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Fake News And False Flags

Recent articles about the firm Bell Pottinger are a stark reminder of the power and pervasiveness of PR in today's media landscape.

The Sunday Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism just revealed that Bell Pottinger was hired by the Pentagon to coordinate a covert propaganda campaign to boost America's profile in Iraq following the "end" of hostilities in 2003.


And earlier this year, South Africa's Business Day newspaper revealed that the firm had been retained by the scandal-hit billionaire Gupta family to burnish its image after a string of stories accusing it of "state capture" - allegedly using its influence with the president, Jacob Zuma, to advance the family's business interests.

Bell Pottinger's former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times that the company had been paid $540 million for five contracts with the U.S. government between 2007 and 2011. He said the firm reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council while working on the account.

The investigation, Fake News and False Flags relied on interviews with a former Bell Pottinger employee, Martin Wells, who claimed that the PR company created short TV reports in the style of Arabic news networks for broadast in Iraq. According to Wells, Bell Pottinger also scripted propagandistic soap operas and distributed fake insurgency videos which could be used to track the people who watched them.

The revelations were a classic example of investigative journalism: painstakingly poring over U.S. Army documents and federal government records as well as Bell Pottinger's corporate filings. It must be stressed that Bell Pottinger changed ownership after a management buyout in 2012 and that the Iraq unit closed in 2011. The investigation reported that key personnel who worked in the Iraq unit denied allegations about using tracking software.

Lord Bell won acclaim as the man who helped the Conservatives win general elections under Margaret Thatcher (he became known as Thatcher's PR "guru"), which helped him secure a knighthood in 1991. (It's worth pointing out he was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 1998.) His former firm has history with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: In 2011, while he was still in charge, an investigation revealed the continuing close links between the firm and the Conservative Party.


Winning Friends And Influencing People

Fake News and False Flags is the latest indication of how nation-states use PR firms for propaganda purposes during wartime or times of crisis. Perhaps the most famous example of this practice occurred around the time of the first Gulf war in 1990-91 when Citizens for a Free Kuwait - a "human rights agency" created and financed entirely by Kuwait's ruling elite to promote its interests in the U.S. - retained Hill & Knowlton, at that time the world's largest PR firm.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and H&K's brief was to persuade U.S. citizens that American military involvement in the Gulf was vital to save a fledgling democracy from the hands of a brutal dictator. As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton point out in their book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You - Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, H&K produced dozens of video news releases for consumption by the U.S. media, and through them, the American public. As they wrote:

TV stations and networks simply fed the carefully crafted propaganda to unwitting viewers, who assumed they were watching 'real' journalism.

But by far the greatest public relations coup occurred when Nayirah, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, appeared before a public hearing of Congress's Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. She tearfully told of atrocities committed by Iraqi troops who had entered a Kuwaiti hospital with guns and took babies out of incubators leaving them to die "on the cold floor."

In the run up to war, then-President George H.W. Bush quoted Nayirah's testimony repeatedly. As Mitchel Cohen wrote years later, six times in one month the then president referred to:

. . . 312 premature babies at Kuwait City's maternity hospital who died after Iraqi soldiers stole their incubators and left the infants on the floor.

Bush Sr. invoked Hitler, while pro-war senators raised the ghosts of World War I by referencing "bayoneting babies." But there were elements of this story that later came into question. Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who had - it was repeatedly alleged - been coached in what "even the Kuwaitis' own investigators later confirmed was false testimony."

Working With The Dark Side

The scale and power of the public relations industry is becoming almost overwhelming for journalism. According to the Public Relations and Communications Association the PR industry is worth £12.9 billion in the UK, £3 billion more than in 2013. The PR census of 2016 also disclosed that there were 83,000 employees in the industry in the UK - up from 62,000 in 2013. This is important because, as media commentator Roy Greenslade illustrates, the findings confirm there are far more PR workers than journalists in Britain. (In the U.S., PR professionals outnumber journalists 4.6-1.)

This is alarming because it means PR firms will become ever more adept at manipulating the media to ensure their content appears. Fewer and fewer journalists have the time or opportunity to research their own stories or to check press releases for inaccuracies.

I have written about how useless it is to simply reject PR as the "dark arts" when its presence in modern journalism is so complete and involved. There has to be a working relationship - and the obvious and only way forward for journalism is to set the parameters of the relationship.

Thank goodness, then, for the Sunday Times, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others like them for the work they continue to do.


John Jewell is the director of undergraduate studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments welcome.

The Conversation


Posted on October 20, 2016

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