Ian Cooke, co-curator of 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' provides a summary of public debates held at the Library in partnership with Speakers Corner Trust.
Over four days 2- 5 September, the British Library held four
public debates related to the theme of our exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. We
worked with Speakers
Corner Trust to plan the programme of debates, and were extremely lucky to
have four inspirational speakers to introduce and lead our debates.
Dr Evan Harris, Associate Director of the Hacked Off campaign for a free and
accountable press, introduced our first debate âIs the News Propaganda?â. On
subsequent days, Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, asked us to
re-examine our views about propaganda, and consider more-positive aspects.
Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy,
led a lively discussion on our attitudes to media new and old, and how we
respond to a sense of âinformation overloadâ. Finally, AgnĂšs Callamard,
Executive Director of Article19, gave a
strong defence of freedom of speech as the best means of combatting the
âpropaganda of hateâ.
Each speaker gave a short introduction to the topic, and
then the direction and theme of the debate, as well as the content, came from
the audience present. This worked better on some days than others, but on every
day I was struck by the richness and seriousness of the discussion that came
from the audience. I learnt a lot, and the four days have made me look at these
subjects in a different light. Iâm very grateful to everyone who attended on
these days. For the rest of this post, Iâll try to summarise some of the main
points that came out in the debates. However, this is of course a personal
view, and Iâm sure that, for those of you who came along, youâd probably have
different things to say.
Introducing the last of our debates, Peter Bradley, the
Director of Speakers Corner Trust,
reminded us that ârights are like muscles, you need to exercise them or they
grow weakâ. A strong theme through all four days was the importance of freedom
of speech and expression, and the value in ensuring this is extended and
nurtured for all. Access to the means of communication, including through new
media and social media, empowers and provides the means for groups to organise
and gain support. More than this though, it can also provide a means of
redress, to correct distortions and challenge prejudice. As Ruth Fox
demonstrated, the use of powerful symbols, for example on banners and badges,
could generate feelings of solidarity.
There are, of course, challenges. People talked about the
inequality of access to spaces for debate, resulting from structural issues
around ownership of the national and international news organisations and
social media platforms, or around access to new technologies. Online
information sources can sometimes give the impression of creating a âdelugeâ of
news. Difficulties in sorting that which we find trustworthy from the
untrustworthy can lead us to the conclusion that all sources are unreliable,
and promote a sense of cynicism where we feel powerless and alienated. In the
case of social-media, the capacity to harass and abuse, often anonymously or
under cover of a pseudonym, appears unchecked. Much of the discussion over the
four days sought ways in which we could overcome such difficulties.
We discussed regulation in the case of news reporting. In
other circumstances, there was support for education as a way of challenging
cynicism, coping with perceived âinformation overloadâ, and understanding how
to exercise our right to free expression without restricting this for others.
One person noted that those who used new media more frequently became more
confident in recognising authenticity in online communications. Understanding
the process by which news becomes news can help us make decisions about what
sources we trust. The teaching of history is one way in which a critical
analysis of sources can be introduced.
The programme was devised to accompany our exhibition on
propaganda, so there was much discussion about what the word meant to people.
Talking about news reporting, propaganda could be thought of as intentional,
editorial, bias. Also, and perhaps more damagingly, it could be a failure to
analyse things presented as fact or to critically question sources. A lack of
accountability or poor systems of redress could also contribute to propaganda.
Here, we were thinking about propaganda as being the narrowing of argument and
heightening of inequalities in access to debate. However, the presence of bias
in debate and commentary could also be a healthy sign â one that shows that
freedom of expression is protected. The crucial element here would be an
accompanying plurality of voices.
Ruth Fox reminded us that persuasive speech could also be
used to mutually beneficial ends. Health campaigning by state bodies can result
in savings for services, and more productive populations, but also result in
genuine benefits in wellbeing for individuals. As with other, more
readily-recognised forms of propaganda, the appeal is often made to emotions,
using powerful images and symbols.
An important issue in the way that we respond to these
powerful messages is trust. This was a theme raised by many of our speakers and
in subsequent discussions. At some points there seemed to be a reluctance to
place trust in many of the sources of information that we receive, with both
social media and more traditional media faring poorly. The point was made that
we tend to place more trust in sources and people that are local. Also, that we
are more likely to trust sources that we agree with â which can be a useful
tool for propagandists. This leads back to the importance of education and
access to debate. The more we understand about how the messages that we find
influential are produced, the better-equipped we are to analyse and assess
them. Access to the arenas of debate, and making use of that access, makes the
sources of information more accountable and more reflective of the range of
interests and opinions within a society.