Once the coast is clear, you creep outside to examine their handiwork. The obelisk is covered with carvings of soldier, looking remarkably like those who have just left, engaged in countless victorious battles, decimating the countryside and gruesomely killing people who look remarkable like you. Prominently portrayed, surveying sphinx-like the carnage committed in his name. is the Pharaoh. You can’t read, but you get the picture. You, in consort with your disaffected neighbours, had been contemplating, in rather desultory fashion, a small uprising. You change your mind in what is one of the earliest examples of the power of propaganda.
Of course, as is often the case with big ideas when they are in their infancy, the methods employed in ancient Egypt were far from subtle. But over subsequent centuries, the use of propaganda was conscientiously honed.
It was not until the First world War that propaganda made the quantum leap from the gentler arts of persuasion to become the tool of coercion. As Philip Taylor says in War and the Media: “Before 1914, it simply meant the means by which the proponent of a particular doctrine….propagated his beliefs among his audience…propaganda is simply a process of persuasion. As a concept, it is neutral and should be devoid of value judgements”.
It is unlikely, at least in the west, that propaganda will ever be rehabilitated as a neutral concept. The very word is now so loaded with sinister connotations that it evokes an immediate and visceral sense of outrage. For the use of propaganda reached its apogee in the machinery of the third Reich. Hitler and Goebbles between them elevated it to a black art of such diabolical power that it has been permanently discredited among those who witnessed its expression. Indeed in 1936 at Nuremberg, Hitler attributed his entire success to the workings propaganda. He said: “Propaganda brought us to power, propaganda has since enable us to remain in power and propaganda will give us the means of conquering the world”.
It is therefore unsurprising that Western governments and politicians are liable to perform the most extreme presentational acrobatics in their efforts to avoid the dreaded ‘p’ word being applied to any of their activities. They have developed impressive lexicons of euphemisms and doublespeak to distance themselves from any taint of it, real or imagined.
Inevitably, the media is alive to this hypersensitivity and the ‘p’ word has become a potent weapon in its arsenal. It is used pejoratively, with intent to discredit the wound, as government are painfully aware. For Propaganda is the spectre that haunts many a government – inspired media fest. It is the uninvited guest, the empty chair which serves to remind the hosts precisely why the gathering has been convened and forces them to run quality tests on the fare on offer –is it factually nutritious, is it presented in a balanced and truthful way, is its integrity intact?
In this one respect, at least, the negative connotations attached a Propaganda actually perform a positive function. They offer a salutary remainder of all that government information is supposed not to be and act as a ferocious curb on any runaway tendency of excess. Most importantly, the public is alive to the danger of Propaganda and alert to its manifestations whether overt or covert. They know that Propaganda it the serpent lurking in the tree of knowledge; that it is subtle, it beguiles, it seduces, it holds out simple dreams and turns them into nightmare realities, it subverts, it pretends to be other than it is. They know that it is the poisoned fruit of the goblin market, not the plain bread of truth that is the staples diet of information. And they will noy tolerate it.
They succumb instead to the more blatant blandishments of advertising, which might be regarded as the wolf of Propaganda, tamed and turned to domestic use. Safe in the knowledge that the wolf has been securely trussed by the ruled and regulation of the advertising standards authority, they knowingly consent to being had.