The devil is always in the detail

Rookwood, Going Postal
ciocciLicence CC BY 2.0

Cast your mind back to the morning of Friday the 2nd of May 1997. The British electorate had overwhelmingly swept Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to power, in a landslide victory that conjures imagery of a hero being carried aloft by the raised hands of the worshipful masses. I too, was bewitched by this change in national mood – the rapid pace of change under Margaret Hilda Thatcher had taken on a life of its own, and the Conservative brand was now permanently tarnished with a bleak negativity that fuelled division amongst the “have nots”. While I had benefited to a modest degree from the Thatcher revolution, the Britain I knew and loved had changed beyond all recognition. Rather than embracing conservatism with a small “c”, the national moral and ethical bedrock had been violently eroded by a fast flowing mighty force of water. By opening the floodgates of opportunity, not only was the national landscape irrevocably changed, but a new totem was carved above the gateway to citizenship and social acceptance. Greed was good, personal responsibility paramount, and you better look after number one as the state was not going to. The neo-liberal bandwagon proved to be an unstoppable force in every part of our lives, driven at speed by the twin horses of situation ethics and the end justifying the means. Whilst Margaret Thatcher remains grossly misunderstood and undervalued as a national leader, her legacy and name is still regarded 40 years later with a discernible bile and venom in certain circles, a testament to the force of change she expedited during her term in office.

And so to the coronation of Blair. It wasn’t long before the glitter wore off from the young pretender. The cheering crowds that greeted the Blairs’ in London that Friday morning were far from an organic and spontaneous demonstration of public love and goodwill. Labour supporters and activists were corralled to provide a backdrop of “feel good”, and it was only by the intervention of the civil service that Union Jack flags were used rather than the more political New Labour placards. Before even placing a toe inside Number 10, Blair was already deceiving the British public on a national scale. His key to this deception was his strong grasp and understanding of perceptions management. While Margaret Thatcher successfully employed this technique with the assistance of Gordon Reece prior to her election (and subsequently with the assistance of the Saatchi brothers), this was very much constrained to her appearance and voice. Such gross public manipulation would not be cricket after all. Discarding a twinset and pearls and voice coaching is one thing 1, shipping in fawning acolytes for the benefit of public perception, quite another.

Perceptions management is a propaganda technique used in information warfare 2, the main drivers being deception and disinformation for the benefit the sponsor. Far be it limited to just the public relations arena, it is a widely used technique both in corporate marketing and the public sector. According to Kegon Thomas 3, the nine strategies include preparation, credibility, multichannel support, centralised control, security, flexibility, coordination, concealment, and untruthful statements. Of those attributes, the first four, as well as flexibility and coordination, are pretty much self explanatory. Any credible PR campaign will have these pillars supporting the message. We are all well versed on the importance of being “on message”, and the repetition of the same message being amplified – be it through breakfast television, local radio, the print media or indeed Twitter or Facebook. Throw a few talking heads into the mix, as well as a think tank or two with the backup of some academic statistics, and you have a recipe for a successful campaign. What I want to focus on here is the darker side – security, concealment and “untruthful statements”. These are the tools of the public relations wizard, that transform something seemingly unpalatable into a three course meal ready to be consumed by the unwary.

The sheer effrontery of the media to suggest that they are the sole purveyors of truth is a case and point, when examining the narrative of fake news. Thinking they would be clever and by disguising the slight of hand afforded by hidden agendas, omission of facts and the clear bias of vested interests in form of advertisers, the media sector has been left like a naked emperor shivering in a storm now that the supporting argument of “appeal to authority” has been removed. Time and again, they have been shown to peddle half-truths and distortions, and to suggest that they may be the final arbiter of truth, or indeed, information, has led to the demise of the local newspaper and reached to the executive suites and balance sheets of CNN and Buzz Feed. The “Fake news” narrative is now dead, and any media outlet pointing that moral finger now risks considerable blowback. The public has seen through the deception, and the establishment is scared. Very scared. The ongoing war on free speech has only just begun, censorship seemingly being the only tool left in the toolkit when people vote with their wallet and refuse to buy into such a clearly distorted narrative.

This is only the tip of a very large iceberg, however. The poison of perceptions management is the hidden evil twin of political correctness. Like a black hole hiding behind a star, political correctness is the public face of manipulation, all bovver boots, aggro, scars, tattoos and knuckle duster. You know you will generally come off worse in a fight, so few bother. Perceptions management on the other hand, prefers to remain lurking in the shadows. The key to its power is secrecy, for once you know you are being manipulated, any power it holds over you immediately evaporates. For that reason, it is always kept well hidden, and much effort is expended to keep it that way. Generally expedited via powerful specialist consultancies that can plead “plausible deniability” if the wheel comes off, these are the masters of deception. Sometimes a particularly efficient guru is brought in-house, but the danger here is the individual themselves can quickly become the story. Having to lie, manipulate and scheme on such an epic scale takes a huge human and personal toll. It is also very costly in financial terms, in the case of the Iraq war, approaching hundreds of millions of dollars. You think Tony Blair was the most shameful liar in that whole episode? The daughter of the Kuwait Ambassador, coached by Hill+Knowlton, the largest PR company in the world at the time, was the “hook” to qualify the Iraq war in the eyes of the US public. Her testimony to “Congress” of Iraqi soldiers leaving 312 premature babies to die on the floor of Kuwaiti hospitals, was one of the most compelling perception management campaigns in living history. Later investigation by the Kuwaitis themselves reached the conclusion that this testimony was false. Or to put it another way, lying under oath in front of a congressional committee is a crime; lying from under the cover of anonymity to a [congressional] caucus is merely public relations 4.

There is much discussion online about the Islamic practice of taqiya, which in essence is a “get out of jail free” card for the Muslim to deny his faith to escape persecution. It is ironic therefore, that one of the latest perception management campaigns was to secretly use “professional mourners” from the Muslim community after the London Bridge terrorist atrocity to quickly defuse any bad feeling. Should an attack have occurred on a mosque, to quote an emergency planning official – “What is wanted is flowers being handed out outside mosques and not riots”. Emergency planners also advise on the form of words that political leaders should use after such an attack, and help enact the pre-planned vigils and inter-faith events if required. Termed “controlled spontaneity”, the idea is to run a professional PR campaign via social media with real life “boots on the ground” to artificially inspire social cohesion. The deception here is to suggest any outpourings of grief are organic, born out of common humanity and decency, when in fact they are a PR mirage. Such behaviour goes well beyond anything I believe either Thatcher or Blair would have dared contemplate during their tenure. To betray the memories of the deceased – irrespective of belief – in such a cynical manner, is truly beneath contempt. Until such practices which betray trust at such a visceral and fundamental level are exposed and vigorously dealt with, the continuing cycle of cynicism and distrust of the UK populace towards both the media and politicians will continue unabated. Quite rightly so.


1. The Daily Telegraph: How Maggie Thatcher was remade
2. Powerbase: Perception management
3. Wikipedia : Perception management strategies
4. PR Watch: How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf
5. Wikipedia: Taqiya
6. Middle East Eye: The secret UK government blueprints shaping post-terror planning

© Rookwood 2019

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