RICHARD WHITINGTON AND RICHARD BUTLER. Noam Chomsky’s “manufactured consent”. What’s changed, 30 years on? Part 1 of 4

Jan 27, 2020

Thirty years ago, psychologist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, wrote of “manufactured consent”, the phenomenon which sees the self-serving interests of the powerful and often opaque – the military/industrial complex and “big business” – coalesce with those of the supposedly transparent and independent, but equally powerful: the media.

The Conservatives’ emphatic UK election victory in December elicited a fresh outpouring of dismay about the inordinate influence of “big media” (especially Murdoch’s). Bias, as always, was seen as the culprit. Worse still, though, were the Trump-like depths of deliberate deceit plumbed by Boris Johnson and his urgers: the shameless peddling of lies in both mainstream and social media.

In the same week, across the Atlantic, the Washington Post published the so-called Afghanistan Papers, revealing that, once again, the United States government had misled its constituents, at the cost of tens of thousands of their lives, and the lives of even more Afghanis. The Post’s Fact Checker unit reported that its count of Donald Trump’s public lies since he took office had reached the 13,000 mark.

When we look at what is influencing Australian, British and American politics, how has the “manufacture” of that “consent” changed, if at all, since Noam Chomsky first described it?

We tackle that question, each from somewhat different perspectives, experience and qualifications, focussing chiefly on the Australian “condition” and overlaying that with the implications of the global, Western defence/intelligence complex having infiltrated the “club” of manufactured consent to an even greater degree than when Noam Chomsky wrote about it, not least in the war on terror and resistance to China’s growing world influence.

We’ll also look at the growth and influence of “think tanks”, many of them drawing their funds from and pursuing their agendas on behalf of sponsors whose identity often lies many layers below the surface of ordinary public scrutiny.

There are three democracies to which most Australians relate most strongly: the place we live, Australia; the United Kingdom, a place where many of us think we come from, which “discovered” and colonised and “established” us, and whose monarch is still our Head of State; and the United States of America – our saviour in World War Two, our only remaining powerful ally and protector, the origin of the vast majority of our popular culture, entertainment, and lifestyle habits. At least that’s the oversimplified, popular perception – one which usefully reinforces our “dependence” on the US.

Along with the UK, the USA is also the source of most of Australia’s media coverage of international affairs.

Australia, the UK. and the US are at “interesting” points in their modern history. Australia is still dealing with an unexpected election result last May; Britain is not yet two months past an election result on 12 December that, among other things, will take it out of the European Union; the United States is embarking on the journey to the first Tuesday in November where we’ll find out whether the most unconventional President in history was an aberration as well as an abomination.

For now, all three democracies are ruled by the “conservative” side of politics.

First, let’s briefly recap the essence of Chomsky’s thesis:

  • Mass-media outlets are large profit-based operations which must cater to the financial interests of their owners and to the political prejudices and economic imperatives of their advertisers (the source of most of their revenue).
  • In return for subsidising the mass media, advertisers gain special access to news coverage, themselves becoming ‘routine’ news sources. Non-routine sources are often ignored.
  • If a media outlet incurs disfavour from its sources, it is subtly excluded from access to information (and advertising revenue). It risks losing audience, and more advertisers. To stay in business, editorial distortion favours government and corporate policies.
  • Media are timid about covering non-mainstream issues, fearful of retribution from establishment influencer groups (like think tanks) who can orchestrate advertising boycotts, even lawsuits, resulting in financial and reputational damage.
  • Finally, originally Chomsky cited “anti-communism” as a major social control mechanism in manufactured consent. Some years later, he replaced that with “anti-terrorism”.

Richard Whitington writes:

Certainly, much of what Chomsky suggested is as valid today as it is obvious. But some things have changed at an exponential speed, which won’t abate.

People reading Chomsky now might conclude that he was not only stating the obvious but reinforcing the self-defeating lament of those on the Left who have lost hope, attributing their failures to everyone other than themselves.

Chomsky’s thesis is dripping with “blame the media”, depicting them as accomplices before and after the fact in the conspiracy. This is up there with “blame the voters” for their gullibility and blind stupidity when things don’t go the way you want.

The advent of social media is regarded by all who are discussed in it (politicians, corporations among them) as consumers having taken control of mass media (the lunatics in charge of the asylum?). Traditional, old-school media fuel this perception by giving disproportionate prominence to what’s posted on social media. The power of the “individual” becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Consider, for example, the reputational and financial power of the “social media” reaction to 2GB shock jock Alan Jones last year when he overstepped the mark of misogyny once too often, in his comments about NZ PM Jacinda Ardern (“stuff a sock down her throat”).

Stoked by the fires of the twitterati, advertisers deserted 2GB so comprehensively that 2GB’s management fell to its knees, begging for forgiveness, gave Jones a stern warning, owned up to a huge revenue hit, and a diminution in the station’s value (it was up for sale at the time). The weak and vulnerable scored a big goal against the powerful and entitled. All of which was the opposite of what Chomsky described as the dynamic typically in play.

What remains true, in general, is that indisputable and intrinsic to the dynamic of conventional, mainstream commercial media is an implicit deference the media pays to what it anticipates being the political preferences of its customers – its advertisers.

The sort of advertisers who have the financial clout to support large media businesses, themselves rely on economic growth, political stability, the preservation of free market economies, “private enterprise”, comparatively low government spending and taxes, a minimum of regulatory interference with industry and marketing prerogatives.

There are some, but few media organisations which count government advertising expenditure among their biggest revenue sources. Governments of each persuasion tend to spend similar amounts on advertising, in any case. It would be rare indeed to find a media proprietor supporting a party on the basis that, in government, it would spend more money advertising with them.

However, whatever the influences on the mainstream or new-age media, the influence of media itself is, in my view, as overrated now as it was when Chomsky overstated its role as a co-conspirator in the manipulation of the malleable.

It’s often observed that the more strident the views expressed by a media outlet, the more likely that the “existing prejudice reinforcement” factor is in play. That is, the perception of an Alan Jones’ power to change votes is almost certainly exaggerated. Even if he suddenly abandoned his right-wing views and advocated a vote for Labor – how many of his listeners would follow his advice?

Nor should we overlook the other element in a “shock jock’s” following – the vicarious delight in seeing a bloke with the power of the microphone and a mute button beat up and bully their hapless (and sometime pretentious) victims. We should also draw a distinction between media proprietors and the journalists who work for them. Alan Jones, by the way, is not a journalist.

Those who seek to promote a policy, a product, a reputation, their own profile, have always seen the sense in cultivating relationships with journalists. The basis of these can be found anywhere between the crass and the clandestine. And journalists, themselves, respond to and initiate such engagement, for an equally broad range of motives but, mostly, in the interests of doing a big part of their job: beating their competitors to a story.

A journalist’s access to news and information, background perspectives, leaks, announcements in advance, is shrouded in a mutual undertaking of confidentiality between the source and the distributor of the information involved. There’s a two-way power dynamic right there.

When does all this become problematic, distorting the natural processes and balances which we expect in a democracy: freedom of expression, an independent “press”, freedom of information?

Clearly, when the arcane notion of “national security” is invoked by those who inhabit an opaque world where secrecy has more to do with their own preservation than the nation’s. In this dark place, factions prevail and wane, with the predominant feeding a narrative not only to their “masters”, elected governments, but to the media and large numbers of the so-called intelligentsia, in universities, think tanks, business councils, even trade unions.

The best and most lingering example of this is Australia’s near-80 year reliance on our alliance with the United States as an excuse and pretext for following that great power down dead end streets that didn’t enhance our own national self-interest, let alone our national security or self-esteem.

We had another instance of it just weeks ago when President Trump approved the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, in another country, Iraq (what better place to do it, you might ask?). In the immediate aftermath, amidst talk of the US. and the UK evacuating their embassies amid speculation they’d be targeted, our PM Scott Morrison, armed with no knowledge and total ignorance, did little more than say “We’ll just follow whatever the US does.”

It’s typical of an attitude that’s left us mendicant, supplicant, submissive and dependent – characteristics not often associated with the Aussie image which most media delight in promoting come Australia Day, and ANZAC Day.

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

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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