When the truth lies

Perhaps the most interesting and least discussed aspect of the EU referendum result is that it was a total failure of government public relations or propaganda. Those who voted to leave did not just express a contrary view: they rejected in its entirety one of the most expensive, powerful and sustained government PR campaigns ever mounted in a democracy.

That those in authority should fail so completely to influence the mind of the electorate is a unique event in the period since World War II and merits much closer scrutiny than it has so far received.

During the war, the British government built and developed the most powerful propaganda machine the world had ever seen in its Ministry Of Information. Though it is usually Josef Goebbels’ name that is spoken of as synonymous with propaganda, his Reich Ministry was smaller, less effective and amateurish by comparison with his British counterpart.

Goebbels had only some 2,000 staff, compared with more than 9,000 in Britain and he constantly berated his management team to emulate the propaganda success of his British counterparts. At one staff meeting in Berlin he circulated British pamphlets on the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic, telling his subordinates they were , ‘Model examples of magnificent propaganda. We unfortunately have nothing which begins to compare with them in this field. We can learn from these two booklets how to achieve great effect by making a parade of apparent objectivity. The booklet on the Battle of the Atlantic does so much justice to the German point of view that you get the impression of it having been written by a Swedish professor who is on the side of neither England nor Germany but only of truth.’

One of the early discoveries of Britain’s new Ministry was that facts alone were not enough to sway people. Posters like “Keep Calm and Carry On” were derided at the time, not because they lacked a factual basis but because they failed to engage people’s emotions – they were aimed at the head, not the heart. This was quickly remedied and in less than a year the Ministry had become expert at employing facts in a way that won the attention of the whole nation.

The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda – using facts in a clever and compelling way to make the government’s point of view seem like an obvious truth – was appreciated by an unscrupulous and devious mind like Goebbels’ but by few others. On the Allied side, only George Orwell – who had himself been part of the Ministry’s machine for two years before resigning – saw things clearly, confiding to his diary that “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.”

This awesomely powerful PR machine was secretly hijacked by the Attlee Labour government in 1945 and directed at the British public for the next six years (details of this abuse by Whitehall are disclosed in my book The Ministry of Spin). The spin machinery was inherited by the Conservatives in 1951 and in 1956 was used to foment war with Egypt over Suez, with disastrous results. Once embedded in the British political system, the spin machine became a normal tool of politics and was used half a century later by the Blair government to promote the illegal war against Iraq.

Political dissent remained a feature of British life, but Whitehall’s PR machine continued to trump all opposition. it’s hard to think of a major PR battle that the government did not win, not merely because it owned the megaphone but also by the cleverness of its army of PRs in crafting arguments, slogans and one-line arguments. Perhaps the fiercest opposition faced by successive governments was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which garnered wide support from millions of people. Yet CND was powerless even to dent the government’s PR machine, let alone affect its nuclear policy.

More recently, the most sustained public opposition to government policy was over the Blair government’s determination to invade Iraq, yet even the march of a million people on London was inadequate to overcome the dodgy dossier of Blair, his director of communications Alistair Campbell, and SIS Director John Scarlett who provided the phony intelligence required by No 10.

Given this astonishing record of success in influencing the minds of millions of citizens, it is all the more remarkable that a majority of those voting against membership of the EU should defy Whitehall over its most sacred of sacred cows, especially as the Cameron government contrived to spend some £27 million on its campaign – £18 million more than the legally allowed limit of £9 million and more than has ever been spent by a British government before.

Words like rebellion and peasants revolt have been used frequently since the referendum but most commentators are not at all clear just what the peasants are revolting against. There is, though, an important clue in another accusation frequently levelled against Leavers, that of ignoring the views of the experts. Even government ministers like Michael Gove expressed frustration with the experts.

This frustration has been depicted by their opponents as a form of intellectual Luddism – the emotional response of the ignorant and the uneducated to advice from those who know the real facts.

Yet what the vote for Brexit has really exposed is that the term expert and even the concept of scientific knowledge have become ambiguous and blurred around the edges and it is this, rather than medieval ignorance that underlies the rebellion.

The peasants are revolting not only against the EU, not only against the government, but against being misled by intellectual authority.

This process has been gathering momentum for many decades and can now be clearly discerned not just in government policies but in the management theories and the science that underpins those policies.

Some examples are obvious enough. For the Brexit referendum, almost every economist who could walk unaided and hold a pen was drafted in to wag an admonishing finger at the common man and to predict financial Armageddon – an apocalypse that has not materialized and from which the experts – including The Bank of England, The International Monetary Fund, and the Treasury, have now shamefacedly backtracked.

In this case, expertise was marshalled not to give objective, factual, scientific support to a case, but to form an advocacy group to propagandize a single view. It was not aimed at people’s minds but at their hearts, just as in wartime propaganda.

This kind of expert misleading has been going on in almost all departments of government for six decades, but it has been amplified and made more dangerous by Government PR based on “expert research findings”.

A 2005 article in New Scientist says baldly that “Most scientific papers are probably wrong.” According to epidemiologist, John Ioannidis, “small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems combine to make most research findings false. But even large, well-designed studies are not always right, meaning that scientists and the public have to be wary of reported findings.”

Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet – one of the most respected peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, says that a lot of published research is unreliable at best, if not completely false. “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”

Dr. Marcia Angell, Editor in Chief of the New England Medical Journal, another of the most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, agrees. “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine

According to a report in the journal Nature, published retractions in scientific journals have increased around 1,200% over the past decade, even though the number of published papers had gone up by only 44%. Around half of these retractions are suspected cases of misconduct – that is, scientific fraud.

In some cases, the motive for such fraud is money, thanks to the lobbying of big business. A researcher at the University of San Francisco, recently discovered that scientists at the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), known today as the Sugar Association, paid scientists to do a 1967 literature review that overlooked the role of sugar in heart disease and blamed fat instead.

SRF set an objective for the review, funded it and reviewed drafts before it was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which did not require conflict of interest disclosure until 1984. The three Harvard scientists who wrote the review made what would be $50,000 in today’s dollars from the review. This incorrect indictment of fat influenced medical advice for decades.

This example may be from decades past but the cushy relationship between food companies and researcher is alive and well according to recent investigations by the Associated Press and New York Times. The AP revealed in June that candy trade groups were funding research into sweets. And in 2015, the New York Times showed how Coca-Cola has funded millions in research to downplay the link between sugary beverages and obesity.

Something else has happened in recent decades to expose these failures of experts – the internet. The availability of information on tap has enabled ordinary people to gain enough information to make up their own mind about the reliability of experts and studies such as those described above. The government’s PR machine is no longer the only voice of authority – indeed the very concept of authority is fast vanishing .

In the EU referendum, the Cameron government was in effect saying: Trust us, we know what we’re doing. The voters replied, “We don’t trust you.” And they then added, “and we don’t trust your experts either.”

The working class may not have degrees in economics but they do have long memories.



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One Reply to “When the truth lies”

  1. Caroline Macafee says:

    Excellent analysis. Richard opens up a big subject here.
    Seems that the successful propagandists of the past were careful not to blatantly contradict reality or commonsense. Somebody else pointed out (maybe Mark Steyn) that the man in the street is perfectly able to interpret the ‘honest signals’ of the economy – whether it’s a buyers’ or a sellers’ market for labour, whether there are shortages of housing, doctors, etc. I guess if there was a defining moment when the establishment jumped the shark it was after 9/11 when we were told from all directions that Islam was a religion of peace.

    Another reason we no longer trust ‘experts’ is that they’re no longer professionals guided by their own codes, policed by their own professional associations, and applying their professional competence with a large amount of individual discretion. They’re proletarianised employees, micro-managed by non-professionals, constrained by policies written by non-professionals, and ultimately answerable to accountants, not to their own judgement.

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