Bryan Wall: Propaganda


From top: Image obsessed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Bryan Wall

Recent news that the public relations bill for the Taoiseach’s office amounted to €1,794,678 in 17 months should come as no surprise.

Leo Varadkar has been insistent on portraying an image of a dapper, cosmopolitan, and jocular leader; an antidote to the weariness of Irish political life and the wider world.

His choice of socks and attendance at gigs paints him as a young leader who is at one with the people. The demos can rest assured that their rulers understand them. This is obvious given the fact that they share the same sock-wearing habits and attend the same gigs.

It also means that they can rest assured in the knowledge that given the above, their rulers will do their utmost to protect and uphold the interests of their clients, the citizens.

Any economic cutbacks, reductions in funding for housing, homeless services, or the increasing privatisation of the health service, only come to pass regretfully. After all, he cares.

It costs money to care, though. Specifically, it costs money to popularise the image of someone who cares; of someone who fraternises with the masses, understands them, and therefore would do them no harm.

We often forget that the original term for public relations was the word propaganda.

One of the most informative pieces of work on the term was by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays wanted to take the theories and ideas of his uncle and apply them to mass industrial society.

His reasoning for this was that it was normal for the wider population to be controlled. In fact, they needed to be controlled. Otherwise anarchy would reign.

He opens his book, Propaganda, by writing

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Those who “manipulate” society form “an invisible government”.

For Bernays, the members of this “invisible government” are needed – in fact a requirement – for “the orderly functioning of our group life.” In return for order, the masses have had to cede power to their betters in government, invisible or otherwise.

This is not an ideal system, he adds. Much more preferable would be a system in which there were “committees of wise men who would choose” for us everything in society, from our leaders to our clothing.

Alas, this is apparently not the case. Therefore, “society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”

Bernays was of course writing about America in the early-twentieth-century but his word are worth reading and understanding nearly one hundred years later.

Public relations, or more accurately, propaganda, has become a mainstay of every society. With the advent of social psychology and technological innovation it has become far more insidious than Bernays could have ever predicted.

Communications obtained by Ken Foxe under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation demonstrate how far the government will go to obfuscate and misdirect the public and journalists by utilising the power of public relations advisors.

Governments have relinquished power to formidable public relations firms upon whom they have become totally reliant. The Irish government is no different in this regard.

In a truly democratic society there would be no need for propaganda and the public relations industry. The terms would be misnomers. In a true democracy there is no need to hide information from people, no need to alter their perceptions of reality, and no need to engineer their needs and wants.

But we do not live in a democratic society. We live in a society in which governments implement cutbacks and introduce privatisation initiatives of public goods and services. Things that are of inherent value to the wider population — such as healthcare, water services, and public transportation — are willingly hived off to unaccountable private tyrannies.

This is then sold back to us as an optimisation of services, an increase in competition in the market, or some other such string of public relations buzzwords which have become all too common over the last thirty years.

Public relations taints and undermines any attempts to achieve a genuinely democratic society. Lies become truths and heroes villains.

When Justice Peter Charleton published his report last month regarding the allegations of Maurice McCabe, he took note of the increasing manifestation of public relations among officialdom.

He wrote that:

“It seems that our public life is now to be dominated by spin and that plain speaking is elided in favour of meaningless public relations speak.”

This, he wrote, “is a hideous development”. Such methods “adds to the sense of public distrust in the key institutions of the State.”

The communications revealed by Ken Foxe, along with the comments by Justice Charleton have gone some way to lifting the veil that covers many official pronouncements. If this engenders a “sense of public distrust”, as Justice Charleton fears, then all the better. Liars ought to fear the truth.

Nonetheless, public relations still manages to be an effective tool in the arsenal of the powerful.

As I wrote about previously, the headlines about the supposed “vindication” of former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, along with former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, were an attempt to whitewash and rehabilitate their characters in the eyes of the public.  This was public relations on a mass scale via the mainstream media.

That neither were vindicated was irrelevant. A certain image had to be portrayed and certain parts of the media in Ireland were willing to play along. On the other hand, this comes as no surprise given what we know about the media’s role in propping up the housing bubble.

It is also no surprise given the controversy that erupted earlier this year when it was discovered that Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) paid for advertisements for the government’s Project Ireland: 2040 plan, that were depicted as articles, in dozens of newspapers. When one glances at them they look and read as articles written by journalists.

Regardless of whether or not the Project Ireland scheme has any essential value, the government’s pushing of these advertisements, and the willing acceptance of them and portrayal of them as articles by journalists, is a fundamental betrayal.

Alternative or non-mainstream media play a role in combating this propagandising of society, hence the contempt it is held in by certain parts of the mainstream. Even so, we still have to deal with Bernays and the legacy of his descendants in public relations.

One example of just how effective this invisible government was and continues to be is the fact that the term propaganda was replaced by the phrase public relations and that this history has been elided.

As Bernays wrote:

“Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public”

. Our own government are consequently, by any calculation, experts in this field.

Bryan Wall is an independent journalist based in Cork. His column appears here every Monday. Read more of his work here and follow Bryan on twitter:  @Bryan_Wall


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19 thoughts on “Bryan Wall: Propaganda

  1. Joe Small

    I think in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve. We want Sweden’s level of services without Swedish tax rates. If we’re not going to be rational in our choices, how can we expect our politicians to treat us like grown-ups?

      1. ollie

        @ Rob_G
        Swedish Income tax rates are comparable to Irish Income TAx rates. When you factor in the indorect taxes paid in Ireland we pay a lot more, so your statement is rubbish

          1. ollie

            Open your eyes Cian.
            Optical, Dental, GP, hospital charges, road tools, etc etc.
            Cost of living in Sweden is 5.87% lower than in Ireland
            Rent in Sweden is 36.25% lower than in Ireland
            Public transport is cheaper
            €167 a month max. for childcare

          2. Cian

            You’re just throwing numbers about. It’s not that I don’t believe you[1]. But can you provide any evidence?

            [1] actually, it is that I don’t believe you.

        1. Rob_G

          Ollie – the difference is when the tax bands kick in; someone earning a very low salary in SE will already be paying ca. 30% income tax. More than one million Irish workers don’t pay any income tax.

    1. qwerty123

      You could tax people 80% and our public services would still be crap. It’s not just a money issue, bad management and no accountability or sanctions for poor work major part of the problem.

  2. Ollie Cromwell

    Excellent piece.
    Varadkar will eventually be outed as a politician of little substance.Few Irish people I speak to have any idea what his political dogma is other than staying in office and looking a cool metropolitan dude.
    Funnily enough the most popular politicians in Blighty – Boris,JRM and Farage – are the ones who dispense with PR and speak plainly.
    I doubt there’s any more than a couple in government who an ordinary punter in the street would even recognise.
    Trump,of course,has invented his own PR method of leading every day’s news agenda with a tweet while he’s still in bed watching the early morning shows.

    1. LeopoldGloom

      What do you mean will be? He’s never been one of any substance, and anyone who thinks otherwise up to this point won’t have their mind changed.

      JRM very definitely uses a PR firm. He cares only about his stocks and their worth. Everything he says or does is calculated to make himself ever richer.

  3. Rob_G

    “In a truly democratic society there would be no need for propaganda and the public relations industry.”

    – this is a silly and juvenile statement.

    “Never ever drink and drive”; “make sure that you get your 5-a-day” – these are two examples of government propaganda. Likewise, the public relations industry serves a purpose – if a foreign band wants to go on tour in Ireland, they would have no clue who to get in touch with so see about getting onto a few radio shows to drum up support, so they might hire a PR consultant who would have loads of contacts, and would know which DJs would be more likely to play their music.

    I look forward to September when Bryan enters into 2nd year of his sociology degree; we might get some weightier arguments then.

    1. Clampers Outside!


      Look up the “5 a day” thing, it is a totally made up ‘health’ figure. It was decided by committee and some lobbying for a 12 a day who have vested interests in businesses focused on food production, and some wanted less than 5…. it’s pure nonsense.

      Yes, eat better, but five a day is a totally arbitrary figure.

  4. Cian

    Bryan, you are accusing the government of propaganda, but again you state the headlines about the supposed “vindication” of former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, along with former Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, were an attempt to whitewash and rehabilitate their characters in the eyes of the public. This was public relations on a mass scale via the mainstream media.

    it is *you* that is saying this. Not the government. Not the media. You. All of the evidence you provided last time was only talking about Frances Fitzgerald. None of the articles provided mentioned any vindication of Nóirín O’Sullivan.

    Are you saying that Frances Fitzgerald wasn’t vindicated because the Charleton report didn’t use that precise word?
    The link to the Irish times you provided says:
    The Tribunal report gives a clear exoneration to Ms Fitzgerald, who was forced to resign from the Government in November 2017 as a result of the political controversy surrounding her role.

    It has also made the finding that her decision not to interfere when informed of the strategy “was not a lazy dodging of the issues but rather a considered response to the information”.

    And it has concluded she had not, at any time, spoken with former Garda commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan about this matter.

    The Tribunal has found she acted appropriately at all times, and had been the political victim of a furore that escalated from a misconception of the Garda strategy towards Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission two years earlier in 2015.

    These looks like a vindication to me.

  5. A Person

    Do you not get democracy. The people vote for their TDs and they select their leader. Just because you don’t like then does not mean a conspiracy. Sorry, I forgot you are a Gemma fan and all main stream media, Guards, “elected” politicians are corrupt. You and Terry McMahon should form a party, with your kids.

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