mis Information

John Bryson reflects on issues of information and misinformation;
censorship; and self-censorship truths and half-truths.

IN AN EARLIER CAREER, in commerce, I was recruited to attend a very private seminar on public relations. So private was it that no visitor unknown to the organisors was allowed. The seminar was the forum for a single public relations firm, an educational and showcase performance, educational so to explain what was possible in the field, and showcase so to display the firm’s own wares.

Censorship and self-censorship figure in the title we are speaking to here, which makes me too nervous to come clean with the firm’s name: but it was far and away the most expert in the business, as I was to find out then, and maybe it is still. A usual principle for people in promotion is to publicly promote themselves, but this firm evidently took the contrary view; in ten years I have seen its name in newspapers only three or four times.

We spent some time on the art of political lobbying, no surprise to the audience, since the number of discarded politicians who turned their friendships into money were known to be very many.

But then happened the most brazen and astonishing event. Our instructor held aloft the morning’s newspaper and identified those news reports, news reports and articles both, which were placed there by commercial, or professional, interests. I remember he identified a dairying group which was the force behind one of these articles, used not to extol its butterfat products, but with fresh statistics about the impurities to be found in the competitor, margarine. Some Queensland chiropractors were spending wise money on page three, in these days before the practice was recognized for health insurance, and here was the report of a speech by a Gold Coast doctor who much preferred chiropractic remedies to physiotherapy.

As he went through those news sheets, identifying clients (but they may not all have been his), it came clear that computer manufactures were gearing up for an expansion into the schools market, motor parts makers were a force behind a cry for more frequent roadworthy inspection of old cars, and here was a fillip for fine arts traders if forecasts of an imminent boom were to be believed.

The shock I came away with, so far as I can accurately locate it, was not so much the influence of clandestine interests – I guess we condone the idea of tactics like those by the use of such terms as “a pluralistic society” and “enlightened self-interest” – and yes, the extent of it all was a surprise, but the skillfulness and the ease of the methodology seemed to me stunning, for these were not examples of reporters being naïve, misled, hoodwinked: here we had news reports written by journalists, a small number, sure, who were on the secret payroll of public relations firms, and others at various levels of editorial responsibility, whose task was not to fabricate, but to give these reports space, interest, the best of timing and prominence.

All this was several years ago now, so I hope I am simply behind the times, and our presses and airwaves are free, honest and open. We have indications that this may be so, or at any rate better. Journalists themselves (or ourselves) see some ethical, some moral, improvement in (for example) interviewing practices, and some of this is credited to a broadening, over race and gender, of recruitment. I know reporters who believe the old foot-in-the-door journalism of the 1950s and 1960s is no longer so acceptable within the profession because there are now more women in reporting, in editing and production, and that sort of reporting was born of a bravado, a cynicism, a pride even, mostly admired by men.

And we see the broadcaster SBS which has moved further and faster than anyone – draw journalists and presenters who commercial TV would think “culturally afar”. The ABC shows movement here too, let’s not leave it out.

I’d be in a better frame of mind , better able to believe that news management, and the manipulation of truth, of belief, is mostly the province of commercial combat, of the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers – and so believe that public education has some hope of stemming it – if it were not for the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama and a CIA trial going on in Miami right now.

War makes its own rules, or dispenses with all rules, and it’s silly to become obsessive abut that, but it must have occurred to every journalist that reporting from the Gulf would not be an exercise in journalism; very little else would be possible than the laying of a conduit for a very tightly controlled point of view. We all know that, but it doesn’t lessen the shock of watching – in Houston, in my own case – the shock of watching mothers pushing strollers in which the babies are dressed in fatigue colours and clutch Desert Storm dolls.

After the Panama invasion an Armed Forces information service made its confession that the captured General Noriega was not wearing underclothes in voodoo colours, did not keep effigies of his officers handy in case they were in need of discipline, or collect hanks of their hair for magical control, but these stories were put about as part of the campaign to unsettle his support. They are now properly retracted. But the news service holds to its reports that the bombing of his headquarters could be described as pinpoint, and I can’t tell you with what despair, then, one drives through the acres upon acres of that bombed-flat working-class neighbourhood.

The CIA trial in Miami I can treat with more humour. We all know the sort of thing to expect, and allegations that the Agency was trading cocaine through central America aren’t new. What was new to me was discovering that the host who put me up in his Miami house last month was in fear of a subpoena to the current trial, although this somehow didn’t conflict with his sudden print fever, he was ready to write his book, or have someone ghost it for him, he was a onetime ‘operative’ with Southern Air when it was the CIA airline, and he much admired the stealthy ploy by which the Agency stage-managed a public enquiry into the ownership of Southern Air immediately after selling it, and so proved to the nation that the allegations were false. Somehow, somehow it followed through the press that the CIA had never owned the airline.

Now, this manner of news management raises in us the need for an unwelcome discipline, the need to say of many of the world’s happenings: I have no information about this topic. I find this is particularly difficult when the presses and the airwaves are full if it.

The way misinformation disables public judgement of events is plain enough, as is its corollary: news management disables democracy. So we’re justified in being troubled by it, spending time on it. Journalists can do, are doing, something to improve this, but they are miserably lonely, and anyway the responsibility is not solely theirs. We might expect misinformation to continue, maybe escalate, in commerce, industry, politics, until the refusal to participate is total, which calls for a profound modification of the contemporary culture.