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"Propaganda is not simply a question of manipulation and disinformation."
An interview with Philip Hammond

Philip Hammond is a senior lecturer in media studies at London's South Bank University, and co-editor (with Ed Herman) of "Degraded Capability. The Media and the Kosovo Crisis" (Pluto Press 2000). He spoke to Wolfgang Sützl spoke after his presentation at the World-InfoCon in Brussels earlier this year.

Q: In your presentation you talked about the Kosovo War and its representation in the media. You mentioned the word propaganda, which for many of us is something that has been overcome. Yet your presentation of the Kosovo War's media coverage lets one doubt this. So how is propaganda changing in line with the media?

A: Well, I think there is still fairly crude propaganda, as in the case of Kosovo. It's very reminiscent of World War II, things like the leaflets that NATO was dropping over Belgrade or the planes beaming its TV pictures. There is still this old-style propaganda, Cold War propaganda, the kind of thing that was done in the Falklands War in the early '80s. One shouldn't underestimate the continuity.

What is different, not just about Kosovo, but also about other post-Cold War conflicts, is that journalists are volunteering. To some degree that has always been the case - journalists being patriotic and not wanting to question their own side; therefore not resisting the manipulation of news by the military and politicians in wartime. The difference today - and it fits very much with the kind of foreign policy justifications offered for the Kosovo bombing - is how war is viewed, and how liberal or left wing journalists view themselves. A good example is the Guardian, which is not a traditional pro-war newspaper, unlike say the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph. In the case of the Gulf War the Guardian described itself as anti-imperialist. Now, about 10 years later, it has become one of the most pro-war publications.

A key turning point was Bosnia, where the idea emerged that the role of those with a social conscience was to call on the Western powers, and Western organizations like NATO or the United Nations, to intervene more around the globe. Intervention is always undertaken in the name of something nice like human rights, or humanitarianism, or peace keeping, and that fits with how journalists see their role. So today it is not simply a question of manipulation or disinformation. The problem is that journalists have taken the 'justness' of the cause as their own and really want to promote this particular view of Western foreign policy and of Western engagements such as Kosovo.

Q: There seems to be an interesting shift in how violent interventions are legitimated. Do you think there has been a historical change of legitimization on the level of ethics?

A: Yes, I think so. On one hand there is continuity, because wars are always presented as a great thing, as morally right. On the other hand humanitarianism and especially human rights are useful ideas for the purpose of legitimatizing international military interventions by Western powers. They don't say that they are acting in the national interest, but instead refer to the universalistic character of human rights.

Q: We are not fighting for the nation; we are fighting for human kind.

A: Yes, in that way it is also appealing to a liberal constituency, people who would possibly not agree with a nationalistic justification of war. But the really important thing, which has come out in Kosovo, is that this is a way of overriding the sovereignty of weaker states. In fact Perez de Cuellar, when he was UN Secretary General, said that humanitarianism and human rights give us a new kind of moral imperative to intervene, one that overrides national borders or even international law. Yet only some states are subject to this kind of policy. If it were NATO breaking international law then that would not be a problem.

Q: Returning to the issue of propaganda. Peter Lamborn Wilson, the American art critic and theoretician once said that there is no propaganda tool more effective than a fact. Can we say that is it possible for facts to become propagandistic?

A: I think that as far as the American military is concerned there has been a shift in how to handle the media. In the Gulf War you had very tightly controlled censorship. Since then there has been a change. Now the American military tends to say they want to 'work with' journalists, to provide them with information and be open and transparent. But at the same time there is a new doctrine of 'security at source', which means that instead of restricting what journalists can report after they have been briefed, the military restrict what reporters are told. So while they are given a lot of information, the really important facts that wouldn't work in accordance with the propaganda are often withheld.

Q: You were describing the Kosovo War as the first Internet war. And also mentioning how the Internet's use actually ran against the purposes of the war and the intentions of NATO. On the other hand you said that the Internet in certain ways backed up the mainstream media. So the Internet seems to play a very ambivalent role. Do you think that it will stay this way?

A: Well, I think this to some degree is an open question. It depends on how far NATO or similar organizations and their member governments decide to regulate and restrict the use of the Internet, and on the extent to which such attempts are resisted which will determine how far it is possible to maintain the Internet as a more open channel of information. I don't really want to give a prognosis for the future, but at the present time I'd probably be very pessimistic about it.

Q: Do you think that powerful institutions would actually hesitate to make full use of the Internet's possibilities for security reasons? Because once you are online, you can be hacked and also within the digital realm you are confronted with an enormous potential for manipulation and falsification. The Austrian Freedom Party's website for example has been faked, which caused a lot of confusion about which site was the real one and which wasn't. Do you think that powerful institutions are afraid of such things happening, and that this fear might influence their behavior in the future?

A: It probably will. I think they certainly realize that they are potentially vulnerable. In many ways a country such as the United States is much more exposed to such kinds of attacks than a country like Yugoslavia, as it is much more centrally connected and wired. It is very hard to predict, because we haven't yet seen what a cyber war looks like, even though people started talking about Kosovo as a 'cyber war', a 'virtual war' or an 'Internet war'. Kosovo really only showed the potential. But what organizations like NATO will want to do is to use the Internet as an extension of the kind of media policy that they pursued in Kosovo, dominating the global media space and closing down alternative sources of information; making sure that their own information penetrates the enemy country as well as their own countries.

The more urgent and pressing problem is the mainstream media, because for the vast majority of people their primary news resource is television and newspapers. Although it is possible to gain access to more alternative viewpoints through the Internet, at the moment most people just aren't doing so. And again it boils down to the question of politics, motivation, and changes in the political climate, in which people are willing to accept uncritical information like the kind of things they see on BBC or CNN.

Q: But then there rests the argument that even if there are not very many people who get information from web resources, people who write, journalists or academics, do. And they also shape public opinion. So in this regard I see that whatever goes on the Internet is of interest, even if it doesn't reach a wide public.

A: I agree, certainly in the case of Kosovo. As I said this morning the Internet was an invaluable resource for people like me who were searching for what was going on, or indeed for journalists who wanted to question the official point of view.

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