Held at the mercy of the latest spin cycle

Politics and Propaganda
October 28, 2005

There is a nice, decisive ring to be had from calling something "propaganda", an accusing finger pointed firmly. But this may be illusory since crisp judgment is often accompanied by descriptive imprecision. What exactly is propaganda once we accept that it has something to do with strategic advocacy? How can we work with a category that, to take our cue from this book, might include the dodgy dossier on Iraq, the whole advertising industry, almost all corporate communications, the majority of what is said by politicians, and that possibly extends to university prospectuses and sections of a research assessment exercise return?

Trading on recent events, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy says in his preface that the idea of propaganda is "back centre stage" after a period in which "the reality disappeared", taking the word with it. But with the range of instances he indicates, who could have supposed it ever to have gone?

O'Shaughnessy offers a vigorous and student-friendly account (only partly concerned with "politics" as such) of the various dimensions of the propagandistic, ranging from the hysterical to the subtle. Though he is aware of neutral and positive applications of the term, he gives emphasis to the negative. This view is complicated by the fact that just what counts now as unethical and unacceptable, in the marketing of wars and policies as well as washing machines and university opportunities, is not at all clearcut. For instance, advertising is the most obvious instance of propaganda in many societies, yet indignation about its distortions is not a major public issue.

The structure of the book carries the notion through a series of connections with media history and with other terms of analysis and then looks at aspects and varieties, including forms of emotional appeal, exaggeration and deceit. Things are finally brought together by case studies. In one of the best sections, O'Shaughnessy presents a wide-ranging account of "the symbolic state", a situation in which government concern with publicity, in the context of intensive media attention, starts to drive rather than follow policy development. Many writers have been here before but O'Shaughnessy interconnects the issues well.

Propaganda may be going on all around us, but a big question is how much gets into journalism. Here, the author slides around. On the Iraq war, he notes that the media became "merely appendices of some vast semi-visible propaganda machine", which sounds clear enough until the next sentence notes that the Daily Mirror embarked on an anti-war "propaganda crusade". A few pages later, he notes that "radicals who deny the media their independence are exaggerating". This all leaves a key question unhelpfully open. It is surprising, too, that nowhere does O'Shaughnessy refer to the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, whose "propaganda model" of the media has received so much attention internationally. The verdict of this model, that the media are in essence tools of propaganda, is open to challenge, but it would have provided a valuable marker for the book's own arguments.

Finally, one is left thinking that an inner category of unacceptable propaganda has to be recognised if the term is to have the analytical and normative bite that O'Shaughnessy confers on it and not simply slip further into being a disapproving synonym for publicity. This would, I think, have to focus on communication in which significant and deliberate lies, rather than exaggeration, are a key strategic component. For those alert to the postmodern turn, this might sound boringly old-fashioned, but then propaganda, as O'Shaughnessy reminds us, is an old-fashioned idea.

John Corner is professor of politics and communication studies, Liverpool University.

Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction

Author - Nicholas Jackson O'Shaughnessy
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 264
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 7190 6852 5 and 6853 3

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