Debates about the ethics and validity of investigative journalism have been very much to the fore recently. Last week’s news agenda was to a large extent devoted to the downfall of England football manager, Sam Allardyce and the role that undercover Daily Telegraph reporters played in his demise. This week we have seen “the biggest mystery in modern literature” appear to be solved as investigative journalist Claudio Gatti revealed that he knew the real identity of the novelist Elena Ferrante. Writing for the Conversation, Tom Geue argued that this was a violation of anonymity which brought with it ethical and political issues which were of deep concern to us all. In the Guardian, Suzanne Moore labelled Gatti an appalling, “idiotic bin rummager” whilst the journalist himself told Radio 4’s Today programme that because millions of people bought Ferrante’s books, “In a way I think readers have the right to know something about the person who created the work”.
As these arguments ebbed and flowed it would have been easy to miss a joint report by the Sunday Times and City University’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed that British PR company Bell Pottinger had been hired by the Pentagon in Washington to coordinate a covert propaganda campaign in Iraq following the “end” of hostilities in 2003.The investigative team revealed, through interviews with former Bell Pottinger employee, Martin Wells, that the firm was hired to create short TV reports in the style of Arabic news networks. Other tasks included the scripting of soap operas and the distribution of fake insurgent videos which could be used to track the people who watched them.
After analysis of US Department of Defence documents the journalists uncovered that Bell Pottinger was paid an astonishing $540 million for five contracts between 2007 and 2011. According to Lord Bell, the company’s former Chairman, the PR firm reported back to Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council on its work in Iraq.
But the fact that Bell Pottinger had been in the employ of the US government, or that the company has a notorious past of clients considered by many to be less than whiter than white, is not in itself news. In 2004 the Independent’s Ian Burrell reported that the firm had been contracted to promote democracy in Iraq. Lord Bell was quoted then as saying that, in order to promote peace and prosperity, Bell Pottinger would be:
“using all media: television, print, outdoor posters, leaflets and town hall meetings.”
Even so, it was sterling work to get Wells to speak as he did and the poring over documents and data systems must have been painstaking. It’s another success for the Bureau – in 2011 investigators highlighted the close links between Bell Pottinger and the Conservative Party. Then reporters posed as agents from the Government of Uzbekistan and secretly recorded executives from the company boasting of access to (and influence over) David Cameron and William Hague . And although the Public Relations Consultants Association cleared Bell Pottinger of breaching its Code of Practice, that judgement was reached without any consultation with the Bureau.
It’s also true that this “Fake News and False Flags” expose is simply the latest instance which illustrates the willingness of nation states to utilise PR firms for propaganda purposes during wartime or times of crisis. Perhaps the most famous example of this practice occurred around the time of the first Gulf war in 1990 -91.
Then, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a “human rights agency” created and financed entirely by Kuwait’s ruling elite to promote its interests in the U.S. employed Hill & Knowlton, who were at that time the world’s largest PR firm. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, H&K’s brief was to persuade US citizens that American military involvement in the Gulf was vital to save a fledgling democracy from the hands of a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein.
As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton point out (in Toxic Sludge Is Good For You – Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry) H&K were wildly successful in their aims. They produced dozens of video news releases,
“which TV stations and networks simply fed the carefully-crafted propaganda to unwitting viewers, who assumed they were watching “real” journalism.”
But by far the greatest public relations coup occurred when Nayirah, a fifteen year old Kuwaiti girl, appeared before a public hearing of Congress’s Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. She tearfully told of atrocities committed by Iraqi troops who had entered a Kuwaiti hospital with guns and took babies out of incubators leaving them to die “on the cold floor”
In the run up to war President HW Bush quoted Nayirah’s testimony repeatedly. As Mitchel Cohen writes, six times in one month he referred to:
“312 premature babies at Kuwait City’s maternity hospital who died after Iraqi soldiers stole their incubators and left the infants on the floor.”
He invoked Hitler whilst pro war senators raised the ghosts of World War One by referencing “bayoneting babies”. The problem was none of this was true. Nirayah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who had been coached by H&K vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado in what
“even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony.”
The more general point to make about public relations in 2016 is that its scale and power is increasing. According to the Public Relations and Communications Association the UK PR industry is worth £12.9bn which is over £3bn more than in 2013. The PR Census of 2016 also disclosed that there are 83,000 employees in the industry compared to 62,000 in 2013. This is important because, as Roy Greenslade illustrates, the findings confirm that there are far more PR’s than journalists working in Britain. In the US the situation is more pronounced. Seattle Times journalist Mike Rosenberg recently consulted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that in 2015 there were 45,800 registered news reporters and 218,000 public relations people. By his calculations that means 4.8 PR people for every 1 reporter in the United States.
This is obviously alarming because it means companies and organisations will seek to become ever more adept at exploiting an increasingly underpowered media to ensure their content appears. It is a fact that PR companies have been creating news items and passing them off as legitimate products of independent research for years Now, that process is made easier as fewer and fewer journalists have the time or opportunity to research their own stories or to check press releases for inaccuracies. Let’s not forget, either, in the words of Stig Nohrstedt, that PR is the business of strategic communication oriented not primarily toward understanding but toward influence and control.
I have in the past written about how useless it in this day and age to dismiss and reject PR as the “dark arts” when its presence in modern journalism is so complete and involved. There has to be a working relationship and the obvious and only way forward for journalism is to attempt to set the parameters of the relationship, though as is clear, that is increasingly becoming more difficult. Thank goodness, then, for the Sunday Times, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others like them for the work they continue to do in attempting to expose the shadiness of the rich and powerful.