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Topic section: Selling war – the role of propaganda
Selling war – the role of propaganda

‘There are three truths: my truth, your truth and the truth.’ Chinese proverb

‘The first casualty when war comes is truth.’ Senator Hiram Johnson, 1917

Reporting war has always been problematic for governments. During the 1960s, unrestricted media coverage of the Vietnam War
Picture: 03_1983-5236_DHA5117.jpg
'Ein Abfuhrmittel', about 1916.
Credit: NMPFT

Propaganda is also about omission, selection and interpretation of ‘the facts’

 sometimes referred to as ‘the first television war’ – played a fundamental role in fuelling American public pressure to withdraw American troops. Governments are now more acutely aware than ever of the power of the media to shape public opinion. Consequently, modern war is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is for victory on the battlefield. Before the military war in Iraq, coalition governments first had to fight another war – a propaganda campaign on their own people to convince them of the need for war. 
Picture: 03_1983-5236_DHA7070.jpg
Spanish Civil War propaganda poster, about 1936.
Credit: NMPFT
When war was declared, the propaganda campaign intensified as an essential way ofcontrolling public opinion and perceptions by regulating how the war was reported.

Today, the word ‘propaganda’ has acquired a pejorative meaning. However, as a process, propaganda is neutral. It is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Propaganda is about persuasion, and it is the intent behind the propaganda with which we should be most concerned. At its most crude, propaganda depends on lies (or ‘misinformation’, in spin-doctor speak.) However, propaganda is also about omission, selection and interpretation of ‘the facts’. It is at its most effective when based on credible facts or opinions and presented in an attractive form. Little wonder, then, that it is the news media that are the prime targets for governments wishing to shape public opinion through the control of images and information.
Picture: 03_1983-5236_DHA7068.jpg
Josef Goebbels making a speech, 1939.
Credit: NMPFT

In Western democracies we comfort ourselves with a couple of widely held, but false, assumptions about propaganda:

* We only resort to propaganda during wartime but ‘evil regimes’ do it all the time.

* We tell the truth. They tell lies.

In fact, things are not quite so simple. We tell our version of ‘the truth’ and they tell theirs. The global media landscape is now so vast and so varied that no one can present more than a partial and necessarily confused picture of any conflict. It is arrogant and simplistic to assume that anyone has a monopoly on the truth.

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Topic section: The art of war
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War has inspired creativity, from great music to poetry. Though war is the most urgent of news, it can also stimulate timeless reflection on the human condition.  > more

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Topic section: Reporting war – war as news and entertainment
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New technology has brought more images and reportage of war into the living room. But does more mean better? There may be pressures on the media to make this most gruesome of human activities entertaining, but such pressures blur boundaries and create conflicts.  > more
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