The eerie, blurred video images of the hostage Kenneth Bigley, pleading for his life with the odds so stacked against him, are working hard demoralising us in every living room in the land. The poor man may well suspect that he’s an unwitting pawn in someone else’s publicity stunt, but he probably won’t see the irony that these black arts of press manipulation originated in the USA.
Forget bombs and missiles and warplanes; think communications. The biggest noise coming from Iraq is in the world’s press, on satellite TV and on the internet, where the war is going extremely badly as far as the coalition is concerned and Tony Blair, to his credit, had the wit to acknowledge. Each day a higher proportion of American citizens wish their involvement to end. It may not be enough to land Kerry in the White House, but it’ll make life increasingly uncomfortable for the Republican hawks.
It was the father of modern Public Relations, the American publicist and academic Edward Bernays, who wrote the book ‘Crystallising Public Opinion’ in the 1920s. This gave a detailed analysis of how an apparently civilised society can be manipulated into thoroughly unlikely behaviour by being stood a cocktail of repetition, propaganda and fear. Josef Goebbals, Hitler’s No.1 Public Relations man, was a big fan of Bernays and publicly acknowledged his debt to the Jew who taught him his trade.
And so to decapitation. The sheer barbarity of the threat facing Mr Bigley is a classic piece of ‘impropaganda’. A cost-effective, memorable (if disgusting) and sure-fire way to gain poll position on every news organisation’s agenda, this is another expertly targeted application.
Let’s not forget we exported the know-how. All that Anglo-American investment of money and man-hours in Dubai, and Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait, and pre-Revolutionary Iran, and, of course, Iraq itself, has had the side-effect that the West’s methods of mass marketing and political promotion have become wholly familiar to the Middle Eastern mind inside two generations. For every Red Adair working in the region since the 1950s there was a PR or a marketing whizkid in the next-door office. For every pipeline expert or geologist there was a broadcast engineer or a TV cameraman passing on expertise too. Look at Comical Ali, the former head of Saddam Hussein’s PR machine. Where on earth did he learn to spin like that except from Washington? Extraordinary. What a waste of talent, backing so evil a ‘client’.
The bitterness of an exploited people, and the alienation of Islam as a whole in Western society culminated in the ultimate publicity stunt – daring, spectacular, terrifyingly unforgettable and brilliantly executed in New York on September 11th 2001. Never forget that the gap between the two planes hitting their respective towers at the World Trade Centre was carefully scheduled to 15 minutes, to give all the news crews, reporters and photographers time to assemble, thinking they were only covering the first ‘accident’. It actually took nearly 17 minutes, because although they were professional terrorists, they were still only amateur pilots.
By the time you read this Ken Bigley may be gone, but the grim fact of his ordeal will live on in our minds for many years to come. Which is precisely the point.