Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 15 April 2017

When journalism becomes propaganda

A few days ago I took part in a Royal Economic Conference session on the implications of the Brexit vote. There is no need for me to describe how it went, as there is a good write up in the FT. By good, I mean that it was a fair reflection of what went on. Philip Aldrick, economics editor at the Times, took exception to something I said at the meeting on twitter.

Almost a month ago I wrote a post on propaganda. I used a definition borrowed from Jason Stanley, where intent was key. A good journalists provides what they believe are they key facts that the reader needs, while propaganda involves providing facts that advance the newspaper’s view. The interesting thing about this twitter conversation was that Aldrick thought that selecting facts to support the papers view was not propaganda, and that he thought it was what the other newspapers he named and I as an academic did.

Just to crystalise what I mean, take this article that recently appeared in the Telegraph. The headline (and remember this is all that many Telegraph readers will read) said “EU migrants without a job make up city the size of Bristol”. The article continued:

“EU migrants of working age living in the UK who do not have a job account for a city the size of Bristol, new figures have revealed. One in seven of the 2,733,000 EU migrants aged 16-64 - a total of 390,000 - are unemployed or “inactive”.

A survey by the Office for National Statistics does not give a breakdown of how many claim benefits, but those who are unemployed will be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance and may also claim housing benefit and child benefit. People who are “inactive” include those claiming disability benefits.”

The ONS survey can be found here. The fact that the Telegraph chose not to report was that 1 in 5 UK nationals was unemployed or inactive (excluding students). The reason that this is such a high figure is that ‘inactive’ includes mothers staying home to look after children, another fact that the Telegraph decided not to report.

The real story therefore is that migrants of working age are more likely to be working than UK nationals of working age. Other things being equal, this means that they will be paying more taxes and therefore contributing proportionately more to public services that UK nationals. By selecting which facts to report to their readers, the Telegraph turned this into a story about how many migrants were not working, and the amount of benefits they were collecting. In doing this, they were following in the proud traditions of the Mail, Sun and Express. 

Would you call this journalism or propaganda? There are a great many good journalists who would not want this described as the same as what they do, and it fits the definition of propaganda I gave exactly. Propaganda distorts the truth, and in a country like the UK good propaganda does not need to resort to lying about facts to achieve its goal. And of course it matters a lot. I suspect that stories like this are one of the reasons the state can treat migrants so badly in this country. 


  1. Here's another example from The Telegraph: income tax ≠ tax burden...

    and its difficult to believe they don't they know this...

  2. I would have thought that "selecting facts that support your view" is a pretty good definition of propaganda. I do think that opponents of Brexit are also guilty of this much of the time.

    1. I modify that definition to reflect the times: "selecting 'alternative facts' that support your view"


    2. "Both sides are at it" is another propaganda trick. It's important that we do not accept such statements but go out of our way to reward support and publicise proper journalism.

  3. Tom Leonard, Telegraph 22 Feb 2001

    "IF ever there were an unwritten rule of newspaper journalism that hacks would be wise to observe, it was the one about never meddling in the private lives of rival proprietors.

    Newspapers increasingly target other editors, but those on the top tier have usually been sacrosanct. A self-protecting principle - much like the concept of mutually assured nuclear destruction - it was reinforced by the fact that proprietors talk to each other far more than one might expect.

    Yesterday, the Daily Express blew that rule into small pieces, firing off a broadside against the personal lives and peccadillos of the Mail's ruling family, the Rothermeres, in a spread that even had room for a chummy letter from Adolf Hitler to the first viscount."

  4. But surely it is only propaganda if we can be sure that these newspapers are going out of their way to support a certain viewpoint.

    An alternative and in my view plausible hypothesis is that they simply write stories that sell. Many people either suspect or have a fear that immigrants are stealing their jobs and lowering their wages so newspapers cater to this fear. The argument in favour of immigrants is more complex and probably sounds implausible to readers of these papers. Similarly when it comes to the EU, writing about "those bureaucrats in Brussels wanting govern our lives" is a far easier sell than trying to convince people that these "bureaucrats" actually encourage trade.

    Finally, since most of the establishment supported the EU, the evening papers could say that they were fighting against the elites (and therefore in support of the common man).

    I am making the old point that opponents of the EU had a much easier time - in terms of what sounds believable - than did supporters.

  5. I think this goes back to the difference between facts and opinion.

    Journalism, as traditionally understood, is supposed to be about reporting facts in the world. Good newspapers (the NYT) draw a sharp distinction between reporting facts and opinion (which are based upon plausible theories about those facts).

    Economists aren't journalists (they are not just stating facts but giving opinions).

    UK journalism has always been of fairly poor quality because this line hasn't been policed properly. The Gruan is just as bad in this regard as the Torygraph.

  6. Advocates can believe their own storyline, and in the case of Brexiteers I think they mostly did (and do). The failing you complain of is a human failing, and as such we must work with it. AngloSaxon courts do that in the 'adversarial' justice system to an extent that frequently baffles the ordinary citizen. On this analysis it was (and is) up to the Bremainers to put their case with their 'selected' facts.

  7. The mainstream media will not challenge or undermine the wider state-corporate nexus of which it is a fundamental part.

    Noam Chomsky has written extensively about the role of the free market media in reinforcing dominant ideology and maintaining the unequal distribution and balance of power. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explore the media’s role in establishing the apparence of a political and economic orthodoxy (neoliberalism) and extending a seemingly normative compliance with state policies, while also marginalising antithetical or alternative perspectives, dismissing them as heresy. In the US and UK, most left wing commentors have a very diminished media platform from which to present their perspectives and policy proposals.

    This “free-market” version of censorship is more subtle and difficult to identify and undermine than the equivalent propaganda system which was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

    As Chomsky argues, the mainstream press is corporate owned and so reflects corporate priorities and interests. While acknowledging that some journalists are dedicated and well-intentioned, he says that the choice of topics and issues featured in the mass media, the unquestioned premises on which that “coverage” rests, and the range of opinions that are expressed are all constrained to reinforce the state’s dominant ideology. From Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms -

  8. What Mr. Philip Aldrick, economics editor at the Times, seems to forget (and as a journalist, it is sad he does) is that newspapers can pick sides on a political or economical dispute - if they are transparent about that option -, but they cannot pick which facts to report. Facts are facts, opinion is another thing, and every journalist should stick to that basic principle.

  9. Prof I think your analysis about "the real story" is missing something. A direct comparison of migrant versus native is not the proper comparison; it should be migrant + native versus native only, as the presence of the migrant working here may impact on the amount and value of work available to the native person.

  10. Suppose we agree that it is INTENT that separates propaganda from advocacy. I think most commentators on Brexit, believed their own story, either for or against. It is, after all, quite hard and unrewarding work digging out data that support SOMEONE ELSE'S point of view. The idea that articles in support of Brexit were written for cynical and short-term profit does carry a whiff of ‘conspiracy claptrap’ about it. Aother view is that they were written by misguided followers of the hue-and-cry amongst their 'gang'.
    The Erdogan referendum raises again the wisdom of basing a major constitutional change on a flimsy 50:48 majority.

  11. Well, if this is how the Times think journalism is done, then not much point reading them any more.

  12. In Occupied France in World War 2 the (German-controlled) French newspapers used subtle propaganda to keep the French population quiet. It went along the lines of "occupation is a fact, just accept it and get on with your lives." The Brexiteers seem to be taking a similar line.
    And yet the French knew that the only news you could trust was that obtained by secretly listening to the BBC or duplicated sheets, summarizing the BBC news, passed covertly from hand to hand. (I believe Jean-Paul Sartre was involved in these underground duplicated newspapers.)
    Well, were are not at that stage in modern Britain, but we are certainly well-supplied with newspapers which support the Conservatives or Brexit. It's certainly very easy to find pro-Conservative and pro-Brexit news (or is it propaganda?) in your local supermarket .
    We also have impartial radio and TV news: ITN, Channel 4, and Sky---which are never criticized for bias---and the BBC which is forever being criticized for bias.
    I read "The Guardian" a lot and it seemed to me that it gave its pro-Brexit columnists---people like Giles Fraser and Larry Elliot---a decent crack of the whip in the referendum campaign. It also carried one-off articles from leading Brexit supporters. I know this is purely anecdotal evidence but this approach to the debate seemed much more even-handed than that of the Tory tabloids.
    I don't know how the "Daily Mirror"---the only red-top newspaper to support Remain---conducted its coverage.
    Maybe there's a Media Studies department out there already doing a proper analysis of newspaper coverage of the referendum campaign.

  13. Great post -- but it's Jason Stanley, not Jacob Stanley.

  14. It may be illogical but the man-in-the street's view is that immigrants should 'stand in line' when it comes to the allocation of resources.

  15. Simon - if you did truth in the same way that Philip Aldrick did "truth" you would soon be out of a job.
    Mind you, if Philip Aldrick did truth in the same way as you do truth, he too would soon be out a job.
    You see, there's "right-wing billionaire" truth, and there's "bloated public sector" truth.


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