Suppose you saw an article about Ukraine on the front page of the New York Times written by someone called Matthew Simon Monk. Taken in isolation, his article wouldn’t tell the reader very much. But in collating Mr Monk’s stories it should be possible to outline an overarching story.
However, a crucial detail which all New York Times subscribers are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the most powerful people in Ukraine – perhaps even in the top ten – is the journalist Matthew Simon Monk. With this kind of power, it pays to ask: what relationship does the media have to geopolitics?
Many rightly castigate the manipulation of people’s perception about Eastern Ukraine. All sides of the conflict release carefully worded disinformation to construct a specific story. The New York Times and Russia Today (RT) compete to spread their version of Ukrainian events as far as possible.
In order to understand this process, journalism must be seen as an arm of the state. Journalists often feel their job is to “speak truth to power”. But just as Marx described the existence of welfare as the entrenchment of the wealthy elite, so too the existence of journalism is the entrenchment of democratic governance.
This is one reason why journalism was cleverly termed the fourth estate by Edmund Burke. It is the subsequent column after the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Oscar Wilde wrote that the fourth estate has eaten the other three, nevertheless, journalism is government. The two are one and the same.
A journalist's function is as part of the civil service, similar to treasury employees and intelligence officers. The whole point of the civil service is to maintain and promote the modern democratic state system. In any battle between the civil service and elected representatives, civil servants always win.
They win because they are not subject to elections and are integral to any career continuation of elected representatives. The other branches of government must keep journalists on their side, not to defend their personalities, but to maintain state coherency and control. That is, after all, the whole point of modern statecraft.
Does this mean all journalism is official? Yes, but not in an obvious way. The force of effective propaganda is when it teaches citizens how to think, not what to think. For example, when the New Zealand government says has a watch-list of jihadists and will try to interdict them, the propaganda is not the list. It is not even in the government interdiction. The conviction is more fundamental.
Propaganda only works if there is a medium through which it can pass. Propaganda doesn’t, in other words, fall out of the sky. This medium will only be useful if the public has been convinced that truth comes from – and only from – using this medium.
Said differently, a sufficient amount of the public must be conditioned to assume the only way of knowing if an event actually happened is whether it appeared via this medium. Information gained elsewhere is therefore untrue by default. This process has had other names: priests, scholars, shamans, etc.
For modern propaganda to be successful the target must already believe a democratic government represents control and order. Whether there is genuine control is largely unimportant, the semiotics of control and order are more vital.
A person adopts this belief much like an organism adopts an infection. A virus of the mind is implanted using the special arm of the government called the media. The media preaches that the government and media are independent entities precisely to obscure their intrinsic relationship. This message has worked so well that even journalists and politicians believe they are separate.
All the little messages about which we become so irate are simply top layers of this façade. The damage was done when citizens became convinced the journalists had a special grasp on reality which was only accessible through the media. It’s this trust in the construct of the media and government which supplies the power of propaganda in Ukraine.
RT is obviously controlled by the Russian state. Does this make it different to the New York Times, BBC or NBR? Only in name. The structure is identical in every democratic country. This is a reasonable understanding of the modern Hegelian power enjoyed by today’s press.
In the interest of serving and upholding the state, journalists arbitrate with greater efficacy than elected representatives ever could. In Ukraine, the narratives of actors and belligerents display how the geopolitical conflict it is very much also a war between Russian and Western presses.