In a formal democracy, particularly one with a global empire to uphold, public opinion is too important to be left to the people to think for themselves.
“Verbal”, the kingpin who conned everyone into thinking he was just a crippled, small-time criminal in the classic thriller, The Usual Suspects, quoted Charles Baudelaire at the end of the movie: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
I am not remotely as eloquent as Baudelaire, but as a journalist and commentator, I have often thought the greatest trick Western journalism, of which I am a practitioner, has ever pulled is to have convinced many people that it is objective and unbiased, or at least tries to be so with every news story published. It may fall short often, but the good intention and professional standards are always there, in every story or edition. It is, of course, nonsense. Tell that to Mr Rupert Murdoch and see if he could suppress a hearty laugh.
Be that as it may, Western news media cannot admit it has a lock on global opinion by its bias and influence operations, but rather through its objective truth and professional integrity. It is, ideologically, a lot like the West’s self-righteous claims on universal human rights. The empire has to deny that it is an empire, only one to promote democracy and human rights, by force if necessary.
The news media has always had an agenda. Modern journalism came into its own mostly through the British industrial revolution (mechanised printing presses), and the American, French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. It was always about taking sides, demonising the enemy and glorifying your own.
It was always already biased, wrote Canadian historian Harold Innis in The Bias of Communication – one of the founding texts of modern communications theory, along with Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media – as soon as dates, names, locations and other factual reports were recorded, published and preserved on cuneiform, bamboo sticks, papyrus or paper.
But those were, historically, media for the elites. Modern mass media – and digital social media – must then be even more biased in their manipulation of public opinions, in the construction of echo chambers and in creating virtual online tribes that are every bit as savage and unrestrained as real-life primitive tribes.
Is there a Western media hegemony? Of course there is, but those who work in and for it, lord over it, and benefit most from it are the ones most likely to deny its existence. Then there are the truly naive and brainwashed whose views we can safely ignore. Cue Baudelaire and the devil.
How does media hegemony work? At its most primitive, take out your commercial rivals and consolidate the business into a monopoly or nearly one. This parallels the consolidation of small states into big ones, in their search for hegemony; it is similar to what happened to actual states in ancient China, medieval Japan and early modern Europe. Media industry consolidation has been the contemporary norm in many western countries, such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany and France.
For example, in the early 1980s United States, about 50 companies owned 90 per cent of the media industry. By the mid-2010s, just six – Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney – controlled 90 per cent of US media. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft dominate online contents and services.
Framing debates and issues
In the psychology of “heuristics and biases”, “framing” is one of the most well-known and pervasive cognitive biases. How we make decisions and form opinions are dependent on the way in which information is presented (“framed”) to us. Would you prefer yoghurt that is “20 per cent fat” or “80 per cent fat-free”? In real life, we rarely encounter “neutral” information or its presentation. When vested powerful interests are involved, you can be sure there is no information neutrality or objectivity.
Why were those who joined violent rallies in South Africa usually called “rioters” in Western newspapers and “terrorists” in the US Capitol Hill riot, but in Hong Kong, they were labelled as “protesters” or even “pro-democracy protesters”? By using particular vocabulary, the news media already predispose you to drawing certain conclusions or forming specific opinions. That’s how public opinion is formed, not through a cognitively or politically neutral process but one that is manipulated by vested interests and powers through a pervasive Western-universal news media.
Read The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post; some Americans, especially those in the military, are often described as “patriots” but Chinese can never be patriots, only “nationalists”.
Nationalism is rabid, irrational and violent; patriotism is noble and self-sacrificing. After all, George Orwell’s famous critique is called “Notes on Nationalism”, not patriotism. Incidentally, Orwell fully approved a “quiet” and noble kind of British patriotism.
Sometimes, this can go to absurd lengths. An article in The New York Times in 2017 denounced the Indian sari as an expression of chauvinistic nationalism, which is a bit like linking cheongsam to Chinese nationalism.
Monopolising compassion and sympathy
You may feel compassion and sympathy for all humanity like French revolutionaries, but their actual exercise or application must be selective. Somehow, victims and refugees hurt by countries or regimes to which the West is hostile inevitably get much more reporting and op-ed space than those directly harmed by Western military operations or sanctions.
Suddenly, today, the BBC and CNN are going into overdrive covering Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. But long before the Taliban resumption of power, more than a million Afghan refugees have been languishing in Iran and Pakistan over many years because of the US and allied invasion and occupation. You may ask whether tyrannical Iran or the democratic US has been more humane to those refugees. Which country has accepted more of them? Pictures of desperate Afghans clinging to a US military plane and a few falling to their death or being crushed by landing gear come to mind.
Out of curiosity, I searched “China human rights 2000 – 2015” on Google and came up with 335,000,000 results. By comparison, I then searched “China human rights 2016 – 2021”, which yielded 539,000,000 results. Are we to believe China’s human rights situation worsened much more in five years than over the preceding 15 years? Or is it because there was a relatively good or stable relationship between China and the West during that period? But once it starts to unravel, the Western news media typically takes its cue from its governments to demonise China in a state-orchestrated propaganda campaign. This has been far more effective and devious than what the Chinese state-controlled media could possibly match.
In a formal democracy, particularly one with a global empire to uphold, public opinion is too important to be left to the people to think for themselves. It must be manipulated and manufactured to make sure the masses don’t end up challenging the elites.
With some people, their own herd mentality is mistaken for critical and independent thinking. It’s quite impossible to explain all that to local young people who hurled rocks at police and set shops on fire in 2019 when they have been hailed as heroes and democracy fighters by practically the entire Western press.
This article was first published by the South China Morning Post and is republished with permission.
For the other articles in the White Man’s Media series, please see here.