Did listeners find their views about the big four Australian banks “slowly shifting” over the past year? The views of John Laws, the immensely influential “shock jock” star of commercial radio’s 2UE certainly shifted. He changed from being stridently anti-bank, mirroring the resentment of his blue collar constituency — to urging “let’s be fair” approval.
What changed his mind? Big bucks, about a million of them, kindly contributed by the banks.
This is behind-the-scenes public relations (PR) in action. It failed this time, because it was exposed. But the most striking thing is: Laws finds nothing wrong with what he did. To him it’s perfectly normal. What should ring bells for us is that he’s probably right — bribery gives access to the airwaves.
Laws is certainly not alone. On 23 December, DJ Bruce “Freeway” Mansfield was sacked by radio station 3AW. Favourable on-air comments have allegedly earned him, among many other goodies, a free trip to England. The flurry of scrutiny generated by the “Cash for Comments” enquiry made Mansfield dispensable to station management. But being bought off is clearly part of commercial radio culture: Mansfield insists there is nothing unusual about taking lavish gifts in return for on-air interviews.
Media Watch, the non-commercial ABC program, exposed Laws and some of his companions in corruption who have fallen with him. But most of these scams aren’t exposed. Why would they be? They are the creation of a highly sophisticated industry, the PR industry.
Global “perception managers.” The New Internationalist devotes its July 1999 issue to the history, growth and impact of the corporate PR industry. PR firms work for anyone who can pay. Burson-Marsteller, one of the biggest, calls itself a global perception management firm. It has worked for Philip Morris promoting smokers’ rights. The Argentinean Junta hired Burson-Marsteller to improve its image in the wake of revelations about widespread torture and murder. The fascist Wise Use Movement employed Burson-Marsteller to convince consumers of the danger of environmental regulation!
Ogilvy PR Worldwide helped the Nestlé Corporation to sanitise its image after the scandal of infant deaths, resulting from flogging baby formula in Africa. Hill and Knowlton represented the Turkish and Indonesian governments and the “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” in their push for imperialist intervention in the Gulf. They also managed the deadly Three Mile Island crisis in the United States.
An industry executive quoted in New Internationalist explains: “Persuasion, by its definition, is subtle. The best PR ends up looking like news. You never know when a PR agency is being effective, you’ll just find your views slowly shifting.”
Scientists for sale. Remember all those scientists who assured us that there was no link between lung cancer and smoking? They’re the same breed as the current crop whose research “proves” that clear felling of old growth forest is environmentally sustainable, working women are miserable, people of colour are less intelligent or that child care is bad for children. It’s a different story when the actual studies are sourced. A commonly quoted study “proving” infants in child care suffer emotional distress wasn’t even conducted on human subjects. The “infants” used were baby monkeys, and the “child care workers” weren’t even adult monkeys but wire-mesh dummies!
The scientists in the pay of the PR industry now seek to assure us that global warming is a leftwing myth. When the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who was in charge of relief operations after Hurricane Mitch, described the hurricane as “a classic greenhouse effect,” he was attacked by Patrick Michaels, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Virginia. Sounds like a pretty impressive authority? Not when you realise that Michaels is paid by the fuel companies. But the nationwide media which ran his anti-greenhouse denial, either didn’t know or didn’t care.
The colluding media. The huge concentration of media ownership into fewer and fewer hands makes it charmingly accessible to the PR firms. The media is business-friendly to start with, and PR firms have plenty of money to spend.
John Stauber, author of Toxic Sludge is Good For You, speaking on the ABC, explained how the PR industry invests its abundant cash. They supply journalists with ready made “news” stories in the right format and by the deadline. We, the readers and listeners, are not aware of the tainted source of the apparently objective information which is “slowly shifting” our views.
The cosmetic surgery industry in the U.S. used this method to drum up business by convincing women that their bodies were inadequate and cosmetic surgery safe. A PR firm pumped out a flood of scientific sounding news releases accompanied by pre and post operative photos and quotes from women whose lives had been magically transformed. “Body sculpture” was promoted as safe, effective and affordable. In her classic work, Backlash, Susan Faludi explains how the campaign even promoted cosmetic surgery as vital to mental health: “There is a body of medical information that these deformities [small breasts] are really a disease…Left uncorrected, flat chestedness causes a total lack of well being.” The campaign worked. In five years, the industry more than doubled demand. The industry then began to quote from the “news stories” it had manufactured to back claims made in advertising.
Newspeak or what can be wrong with more freedom? Renaming capitalism “Free Enterprise” is the classic piece of newspeak.
The British Government, no doubt on the advice of their PR firm, was quick to use the newspeak technique to sell their Self Governing Schools program. Kennett’s Schools of the Future was a direct lift. The official sales pitch was “choice means freedom, and freedom is good.”
But the Australian Education Union (AEU News, 21 October 1999) quotes the architect of the program, ex-Minister for Education Lord Baker, who explained that the underlying objective of Self Governing Schools was “to punish the teacher unions, kill off the local education authorities and wipe out comprehensive schools.”
And when all else fails… When high-paid PR firms, or media simply changing words into their opposite, still can’t fix a PR glitch, corporations turn to the law. Mad Cow disease might get a bit less of an airing on the Oprah Winfrey show since the Texan beef barons sued her for a few million dollars. The high-profile lawsuits are designed to ensure that others get the message, too.
Capitalist corporations don’t spend billions of dollars on PR companies and lawsuits for the fun of it. They see both a need and a danger. Why do U.S. firms spend a billion dollars a year on anti-environmental “greenwashing” PR? Because they have to counter an increasingly effective environmental movement.
As Stuart Ewen, historian and expert on PR says, “Corporate PR has been reactive to situations when public hostility forced them to filter their practices to present themselves as operating in the public good.” In the 1930s and ’60s — both periods of intense social questioning — PR activity mushroomed. Or, as Dick Morris in The New Prince puts it, the mind benders were forced to try to “translate the public’s grief into the system’s interests.”
As capitalism becomes more chaotic, more desperate, more brutal and the “public grief” more intense, it becomes harder for the system to present itself as “operating in the public good.” People’s own lives tell us that the propaganda we’re fed is just that. We look for, and we create the sources of, information and the political analyses we need to make sense of our felt reality.
Resisting the masters’ mind games. The growing body of research exposing the media mythmaking provides rich nourishment for the mind. The wealth of Left and grassroots community publications are a tribute to the determination of ordinary people to resist the mind games of the masters. These alternatives are produced by dedicated work and consistent fundraising. The billions of dollars capitalists have available for their PR machine is not available to workers. But our publications are real expressions of real ideas, and a lively alternative to the venal commercial media.
Readers locally contributed a magnificent $3,300 towards an international fund which raised $30,800 to increase the frequency of the Freedom Socialist newspaper. This generosity demonstrates the value ordinary folk put on the alternative press. Of course, Mr Packer and his ilk did not contribute.
And who will ever forget that night of nights: September 18, 1999, when the PR man himself, Jeff Kennett, discovered that the people of Victoria had seen through him and booted him out. It was one of those golden moments to remind us that corporate PR is not all powerful.
The message is clear. Every source of commercially uncontaminated news and news analysis is a treasure to be defended at all costs. We need the ABC and community radio stations like 3CR. Alternative programs like SKA TV, Access News and Bent TV on Channel 31 bring fresh views to the screen. E-mail lists such as LeftLink and the national feminist list Ausfem Polnet, are a vital alternative grassroots news source. The Freedom Socialist and the Freedom Socialist Bulletin are the proud feminist wing of the dynamic array of local and international publications advocating socialist solutions. We won’t be conned, and we are not helpless in the face of the PR industry. We can, and must, raise our strong, clear optimistic socialist feminist voices.