Embedded: Simpson could not know the publicists’ sophisticated manipulation of his reports
I have just completed work on a BBC3 documentary entitled Iraq: One Year On. My contribution to the programme is an investigation of the role of PR in promoting the Gulf war, and in controlling our perceptions of the conflict.
The ineluctable conclusion is that you and I and anyone with an ounce of humanity thinks of war in terms of death, destruction, horror and pain, but some PR companies simply regard it as a lucrative business opportunity.
In January 2003, I wrote an article about how the US administration set about persuading the American people to back the first Gulf war. I don’t think it was published, possibly for legal reasons, although it did no more than recount facts already in the public domain. Type “Nayirah Hill and Knowlton” into Google and the top link is to an article entitled “How PR sold the war in the Persian Gulf”, produced by www.prwatch.org.
To be brief, the article exposes how PRs completely fabricated a shocking story of how Iraqi soldiers had thrown babies out of incubators in Kuwait, in order to harden public and political opinion in support of a declaration of war. It also exposes how much the PRs earned from this stunt.
Twelve years on, the story is no different. While making the documentary, I spoke with seasoned war reporters including John Simpson and Anton Antonowicz, and Ali al-Bayati (head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq). John had been embedded during the war and what was both striking and appalling was his relative ignorance (through no fault of his own) of the publicists’ sophisticated manipulation of his reports, and how he was an unwitting participant in that strategic process of misrepresentation.
From Ali, I learned how business is no respecter of global political alliances: US publicists had schooled Saddam in PR techniques, in return for oil. Not only did he learn the power of PR in facilitating repression, but the ethos of making money from information had rubbed off, although at a rather more basic level. Admission to Iraqi press conferences in Baghdad could only be procured with hard cash (US$250 a shot, according to Anton Antonowicz, collected by an underling whose lack of fingernails was a daily, mute reminder of the regime’s routine use of torture).
It was usually $250 badly spent. The pronouncements of the Iraqi information minister – best known as Comical Ali, but in fact a butcher and thug of the worst order – had the stamp of someone who had grasped the basics of a training in disinformation, but had thrown credibility to the wind in the interests of self-preservation.
What emerged from my discussions with those who had frontline experience of the conflict was that global PR companies were as culpable for the conduct of this war as the politicians who employed them.
Meanwhile, the PRs – always in the shadows – have slipped away to fight another campaign. Who cares which industry, or which side?
It’s just business. When consumers object to a multinational’s labour practices, they can boycott product. It’s not so easy to boycott information, because there’s no over-the-counter transaction. Assessing its source and veracity is all but impossible.
Often, the information that is most credible is the information that has been most carefully manufactured. Thousands have now paid for that process of manufacture with their lives. It is not over-dramatic to say that this sector of the PR industry has blood on its hands.
We have a register of MPs’ interests. Now is the time to press for full disclosure of the identities of the publicists and lobbyists that governments and political parties employ, and the business interests they also represent.
Ed Bernays, regarded by many as the founding father of PR, once said: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power.”
Bernays was Jewish. The techniques and approach he advocated were much admired and then adopted by Goebbels. But hey, that’s business.
· Iraq: One Year On will be broadcast on BBC3 at 9pm on Thursday March 18.