19 January 2005 — Media Lens
Introduction – Factory Labels
The most effective way to control people is to control their assumptions about the world. The task of propaganda is to apply power-friendly labels and make them stick – it is the key to everything. The labelling factory par excellence – the machine that applies the right labels in the right way over and over again – is the mass media system.
Activists have lambasted governments, corporations, whole industries for decades, but they are swimming against a relentless tide. As has been demonstrated so clearly in Iraq, governments and businesses can do pretty much what they like just so long as the media factory is on hand to label it better: to label away the crimes, the lies, the outrage, the desperate need for change.
The media are, and always have been, the supreme obstacle to change. But you would not know it because all media corporations apply the same potent label to such a thought: ‘Unthinkable.’
Who Does John Le Carré Think He Is?
Naturally enough, high-profile reputations within the mainstream tend to attract negative media labels to the extent that an individual is honest in exposing the crimes of power. This becomes particularly striking when widely celebrated talents choose to focus their energies on political dissent. Then, suddenly, the brilliant become brilliant fools – egomaniacs whose craving for yet more attention lures them into realms of inquiry beyond their competence. Expert wordsmiths become childish scribblers. Sophisticated storytellers become gauche and witless. Even world-renowned scientists are suddenly unable to grasp the most elementary principles of scientific inquiry. The power of labelling appears to be without limit.
This labelling does not involve mere disagreement. As teachers of meditation have instructed for thousands of years, the mind is most effectively trained by constant repetition reinforced by emotion. If labelling is to be effective, it is important that embarrassment, revulsion and even disgust be generated in the public mind. This ensures that the required label is fixed both intellectually and emotionally, and recalled every time the target individual is remembered, seen or heard.
An example is the novelist David Cornwell, who writes under the pseudonym John Le Carré. For decades, Le Carré received exuberant praise for his spy novels – until he started to direct fierce criticism at US-UK foreign policy.
In reviewing Le Carré’s novel Absolute Friends, the Sunday Telegraph wrote:
“The poor fellow harangues us about globalisation, about George Bush, about Washington neo-conservatives… With small sense of the ridiculous, he gives us a popular novel which nods gravely at the names of such as Noam Chomsky… including, yes, John Pilger.
“What turned this much-loved entertainer into a cosmic prophet? What’s eating him? Who does ‘John Le Carré’ think he is?” (‘Unsmiley person – a new book shows the skilled thriller-writer slipping still further into the slough of gravitas,’ Sunday Telegraph, December 7, 2003)
The reviewer concluded: “It is sad, but scarcely tragic… The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will be read when most of today’s polemics, including those of angry old David Cornwell, are quite forgotten.”
The Sunday Times commented:
“Le Carré’s anger comes across as a bit too raw to work as fiction, its rhetoric more in line with a Harold Pinter column than a Graham Greene novel.
“I finished Absolute Friends hoping that this greatest of all spy novelists writes for decades more, not only so he can keep creating characters like Mundy and Sasha, but also so that he can gain a more incisive perspective on our troubling times.” (Stephen Amidon, ‘Dispatches from an angry old man,’ Sunday Times, December 14, 2003)
Swallowing Pinter’s Bile
Another example is the British playwright Harold Pinter, who was this month awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. Pinter is the first British winner since VS Naipaul in 2001.
Pinter has long been equally admired for his dramatic work and reviled for his political activism. Introducing his Nobel acceptance speech, playwright David Hare said:
“The theatre is what the British have always been good at. And nobody has so come to represent the theatre’s strengths, its rigours, and its glories, as Harold Pinter.” (Harold Pinter: Nobel prize speech, More4, December 10, 2005)
Reviewers speak in near-mystical terms of Pinter’s brilliance. Leading theatre critic Michael Billington observed in the Guardian:
“Although he is best known as a dramatist and screenwriter, Harold Pinter is an equally remarkable director… As an actor, Pinter also possesses weight, authority and presence… Pinter’s production of Joyce’s Exiles was a masterpiece of psychological insight and dramatic timing.” (’High-octane Harold,’ The Guardian, February 5, 2005)
Pinter’s use of sparse, menacing language in his drama is deemed the stuff of genius. But the labels applied to Pinter’s anti-war poetry are different. These poems are “ludicrous, crass, offensive, second-rate, obscure-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness”, Daniel Finkelstein declared in the Times: “The great dramatist has the right to intervene in politics, just as anyone else has. But he doesn’t have the right to be taken seriously. Pinter simply has nothing interesting to say.” (Finkelstein, ‘Warning: what you are about to read is f****** poetic,’ The Times, March 9, 2005)
Poet Don Paterson dismissed Pinter in the Guardian:
“To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how crap the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world’s greatest living playwright. Because anyone can do that.” (Chalotte Higgins, ‘Pinter’s poetry? Anyone can do it,’ The Guardian, October 30, 2004)
We at Media Lens cannot say if it is true that Pinter’s use of words is brilliant in his plays but absurd in his poems. But we are reminded of the treatment meted out to Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Journalists everywhere deferred to Roberts as one of the world’s leading epidemiologists when he estimated millions of deaths in the Congo in 2000 and 2001. But he was judged a fool guilty of schoolboy errors when estimating 100,000 civilian deaths since the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq.
Simon Heffer wrote in the Daily Mail of Pinter:
“I don’t begrudge Harold Pinter his Nobel prize. I have never seen why someone’s political views – which in Pinter’s case are verging on the barking – should disqualify them from acclaim in any field of the arts.” (Heffer, ‘David, don’t be scared of the truth,’ Daily Mail, October 15, 2005)
In The New York Times, James Traub declared that “Pinter’s politics are so extreme … they are almost impossible to parody.” (Traub, ‘Their Highbrow Hatred of Us,’ New York Times, October 30, 2005)
Traub added, “it is hard to think of anyone save Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal who would not choke on Pinter’s bile”.
The Times wrote that Pinter’s recent output has consisted “almost entirely of rabid antiwar, anti-American and expletive-filled rants against the Iraq conflict. In his anger, Pinter is as spare with logic as he once was with language”. (’… The Nobel Prize…for Literature…to Harold Pinter…Hmmm…,’ Pause For Thought, The Times, October 14, 2005)
Tony Allen-Mills lamented in the Sunday Times:
“Among this year’s Nobel laureates are several American scientists who are being rewarded for brilliant work. Yet their achievements appear destined to be overshadowed by a rant from a bolshie Brit.” (Tony Allen-Mills, ‘This Pinter guy could turn into a pain,’ Sunday Times, November 6, 2005)
The Mirror reported Pinter’s Nobel prize speech with the headline: “Pinter rant at ‘brutal’ US policy.” (Mirror, December 8, 2005)
In the Independent, Johann Hari wrote an article titled: ‘Pinter does not deserve the Nobel Prize – The only response to his Nobel rant (and does anyone doubt it will be a rant?) will be a long, long pause.’ (Hari, The Independent,
December 6, 2005)
It is significant that Hari described Pinter’s speech as a “rant” before it had even been delivered – the label exists independently of the work, indeed of the author, in question. To subject power to serious, rational challenge is by definition to “rant”. Hari commented:
“Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he has been relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day.”
This is the standard, Soviet-style assertion that critics of power are afflicted by psychological disorder, with the concocted ‘sins’ of power randomly selected as a focus for neurotic ire.
Compare and contrast the above with a comparable dismissal in the Observer by Jay Rayner. The title of the article was ‘Pinter of Discontent’. The subtitle read: ‘Hated Pinochet; loathed Thatcher; doesn’t like America; deplores Nato; is disgusted when his play doesn’t get a West End run. Good old Harold – he’s always bitching about something.’ (Rayner, ‘Pinter of discontent,’ The Observer, May 16, 1999)
Rayner referred to Pinter’s obsessive “bitching” nearly thirty times, using language like: “raging”, “sound and fury”, “growling”, “outraged”, “attacking”, “hostility”, “rowing”, “ever ready to pick a fight”, “yelling”, “barracking”, “fury” (again), “raging” (again).
Charles Spencer also pointed to the ‘sickly’ psychological roots of Pinter’s politics:
“Right through his career, he has been fascinated by the relationship between victim and oppressor, the weak and the powerful, and his spare, clenched dialogue is full of insults, piss-takes and threats. From what one hears about Pinter the man, as opposed to Pinter the playwright, he’s pretty good at menace in real life as well as on the stage.” (Spencer, ‘Happy birthday party for Harold Pinter,’ Daily Telegraph, October 14, 2005)
Spencer lamented the influence of Pinter’s “adolescent politics” on his plays.
A day later, Sam Leith also focused on Pinter’s “menace” and rage:
“There has always been the permanent scowl; the finger-jabbing rage; the off-the-peg bohemianism of the uniform black polo-neck; the sense of vanity begging to be punctured.” (Sam Leith, ‘The childish urge to tease our greatest living playwright is much too delicious to resist,’ Daily Telegraph, October 15, 2005)
One of us, David Edwards, has met Pinter several times. Below, we have provided a link to the full transcript of an interview Edwards conducted with Pinter in his London office in 1999. We invite readers to judge for themselves the truth of Pinter’s “rabid”, “barking”, “adolescent” politics. Is he someone who “simply has nothing interesting to say”? Is he “as spare with logic as he once was with language”? Consider the claims of irrational rage, of extremist bile. Notice the rationality and precision of Pinter’s political analysis. Notice the responses of one of the world’s most famous writers – regularly denounced for his aggression and intolerance – to ideas and suggestions proposed by a younger and almost completely unknown writer.
To compare the above flood of insults and smears with what follows, we believe, is a revelation. To consider the robotically consistent nature of the smears – and how we find ourselves assuming that there must be something to them – reveals much about how freedom of expression is crushed in our society.
It is a brutal fact of modern media and politics that honesty and sincerity are not rewarded, but instead heavily punished, by powerful interests with plenty at stake. It does not matter how often the likes of Pinter, Le Carré, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger are shown to be right. It does not matter how often the likes of Bush and Blair are shown to have lied in the cause of power and profits. The job of mainstream journalism is to learn nothing from the past, to treat rare individuals motivated by compassion as rare fools deserving contempt.
The benefits are clear enough: if even high-profile dissidents can be painted as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with dissent? Then ’normal’ – conforming, consuming, looking after ’number one’ – can be made to seem healthy, balanced, sensible and sane. Historian Howard Zinn made the point well:
“Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else’s version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be sceptical of someone else’s description of reality.” (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.338)
The great task of propaganda is to make dissent seem unrealistic, embarrassing, and absurd.
It is worth considering the level of honesty of even those who buck this trend to some extent. Thus Mary Riddell commented in the Observer:
“On Wednesday morning, the finest living British playwright recorded, from his wheelchair, an acceptance speech for the greatest literary prize on earth. Anyone who wished to see an allusion to the talk, played in Sweden that day, would have searched BBC schedules in vain.
“He got no mention on either of the main television news programmes. Newsnight, voracious for culture, carried nothing. Pinter’s speech would have been restricted to the satellite channel, More4, had Channel 4 not decided, at the last minute, to put out a midnight digest.” (Ridell, ‘Prophet without honour,’ The Observer, December 11, 2005)
But Riddell was careful not to give the wrong impression to media colleagues and employers standing ready with their labels. She added on Pinter:
“He was disgraceful in his misreading of Slobodan Milosevic. The Stockholm speech included the puerile satire of Pinter at his worst.”
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