“Mission Accomplished” read the sign, supposedly put there, so the story was told, by grateful and admiring sailors (rather in the way Roman people would celebrate a triumph for the Emperor) to praise the wisdom and Commander in Chiefness of their great leader. And yes, there he was, stepping from a navy jet, as if he had just personally flown the last mission in Iraq. He wore the armour of a great warrior, the uniform of a fighter pilot, walking, though, it must be said, a little awkwardly as if the trousers didn’t quite fit (or as if he hadn’t quite shed his Texas cowboy persona). Never mind, there he was, walking forward to receive the cheers of the worshipping sailors.
It was an ideal war ending, could almost have been made in Hollywood, starring Ronald Reagan [In fact it was, as it turned out, scripted, stage managed, directed, as if it was a Hollywood movie and the sailors mere extras]. But there we were, a lighting fast war, the leader of the Free World triumphant after a few short weeks, just as the neocon war chorus had promised. Boo sucks to those wishy washy liberals who had protested about the war. We showed those limp-wristed lady men French cheese-eating surrender monkeys etc. When America decides to conquer a country by god they conquer it, no messing around. And if our glorious leader, Emperor George, decides to conquer some more, well then, you feeling lucky, punks?
It was all dutifully filmed and reported by an unquestioning Press, flown out to the carrier for the purpose of recording George Bush’s date with destiny. It was a fake from start to finish, but no one thought to question the spectacle or the sentiments. Nor indeed to question whether the war was indeed “over”. It would be ten more years of mayhem before American troops began going home. And hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis were there to make a mockery of “mission accomplished” had anyone been counting.
But it was a while before people began to question the reality behind the illusion.
It turned out later, if I remember correctly, the aircraft carrier was anchored not far from California, not offshore from the Gulf. The sign had been made by the Bush PR team, not the sailors. And so on. The whole thing had been, a fiction movie. If Ronald Reagan thought that a movie he had once been in was real life, then so now did George.
But it worked for a while, this stunt. Worked well enough and long enough to form a model for conservative politicians everywhere I think. As long as it looks good and sounds vaguely plausible, the media will report the spectacle and message exactly as you want them to. And if anyone wants to ask questions later? Well, yesterday’s news, who cares?
It marked something of a rise in these kind of political stunts. Oh politicians of all persuasions had long kissed babies, launched ships, turned up at sporting events and the like. But the Mission Accomplished moment gave new impetus and ideas. There were a number of lessons to be learnt, and conservative politicians learnt them very quickly. First lesson was to actually take the trouble to make the event like, well, like a movie. Get the setting right, the props right, the clothing right, the extras right, the words right. The media will only need to set up the cameras in the spot marked x and the event will unfold before their lenses. Second, make the story simple, one event, one message, and make it fit the narrative the media are already familiar with, indeed have already been promoting. And third, if you do those things, the media will not investigate the reality behind the event. The illusion you have presented them, like a stage magician, will be presented as reality. In effect you will have turned the whole of the mainstream media into the promotion arm of your political party. And promotion you would once have paid a lot of money for now reaches the audience free of charge.
In the last couple of years in Australia the Liberal Party, under Tony Abbott, Australia’s GW Bush, have developed this process into the kind of mass production previously used only for consumer goods. Almost daily, as if in a continuous election campaign, Abbott’s spin doctors arrange a photo opportunity. He has decided that, having created the narrative, with the help of the MSM, involving a scare campaign over the looming price on carbon (or as he calls it, the great big unimaginably huge toxic carbon tax which will ruin us all and end Australian civilisation as we know it), the photo ops would be used to keep hammering away at this. So there we are, day after day – here a factory will close, there a cake shop, a fish shop, a mine, a whole city (about to be wiped off the map) – and there is Tony, wearing, as awkwardly as Bush in flight gear, a mining helmet, a white coat, goggles. There he is driving a truck (license specially obtained), eating a cake, gutting a fish. And then, as the cameras continue to roll on this made for tv movie, comes the speech when a sometimes sorrowful, sometimes angry, Mr Abbott will denounce the prospect of doing anything whatsoever about climate change, and fore-shadowing (sometimes, in a strange time warp, describing things that have apparently already happened under a carbon price yet to come into effect) the doom of the enterprise and the salt of the earth workers who work there, not to mention their Liberal-supporter boss standing at his side who may say a few additional words before filing for bankruptcy or leaping from a skyscraper.
And sure enough, night after night, grateful reporters, their work done for them, and grateful news bulletin producers, ditto, run this footage unchanged, unchecked, unchallenged on the nightly news and the following day’s breakfast shows.
Running in parallel, and from the same premise, has been a similar technique by lobby groups on the Right. This is the “petition” or press release from “expert group” approach. The notorious “Oregon Petition” by climate deniers seems to have been the first major example of this. Set up a phony “Institute” (this has also been a path frequently followed), set up a “petition” denying climate change is happening, and establish an apparently real “qualification” for those signing it. Publicise it in places where likely deniers will see it. In this case the signers were supposed to be “scientists”, which enabled the Oregon people to later say that thousands of “scientists” didn’t believe in global warming. The media, always out for controversy, and unable or unwilling to check such things, then simply provided an amplifier for the claims of the “petition”, and this established the proposition that the science of climate change was “unsettled” the “debate” still proceeding, “two sides” to the question.
If the media had done the most elementary checking they would have found that the “Institute” was a bit like the fake shopfronts in a western movie. And that the signatories were anyone who had done anything remotely like science at some kind of university level at some time. Even so, given the huge number of science graduates in America, this motley crew represented only a very tiny percentage of them. And in addition, few of them had done any kind of science related to climate, and none were active climate scientists. The whole petition was like a fake town in a cowboy movie. Yet on and on it went, demolished online by many people but not the MSM, and still quoted from time to time. And so a successful model for others.
One aspect of it has indeed been even more widely used – the shielding of the real identity, affiliation, ideology, and therefore motivation, of the people making the claim (eg in this case the headline “Libertarian, neoconservative, right wing Republican group opposes action on climate change” has less impact by far than the claim “Scientists oppose science of climate change”). Religious groups in particular have found that while the public will discount what they say if it is obviously religiously motivated, have become adept at not mentioning religion but of claiming some other identity such as “social researcher” when commenting on topics such as same sex marriage, stem cell research, or abortion. The media have been absolutely happy to accept such wolf in sheep’s clothing commenters.
Last week in Australia, both the political stunt and the false flag approaches to pushing politics further to the Right were in full view. But both for a change failed, not because the MSM saw through the fakery, but because the internet did and quickly reacted.
First the petition approach. Bursting on to the media was the announcement that “doctors” opposed same sex marriage because it would inevitably greatly damage any children being raised by a same sex couple and because of the enormous health risks in such a relationship. Wow, eh, DOCTORS are saying this. With evidence, obviously, must be. Not just the usual arguments by gay people, politicians, religious groups, this is DOCTORS. And so the media ran with the story, as usual, unchecked. Except that twitter started asking questions. Who were these doctors? And pretty quickly the thing unravelled. In the first place there were only 150 names, of some 70,000 GPs in Australia. Funny, very small number. Then it turned out the leader and organisers were based in a fundamentalist, evangelical church, and their “evidence” was quotes from evangelicals in America. And which had the usual anti-gay agenda of such groups. Next came the AMA, issuing a statement on behalf of the 70,000 GPs that this little group didn’t speak for anyone. So the whole facade crumbled, although our national broadcaster, ever eager to please, was still running it on a ticker the next day.
You’d think the media would check, wouldn’t you. But “Doctors oppose same sex marriage” has a more newsworthy sound than “Small group of religious fundamentalists, some of whom are doctors, oppose same sex marriage” does it not?
And shortly after came the second failure. Two of Abbott’s senior politicians, Eric Abetz (Libs leader in the Senate, a major party figure) and Kelly O’Dwyer decided to emulate their glorious leader. Couldn’t believe their luck I bet when a stunt fell ready made into their laps. Didn’t have to do anything, there it was, grass roots participation. See a shopkeeper in O’Dwyer’s electorate apparently told her that he was being forced to close his shop, was being ruined by this great big new tax from Julia Gillard, just as Abbott had said he would be. So the pair of pollies advised the media, and then turned up for the photo op. And even better, the poor shopkeeper, more in sorrow than in anger of course, had written on the shop window something like “Thanks a lot, Julia, closing down”. Time for the cameras, so the shopkeeper stood in front of his poor forlorn shop, flanked by the two pollies, guarding the bridge, shoulder to shoulder, against the red peril coming their way. MSM dutifully reported, unchecked, as they had reported all the other stunts.
But then a funny thing happened. People began asking (as Abetz and O’Dwyer should have done, but in their ideologically befuddled state did not), hang on Carbon Price hasn’t begun yet, and even when it does, how could it possibly affect an antiques dealer? Then someone who lived near the shop and knew it thought the story was a bit odd, and someone else checked out the web site of the business. It all unravelled, and this shopfront was revealed as yet another fake in a cowboy movie.
The real story went something like this. The Antiques dealer had two shops, close together. His main business was just down the road and was going strong. This shop had just been rented temporarily by him, and had been used to have a sale of excess stock from the business. That sale had been so successful that the shop was now empty and he no longer needed to rent it. The gig being up he then made a statement to the effect that yes indeed, that was the true situation, and he had set up this stunt just for a bit of a laugh, just for fun, nothing serious, can take a joke can’t you Julia? Etc.
Abetz and O’Dwyer were very quiet in the afternoon, and the story vanished. But without the internet and twitter the MSM would have simply taken this at face value, and left the public, yet again, with the vague feeling that the “carbon tax” was ruining people. Saw it, in the news, must be true, poor fellow.
Look, they were caught out on these occasions, the doctors and the politicians. But that won’t be the end of these stunts, and tricks, and, well, lies. They work too well, in the absence of real journalism, and indeed in the presence of a media that is happy to run with neo-conservative narratives.
So be aware, as you walk down the street, seeing the latest political stunt, or reading the latest press release, that you are walking down a street in a wild west movie, and nothing you are seeing is real. Stay alert.