward and David Miller have been targeted with propaganda smears intended to silence them. The fact that Brand has recently interviewed the likes of right-wing Ben Shapiro doesn’t nullify his record on left dissent. Incidentally, the title of the video of that interview is: ‘Russell Brand & Ben Shapiro “Respectfully Disagreeing”.’

Conclusion

The discrediting and silencing of influential, anti-war dissidents is an extremely serious matter. In May, the Costs of War project, based at Brown University in the United States, estimated that the total death toll in post-9/11 wars – including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – could be at least 4.5-4.7 million. The authors of the report commented:

‘A 2018 survey of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees showed that more than 60% were traumatized by war experiences, including attacks by military forces, coping with the murder or disappearance of relatives, living through torture and solitary confinement, and witnessing murders, abuse, and sexual violence. More than 6% had been raped.’

There is good reason to believe that the intensity of the 2002-2003 anti-war protests – not least the impact on Tony Blair’s political career – made it much harder for UK opposition parties and the UK government to support Obama’s planned war on Syria in 2013. Consequently, without British support, that formal, full-on US declaration of war did not happen.

This absolutely does not mean that anti-war voices should be afforded lenient treatment; it means the claims against them, and any counterclaims, must be subjected to careful scrutiny in a way that is fundamentally rational and fair.

If trial by media in a court of public opinion distorted by overwhelming propaganda is all it takes to silence leading anti-war voices seeking to restrain the rampant US-UK war machine, then that is simply not good enough.

__________________________________________

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. In 2007, Media Lens was awarded the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize. We have written three co-authored booksGuardians of Power-The Myth of the Liberal Media (Pluto Press, 2006), Newspeak-In the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009), and Propaganda Blitz (Pluto Press, 2018). Contacts: David Edwards: editor@medialens.org – David Cromwell: editor@medialens.org

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