Today, anyone who wants to get a clear picture of current political events is often annoyed by one-sided reporting. Emotionalising news, the cultivation of enemy stereotypes, or omissions are found more and more frequently. It is becoming increasingly demanding to obtain precise information. Looking back to the past can help to take a more sober view of the situation today. The abolition of censorship is an important achievement of our modern democracy.
rl. The hallmark of a democracy and one of its foundations is the freedom of expression. It belongs to the non-negotiable human rights. Everyone is free to express his or her opinion and put it up for discussion. Only through an open exchange of different opinions, ideas, proposed solutions or views does a selection of possibilities emerge that provide the basis for forming one’s own point of view. Those who wish to have a say and participate in decision-making are encouraged to think through different approaches and examine them for themselves in order to be able to make a political decision if necessary. This is why media “battues” are profoundly undemocratic because, instead of strengthening pluralism of opinion, they attack the very foundations of democracy by presuming to determine what is “right” and “wrong”.
Freedom of the press, based on freedom of expression, is one of the foundations of democracy. Political elites have repeatedly tried to suppress dissent in order to maintain their power. State officials censored the press and thus selected the reading material for the population. Today’s attempts to influence the Internet seem similar. But what attempts are made today to influence the citizens? A brief review of how ruling elites and the media work together can be revealing.
Since many archives are now open, it is easier to understand the historical attempts of the elites to exert influence by means of the media. One can, for example, observe that from 1917 onwards US citizens were deliberately “lied into” the First World War (cf. Elter, Andreas.”Die Kriegsverkäufer – Hustlers of war”). It was at the same time the beginning of modern “propaganda”, today trivially referred to as Public Relations PR. Psychological techniques were increasingly used for mass manipulation (cf. Bernays, Edward “Propaganda. Die Kunst der Public Relations – Propaganda. The art of public relations”).
The propaganda machinery of the German National Socialists adopted many of these techniques from the USA, systematically expanded them and drove the German population into World War II. After the Second World War and during the Cold War, similar manipulation techniques were used to convince citizens of the need for a certain military and political course of action.
Today we still view the role of the media in the war in Yugoslavia (1991-1995) from a relatively short historical distance. Public awareness of this war still lies in the media fog of the 1990s. The “Serbs” and “Milosevic” are still considered as “the guilty”. Jörg Becker and Mira Beham have investigated how this war was initiated through paid PR agencies and how it was specifically influenced by the media (see “Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod - Operation Balkan: Promotion of War and Death”).
In 1999, the “information” of Nato spokesman Jamie Shea on the Kosovo war was taken over completely unfiltered in our media. Every day he promoted this war, although it was contrary to international law, in a sensational way on public TV. This war was to be sold to the citizens as a human commitment. Here, too, the media use at the time still clouds today’s view of the actual events. But there were also critical contributions, such as the WDR programme “Es begann mit einer Lüge” (It began with a lie) (2001).
Later wars – also contrary to international law – against Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011) were so one-sidedly presented to Western European media consumers that more and more people used the Internet as an additional information channel. It must be assumed that we are still being misinformed about war and peace today.
It is only consistent that as media consumers, we are not only misinformed in connection with wars. The targeted use of media also plays an important role in decisive votes or before political decisions. How is the matter reported? How are contents reproduced in order to exert influence? Which contents are omitted?
PR in Switzerland
Even in Switzerland, PR firms work for domestic and foreign clients (corporations, associations, states, political parties, individuals, etc.). The influence of PR agencies on the media plays a not inconsiderable role here (see Barben, Judith. “Spin doctors im Bundeshaus – spin doctors in the houses of parliament”). Just think of the politicians’ arguments before votes and how they are either adopted unquestioningly or deliberately cast in a negative light. Another instrument of mass manipulation is the addressing or not addressing of certain topics. The so-called “agenda setting” over several years or the coordinated use of certain topics, moods and small snippets of information to achieve a goal are part of everyday media life. Attention is focused on certain topics – and thus also distracted from others. This becomes particularly clear in the area of Swiss foreign policy (e.g. UN, EU, neutrality or migration policy), but also domestically, e.g. in education or agricultural policy.
Further techniques of manipulation are the selective selection of statements from public personalities or the conscious linking of content with positive or negative associations. Further keywords of manipulative influence are “shaping the public opinion”, “spin” or “cajoling and nudging”. Media increasingly use the style of breathless “necessary enlightenment” or “deep indignation”, which then allows the use of means that often exceed the limits of decency. Fear and prejudices are addressed.
Recently, the increasing use of manipulative means to present and stigmatise certain (political) opinions as “bad” per se has attracted attention. People who publicly express an opinion that differs from the media mainstream risk being hushed up, ridiculed, or even ruined. A genuinely objective debate is consistently avoided. We can often observe a close interaction between leading media and publicly financed media houses. Unsubstantiated accusations are circulated and dissenting voices are omitted. A press campaign against individual personalities is “orchestrated” by apparently random publications. The interest of a broad public is faked by means of coordinated meetings and so-called “expert” interviews. But the “experts”, the interviewers and the authors - all too often from friendly media houses - are of the same opinion anyhow.
A few months ago, for example, the researcher and author Daniele Ganser was conspiciously badmouthed in certain Sunday newspapers. The various articles were based on a publication by a “media entrepreneur” rooted in the mainstream, who also receives public money. He tried to discredit Ganser without any serious discussion of his work or person. In parallel, the accusations were picked up on the radio. A media event without a content-related discussion, but with many accusations, was produced and distributed everywhere. The obvious goal of the media action was to damage Ganser’s reputation. What concerns are there about Daniele Ganser? In lectures and publications, Ganser repeatedly points out that wars are illegal and shows up possible backgrounds (see Ganser, Daniele: “Illegale Kriege - Illegal Wars”). His astute and logical reasoning as well as his marked popularity and success, especially with the younger generation, seem to have crossed a secret red line. In addition, Ganser took the liberty of sticking to his argumentation and demanding fairness from the moderator on public TV.
Such “witch hunts” aim at silencing someone and warning possible imitators. They often end in the destruction of professional and private existences. Anyone who dares to stand outside the given spectrum of opinion must reckon with a media “shitstorm”.
The past few years have shown that US elites also exert a direct influence on politics in Europe via the media. In 2014, the satirical programme “Die Anstalt – the institute”, of all programmes, presented studies by media scientist Uwe Krüger to a larger audience. Krüger meticulously analyses a transatlantic network in which leading European publishers and journalists (Spiegel, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, Die Zeit, etc.) disseminate guidelines from the US without any criticism (see Krüger, Uwe. “Mainstream. Warum wir den Medien nicht mehr trauen. (Mainstream. Why we no longer trust the media). Id. “Meinungsmacht” (Power of opinion). How Switzerland is linked with this can also be read at www.swprs.org.
In the meantime, cooperation between elites and the media at the international level through various organisations such as the Bilderberger can be demonstrated (e.g. Engdahl, F. William, “Die Denkfabriken – The Think Tanks”). Here it becomes clear that influences are not accidental. It becomes obvious that the news is coordinated differently for individual regions or states.
The Western media’s coverage of Russia since the Maidan coup in Kiev in the spring of 2014 has been even more one-sided than usual. This one-sided “coverage” has even been criticised by renowned journalists from public broadcasters (Bräutigam, 2014). It became obvious that the Western European mainstream media blindly followed the then current US policy towards Russia. An enemy stereotype of Russia was to be rebuilt (cf. Hofbauer, Hannes “Feindbild Russland” (bogeyman Russia).
Looking into the recent past we find ourselves, so to speak, in the middle of a media revelation. Since the US elite bloc around Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential elections in November 2016, there has been an open battle for power raging among the elites, which has spread as far as Europe. The established “mainstream media” (“Washington Post”, “New York Times”, CNN, ABC etc.) did not succeed in helping their candidate to secure victory in the election campaign. Now all means are apparently permitted to get rid of the democratically elected president Donald Trump – in no matter which way. In their frustration, the mainstream media are now themselves putting on the agenda the issue of “manipulation” in the media. Of course they are thinking of the manipulations of the other side, and less of their own actions - an interesting reversal. Mainstream media are currently experiencing a radical loss of credibility, which we also feel in Europe. One factor is certainly the influence of the internet with its still existing possibilities to get information outside the mainstream.
Now we can assume that many current events do not take place in the way they are presented to us in the media, and that our actions and attitudes are not influenced by chance. Today, there is no longer any open censorship to suppress the contradictions between democratic claims and actual governance. An ingenious influence via the mainstream media is intended to create moods and attitudes. Those who do not adapt are to remain silent. Anyone who expresses a different opinion is silenced.
A critical distance and the knowledge of past lies and distortions show that a cautious judgement of the current situation would seem to make sense. “Perhaps the events have taken place in a completely different way than how they are presented to me” and “Why are these reports being spread now and in this way” are questions that arise. Nowadays many alternative information channels are available.
Invasions and wars almost always start with a lie. So why not first check the facts thoroughly and calmly and carry out a “fact check”? •
Barben, Judith. Spindoctors im Bundeshaus. Gefährdung der direkten Demokratie durch Manipulation und Propaganda (Spindoctors in the “Bundeshaus”. Endangerment of direct democracy through manipulation and propaganda, Baden 2009
Becker, Jörg/Beham, Mira. Operation Balkan: Werbung für Krieg und Tod (Operation Balkan: Advertising for War and Death), 2008
Becker, Jörg. Krieg an der Propagandafront: Wie PR-Agenturen und Medien die Öffentlichkeit entmündigen (War on the propaganda front: How PR agencies and the media deprive the public of the right of decision). In Mies, Ullrich/Wernicke, Jens. Fassadendemokratie und Tiefer Staat. Auf dem Weg in ein autoritäres Zeitalter (Facade Democracy and Deep State. On the Way to an Authoritarian Age), 2017
id. Wie die Public-Relations-Industrie mitregiert (How the public relations industry participates in government). In: Wernicke, Jens. Lügen die Medien? Propaganda, Rudeljournalismus und der Kampf um die öffentliche Meinung (Are the Media Lying? Propaganda, Pack Journalism and the Fight for Public Opinion), 2017
Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Die Kunst der Public Relations (Propaganda. The Art of Public Relations), Berlin 2013 (First Edition USA 1928)
Bräutigam, Volker. Open letter. In: Neue Rheinische Zeitung. www.nrhz.de/flyer/beitrag.php?id=20289&css=print from 27.4.2014 (downloaded 14 September 2018)
Elter, Andreas. Die Kriegsverkäufer. Geschichte der US-Propaganda 1917–2005 (The War Vendors. History of US Propaganda 1917-2005), Frankfurt 2005
Engdahl, F. William. Die Denkfabriken (The Think Tanks), Rottenburg 2015
Ganser, Daniele. Illegale Kriege. Wie die Nato-Länder die Uno sabotieren. Eine Chronik von Kuba bis Syrien (Illegal wars. How the NATO countries sabotage the UN. A chronicle from Cuba to Syria), Zurich 2016
Hofbauer, Hannes. Feindbild Russland: Geschichte einer Dämonisierung (Bogeyman Russia: A History of Demonisation), Vienna 2016
Krüger, Uwe. Mainstream. Warum wir den Medien nicht mehr trauen (Mainstream. Why we no Longer Trust the Media), Munich 2016
id. Meinungsmacht. Der Einfluss von Eliten auf Leitmedien und Alpha-Journalisten – eine kritische Netzwerkanalyse (Power of opinion. The influence of elites on leading media and alpha journalists – a critical network analysis), Cologne 2013
rl. There have always been and still are newspapers with their own point of view or journalists who portray reality and do not allow themselves to be bought. They often play a decisive role in uncovering and remedying shortcomings. They initiate discussions or make people think. Whereas in the past it was the Swiss newspaper ”Neue Zürcher Zeitung” with editorials by Willy Bretscher or the Swiss Nebelspalter with caricatures of Bö, there is now also a large number of media and courageous journalists in Switzerland who do not join the mainstream undisputed. It is not always only internationally reputed journalists such as Seymour Hersh or Robert Fisk who, with their investigations, burst some fixed images like soap bubbles at reality.
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