It was the French colonialists that first conceptualised the importance of winning the hearts and minds of a population. This instrument of soft power, which has been subsequently adopted by a variety of state actors, has evolved from targeting native foreign populations to targeting a hegemonic globalised society.
Television and the Mass Media have become crucial elements in this battle. The Vietnam War was described as the ‘Television War’. The graphic portrayal by the media to the destruction in Indo-China produced a raft of demonstrations. The coverage proved so vital in molding the public’s perception of the war, it prompted President Lyndon Johnson to comment of Walter Cronkite, America leading news anchor at the time – “If I‟ve lost Cronkite, I‟ve lost Middle America.”
The battle continues to rumble on as states have adapted from the potent lesson of Vietnam. You only have to turn on your satellite television to observe the conflict to influence; a glance to the news section will provide a choice of 24-hour news coverage from French, American, Russian, Chinese, British or Qatari perspectives, to name just a few. Foreign policy actors have realised the importance of how information is disseminated to the masses. With experts proclaiming, “the mass media news is indexed…to the dynamics of government debate.”
At the crux of the ‘debate’ is a desire for the media to report news to their interests. As newspapers in the UK select their favoured parties for the upcoming British General Election, they will publish stories that associates with that party’s narrative. The same is true of state actors and foreign policy.
That was certainly the Russian’s desire for their mouthpiece in the West. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is driven on Russian prestige and countering American dominance. A key media outlet, exhibited by Russia Today, is deemed necessary to meet these ends. As one Russian news agency director commented, “unfortunately, at the level of mass consciousness in the West, Russia is associated with three words: communism, poverty and snow.”
The desire to report the media in your interest will inevitably lead to disagreements, but unfortunately it has also led to the demise to reasonable sensible argument, as the chemical attack that blighted Syria in August 2013 illuminated.
American media, as exemplified by Fox News, depicted Assad’s tenure in negative connotations, describing his ‘regime’. Using supposed eyewitness accounts to disparage Assad, “Oh, Bashar, you son of a dog”. “We will come and get you in your place“, was one comment of much passionate rhetoric from witnesses. The report fanned the flames of revolution and the possible removal of Assad, which has been the American objective in Syria.
The story from America’s numerous news channels seemingly elucidated the event as clear as day. Yet, if you flicked a couple channels up on your television, you’d have found a report from Russia Today that looked an entirely different story.
Assad was described this time as the head of the ‘government’, and the report suggests evidence of the government culpability is thin and manipulated. The underlying theme, to which numerous reports followed in the same vain, was that it was the Western backed rebels responsible for the attack, not Russian ally, Assad.
An alternative to a direct media strategy is to employ a proxy tactic of pressurising established media entities to reflect your side of the argument. This has the obvious advantage that coming from a highly respected outlet that has no specific tie to the state will substantiate your narrative of events.
Israel is one such state that applies this method. They call it Hasbara, which translates as ‘explanation’ in Hebrew. Its purpose is to positively influence the debate over Israeli policies in the West, as Former Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, described last year – “there was more pressure on me from the Israelis than any other state anywhere in the world.”
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, believe the impact is profound. They claim, if the American media were left to their own convictions, the coverage regarding the Arab/Israeli conflict would be noticeably different and diverse.
The Charlie Hebdo shootings spewed out the phoney promotion of free speech. Phoney, as the battle for media control and power will see free speech whither. In 2010, Iranian funded news channel, Press TV, was deemed to have breached British broadcast regulations and were banished from the airwaves. Press TV, which ran negative stories about Britain and the West, while trumpeting Iranian interests, believed the decision was political – “the ban on Iranian channels is in line with the soft and media war against the Islamic Republic…”
Subsequent suppressions of Press TV from American and European satellite networks suggested Iranian feelings weren’t paranoid delusions, as did the damning revelations of Wiki-Leaks. These cables exposed the British governments intentions to restrict the channel as it attempted to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East and sympathy in the West.
The worry, apart from skewing any reasonable debate on foreign affairs is that it is not just a cold war. The Qatari run, Al-Jazeera news, burst onto the mass consciousness through its critical stories of American foreign policy under the George W. Bush’s administration. The American response according to Robert Fisk was to deliberately bombed Al-Jazeera offices in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
This harrowing strategy has occurs with freighting frequency, the past year has seen it used in Ukraine, Hong Kong and in Gaza. Journalists are being targeted by states and their supporters in an attempt to dominate the rhetoric and narrative.
The advent of Social Media has and will continue to be the next battleground of this media war. Attempts by states to influence this medium are already well developed. The battle for the hearts and minds is one that will continue to rumble and unfortunately create hyperbolic, impractical debate.