The Journalist’s First Obligation: Learning the Difference between Information and Propaganda.



If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War


I SUPPOSE by now I should be accustomed to my comrades on the Left criticising me for the twin sins of inconstancy and defeatism. As far back as the mid-1980s, when I was privileged to pen the National Business Review’s “By the Left” column, I was constantly fending-off the slings and arrows of outraged Labour Party members and alarmed trade unionists.

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“Why do you write about your own side like that?”, they would ask through gritted teeth. “Whose side are you on?”

In vain would I attempt to explain to them that the journalist’s first obligation is to tell the truth.

“If I fail to address the weaknesses – as well as the strengths – of the Labour Movement,” I would say, “my readers will very soon dismiss me as a hack; a cheerleader; or some professional politician’s unacknowledged mouthpiece. I will lose all credibility and very soon everybody except my family and friends will stop reading me – and with good reason!”

The way I like to think of journalism and political commentary is as the ordinary citizen’s intelligence service.

Governments maintain elaborate intelligence-gathering organisations to keep themselves abreast of what is happening both externally and internally. Corporations do the same. Many people think of lobbyists as people who badger politicians into giving their corporate employers what they want. But that is only a small part of their job. Lobbyists are also spymasters – running a host of agents/informants inside the bureaucracy, the news media, political parties and some of the more effective NGOs.

Why? Because information is power.

In a democracy, power is supposed to lie with the people. So, if information is power, then it stands to reason that democracy functions best when people are equipped with as much information as possible.

At this point it is important to define what information is – and isn’t. When using the word, I am referring to forms of communication based upon hard evidence, verifiable data and/or inferences founded in the direct observation and reasonable interpretation of people’s deeds and words.

Obviously, there is a vast difference between information and propaganda.

We are constantly surrounded by propaganda which, tellingly, is characterised by everything information is not. Propaganda does not rely upon hard evidence or verifiable data – indeed propagandists do not shrink from fabricating their own “evidence” or distorting the data. Inferences and assertions are made by propagandists without the slightest reference to directly observed events, and their conclusions owe virtually nothing to the reasonable interpretation of other people’s words and deeds.

The providers of information attempt to convince their audience by appealing to the rational faculties of the human animal. The propagandists approach is more visceral: their purpose is to ignite the most powerful human emotions: indignation, rage, pity, disgust. The providers of information want people to think – to judge. The propagandists want people to feel – to act.

It is no accident that the rise of mass societies and the growth of propaganda occurred together. As the population of cities burgeoned from thousands to millions in the space of just a few decades, the questions that plagued those whose business it was to govern these masses of humanity were: “How much should we tell them? How much do they need to know?”

One of the persons who attempted to answer these questions was the celebrated American journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippmann (1889-1974).

The “manufacture of consent” declared Lippmann, must become a “self-conscious art and regular organ of popular government.” The whole process to be managed by a “specialised class” dedicated to the “common interests” of society, which “very largely elude public opinion entirely”. The “responsible men” to whom the operations of society are entrusted, he concluded, must “live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.”

The crucial mission of public relations in liberal capitalist democracies was, therefore, to ensure that “the herd” remained passive “spectators” of the political process, and not active “participants”.

A contemporary of Lippmann’s, the philosopher John Dewey, cut through this elitist humbug with the pithy observation that modern politics was “the shadow cast upon society by big business.” If Dewey is right, then the key role of propaganda as it has developed over the past century, is that of reconciling society to living in the dark.

My entire professional life has been dedicated to combatting the colossal cynicism implicit in Lippmann’s notion that “responsible men” should be able to “live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.” My mission has always been to reduce the bewilderment of ordinary people to the minimum by informing them, to the maximum extent of my powers, about the actions of “responsible men”.

That mission has to include those who purport to be the defenders of ordinary people’s interests as well as those who pose a threat to those interests. If the strategies and tactics of those who are asking you to go into battle are deficient, then surely it is better to know than not know? Unless, of course, you subscribe to the sentiment contained in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade:

“Forward, the Light brigade!”

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldier knew

Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Hundreds of thousands of young Englishmen, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders went “over the top” between 1914 and 1918 with Tennyson’s words ringing in their ears. A whole generation of young men was wiped out and the world deprived forever of the individual contributions they might have made to art, science, medicine, music and literature – not only by the weapons of the enemy, but by the utter ignorance and indifference to suffering of their military and political leaders. Had they acted less like bewildered herds of sheep being led to the slaughter, and more like responsible men unwilling to cast away their lives and talents unnecessarily, what a world it might have been!

This year, as we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of outbreak of the First World War, the very best tribute we can possibly pay to those who lost their lives is to pledge that we will never do what they did. That we will always make reply; always question why. And that we will heed the advice of the Chinese philosopher and military strategist, Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) to do everything we possibly can to understand not only our enemy – but ourselves.


  1. Once again Chris, the Labour-leaning socialist, and myself, the anarchist libertarian, find ourselves in absolute agreement, this time about the function of – to borrow a phrase – public interest journalism. I agree with those commenters on your previous posts who have pointed out that criticism is most useful when constructive, but I ask them to heed their own advice in the way they choose to criticize your criticism.

    • Ever get the feeling, us anarchists are seen a rebels with morals Danyl? Chris, I like – but you missed out that a great many in the liberal institutions, like the church, Universities, the left/labour parties , Unions, Newspapers, and Hollywood have been active in the promotion of propaganda to the masses. This is at worst they have been active propagandists, and at best they have been deathly quiet. Too few have had the moral courage to stand up.

      Indeed it is why many anarchists are so critical of liberals, as they see many of them selling out the majority, to feather their own nest. At least you Chris have not fallen down that rabbit hole, and I hope for the best that Boomer doesn’t also.

  2. I’m not sure that Lippmann’s analysis still holds. In his view it still seems that the inner circle of “directors” possesses genuine knowledge about the way things are by which they can direct the ship of state, and that knowledge trumps political values, even if it is used for political ends. This is the way that most societies ended up being run in the 20th century, but to the disappointment of the right, those in the know turned out to be technocrats who were quite happy to relegate the free market to second fiddle in a wide variety of cases.

    What we have now is different: it’s politics all the way down. The right became convinced that they couldn’t win the knowledge wars, so they decided to make it political all the way down. This is especially noticeable in the United States where partisan politics largely determines what the “facts” are, especially for the Republicans.

    Note Karl Rove saying to Ron Suskind:

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Here propaganda has trumped information even for the insiders.

    Information would be valuable to ordinary voters, if only it was accepted as a legitimate currency by all sides, but it no longer is. It has been subordinated to politics by the right.

  3. Ok, I take your point, but with all this, I note that you spent a lot of time and words on polls and sentiment within the public and so. Do you seriously think the polls we get are reliable, sufficiently science based, or are they not rather dependent on factors, that leave polls open to interpretation and challenges?

    Information is of course power, but when we get presented polls like the last New Zealand Herald one, which appeared somewhat out of the ordinary, how can you base your commentary on them? That poll was leaving Labour at 29.5 percent support and National way ahead, while the same poll included a sub poll that has now justifiably been challenged by Mike Williams. It did not represent data on person’s voting and preference behaviour towards Len Brown in regards to the last Auckland local body elections. So there was a tiny group used to gather data from, who were not representative of votes cast for Len Brown last election, and that poll was used as evidence of Len Brown being highly unpopular now.

    There were questions about the ones not voting, and who were not having an opinion, being different to the last election data, and other surveys.

    When a sub poll is so out of line, how can we rely on the major poll? And then we know that polls often exclude cell phone users.

    We also know that polls work like re-enforcing views of people, discouraging undecided or those supporting low polling parties, to decide to not bother voting next election. It is a bit like self fulfilling prophecies. So polls tend to influence the views of people, same like media reports, and then the following polls are influenced by all that again.

    Are such “one sided”, biased or unreliable polls not themselves a form of “propaganda”? And in your last columns you appeared to rely on such polls and on the mainstream media reporting, being rather “anti Cunliffe” and “anti Labour” and so forth.

    Chris, are you a political commentator or journalist, as they are not the same? We also have on Matthew Hooton go around calling himself a “political commentator”, but he is biased as can be. We would think that journalists and even political commentators would both attempt to be neutral, but these days any person can be a “political commentator”, also propagandists with ulterior motives.

    You also do not dedicate any thought here on the influence of the “commercialisation” of people’s minds, which is a form of propaganda, as commercial enterprises (businesses in whatever form) use advertising to influence people’s thinking and behaviour, i.e. to buy what they want them to buy. We even have the phenomenon of consumerism, and that feeds into it also, being another consequence of commercialisation of people’s thinking and behaviour. This all has an impact on how people value things, also political developments and policies themselves. “What is in it for me”, is the motto for most.

    That favours the “free market” and right leaning philosophies, and we have people behave somewhat different to what they did a few decades ago, when they were not so exposed to “commercialisation”, advertising and “consumerism”.

    Where is your scrutiny of the media, which is now predominantly privately owned, some corporate, some in other private ownership forms. The media is heavily dependent on advertising, and has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and not have any “left” policies, that may bring more regulation and more competition from public broadcasting and better community based information services.

    And those New Zealanders and other Anglo Saxons that went to war in the First World War, they were also fed lots of propaganda. The same happened in WW2, and while the claim was they fought for freedom and democracy, first of all they were called to arms, to defend the interest of the capitalist elite, none else.

    You seem to at least come to terms a bit with the criticism that was thrown at you, and I must say, some of it was justified. Going on about so much negativity based on one poll, that was also a bit over the top in my eyes.

    Some of your posts have been insightful, enlightening and inspiring, but at times you seem to lose it. So I encourage you to actually present “balance” and information, and not just use questionable, also MSM nurtured biased polls to write stuff about.

    Best wishes Chris –


    • Perfect Marc, I totally agree, polls are propaganda tools and they need to stop these bullshit polls and get on with policy and educating the masses on why National needs to be gone.

      This poll was also taken from a small sample size of only 750 people. Also the timing of the poll during the overly publicised trust issue (which wasn’t really an issue at all) seems designed for maximum impact. Immediately afterwards there were also a host of readers polls rating Cunliffe’s leadership ability to reinforce all this negative publicity!!!

      This is going to be the dirtiest election campaign from the right we have ever seen. Now Hooton has manufactured rumours of a political coup happening inside the Labour Party. He said it so it must be true – he wouldn’t make this up would he? That would be propaganda. All this talk of Shane Jones as the next leader is a lurch to the right – national lite as you like to call it. The right as represented by the Whale Oil blog (I googled it) have posted a readers poll about the best leader for the Labour Party – Shane Jones or David Cunliffe. Almost all of them voted overwhelmingly for Shane Jones. That tells me all I need to know – if you want to vote left for a progressive government then get in behind and support David Cunliffe. Remember that with the media perception is reality. The media shape this perception and then give it constant exposure. Don’t fall for a predestined future – think for yourself or else others will do it for you for their own benefit.

  4. Good post, i wish i had the time to research the propaganda model version of new zealands media. I recently read your book, no left turn. My favourite chapter was the one on the suburbanization of auckland. i would have liked you to have included footnotes at the back of the book though, i was a little dissapointed in that.

  5. …and that is why a person of centre right persuasion such as myself reads your blog. Journalistic integrity. It’s in such short supply!

    As regards Lippmann’s ‘specialised class’ dedicated to the ‘common interest’ “, this is one of my major beefs with the politics of the Left.

    It seems genuine working class people are also in short supply. Too busy working to run the Party I suppose. Instead the leadership of the Left is populated with ‘Trustafarians’ and ‘Champagne Socialists’. Folk with carefully tousled hair and artificial Westie accents but who have secret bank accounts in NY, houses in Herne Bay, seven figure family trusts, and private school educations.

    This is the problem both Labour and the Greens face now. We can see right through them. They come across as fake. Few of these people have ever had dirt under their fingernails.

    This is why Shane Jones is striking a chord. It seems he associates with people who don’t attend the ballet and who don’t have a Colin McCahon on the wall of their family batch. So infra dig dahling!

  6. No truer words said when you write that information is power,so long as that information is based on hard evidence.So which evidence is the more correct;the Hearld Digi Poll or the Roy Morgan Poll?
    They are poles apart.
    I guess the next story could be about Labours’ fantastic surge in the polls indicating the rise and rise of David Cunliffe and the demise of Key and National.

    And herein lies the problem.The continual obfuscation of facts by all areas of the media to suit their own agendas!

  7. Possibly the greatest impediment to humanity is the notion of knowledge is power, a despicable notion, and the variety of intellectual that selfishly hoards knowledge and nurtures a condescending attitude with the dull objective of amassing power also deserves contempt.

    Ideally knowledge should be appreciated for the enlightenment it bestows. Once the power is sapped, perhaps humanity can quit the nonsensical revolution of history and achieve a profound age of enduring betterment.

    So contradictory in nature are the Elite; so superior in their conviction – yet constantly display a fear of the most lowly, however dim-witted and unremarkable their offspring – they nevertheless inherit superiority. The lifeblood of their existence is propaganda, in truth they shouldn’t exist, a paradoxical figment of a wayward human psyche. A “refined” variant of this troubled character was the donkeys that lead the lions to death a century ago.

    I think it’s wise to refrain from suggesting or comparing the Lost Generation or humans in general as bewildered herds of sheep, after all the mass mutinies of 1917 demonstrated popular discontent toward their leaders’ incompetence. Also the events leading to and during
    the First World War were unprecedented, its unlikely anyone, regardless of how intellectually developed could readily fathom the consequences. The social order that existed demonstrated its days were numbered, an extremely rigid hierarchy no longer able to cope with a modern age of flux.

    A century on, with the spectre of inequality and a raft of other pressures looming. One can’t help draw comparisons between now and then, however now is more precarious due to the depletion of the environment that supports us.

    The First World War was perhaps the last war in the Western World that was marked by celebration. Cheering crowds bidding farewell to loved ones off to war many of whom enlisted in the patriotic fervour of the time. Once the reality of the war set-in and ever since; war has been associated with a sombre attitude and a very vocal pacifist movement. At least that’s testament to an improvement in the human consciousness.

    Considering the upcoming protests against the TPPA, that agreement typifies the emerging way the world is governed; in undemocratic secrecy. We are expected to have faith in the “responsible men”. The raft of discussion groups over time such as Bilderberg, the Trilateral Commission, etc. Examples of Elite pow-wows that yield reactionary ideals and policies like the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report The Crisis of Democracy; that suggested problems of governance due to an excess of democracy, lack of central government authority, prestige and hegemonic power. Then there’s the influence on governments such as the Trilaterals over the Carter administration or the PNAC think tank on the G.W. Bush administration. Aggressive foreign policy advocated by PNAC supporters who never experienced war or like Cheney a Vietnam draft-dodger.

    Then there’s the hedonistic distribution of propaganda as entertainment like last week’s yawn inducing movie on Prime Red Dawn (1984). It’s easy to imagine how a movie about a Soviet invasion of the US would play into promoting the Reagan administration’s policies. In the movie one of the belligerent forces was Nicaraguan, reflecting the US support for the proxy war there at the time. Then there’s the other clichéd action movies of the time like Commando (1985). A highly muscular, elite and individualistic protagonist (Schwarzenegger) takes out an army of South American troops all alone, in the typical bare-chested final showdown, to bring justice to the antagonist; a former friend now traitor. Previously, the kidnapping and arms stolen from the store suggested; have to do what it takes to win, even if it’s breaking the rules. Almost seemed symbolic of the Iran-Contra affair.

    The importance of this distribution of propaganda can be attested to by the effort of the Nazi’s. Even with the Red Army advancing they used much-needed troops in the film Kolberg (1945). Today with the push for various laws protecting intellectual property, often bundled with the likelihood of increased spying powers, the profitable US industry of Hollywood and its history of propaganda is viewed as highly important to protect by the US Government and corporate backers; the US economy not in great shape, hegemony dented and those involved in the entertainment industry expecting a lavish lifestyle. With the Dotcom case, The Hobbit, James Cameron’s Wairarapa property, film tax breaks and the anti-file sharing law; this Government has demonstrated the degree to which they’re corporate flunkies for Hollywood. Not forgetting to mention the dark veil cast with poor quality broadcasting under this Government.

    While it’s sometimes easy to think of many as bewildered herds given their behaviour at times, it isn’t because their intelligence is inferior, most if not everyone seeks comfort and peace depending on the means available. Because by character some are active and their pride forms a condescending attitude; there is no excuse to farm their peers and deprive them of their dignity. In the end it’s a person’s will to appreciate the information available, ideally the mind should have access to a vast abundance of free information. Better to be a shepherd than a farmer of minds.

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