Ben Affleck in "Argo".
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The new propaganda is liberal. The new slavery is digital

As Leni Riefenstahl said: "Propaganda always wins if you allow it".

What is modern propaganda? For many, it is the lies of a totalitarian state. In the 1970s, I met Leni Riefenstahl and asked her about her epic films that glorified the Nazis. Using revolutionary camera and lighting techniques, she produced a documentary form that mesmerised Germans; her Triumph of the Will cast Hitler’s spell.

She told me that the “messages” of her films were dependent not on “orders from above”, but on the “submissive void” of the German public. Did that include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie? “Everyone,” she said.

Today, we prefer to believe that there is no submissive void. “Choice” is ubiquitous. Phones are “platforms” that launch every half-thought. There is Google from outer space if you need it. Caressed like rosary beads, the precious devices are borne headsdown, relentlessly monitored and prioritised. Their dominant theme is the self. Me. My needs. Riefenstahl’s submissive void is today’s digital slavery.

Edward Said described this wired state in Culture and Imperialism as taking imperialism where navies could never reach. It is the ultimate means of social control because it is voluntary, addictive and shrouded in illusions of personal freedom.

Today’s “message” of grotesque inequality, social injustice and war is the propaganda of liberal democracies. By any measure of human behaviour, this is extremism. When Hugo Chávez challenged it, he was abused in bad faith; and his successor will be subverted by the same zealots of the American Enterprise Institute, Harvard’s Kennedy School and the “human rights” organisations that have appropriated American liberalism and underpin its propaganda. The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”. “All is normality on display,” he wrote. “For [Nazi] goose-steppers, substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work [in the White House], planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.”

Whereas a generation ago, dissent and biting satire were allowed in the “mainstream”, today their counterfeits are acceptable and a fake moral zeitgeist rules. “Identity” is all, mutating feminism and declaring class obsolete. Just as collateral damage covers for mass murder, “austerity” has become an acceptable lie. Beneath the veneer of consumerism, a quarter of Greater Manchester is reported to be living in “extreme poverty”.

The militarist violence perpetrated against hundreds of thousands of nameless men, women and children by “our” governments is never a crime against humanity. Interviewing Tony Blair ten years on from his criminal invasion of Iraq, the BBC’s Kirsty Wark gifted him a moment he could only dream of. She allowed Blair to agonise over his “difficult decision rather than call him to account for the monumental lies and bloodbath he launched. One is reminded of Albert Speer.

Hollywood has returned to its cold war role, led by liberals. Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo is the first feature film so integrated into the propaganda system that its subliminal warning of Iran’s “threat” is offered as Obama is preparing, yet again, to attack Iran. That Affleck’s “true story” of good-guys-vbad- Muslims is as much a fabrication as Obama’s justification for his war plans is lost in PR-managed plaudits. As the independent critic Andrew O’Hehir points out, Argo is “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology”. That is, it debases the art of film-making to reflect an image of the power it serves.

The true story is that, for 34 years, the US foreign policy elite have seethed with revenge for the loss of the shah of Iran, their beloved tyrant, and his CIA-designed state of torture. When Iranian students occupied the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, they found a trove of incriminating documents, which revealed that an Israeli spy network was operating inside the US, stealing top scientific and military secrets. Today, the duplicitous Zionist ally – not Iran – is the one and only nuclear threat in the Middle East.

In 1977, Carl Bernstein, famed for his Watergate reporting, disclosed that more than 400 journalists and executives of mostly liberal US media organisations had worked for the CIA in the past 25 years. They included journalists from the New York Times, Time and the big TV broadcasters. These days, such a formal nefarious workforce is quite unnecessary. In 2010, the New York Times made no secret of its collusion with the White House in censoring the WikiLeaks war logs. The CIA has an “entertainment industry liaison office” that helps producers and directors remake its image from that of a lawless gang that assassinates, overthrows governments and runs drugs. As Obama’s CIA commits multiple murder by drone, Affleck lauds the “clandestine service . . . that is making sacrifices on behalf of Americans every day . . . I want to thank them very much.” The 2010 Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a torture-apology, was all but licensed by the Pentagon.

The US market share of cinema box-office takings in Britain often reaches 80 per cent, and the small UK share is mainly for US coproductions. Films from Europe and the rest of the world account for a tiny fraction of those we are allowed to see. In my own filmmaking career, I have never known a time when dissenting voices in the visual arts are so few and silent.

For all the hand-wringing induced by the Leveson inquiry, the “Murdoch mould” remains intact. Phone-hacking was always a distraction, a misdemeanour compared to the media-wide drumbeat for criminal wars. According to Gallup, 99 per cent of Americans believe Iran is a threat to them, just as the majority believed Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. “Propaganda always wins,” said Leni Riefenstahl, “if you allow it.”

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State