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THE CONTROL OF INFORMATION FLOW...

THE CONTROL OF INFORMATION FLOW STATE vs. GOVERNMENT

Sarp Tuncay


Department of Sociology, City University, London

April, 2008

The Essay is submitted in fulfillment of the requirements

For SGM 004 Political Communication

Abstract

This essay focuses on the control of the information flow and tries to find out points in which communication turns into propaganda by using mostly the politics in UK, giving examples to see how PR (Public Relations) has taken an immensely significant role in shaping the mass opinion together with media and media management tools. In the first part, the essay explores the state and the government definitions to make a clear understanding before discussing their role over information flow. Then, the essay discusses examples from Thatcher and Blair governments to see in which cases, communication turned into propaganda. It is important to say that governments are just part of states; states have the capacity to control the information flow but governments are the only source of power that may turn political communication tools into propaganda models. In other words, states have the capacity but governments utilize that capacity.

Introduction

Nowadays, the reliance on communications and information has become paramount for governments in their attempts to manipulate public opinion and to maintain social control. (Tumber, 1993 p.37) However, only the control over information flow may turn communication into propaganda. The propaganda can only be manufactured by messages, but control over events enables political agents to create circumstances with a view to communicating them in the form of propaganda; or even, at the limit, the act itself may be conceived primarily in order to influence opinion, so the act itself might be a piece of propaganda. If the propaganda message is not the act itself, then messages of the propaganda might be subverted by public relations professionals that mean a blockage of the free flow of information to reach masses. The role of public professionals may go beyond the limits and sometimes be resulted into the disinformation. This role of PR introduced as ‘spin’ after 1980 in which politics and presentation become inseparable. If politics and presentation become inseparable, then who does manipulate the public opinion? Spin doctors on behalf of governments or state herself does control it.

For example, the privatization campaign of Thatcher Era at the end of 1980 was an example of the government control over information flow but using the mechanism, which was intended to be part of the state apparatus, kept separate from the government at least in the sense of party political advantage. It has started as a form of communication because public money was spent on marketing policies and shares in newly privatized companies. (Tumber, 1993 p.39) When public money was turned into use advertisements for promoting the government rather than public information then it became propaganda (of the government). Another case was providing ready-made news to UK tabloids during Blair’s government. The control of information flows before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is also parts of the government control by using different state-owned mechanisms.

Government vs. State

Although government and the state may refer to the same meaning in some cases, they are two poles apart. It is important to make the difference between these two to understand the source of the control over the information flow.

A government is "the organization, that is the governing authority of a political unit," or "the ruling power in a political society," and the apparatus through which a governing body functions and exercises authority. (American Heritage dictionary of the English language, 4th Edition) "Government, with the authority to make laws, to adjudicate disputes, and to issue administrative decisions, and with a monopoly of authorized force where it fails to persuade, is an indispensable means, proximately, to the peace of communal life." (Adler, 1996) Nevertheless, a state of adequate size and complexity will have different layers or levels of government: local, regional and national. Although, there had been different types of governments throughout the history, democracy[1] and dictatorship[2] are still the most relevant types of governments to see the distinction between the government and the state in 21st century,

In common, a ‘state’ means a political association with effective sovereignty over a geographic area. In sociology, the state is normally identified with these institutions: in Max Weber's influential definition, state is the organization that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory," which may include the armed forces, civil service or state bureaucracy, courts, and police. (Weber, 1994)

In contrast to the government, the state can be used in a strict sense to refer only to modern political systems. The concept of the state can be distinguished by two related concepts that are sometimes confused: the concept of a form of government such as democracy or dictatorship, and the concept of a political system. The form of government identifies only one aspect of the state, namely, the way in which the highest political offices are filled and their relationship with each other and to society. It does not include other aspects of the state that may be very important in its everyday functioning, such as the quality of its bureaucracy. For example, two democratic states may be quite different if one has a capable, well-trained bureaucracy while the other does not. Thus, generally speaking the term "state" refers to the instruments of political power, while the terms regime or form of government refers more to the way in which such instruments can be accessed and employed. (Bobbio, 1989) Gramsci, who was an Italian political theorist and a founding member of Communist Party in 1920s, came up with his ‘theory of hegemony’ and tied his conception while defining the capitalist state, which he claims rules through force plus consent. He claims that the state is not to be understood in the narrow sense of the government; instead, he divides it between 'political society', which is the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and 'civil society', which is commonly seen as the 'private' or 'non-state' sphere, including the economy. (Wikipedia, 2008) The consent is the motivation for the governments to control over information flow by using different state apparatus because they are the source of the power to access and employ.

‘Control over Information Flow’ as a state instrument

As it was mentioned above, control over information flows is one of the most crucial instruments in politics for maintaining the political power and stability of the state. These instruments owned by the state. In UK there are different information services, units and secretaries owned by the state but accessed and employed by the government. In addition, sometimes they are modified and inherited for government initiatives. For instance, GICS (the government information service) was inherited and re-titled as GICS following Mountfield Report by the lately published under the New Labour Government in year 1998. They also created a Strategic Communication Unit to co-ordinate government communications, responsible for annual reports and writes ministerial speeches.

The advantage of access and employment to control the information flow was not firstly used by New Labour Party Government. The politics of secrecy and misinformation had been significant aspects of government political behaviour in Britain for 1980s and 90s and a growing profession of expertise in the management of public information emerged during the years of the Thatcher administration epitomised by the power of Bernard Ingham, the prime ministers press secretary. Thatcher was instrumental in centralising the control of government information under Ingham culminating in his appointment in 1989, as head of Profession for all Government Information Officers. This represented a significant increase in power and responsibility for the No. 10 office. (Tumber 1993, p37-38) Therefore, the state is the source of political power to control the information flow but governments have the initiatives to enforce the power by using state institutions.

Blair and Thatcher Governments

Both Blair and Thatcher governments were using their political power to maintain the stability of the state by using different communication tools. However, there were two important key figures in both of these governments who worked as the head of governments’ machinery of press and public communications. They were not only PR specialists or spin doctors of their own governments but also the supporting evidence of the government control over information flow rather than state control. They were in charge of media management by using public communication services which belong to the state.

Bernard Ingham vs. Alistair Campbell

Ingham spent 11 years as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Chief Press Secretary in No. 10 Downing Street. The phrase ‘spin doctor’ did not really enter common jargon until after his retirement and the rise of New Labour and his successor Alistair Campbell. In contrast to Thatcher’s powerful and loyal press secretary Ingham, Campbell was lordly as his master, Tony Blair. Peter Oborne calls Campbell as ‘the real deputy prime minister’ in his biography. (Oborne, 2004) In other words, he was the source of reversal of the master-servant order.

Control Over Information Flow: Ingham and Campbell

It is indisputable to say that New Labour party has been transformed the business of political communication by Alistair Campbell when they came into power in 1997. However, Labour was doing nothing fundamentally different from its successful predecessor [Bernard Ingham]; it has simply and sensibly adapted to the era of modern media and new communications technology. (Scammell, 2001, p510) Due to the change in the conditions of the media market, and of continuity, Ingham and Campbell have different approaches for the machinery of government communications. For example, Thatcher government concerned about liberalization of UK economy and spent many millions of taxpayers` money on advertising ‘privatisation’ and ‘action for jobs’. In 1988-89 the government spent nearly ₤ 200 million on publicity of which well over ₤ 100 million was on media advertising, placing government departments collectively amongst the biggest advertisers in the United Kingdom. (Tumber, 1993, p.40) Government used public money to advertise or to sell privatization to the public as whom? It looks like the state at the first glance but this was not the case because Thatcher government used state apparatus to pursue their own agenda. Thus, the source of the control over information flow was the government not the state. Besides, did the control of information flow turned into propaganda? During 1980s due to the privatisation policy, divide between public information campaigns and political advertising blurred. The advertisement campaigns started to promote government rather than public information. Advertisements did not aim primarily at the people who need the information rather was designed for undecided voters for next elections.

In contrast, the Blair government has followed a different communication path; New Labour party established the mechanisms for measuring public opinion. Government publicity was applied. Labour came into office by the support of most of the press. (Scammell, 2001 p.512) However, the media support was temporary which depended upon the commercial interest more than political commitment. Campbell was aware of this. He focused on media more than ever by changing reporting of events from straight to interpretation which meant reporters became ‘professional decoders’ as Michael Scott, the political editor of the Sunday times commented. (British Journalism Review, 2000) Therefore, content of the news coverage would not go beyond the control of the Blair’s government. He achieved the control of information flow by increasing the number of government information officers, inherited GICS and created Strategic Communication Unit following the Mountfield Report (Mountfield (Sixth) Report, 1997).

The mechanism that is used by Campbell was different from Ingham. Ingham had used tax-payer’s money for advertisement campaigns to promote Thatcher’s government, whereas Campbell used state units to control the information flow. Therefore, methods are different but the goal is the same in both.

Clash between the State and the Government

Whatever might be the method, sometimes governments may face with problems to control the information flow due to the resistance coming from the state itself. Government may do some changes to fight down this kind of resistances.

Right after, New Labour Party came into power, Campbell put up the argument that state-owned information service was not equipped to deal with recently developed twenty-four-hour news media. Campbell famously circulated a memo to Heads of Information warning them that the ‘GIS must raise its game’ However, there were complains within the GIS that government did not always understand the civil service code of conduct. A memorandum was written by the Association of First Division Servants (FDA) noted that the transition from Conservative to Labour Government had been rather ‘less successful’ for the GIS than for most of civil service. This means that for the first time, there became a clash between the owner of the service; state and the employer and politically responsible; government during the very first years of New Labour government. FDA was particularly critical of the special consultants who were pushing the limits of GIS cultural ethos of political impartiality. However, the employer and the source of power was the government in charge, thus by the end of 1997 eight head of information left. By the end of 1999, only two of the seventeen departmental heads of information inherited by Labour were still in place. (Scammell 2001, p522)

Control over the Information Flow in war

It is possible to fight down the resistance within the state by changing the structure of the state machinery if the form of governance is democracy, the government would have a legitimate power to do so. However, it is also important for a democratic state to be legitimate while declaring a war against another state. As Gramsci argues, the power is not enough to enforce the rule but you need to consent to have the hegemony. In a dictatorship like Nazi Germany, Hitler did not find necessary to apply for the consent of masses to invade Poland or to attack Russia. Democracy obliges governments to look for consent within the society before doing an act like that.

As we all know, media is the distributor of the information to reach the public, influence the public opinion. The process of controlling and managing the media was first used in Falklands Conflict in 1982 by the British Government as a part of the information policy. However, there was an absence of agreed procedure or criteria, no centralized system of control and no coordination between departments (Morrison and Tumber 1988:189-190) However, the controlling and managing the media before and after Gulf War II was planned well in advance of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before the invasion of the Iraq in 2003, both UK and USA worked for convincing not only their own citizens but also the world about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) under the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They span the media by providing documents to legitimize the invasion of Iraq in the eyes of the world. One of these documents was the Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: the Assessment of the British Government, also known as the September Dossier, a document published by the Blair government on 24 September 2002 on the same day of a recall of Parliament to discuss the contents of the document. (Hansard, 2002) The paper was part of a campaign by the government to legitimise the invasion of Iraq. It included various claims according to which Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including biological and chemical weapons. The Dossier even claimed that Iraq had re-established its nuclear weapons programme. Without exception, all of the allegations included within the September Dossier have since proven to be untrue, as shown by the Iraq Survey Group.[3] (Duelfer Report, 2004) The much-anticipated document was based on reports made by the Joint Intelligence Committee, part of the British Intelligence 'machinery'. In the foreword to the document written by Tony Blair, he claimed that "The document discloses that his [Saddam Hussein] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." (Hansard, 2002) Britain's biggest selling popular daily newspaper, The Sun, carried the headline "Brits 45 Mins from Doom", while the Star reported "Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War". (Labour& Trade Union Review, 2003)

In his book Manufacturing the Consent, Chomsky describes exactly what happened with September Dossier in the hands of media. He claims “War is a serious business, and in a totalitarian society, the dictator simply says 'we're going to war' and everybody marches…In a democratic society, the theory is that if the political leadership is committed to war, they present reasons. The role of the media at that point is to present the relevant background” (Chomsky, 1992 p74)

As part of the invasion campaign, the communication was turned into propaganda by using state-owned information services and spinning media by bombarding with unproven information. However, BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan filed a report for BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 29 September 2003 which reversed propaganda into communication in which he stated that an unnamed source - a senior British official - had told him that the September Dossier had been "sexed up", and that the intelligence agencies were concerned about some "dubious" information contained within it - specifically the claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to use them. (BBC News, 2003) On 1 June, Gilligan expanded upon that claim in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, stating that the government's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, had been responsible for the insertion of the 45 minute claim, against the wishes of the intelligence agencies. (Oral evidence, Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee, 2003). However, just before the Hutton Inquiry[4] Gilligan admitted that his source had not told him that the government "probably" knew the 45 minute claim was 'questionable' rather than 'wrong'. (Hutton Inquiry Transcript, 2003) During the Hutton Inquiry, Gilligan played a major role in briefing senior BBC executives preparing the BBC defence. His assurances to, among others, Director-General Greg Dyke and Chairman Gavyn Davies ensured that both men's positions were, in the end, indissolubly linked with that of Gilligan. All three resigned from the BBC following the publication of the Hutton Inquiry report. (Wikipedia. 2008) It is important to keep in mind that in definition BBC is “A quasi-autonomous public corporation as a public service broadcaster. The Corporation is run by the BBC Trust; and is, per its charter, free from both political and commercial influence and answers only to its viewers and listeners”. (The BBC Royal Charter and Agreement, reviewed in 2007).

When the September Dossier is considered it is clear to say that Blair government had controlled the information flow at the beginning while the communication turned into propaganda, Gilligan has interrupted so the propaganda reversed the order from propaganda to communication but at the end, the source of the power caused the resignation of three BBC officials.

Conclusion


It is crucial to make the distinction between the state and the government to understand the control over the information flow. Democracy is a sort of governance and governments can only be a part of the state apparatus. State has the capacity with her different mechanisms like bureaucracy with civil servants. It is always there. Governments may change but institutions or services belong to the state. Governments may encounter with resistance coming from the state itself. But, they have the legitimacy to change the structure of the information unit because governments are the source of power in which they hold the capacity to access and employ. In the case of controlling the information flow, this equation is valid. As Gramsci argues power is not enough to rule, it is also necessary to persuade the mass, particularly in democracies. State-owned information services may provide information through the media by implementing different information policies such as advertisement campaigns (as Ingham did during the privatization promotions) or changing the mode of reporting (as Campbell did by providing ready-made news bulletins). In addition, as it was discussed above, control over information flow may turn into propaganda mostly in war times. The information flow, controlled by the Labour government before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is very much in line with the junction between communication and the propaganda.

References:

* Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). The Common Sense of Politics. Fordham University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8232-1666-7.

* Al Marashi, I. (2002) "Iraq's Security & Intelligence Network: A Guide & Analysis" in Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 6, no. 3, September 2002

* American Heritage dictionary of the English language, 4th edition, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 572, 770. ISBN 0-395-82517-2.

* Bobbio, N. (1989) Democracy and Dictatorship: The Nature and Limits of State Power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816618135

* a b c d BBC Royal Charter and Agreement Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/charter on April 10, 2008

* Cockerell M (2000) ‘Lifting the lid off spin’ British Journalism Review
Vol. 11, No. 3,, pages 6-15

* Chomsky, N (1992) Manufacturing the Consent the political economy of the mass media Herman, Edward S. New York: Pantheon, c2002.

* Duelfer Report (2004) Retrieved from http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2004/isg-final-report/ on April 09, 2008

* Gilligan's Today reports (Full Text) Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3090681.stm on April 12, 2008

* ‘Antonio Gramsci: Hegemony’ Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gramsci#Hegemony on April 09, 2008

* ‘Hansard (24 September 2002). Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction’ Retrieved from http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2002-09-24.1.0 on April 10, 2008

* Hutton Inquiry Transcript (2003) Retrieved from http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/transcripts/hearing-trans04.htm on April 12, 2008

* ‘Intelligence? The British dossier on Iraq's security infrastructure’ (2003) Retrieved from http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2003/msg00457.html on April 08, 2008

* Labour & Trade Union Review (2003) Retrieved from http://www.david-morrison.org.uk/iraq/45minutes-from-doom.htm on April 12, 2008

* Mountfield Report of the Working Group on the government information service, cabinet office, HMSO 1997.

* ‘Oral evidence Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday 17 July 2003’ Retrieved from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmfaff/uc1025-ii/uc102502.htm on April 09,2008

* Oborne, P. (1999) ‘Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class’, Aurum Press

* The Blair effect: [1997-2001] / edited by Anthony Seldon. London: Little, Brown, 2001.

* Tumber, H (1993) Taming the Truth British Journalism Review Vol. 4, No. 1, 37-41 (1993)

* Weber, M. (1994) The Profession and Vocation of Politics. In Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521397197.

.


[1] Rule by a government where the people as a whole hold the power. It may be exercised by them (direct democracy), or through representatives chosen by them (representative democracy)

[2] Rule by an individual who has full power over the country

[3] The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) was a fact-finding mission sent by the multinational force in Iraq after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs developed by Iraq under the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

[4] he Hutton Inquiry was a British judicial inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton, appointed by the United Kingdom Labour government with the terms of reference "...urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly"

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