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Public Relations or Propaganda? How the News Is Spun

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

"He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind. Repeat mechanically your assumptions and suggestions, diminish the opportunity for communicating dissent and opposition. This is the formula for political conditioning of the masses." - Joost Meerloo The Rape of the Mind


Everyone has opinions.

According to the definition in my on-line dictionary, an opinion is:

  1. a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
  2. a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.

The dictionary also very helpfully provides a quote, from Friedrich Nietzsche: "One sticks to an opinion because he prides himself on having come to it on his own, and another because he has taken great pains to learn it and is proud to have grasped it: and so both do so out of vanity."

That’s a good quote and worth keeping in mind.

The word is from the Latin opinan, to think.

Thus an opinion is a thought, but not one based on fact.

It is one of my observations that people will give their opinions freely without necessarily knowing the source. They think the source is in their own head. It is their opinion, after all. They own it, like a piece of property. But then, when you question them about it, you discover that they cannot tell you how they arrived at their opinion. They cannot tell you where it comes from. They cannot even tell you the facts behind their opinion. Very often what facts they can cite are wrong, or questionable in some way.

What’s more, you soon learn that almost everyone you speak to on any one topic has exactly the same opinion. The same thought exists in everyone’s head. So everyone has an opinion, everyone thinks it’s their opinion, and yet they share the opinion with everyone else. This is what is referred to as Public Opinion. It’s like a virus: the mind-flu. Only it’s not an airborne virus which you catch when someone sneezes, it’s a thought-borne virus which you catch by listening to other people’s opinions.

Public Relations

The problem with opinions is that, once having arrived at them, we then think we know all there is to know about a situation, and that no further thought is required. We are all guilty of this, on the left as well as on the right.

People in the Public Relations Industry refer to themselves as “opinion makers”. They work through people they call opinion leaders. Opinion leaders are people who are able to influence other people in their thinking. In other words, their job is to implant opinions into other people’s heads.

The pioneer of the modern Public Relations Industry, Edward Bernays, said: "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."

In fact even the term “Public Relations” is a public relations exercise. What Bernays meant was propaganda, but he recognised that that word had negative connotations, so invented the term “public relations” to cover it.

An early success for Bernays’ newly conceived industry was a campaign to persuade women to smoke. This was in the early 1920s. There was already a great social movement towards women’s emancipation, but Bernays managed to link this to the idea of women smoking. Smoking in public was interpreted as an act of personal and political emancipation.

You can see from this example that the industry is both opportunistic and clever. The movement toward women’s emancipation already existed. Bernays’ great achievement was to link this to a specific product. It was to take a thought that already existed and to turn it to particular ends. So cigarettes became a symbol of individual emancipation. Women adopted the symbol en masse without realising that they were being manipulated.

There’s an irony here. The more general an idea becomes, the more people will adopt it for themselves. The mass media’s great success is that it makes an appeal to the individual. People use certain products in order to display their individuality. You hear people talking about their movies, their music, their food, their lifestyle, as if these things really belonged to them. Adverts for hair gel, for example, emphasise individuality. Individuality is contrasted with regimentation, while the product is used by millions of people. Millions of people all wearing the same hair gel, all doing so in order to be unique.

Likewise people have their opinions. They wear their opinions like hair gel. It’s a statement of individuality. I’m this kind of person, I’m that kind of person. We divide ourselves into tribes using our opinions. Once we discover what a person’s opinions are then we think we can assess them. We can dismiss them or embrace them on the basis of their opinions. We don’t have to listen to them any more. We know what their opinions are. We check their opinions against our own in order to judge them. Whole swathes of the human race are categorised in this way. We are like football supporters at a football match, wearing our opinions like scarves around our necks to show which side we are on.


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"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." - Joseph Goebbels



William Hague on the Andrew Marr show

William Hague on the Andrew Marr show

The same techniques which are used to sell us hair gel or lifestyle options can also used to sell us war.

It is to do with the management of perceptions. Human beings are not rational creatures. We do not make judgements based on fact. Rather we can be manipulated by emotion. The news is spun to create certain narratives. There are good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the good guys turn into the bad guys, as in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was once an ally, and then became an enemy. Sometimes the bad guys turn into good guys, as in Germany after the 2nd World War, or Japan. It all depends on the story line that is being constructed and for what purpose.

Take the situation in Iran. Everyone has opinions about this. In the latest of a long line of news items on the matter, William Hague has just warned us that Iran is a threat to the peace of the world. According to the BBC:He cited an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, plus alleged involvement in recent attacks in New Delhi, Georgia and Bangkok.”

Mr Hague is quoted as saying that it showed "the danger Iran is currently presenting to the peace of the world".

Of course the BBC is committed to impartiality, and dutifully adds: “Iran denies any involvement in the recent attacks”. That’s one line out of 70 on Iran’s response to the accusations.

Other lines accuse Iran of “secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb” and of potentially triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

There is also an ominous suggestion of a threat to the London Olympics. Mr Hague says that there is “no specific information” on such a threat, but adds, "clearly Iran has been involved increasingly in illegal and potentially terrorist activity in other parts of the world".

Did you get that? While telling us that there is no information about such a threat, he is also simultaneously warning us to be worried about the threat, based on unverified accusations of events in far-off countries which Iran has denied having had any part in.


This is how the news is spun.

It is a constant slow drip of propaganda disguised as news. The only reason this counts as news at all is because William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, made these statements on the Andrew Marr Show. They are opinions being expressed by one who is supposed to know on a TV programme we are supposed to trust. But that’s all they are: opinions. They have no more validity, really, than the opinions expressed by the man on the bar stool next to you down the pub.

William Hague is an “opinion leader”. The Andrew Marr Show is his platform. We assume he is more informed than the rest of us, and yet he is making statements which, when investigated, can be shown to be untrue.

Take the line about Iran secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb. This is repeated over and over and over again. It has been said so many times, in so many different forms, that it has almost acquired the status of a truism. It is “an undoubted or self-evident truth: one too obvious to mention,” to give you a dictionary definition of the word.

On the other hand the statement has also been repudiated almost as many times: the difference being that the repudiations don’t appear in the mainstream media, or they appear as one-line denials by the Iranian authorities which we are encouraged to dismiss.

If it is a self-evident truth that Iran is secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb, why would U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak both say that it is not?

To quote, January the 18th 2012 on Israeli Army Radio:

  • Question: Is it Israel’s judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?
  • Barak: … Confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible. Apparently that is not the case.…

Or again, on January the 8th, US Defence Secretary Panetta told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that “the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them [the Iranians] … and to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”

Get that?

Are the Iranians trying to develop a nuclear weapon?


You can’t get clearer than that.

So how come William Hague is saying the opposite? Does William Hague know something that Leon Panetta and Ehud Barak do not?

Of course not.

Is he just wrongly informed?

One would hope not.

Which leaves just one other possibility: that he is deliberately misinforming the public.

Smears and innuendoes

In fact the whole of the statement is a web of lies and distortions and false accusations mixed with smears and innuendoes, most of which turn out to be little more than advertising slogans for the war we are being sold.

Take the one about Iran starting a nuclear arms race. Firstly, as we’ve already seen, it isn’t trying to acquire nuclear weapons: but then, even if it was, it couldn't ever use them. It is surrounded by nuclear states. The United States is a nuclear state and has troops in Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Iraq; its 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain; there are undoubtedly nuclear weapons aimed at Iran right now. Israel is a nuclear state, as is India and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has no need of acquiring nuclear weapons as it is protected by the United States. In other words, if Iran ever attempted to use its newly acquired nuclear arsenal, it would be blown to smithereens a hundred times over.

Or the one about the supposed attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador using Mexican drug cartel assassins, which was so insane that it was almost borders on self-satire, and has been effectively dismantled a number of times. And yet William Hague can still reel it out as if it is a fact.

It goes along with the rest of the rag-bag collection of misrepresentations we’ve been landed with over the years: Ahmadinejad wants to “wipe Israel off the map” (he never said that); Iran is a terrorist state (it isn’t); there was wide spread vote-rigging at the last election (there wasn’t) and the opposition won (it didn’t); Iran supports terrorism (it doesn’t); it is a threat to its neighbours (it isn’t); it is engaged in illegal activities (it isn’t); Ahmadinejad is irresponsible and insane (he isn’t); he doesn’t care about the outcome of a nuclear war (he would have to be insane not to be).

The propaganda is almost mind boggling in its audacity. To threaten Iran while accusing it of being a threat. To commit terrorist acts against it while accusing it of terrorism. To support terrorist organisations in Iran while accusing Iran of supporting terrorism abroad.

This is some achievement: to have almost exactly reversed the actual situation in the public’s mind so that it appears that the opposite is true.

In other words: a highly successful advertising campaign.

Iran: surrounded by nuclear states


© 2012 Christopher James Stone


Mike Russo from Placentia California on July 18, 2012:

Fear can be a great motivator and is used every day. One of the terms that is used is "It's a slippery slope to go from a to b."As an example: "What if we do nothing about Iran, it could lead to a nuclear war." That's a slippery slope that has a component of fear. The fact that the republican house has voted 33 times to repeal Obama Care is about repetition. They know full well that the senate is not going to approve it, but they continue to do it because it brainwashes people into thinking it is bad. Everybody has an opinion, but they are not trying to convince themselves of the validiy of the opinon, but the person who they are arguing with. Thanks for this hub, voted up, useful, and sharing.

luke strand on February 25, 2012:

I recall (irony) the USA supported Iran developing nuclear power when the Shah was in power. The IAEA reservations were then that the danger is: much of the country is liable to earthquake. In an act of public relations the US made the case that it would be safe to build the German-designed power stations as they had proved immune to earthquake when built previously... in Germany.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 22, 2012:

OK Larry, no I don't have documentary evidence for that statement. I just tend to suspect anything coming out of the Western media as propaganda, so will dismiss it. That's wrong, and I will amend that statement. I still suspect they are a lot less oppressive to women than we have been lead to believe, certainly no more oppressive to women than our great ally Saudi Arabia.

Larry Fields from Northern California on February 22, 2012:

Wow! Outstanding hub. Voted up and much more. For some reason, I'm reminded of two things. First, there's Benford's Law of controversy:

"Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available."

The second is from the late Hal Lewis' book, Technological Risk. I forget the exact quote, but basically he says that if a risk makes the headlines, the seriousness of the risk is inversely proportional to the scariness and frequency of the headlines. Of course, smoking is an exception to that rule.

One small quibble. You claim that Iran doesn't oppress women. Do you have documentation for that claim?

My understanding is that Iranian women who are accused of committing adultery are often killed. I don't know if The State does it, or if The State conveniently looks the other when family members carry out an 'honor killing'.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 22, 2012:

Hello Grace, I actually think the capitalist economy depends on perpetual war now. It's they way they redistribute the wealth, from the poor to the rich. The arms industry is the delivery method. The welfare state for the rich. Get everyone worked up about war and you can get away with anything.

Grace on February 22, 2012:

Thanks so much for this Chris, these facts need to be shouted from the rooftops. After the catastrophe of the Iraq war, it is unbelievable that the US, Israel and their allies are now getting ready for yet another war based on lies and disinformation. The Middle East will go up in flames if this crazy sabre-rattling is not cooled down. Threatening noises from our masters about the Falklands too using the same propaganda as about Iran. The notion of Perpetual War seems to excite those in power, no doubt beccause it takes the public's mind off their ruinous domestic policies.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 21, 2012:

Thanks Dave, yes I heard about the Americans encouraging the Shah to develop a nuclear industry, and I'm not at all surprised that the IAEA is riddled with CIA agents. I believe the current head has made an open declaration that he is pro US too, but they still haven't found proof that there's a weapons programme, just innuendo again.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 21, 2012:

David, no regime is any good. Here in Britain we've become tolerant of homosexuals, but it's not a good place to be poor or a Muslim or an immigrant. The USA has the highest ratio of prison inmates to the general population in the world, most of whom are black or hispanic. So the USA is not a good place to be black or hispanic. Maybe China should refuse to do trade deals with the USA on the basis of its human rights record. No regime is good, but we all have to live, and Iran is a great deal less oppressive that a lot of the regimes we accommodate ourselves to, I would say, including the USA.

dave on February 21, 2012:

good article chris.

incidentally, who was it who first encouraged the Iranians to start developing nuclear power? Well the Americans of course, but that was then their great democratic buddy the Shah of Iran was in charge.

And the International Atomic Energy Agency has got CIA personnel coming out of its eyeballs -- I know because I worked for one of them before she moved on to the IAEA, although she doesn't work there any more.

DavidParkes from Tenerife on February 21, 2012:

I'm not arguing for another war.... I'm just arguing that its important not to let apologetics blind us into believing Iran is OK... it isn't.

And hell, neither is Saudi Arabia, neither is China or North Korea its time that the west took a general moral stand against oppressive regimes, rather than making polite objections whilst we cosy up to another trade deal.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 21, 2012:

"It's a bad place to be gay" Fen - it sounds like a song.

Yes I'm working on it Sally. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on February 21, 2012:

I checked out traveling to Iran from here in the US. It's a daunting exercise. Maybe it's easier for you. I hope you do that and bring us your perceptions from there.

fen lander from Whitstable on February 21, 2012:

It's a bad place to be gay.... sounds like a good reason to incinerate a few million women and children - that'll stop them being subjugated.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on February 21, 2012:

I don't think I said it was benign David. I said it wasn't what it was portrayed as being. It may have as bad a government as you say it has but is that a reason to risk a third world war over? Saudi Arabia is at least a bad a place to be if you're gay, subjegates women much more actively, has an equally medieval judicial system, and isn't even nominally democratic. So maybe we should bomb Saudi Arabia then?

Glad you like the video Sally. That was what started this hub. It shows a different face to Iran than the one that is portrayed in the west. I'm even considering taking a holiday there.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on February 21, 2012:

Critical thinking is just about dead. Most of us grow up swallowing what's poured into a spoon in front of our faces, believing without question that the hand holding the spoon knows what it's doing and is acting in our interest.

Awesome video about the Iran we rarely see. Modern, energetic, sophisticated. Say, all those people look a lot like us, don't they? What a surprise considering what we've been sold by "opinion leaders".

DavidParkes from Tenerife on February 21, 2012:

There's a lot of truth in what you write about Opinion making. There is also a lot of truth in what you say about misinformation about Iran. But your overall assessment of the Iranian Regime as benign is questionable.

It has a system of government designed to install only social conservatives who can impress the clerics, it actively subjugates women, has medieval judicial system and possibly the worst place in the world to be gay.

Unless Iran does turn its attention to developing Nuclear Weapons it may not be much of a threat to its neighbours but to its own people? Well that's a different story.

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