In their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of Mass Media, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman sketch out a “propaganda model” of media control. The basic thesis is that the mass media in the west, particularly the United States, serves a very specific propaganda function. Through the mechanisms of the capitalist “free” market, rather than overt and conscious control, it reflects the interests and concerns of the dominant, decision-making sectors of society.
Before moving onto the subject of how fascist movements and ideas fit into this model, particularly with regards to Great Britain, I will give a brief outline of the “five filters” that Chomsky and Herman posited as the controlling mechanisms of “free market” propaganda;
- Ownership – most western media outlets are either large corporations or part of conglomerates, thus the information presented to the public will be biased with respect to these interests. Such conglomerates frequently extend beyond traditional media fields, and thus have extensive financial interests that may be endangered when certain information is widely publicized. According to this reasoning, news items that most endanger the corporate financial interests of those who own the media will face the greatest bias and censorship.
- Funding – Since the mainstream media depend heavily on advertising revenues to survive, the model suggests that the interests of advertisers come before reporting the news. As a business, a newspaper has a product which it offers to an audience. The product is composed of the affluent readers who buy the newspaper — who also comprise the educated decision-making sector of the population — while the audience includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this “filter”, the news itself is nothing more than “filler” to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the real content, and will thus take whatever form is most conducive to attracting educated decision-makers. Stories that conflict with their “buying mood”, it is argued, will tend to be marginalized or excluded, along with information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers’ interests. The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the news itself has only a marginal role as the product.
- Sourcing – The third filter concerns the mass media’s need for a continuous flow of information to fill their demand for daily news. In an industrialized economy where consumers demand information on numerous worldwide events unfolding simultaneously, they argue that this task can only be filled by major business and government sectors that have the necessary material resources. This includes mainly The Pentagon and other governmental bodies. Chomsky and Herman then argue that a symbiotic relationship arises between the media and parts of government which is sustained by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. On the one hand, government and news-promoters strive to make it easier for news organizations to buy their services because they provide them with facilities in which to gather, give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports, schedule press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines, write press releases in usable language, carefully organize their press conferences and “photo opportunity” sessions. On the other hand, the media become reluctant to run articles that will harm corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depend upon.
- Flak – Negative responses to a media statement or program. The term “flak” describes targeted efforts to discredit organizations or individuals who disagree with or cast doubt on the prevailing assumptions favorable to established power. Unlike the first three filters — which are the product of market mechanisms — flak is characterized by concerted and intentional efforts to manage public information.
- Anti-ideologies – Governments and other powerful groups promote their interests by exploiting public fear and hatred of groups that pose a potential threat, either real, exaggerated, or imagined. “Communism” once posed the primary threat, and was portrayed by its detractors as endangering freedoms of speech, movement, press, etc. Such a portrayal was often used as a means to silence voices critical of elite interests. Nowadays, the main form this filter takes appears to be “anti-terrorism,” a convenient label used by those in power even when inaccurate.
The propaganda model is nothing to do with “conspiracies,” then, and everything to do with good business sense. Jobs and revenue are at risk if reporters are too adversarial towards or critical of those who employ them, fund their employers, or provide the bulk of their material. Hence, a propaganda system arises without too much overt direction.
Where, then, does fascism fit into the model?
In the United States, it largely doesn’t. Overtly fascist movements are very definitively relegated to the farthest fringes of the political spectrum in the US. There are numerous reasons for this, including that the right to freedom of speech and assembly (still restricted according to the needs of the powerful, but nonetheless much greater than exists elsewhere) means that such groups cannot gain support as victims of censorship and oppression. The activism of civil rights and other popular movements has also played a significant part in diminishing the support base of the extreme-right there. Not to mention that the propaganda model has seen the mainstream parties employ their traditional tactics – stimulation of nationalistic loyalties, fear of “the enemy,” etc – with greater subtlety and effectiveness.
In Britain, the situation is near-identical. From the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s to the struggle against the National Front in the 1980s, there has always been a strong antifascist movement within the working class. Likewise, the legal restrictions on fascism that exist on mainland Europe (such as the criminalisation of Holocaust Denial) don’t exist here, although there are some hate crimes laws that have allowedvarious fascists to claim free-speech martyrdom. And, at least as much as in the United States, the mainstream parties have co-opted fascist rhetoric and policies. As Antifa point out;
The NF in Britain was all but destroyed not simply by grass roots opposition but also because the Thatcher government appropriated much of their support. Fascism is directly linked to the social and economic conditions of society and the Labour government have created the conditions where the likes of the BNP can flourish.
This latter point leads us onto the crux of the matter. In both Britain and the US, the government has for several decades been “undermining the welfare state and job security while simultaneously pitting domestic workers against migrant workers,” whilst the propaganda model paints the picture of a bloated welfare state and insists that porous borders – rather than economic policies geared to the needs of big business over workers – are the problem. Hence why the main parties battle amongst themselves to, as the Brighton Solidarity Federation puts it, “be the most anti immigration, the hardest on the unions, the toughest on “waste” in the public sector.” Thus, “for these parties, the BNP become convenient pantomime villains – “Nazis” whose policies are completely alien to their own. No matter how much they in fact coincide.”
This is where the US and British models diverge. In America, this combination of grassroots opposition to their presence within communities and mainstream co-opting of their rhetoric has entirely marginalised fascist and white nationalist movements. In Britain, the fascists have been able to respond by putting forward the facade of “moderation” and “modernisation.” Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, has explained this tactic quite bluntly;
We should be positioning ourselves to take advantage for our own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam currently being whipped up by the mass media. This is not a matter of dancing to neo-con tunes, but of finding members of the public who are already used to the sound of that kind of music willing to cross over and dance to our tune.
And the tactic is working. One million people voted for the BNP in te European elections in June, and they secured two seats in the European parliament. Even though their policies coincide with those of the mainstream parties on a number of levels, they are able to portray themselves as a radical “alternative” due to the framework of debate established by the propaganda model.
As well as working in the favour of politically astute fascists, the British version of the propaganda model is well served by them. The fourth filter, “flak,” is one used to discredit institutions and individuals who veer from the dominant agenda and out of the framework of acceptable debate. A common accusation thrown at the media in order to keep them in line is that they are “biased to the left,” when in fact they have aided the steady rightward shift of mainstream politics. Medialens explains how this filter works;
There are several good reasons why the media are keen to accept that they are biased to the left. First, the overwhelming preponderance of right-wing flak machines – ‘centre-left’ parties and governments, business front groups and powerful ‘religious’ organisations – persuades media executives that they really are too left-leaning. There is just far less flak criticising journalists from the left, and this flak is far less damaging.
Also, those on the money- and power-grubbing right have always been keen to associate themselves with the popular ethical positions of socialism. Hitler described himself as a “National Socialist”, after all, while Stalin headed an alliance of “socialist” republics. The modern media’s far-right militants – the likes of Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen – all declare themselves to be of the left.
The likes of the BNP feed into this propaganda mechanism in two ways.
The first is as foils, or “convenient pantomime villains,” who demonstrate a supposed “contrast” between the mainstream parties and the extreme-right. This allows the most acerbic elements of the right-wing press – such as the Daily Mail and the Sun – to publish article after article that demonises the most vulnerable elements of society (refugees, the poor, Roma gypsies, etc) and stir up racial tensions and hatred before exonerating themselves by condemning the “racist” BNP. It also allows commentators such as Richard Littlejohn to justify their fascistic tendencies by claiming that those who expose and counter the distortions of the far-right are “helping the BNP.”
The second way that fascists serve the propaganda model is by serving as a new arm of the flak machine. In numerous articles and diatribes, the BNP refer repeatedly to the “controlled media,” repeating both the propaganda line that they are “biased to the left” and the right-wing myths perpetuated by the media themselves, without the slightest hint of irony.
Of particular interest is an article titled “the ‘Free Press’ is not free but a biased propaganda machine.” Here, as well as condemning the “barrage of easily-disproved lies against the British National Party” – “lies” I managed to demonstrate the truth of with little difficulty on Truth, Reason, and Liberty – the party condemns the “corporate press, which pushes a defined political line at the behest of its owners.” However, in doing so it turns the propaganda model inside out whilst serving its fourth filter. The analysis on offer is over simplistic and itself relies on parameters and presumptions fashioned by the model.
This is just one example of how, in the words of Antifa, “the strength and popularity of the BNP can also lead to the political agenda being pushed further right” because, “while in essence being a staunch supporter of the status quo and the state the BNP has been made to look like a progressive party in the context of Labour’s continued attacks on the working class.”
The Brighton Solidarity Federation, meanwhile, sums up of how these two facets of fascism’s role within the propaganda model are interconnected;
In a “race to the centre” huge working class communities have been abandoned by these parties. At the same time, money is parcelled out to different imaginary, homogenous ‘communities’ on a racial basis, under the control of ‘community leaders’ – who supposedly represent this entire community and repay this with votes. This corrupts the great lived experience many of us have with multiculturalism, into something repellent – official state ‘multiculturalism’ which explicitly divides people on the basis of race, and gives out money and favours on the basis of a series of different ‘communities’ who need representing. In these circumstances is it any surprise that some of the most dispossessed in society see this, see the BNP and believe they will represent the ‘white community’? Of course, such a racial community is a sham – just as much as any other. These are people with the same very real problems that most of us face – lack of decent housing, no or terrible jobs, lack of community facilities and lack of security in the future. The BNP help reduce them to squabbling over who gets the biggest slice of the pie – the real issue is that ordinary peoples slice of the pie continues to shrink as the rich-poor divide grows.
The threat of the BNP isn’t that they will recreate the holocaust (they wouldn’t) or seize power and destroy democracy (they never will), but that they represent the culmination the same official policy that has left our communities divided and in tatters. It will push a minority of resentful angry people down the stupid zero-sum-game of racial politics, and away from politics which could serve to find real solutions to these problems.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the dominant sectors of society share the societal vision offered by fascism or that fascists act in service of the status quo. They don’t and they aren’t. Instead, my point is on how the similar rhetoric and tactics employed by both are drawn together in the propaganda model by “free” market mechanisms. This is an argument as to why antifascism cannot exist in a vacuum and must be understood in the wider context of class struggle and opposition to the designs of the ruling class.