On Wednesday, 2 October 2019, Dr Piers Robinson held a talk titled ‘Fake News’ and Propaganda in the Modern World, in South London. This event was hosted by the Lewisham West and Penge Labour Party. I attended and afterwards thought it would be interesting to provide a summary of the talk.
I’ll start with an introduction to Piers Robinson, my interest and some background to the event.
Dr Piers Robinson
For those not familiar with his work, he was until recently the Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield. He is Co-Director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies.
His focus is propaganda and communication, conflict and the role of the media and he’s lectured extensively and participated in events organised by Stop the War Coalition and Frome Stop the War. Piers has also been a speaker at several ‘Media on Trial’ events focused on the media and the conflict in Syria.
Many readers will have heard of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media of which Piers is convenor.
This group recently received attention for receiving a leaked unpublished part of the OPCW report into the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria in 2018. This information has cast significant doubt on the official OPCW findings and the West’s narrative of blaming and then bombing the Syrian military.
I was pleased to hear that Piers was holding this event at the Sydenham Centre within a bike-ride for me. Previously I had travelled far and wide to attend Media on Trial events in Frome in Somerset, Central London (2017) and Leeds (2018).
The expert speakers at those presentations also included Vanessa Beeley, Patrick Henningsen, Peter Ford (former UK ambassador to Syria) Robert Stuart (researcher of the BBC Panorama programme, ‘Saving Syria’s Children’) and Professor Tim Hayward (also on the Syria Working Group).
These events were superb because each speaker had a different expertise and perspective which for me provided a compelling picture of conflict in the world and the toxic role of mainstream media.
These occasions also have a history of being disrupted. For example, the Media on Trial event held in a Baptist church in London, Piers was the first speaker in the line-up and had to speak over a protest by anti-Assad protesters before they were ejected.
The venue for the Leeds event was cancelled several times after protests before being held at short notice and in relative secrecy in the grounds of a mosque away from the centre of Leeds.
So, when I heard about this event, I wasn’t surprised that it started to receive some unwelcome attention on social media from the ‘usual suspects’ and from various Labour councillors in the area.
In fact, some councillors posted a letter on Twitter they’d sent to the Secretary of the area party urging that the event be cancelled. This letter included the usual smears that Piers promoted conspiracy theories and war crimes denial.
Some hours before the event we were informed by email that the venue had been moved from Sydenham to Forest Hill. No real inconvenience for me but an extra mile peddling on the bike. When we arrived, we were told by one of the organisor’s present they’d been informed the original venue booking had been cancelled due it being required for an important licensing meeting.
The event was held in a room in the large Victorian building which gradually filled up with latecomers, some of whom had only learned late of the change of venue.
The talk was opened by Dr Ewa Sidorenko, a university lecturer https://www.gre.ac.uk/people/rep/faculty-of-education-and-health/ewa-sidorenko who told us a little about herself, followed by Piers who explained the outline to his presentation.
The purpose of the event was to explain the role of propaganda in the modern world and how it’s undermined democracy and caused war – and what can be done about it.
I didn’t make notes as at that stage had not planned to write this summary. So, this is more an overview, some of my thoughts at the time and the main points I took away.
Piers explained the history of propaganda particularly in the context of war and the differences between the crude posters from previous World Wars and the more subtle but highly effective way it is deployed now. He said that many people associate the word ‘propaganda’ with the past and therefore struggle to find a place for it in a modern-day context and their daily lives.
Piers said that he believes it is still less common for outright lies to be used within the media to mislead the audience, but techniques used over time such as misdirection and omission of information has created the highly distorted picture of world affairs we see today. Piers has previously written articles explaining in more detail how this plays out.
Syria was the case study he used to demonstrate how this model had created a situation where the facts about the cause and course of the long war bore little resemblance to the media coverage.
The media have controlled the narrative and focused on soundbites such as ‘moderate rebels’ and ‘regime’ to create the misleading impression the conflict is a civil war rather than a proxy war with many complex motives and players involved.
As with the collective speakers at Media on Trial, Piers referred to the timeline of conflict since 9/11 and the so called ‘war on terror’. He pointed out that it was General Wesley Clark who stated that the US had planned in the aftermath (and likely before) to ‘take out’ seven countries, ending with Iran.
This has since largely been played out most notably in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Piers highlighted the danger of the current conflicts escalating to Iran and beyond unless something is to change.
My thoughts on all this are that many of us have become distracted and failed to examine the timeline of events since 9/11. We look at news and conflict in isolation and move on to the next without seeing what is now a clear pattern.
By looking and reflecting on historic events since 9/11, whatever narratives used by the media at the time, it becomes clear that these wars have been planned solely to achieve regime change – and most likely to push the regional and global geo-political balances to breaking point.
The historic facts are damning and indisputable, sadly, for now, they are just being overlooked partly because mainstream media directs attention back to its black and white narratives.
Twenty years on and with no effective anti-war movement (unlike pre-Iraq) it is depressing, yet fascinating to see where we are in 2019.
Piers talked about further challenges and the emergence of think tanks and shadowy government-funded groups, such as Integrity Initiative, which are engaged in an aggressive information war against Russia and individuals who challenge official narratives.
He talked about the obvious dangers to democracy and world stability of misinformation and the increasing censorship and threat to free speech which appears to be being stepped up on social media platforms.
Piers said that while he had researched propaganda extensively, he struggles to come up with strategies in terms of what can be done to counter it. This was discussed a little further in the questions and answers session.
Piers commented that it is up to academia to get more involved and be allowed to get involved in debating these issues. And perhaps ultimately, it’s for all of us to use our critical thinking and talents to put ideas forward – as Piers, his colleagues in Media on Trial and others have demonstrated.
Questions and discussion
Some time was set aside for questions but I will concentrate on the discussions around two of these at the talk. I also asked Piers after the event to answer a question I had, his response I think some of us may relate to and gain some encouragement from.
The first was not so much a question as such but a young man originally from Afghanistan told the audience of his harrowing experience while a boy. He told us that members of his close family were killed in an attack on his village. I believe he said this was carried out by the US military which in the aftermath falsely blamed the presence of militants as a pretext for the attack.
Piers and members of the audience discussed this reflecting on the fact that it is now 18 years since that brutal war started. This contribution I’m sure further highlighted to the audience the evil and futility of war and our own silent complicity and disregard for lives elsewhere. The young man stated that he is currently writing a book on his experiences which the audience wished him well with.
One observation from an audience member was that he thought in the past people and especially the young were more inclined to question government and media narratives than is the case nowadays.
The question posed was why even in the climate of a large-scale media black-out, large sections of the younger population don’t appreciate the gravity of what is going on in the world and somehow separate it completely from their own daily lives. Piers drew on some of his interactions with his students and the education system and stated that he felt some young people didn’t have the confidence to engage on issues and debate multi-layered arguments about foreign policy.
He said that perhaps the education structure and measure of success nowadays being more geared to academic results was not so suited to equipping students with critical thinking skills.
For me, this was an interesting question and quite possibly there are many, educational and non-educational reasons why young and older alike struggle with grasping with these issues even when they attempt to.
After the event, I asked Piers a question concerning how he deals at a personal level with the constant smears of him by people who refuse to engage with his research. I was interested as from personal experience I can relate to the feeling of frustration at people who seemingly can’t grasp simple concepts or debate issues yet feel it is OK to bully, smear and censor. For Piers and others who produce such great research to try to awaken people, I’d imagine this feeling was particularly acute.
Piers answered my question, stating that he continually reminds himself that;
a) these are deliberate tactics designed to break your will to resist.
b) remember that in the long run the truth will come out and that there will be vindication.
c) smear and attacks indicate you are having an effect and threatening those in power.
d) however unpleasant, smears are a fraction of that endured by people suffering in the war zones we have been creating.
The disruption of the event
As I say, I was not surprised to see the planning of this event follow a similar pattern to the Media on Trial disruptions.
In those cases it seemed to me that there must have been some higher-level co-ordination to try to censor and disrupt those events by people whose work and salary depends on a truer narrative of world events not coming to the surface.
But to someone not from a political background it was interesting to me to observe the activity on social media accounts of some Labour councillors after the letter of protest about the event was posted. It was clear that some of these people spend a great deal of time on Twitter.
What was striking from some of the exchanges I came across is that the Labour Party appears to be in a power struggle between those who’ve retained their core principles and perhaps a new breed who I’m not sure what they stand for.
I’m sure Piers Robinson can take the smears and the refusal to accept the many invitations he has offered to refute his research in his stride. I guess he has been doing this long enough while for one or two of the councillors involved, sixth-form looks like their last big project.
It was nevertheless good to see that Piers was invited to speak and credit to the organisors and party members who helped this event proceed in difficult circumstances.
I think this was a highly thought-provoking presentation for both those familiar with the topics under discussion and for those just starting to become more engaged.
For me, attending my first Media on Trial in 2017, which included Piers Robinson was like a burden lifting from me, having my views on the state of the world and the media validated by experts.
So, I’d encourage everyone to attend any future events like this, whether it’s a bike-ride or on the other side of the country.
The other important thing to say is that both in terms of presentation style and what he says, Piers Robinson does not remotely come across as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ or ‘war crimes denier’. He has produced excellent research papers which nobody has refuted. I detected nothing political or any prejudice in any of his presentations.
In fact, out of all the people I have seen speak, Piers goes to great pains to qualify his views and debate respectfully.
For example, on subjects such as Douma and 9/11 he typically sets out the evidence and lists the questions which arise from his research and invites people to draw their own conclusions, rather than advance any specific or grand theory.
My view, and I am certain the rest of the audience felt the same, is that Piers Robinson is motivated to putting the research and truth out there out of concern for humanity and the future direction of the world.
Sadly, looking at mainstream and social media nowadays that is not true of the majority. But as history shows, a minority speaking up are often smeared, later to be proven right, as over Iraq. It’s a shame that the councillors from a party which launched the Iraq war and the subsequent chaos, who complained the most about the event did not see fit to educate themselves on this occasion either.
But the positives for me are that thanks to the work of Piers Robinson and others, we are seeing official narratives collapse regularly these days. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before we see more mainstream journalists come over to the side of truth and perhaps a re-awakened broad-based peace movement to shake things up.