RICHARD BUTLER AND RICHARD WHITINGTON. “Manufactured Consent” in truth-deprived and electronic times.Part 2 of 4

Jan 28, 2020

This is the second in a series by Richard Whitington and Richard Butler about the contemporary validity of Noam Chomsky’s thesis on “manufactured consent”: the coalition of convenience between business, the military, the intelligence community and a complicit partner – “big” media.

In yesterday’s post Richard Whitington looked at the changing media landscape and how it has altered the dynamics underpinning Chomsky’s view.

Today, Richard Butler discusses the destruction of veracity in public discourse, often orchestrated through the intelligence services (or through the blatant misuse of their work), fuelled by the circulation of fabricated materials on the internet.

Richard Butler writes:

The mutual interaction between the abuse of political and security targeted intelligence analysis, public lying by political leaders, and the proliferation in social media of conspiracy theories and fabricated reports, has become a constant in today’s public space. It makes Noam Chomsky’s reflections on “manufactured consent” seem almost horse and buggy. It’s not just that the tools have changed, become electronic. The culture of public discourse in popular democracies has become more truth-deprived.

Here are some relevant practical examples of failed intelligence, accompanied by extensive lying by leaders. Their magnitude and impact were vast.

  1. The war in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. The reasons for it were always wrongly assessed and misrepresented. As it proceeded – through the assassination of the President of South Vietnam in 1963, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 (fabricated by the US), the Tet Offensive 1968 – it became a disaster with an inevitable outcome. The publication of the illegally obtained “Pentagon Papers” revealed a massive operation by the US Government to lie to the people of the US about the conduct of the war.
  1. The 2003 invasion of Iraq. The reasons given for it were fabricated by the Bush administration. Their contentions about Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were not errors. They were lies. Vice President Cheney insisted to the CIA that they should concoct the so-called intelligence evidence. Related to this was Cheney’s year long campaign to convince the US public that Saddam Hussein had directed the 9/11 attacks on the US. This too was a lie. But Cheney succeeded. At the height of his campaign some 60 per cent of Americans believed it. The invasion of Iraq was, thus, set up in US public opinion. It has taken more than a dozen years for it to be admissible in US mainstream media to discuss the fact of this lie.
  1. The US war and presence in Afghanistan, now for almost 20 years, with no outcome or end in sight. The publication late last year of the leaked “Afghanistan Papers” demonstrates both a disaster in US policy making and planning and a continual programme of misrepresentation of the facts to the American people. This has been a remarkable repetition of what was revealed, in 1971, in the “Pentagon Papers”.
  1. Iran. US policy towards Iran has been a dangerous mess since it overthrew the elected Government of Iran in 1953 and then endured the hostage crisis of 1980. Obama tried to fix this and, inter alia, fostered the Iran nuclear Agreement of 2015. Trump has wrecked this. He has done it on the basis of a series of lies about the Agreement and Iran’s conduct under it. But he has not lied about one of his dominant motives: to dismiss an agreement done by Obama; indeed, any and all such agreements, for example those with respect to the environment.

In early January Trump’s Iran policy reached new territory when he ordered the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. Trump changed his stated reason for doing this four times in a day; all of which were fabrications, a fact nervously affirmed by his own senior officials. Trump did not mention what many believed was his guiding reason – to take attention away from the impeachment process.

Above all, his action sharply increased the prospect of war between the US and Iran. The missile firings which occurred subsequently included the two by Iran which brought down a Ukrainian civilian passenger aircraft, with all aboard killed. Iran lied about what had happened until imagery collected by external Agencies revealed the facts. This was worthwhile, hard, intelligence gathering.

Intelligence assessments face two main hurdles: to get the facts right and to have them acted upon faithfully. If policy makers decide not to act on them, which is their right, the expectation is that the reasons for that decision would be coherent.

What it is expected should not happen is that assessments are fabricated or distorted. The correct relationship, at least under Australian law, is that intelligence assessments should inform policy, not the reverse.

To say this, is not simply to give voice to some preference for intellectual rectitude or tidiness. As these examples illustrate, forming policy on the basis of prejudices rather than facts leads to disaster, turmoil and yes, death, as the Vietnam intervention and the past two decades in the Middle East testifies. Indeed, millions of deaths.

Fairness and verity demand that an addition needs to be made to these observations. Officials sometimes decide to provide their political masters with what they know those masters want to hear or decide to withhold from them what they judge they will not want to hear. This conduct is also a threat to what the relationship between policy and facts should be.

Australia, under Governments of each persuasion, has participated with its western intelligence partners in all of these deliberations and subsequent policy and operational decisions; with the exception of those on Vietnam, after the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972. Whitlam’s first foreign policy decision was to withdraw Australian participation in the war. This brought down upon him the ire of US president Nixon. His second decision was to recognize China. These decisions obtained the consent of the Australian people.

It is testimony to our enduring responsiveness to US pressure that a relatively short time ago we were engaged in a war against a South East Asian neighbour and did not recognize the Peoples Republic of China. These were actions by us which are now widely regarded as having been misconceived. And contrary to our national interests. Nevertheless, we have been responding in a similar fashion, for the last 20 years, to US pressure on us with respect to its interventions in the Middle East and West Asia.

Public understanding of and apparent consent to Government actions on matters affecting national interests and security has been shaped, inter alia, by the abuse of the products of the publicly funded instruments for discerning verity; the national intelligence apparatus.

It has also been shaped by the willingness of their elected representatives and key leaders and office holders, to misrepresent the reasoning of their decisions. Increasingly, this conduct goes well beyond what could be termed the “normal” deployment of spin.

In the case of Trump and now Johnson, in the UK, there is a demonstrable willingness to plainly lie about their decisions and the facts at issue. This is a complex situation, as it’s hardly possible to outlaw lying, and the remedy of the ballot box often lies in the distant future.

Complicating and largely exacerbating this, is the now ubiquitous role of the internet and the social media it carries. There is so much to be concerned about if we are to adhere to the notion that, in electoral democracies, the availability of elementally factual details on virtually all matters is basic to individuals being able to form their various opinions and judgements of them.

Justifiably, much is said about the capacity of the internet to make available unprecedented amounts of material. Equally, there is recognition that, increasingly, materials made available on the internet in political and policy contexts are false.

Questions raised about this phenomenon and its implications for people’s ability to make informed choices, are fairly routinely dismissed, on the basis of freedom of expression arguments; the very arguments supporting the democratic principles that are being set at risk by the conduct in question.

Recently, for example, when Facebook was challenged on its policy towards the placement on its site of political materials, it stated that it was not in the business of entering judgment on their content and would not remove from Facebook materials which it knew to be false.

Even deeper, is the phenomenon of hacking, involving stealing and/or altering

existing materials. The impact of this on the 2016 elections in the US almost certainly contributed significantly to Trump’s victory. This was established; for example, through the findings of the Mueller enquiry. It’s widely expected that it will recur in the 2020 elections and, possibly, on an even more widespread basis. Of course, there are many other areas of political and economic life where hacking is well established.

The subject addressed in these essays is the notion of “manufactured consent” advanced by Noam Chomsky, 30 years ago. It was a penetrative analysis, argued persuasively, but it seems now to have been enlarged, in kind and degree, from his time.

In just the last 20 years there has been an expanding confluence of corrupted intelligence and the information on people and institutions played out on the internet. The detonator added to this mixture has been the willingness of public figures, particularly Trump, to render the objective truth of any matter meaningless. He may turn out to have been modern history’s great liar. And, he has achieved that distinction principally on the internet, via Twitter, and through the other universal electronic source of data and images: television.

To sum up, on the three sources of the formulation of consent covered in this essay and, their confluence.

The collection of intelligence has two specific aspects.

First, the identification of hard threats to our security, such as the movement of military assets directed at us. This is largely done through technical means, ours and those of our partners. Our response to such threats is relatively easy to identify, although possibly not always easy to carry out. Such intelligence is clearly valuable. It should be soberly assessed and never exaggerated.

Secondly, there is the much more speculative analysis, under the heading of intelligence, of the policies and intentions of others. This is far softer and can be the subject of disputed interpretations. Those arguments are not made easier by the imposition on them of gross characterisations; in Chomsky’s day the perceived threat of communists; in ours, the overarching threat of terrorism.

It is such an imposition that provides fertile ground for distortions, misrepresentation and, plain lying, mainly for domestic political advantage. Too many politicians think that scaring the people works for them at the ballot box. And, there is the secrecy trap: “If I tell you where we got our information, I’ll have to kill you”. Its spoken as a joke but it isn’t really. It’s another way of saying: “trust us we’ll keep you safe”. Not a respectful way to treat adults in a democracy.

These conundrums are greatly enlarged when leaders and officials lie. The attack on truth itself is rife under Trump and now Boris Johnson. There are others in this club, but these two have a significant impact on the conduct of public discourse and on media coverage, in Australia. And, the US and UK are amongst our intelligence partners. Their interests are not necessarily shared by us, but the sharing of intelligence analyses can be deployed as pressure on us to support their actions. Doubtless it often is.

On the matter of the internet and electronic media: advertising, the expression of opinions, spin, in their myriad forms, are with us to stay. There needs to be more recognition of the distinction between them and plainly false and often malevolent messaging.

So, consent is being manufactured. Perhaps it always has been. But the question which has also always needed answering is: to what end, to whose benefit?

Next: Richard Whitington discusses whether the media in Australia is as powerful as the conspiracy theorists make out.

Richard Butler AC is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq. He has since held academic posts at the New York University and Penn State University.

Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he now does some freelance writing. Website:

Richard Butler and Richard Whitington worked together on Gough Whitlam’s staff during Whitlam’s final term as Leader of the Opposition: the two years between the 1975 dismissal and election defeat, and his retirement as Leader of the party, following the 1977 election loss.

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