Sean Gabb – Truth among the Propaganda

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 119
12th January 2004

Looking for Truth Among the Propaganda:
Towards a Critical Reading of the Media
by Sean Gabb
I do not think ours is particularly an age of propaganda. Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas De Quincy quoted the popular saying of his day, that the newspapers told the truth only twice a week—that being on Tuesday and Saturday, when the lists of new bankrupts were published. More blatant lies were told during the two great wars of the 20th century than now; and sensationalist journalism is almost as old as the printing press itself. I do not think we are lied to more or less than in earlier generations.

This being said, there has been a great refinement in the techniques of propaganda. Falsehoods nowadays seem to come with more persuasive force than used to be the case. Even if not, we lack the benefit of hindsight that allows us to see through those of the past. And so, I will try in this article to lay down a few general rules for distinguishing truth from propaganda.

Before then, however, let me describe my own awakening to the fact of media distortion. When I began writing about politics in the 1980s, I took it for granted that positive statements in the more respectable parts of the media could be trusted. There would inevitably be some bias of coverage, and sometimes outright mistake or even falsehood. But I had no doubt that positive statements not withdrawn or corrected within a reasonable time could be taken as true. My first realising that this was not the case came on Saturday the 14th March 1992.

I was at the time working in Bratislava as the Economic and Political Adviser to the Slovak Prime Minister. That morning, I wandered into the centre of town to hang around the shops—there being little else I felt inclined to do. In SNP Square, about a dozen men had set up a stand and were addressing the shoppers. This was to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and the attendant creation of a formally independent Slovak state. Stanislav Panis, a minor politician who wanted another division of Czechoslovakia, was there to make his views public. With about 50 other people who had left off their shopping, I listened to him rant on for half an hour. As he reached his peroration, I thought I heard him saying over and over again “Benes was a railway train”—Edvard Benes having been the President of Czechoslovakia in exile who was restored in 1945 by the invading Soviets. I turned to a young man stood a few feet away and asked if he could explain that statement in English. He told me that Mr Panis was shouting too close to the microphone, and that I was mishearing “vrah” as “vlak”: the actual claim was that President Benes had been a murderer. He assured me he had himself made that mistake at first. The speech descended into general hilarity, and most of the shoppers grew bored sooner than I did.

That evening, I listed to the news on the BBC World Service. There was a report of a large “extreme nationalist” demonstration in Bratislava that had raised fears through Central Europe. The report claimed an audience of 3,000 that I had not seen, and implied a degree of political instability that I had not seen in nearly six months of residence. I never saw Mr Panis again. Certainly, his party came nowhere in the general election of three months later. This was my first personal experience of propaganda in action.

My second experience is less notable, but no less enlightening. In 1996, Dr Tame and I gave evidence to the committee of enquiry established after the Dunblane massacre, to look into a tightening of the gun control laws. One evening in June, I was called at home by a journalist from The Sunday Times. I gave her a summary of the Libertarian Alliance submission—no controls on gun ownership, indeed, not even registration. The following Sunday, I bought the newspaper and read an account of what I had said that was neither sympathetic nor hostile. It was, I suppose, commendably neutral given the public mood at the time. The only problem was that she described me as a “founder member” of the Libertarian Alliance, which I am not, and quoted me as talking about children that I did not have. There was no intention to mislead here, and I never thought to seek a correction. The worst consequence I can imagine is that some future biographer will need to work a little harder in my case. All that seems to have happened is that the journalist got her notes confused. But this was in what I had always taken to be a newspaper of record. When Dr Tame addresses any meeting about the media, he always asks for people to raise their hands if they have ever featured in a newspaper report. He then asks those who do raise their hands to keep them raised if the report has been completely accurate. In every case, all hands goes down.

I could go on to describe how, in 2001, The Daily Telegraph accused me of terrorism. But I have written enough about this elsewhere, and it was my fault for giving Benedict Brogan the ammunition that he used against me. But it is enough to say that I have personally seen how untruthful or simply careless the media can be. This being said, I proceed to my rules for distinguishing truth from falsehood.

Check for Yourself

The first rule is to believe nothing unless you have checked it for yourself. There is no substitute for personal knowledge. Investigate every claimed fact. Look over the place. Question the witnesses. Look for discrepancies in the alleged evidence. If necessary, learn the foreign language. Because I know Slovakia and am moderately fluent in Slovak, I am able to do this, and—as said – have been able to uncover at least one falsehood: though there are many others that I cannot be bothered to describe.

The problem with this advice, of course, is that it cannot be generally followed. We cannot investigate in this way even a tiny fraction of the claims made every day in the media. Life is too short. But where important claims are concerned, and where the means reasonably exist, personal investigation is the best way to the truth. There is the probable frustration that, having put all this work in, no one will believe your own finding. But you can at least assure yourself—and that is what may really matter.

Spot the Agenda

The second rule is more realistic. This is to ask if a set of media claims appears to be supporting some agenda. In the Slovak case given above, most coverage of that country was from Prague, and foreign correspondents there were heavily influenced by Czech journalists and politicians. These had an interest at the time in defaming the Slovaks as childish nationalists, blind to the many – and, I grant, often real—benefits of rule from Prague. Czechoslovakia was plainly falling apart, and the Czechs had a natural desire to show that they were in no way to blame, and that foreign investors would not be frightened away from their own country. Look in any newspaper, or watch any television news report, and I guarantee you will find some agenda attached to nearly all stories.

I will add that finding an agenda does not in itself disprove any particular story. Indeed, there is no opponent more tiresome than one who keeps asking who is paying your bills—as if this in itself affected the validity of your argument. One might as well reject both cases in a law suit on the grounds that the lawyers were arguing for money. I find this particularly tiresome when it is done to me, because my opponents are usually taking their money from the tax payers—as if this fact absolved them from any hint of a special motive. This being said, finding there is an agenda should provoke a critical evaluation of the story. Since they are often hastily assembled, most untrue stories will fall apart on even a casual inspection.

Who is Making the Claim?

One of the maxims of Roman Law is falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus—when someone has been caught out in one lie, he is not to be trusted in any other claim without independent verification. This advice is not as useful as it might seem, because most spreaders of falsehood tend to spread only one falsehood. But it remains valuable, so far as, while individuals are not often multiple offenders, they belong to networks that are. Look at the child welfare agencies. In the late 1980s, they accepted and passed on every absurdity about satanic child abuse. Since then, they have been flitting from one justification of kidnapping to another, each one turning out as false as the last. With such people, taken as a movement, all future claims are to be at least distrusted on the grounds of repeated falsehood in the past.

Damn Lies and Statistics

The third rule is to look sceptically at any news item that relies on statistical claims. Statistics in our culture have an almost magical effect on the critical faculty, and so they have been made one of the principal tools of propaganda. If I tell you that I saw a lion walking today down Regent Street with an eagle on its back, you will dismiss the story out of hand. If, on the other hand, I tell you that 357 people died last year of tongue cancer, got from licking postage stamps, you will probably be less doubtful—though this is a claim I have just fabricated out of thin air. If I insisted on the claim, how would you know it was false? Again, you could investigate it for yourself. You could look into the epidemiology of tongue cancer, and the chemical properties of the glue used for postage stamps. With masses of information available on the internet, you could probably know it was false within a week. But, again, life is too short for investigating every made up statistic—especially since dozens of them must be published every day in this country alone.

There is, however, an easier way with such claims. Look, for example, at the claim that made the headlines in yesterday’s edition of Metro—this being the free newspaper given away on the London Underground. Some charity says that 35,000 paedophile images are published every six weeks on the internet. I doubt this because I have investigated similar claims and seen them disintegrate. But, even otherwise, I reject it unexamined. I can ask who has been counting these images? I can ask if these are newly created images, or have been recycled from the 1980s or earlier? I can ask what is meant by a “paedophile image”? Is it children under 12? Or under 16? Or under the age of 24? Or are these what the law calls “pseudo-images”—which are assembled from different sources and in which no children may have been required to pose in any overtly sexual manner? I can ask if they are of 35,000 individuals, or set of pictures of perhaps a thousand individuals? Since children alter their appearance almost every month as they grow, I can ask how anyone can answer this question. The claim may be true, but there is a presumption against its truth; and I will not accept it as true unless I can be shown the full methodology behind its being made.

When I ask about the age of these alleged children, I speak from experience. In 1995, I went on television to discuss drug relegalisation, and found myself against someone who said he was helping young people as young as 13 to come off drugs. Suspicious at this use of the phrases “young people”and “as young as”, I asked him how old some of his cases were. He prevaricated, trying to draw debate back to the youngest age. I pressed and pressed. At last, he mumbled that some of them were 24. The debate collapsed, leaving me in triumph. I accept that he may have been helping children of 13, but his odd definition of young people raised obvious suspicions about the numbers he was so fluently citing.

As said, we have a propensity to believe statistics. This is to be expected, as they can be used to tell us many new and wonderful truths about the world. But they are not to be believed unless the full methodology behind them has been disclosed. I could say that in a recent study, 33 per cent of young people questioned—some of them as young as five—had confessed to having sex with up to seven different partners a night. I could produce this claim by asking a child of five, a child of nine and a boy of 16, and by insisting to the last that everyone else of his age was behaving like a rabbit and that if he were not, there might be something wrong with him. I know that many similar claims are of no better provenance.

Where appeal is made to a questionnaire, you need to know what the questions were, how many people were asked, what kind of people were asked, what percentage of those asked responded, what influence was brought on people to answer in certain ways, and what effort was made to check the accuracy or truthfulness of answers. If the statistics have been collected in good faith, all this will be readily available.

Where appeal is made to a survey showing how many people fall into particular categories, you need to know how the categories are defined. I have just skimmed an article in today’s Evening Standard. It reports a claim that one in five adults are now obese, and that the Government must do something about this. Now, I have a good memory, and I do not think I see more very fat people in the street than when I was younger. I certainly do not think 20 per cent of the people I see are obese as the word is commonly used. I cannot be bothered to check how the report defines obesity, but I have no doubt it is not the definition that we commonly use. It may be something like more than 10 per cent above the—often very low – weights recommended by the insurance companies. If so, the statistics may give true information about something, though not about what we might think a real problem. But the statistical claims have made the headlines, and we are invited to panic because of them, and to let the government intrude even more than it presently does into our private choices.

In general, you need to let alarm bells go off in your mind whenever you come across phrases like “as many as”, “as young as”, “up to”, “including”, and so forth. And be suspicious of any large number: it is probably an extrapolation from a small and possibly unrepresentative sample. And likewise suspect any round percentage or any claim that goes against what appears to be common sense. Failing that, you may find yourself presented with claims as grossly fabricated as my sex survey.

Hunt the Inherent Absurdity

Sometimes, we come across really good propaganda. The claims do not seem that unlikely. They seem to rely on reputable evidence. They seem to come from many directions at once—producing the consilience of testimony that is often a sign of truth. Perhaps those making them have an agenda, but so have those denying them. Looking at claim and counter claim, we cannot tell who is in the wrong. We could go and check for ourselves, but cannot be expected to. Sometimes, as in the opposed claims made by the Israelis and Palestine Arabs, there is such appearance of verisimilitude on both sides that we can do no more than suspend judgment and be happy we are not in their position.

Here again, though, there is sometimes a way of cutting through the propaganda to get at the likely truth. Let me take the example of slavery in Sudan, which is once again in the British news. We are told that there are thousands of slaves in and around Khartoum, who were captured by traders in the south and sold into households and businesses, and sometimes then resold.

The claims in themselves have every sign of being true. They are supported by evidence from Christian and Jewish groups, by Conservative politicians and by radical socialists, by international human rights organisations and by agencies of the American Government. There is debate between these groups over the scale of slavery, and very fierce debate over the means of opposing it. But there is general agreement that there are slaves in Sudan, and there is no shortage of alleged former slaves ready to give evidence about their capture and sale and treatment. There is, on first inspection, an impressive consilience of testimony.

Even so, we can safely reject all the testimony, and do so without visiting the country or even looking hard at the testimony. The kind of slavery alleged in Sudan is of the same kind as existed in the ancient world and in the United States. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of these societies will know of the endless legal questions that must arise over chattel slavery. Suppose I am out driving my car and I knock down one of your slaves, injuring him. Have I committed a crime against him or a tort against you? If the former, what punishment might I suffer? Can the slave give evidence against me in court? If so, must he first be tortured? If the latter, how are damages to be assessed against me? If, to take another example, your slave damages my property, has he committed a crime? Or can you be sued for tort? If the former, can he be punished by the state? Or must he be resigned to you to be kept in your own prison? If the latter, is there any means of regulating the severity of these ergastula? Can a master kill a slave? What duties has a slave to help his master in difficulties? If I get a child by a slave, is its status automatically free or servile? Or can I decide when the child is born or reaches a certain age? Can slaves be freed? If so, by what legal process? Can slaves own property?

These and many other questions must be answered, and discussions of them will permeate both case and statute law. I do not know any Arabic, and so cannot check for myself. But I do know that the routine treatment of slaves in such a legal system throws up injustices more shocking to our sense of right and wrong than the mere acts of capture and sale. If there were such treatment, we should expect the allegations of slavery to go far beyond the vagueness that we can see in the newspapers.

It is worth noting that an argument from lack of evidence is not the same as an argument from alleged evidence. If I were to say that slavery in Sudan was impossible because the country had a bill of rights guaranteeing personal freedom, this might be worthless. Just about every country in the world has fitted itself in the past few centuries with some very impressive declarations of personal freedom. I cannot think of any of these countries where the declaration is not routinely ignored. But argument from absence is a valid appeal. When one thing alleged requires another thing as a necessary condition, and that other thing cannot be shown to exist, we have strong reason to doubt the thing alleged.

This is not to say that involuntary labour is unknown in Sudan. It may be that tribal raiding on the edges of civilisation in that country enables the local exploitation of captives. It may even be that the various armies fighting in that country use conscripted labour for building roads and for carrying supplies. But these would be irregular forms of slavery, not the formal chattel slavery described in the newspapers, where people are sold into household service in those areas of the country where legal relationships are governed by a system of property rights.

I would not dream of accusing those making such claims of lying. But I do insist they must be deluded. Their claims have the same epistemological value as claims about faith healing and resurrections from the dead. No doubt, Sudan is an unpleasant place to live. No doubt, its government has made absurd and oppressive laws. But unless the definition is to be widened to the point of being meaningless, it is not a slave society.

The War with Iraq

I turn now to the claims made last year to justify the war with Iraq. I angered several people when I dismissed these claims out of hand. They said I had not examined the full evidence, nor even taken into account the volume of evidence from different sources. But these were claims that could be assessed using all the techniques describe above.

First, there is the falsus in uno rule. We know that politicians have often in the past made or strengthened a case for war by lying. There were those raped Belgian nuns and bayoneted babies and soap factories in 1914. There was the Zimmermann Telegram in 1917. There was that faked attack on Germany by the Polish army in 1939. The major American intervention in Vietnam began with a fraud. More recently, there were the lies by the same people as were now calling for war with Iraq. Look at the evidence given by that supposed Kuwaiti nurse to the American Congress in 1990. She described in convincing detail how she had seen Iraqi soldiers pull babies out of incubators and throw them on the floor, and then pack up the incubators for shipping to Iraq. Reported by virtually every media organisation in the world, her evidence was of great value in swinging opinion behind the first war with Iraq. It then turned out that she was not a nurse, but in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, and that she had been out of the country at the time of the invasion. The whole testimony had been produced by a public relations company. There was the greatly exaggerated story of Serb atrocities in Kosovo. These facts had to raise suspicion over the present claims about Iraq—especially given that those making them seemed to have decided for other reasons on a war.

Second, even considered apart from its wider context, I the weapons of mass destruction claim unlikely. Before 1990, Saddam Hussein had access to the best weapons money could buy from America and Britain. With these, his armed forces had put up a wretched defence of the country in 1991. For the next ten years, Iraq was closely blockaded and occasionally bombed by the Allies. Yet we were told that it had chemical and biological weapons that could be used within 45 minutes. We were further led to believe that these were long range weapons that might be used against us.

I doubted these claims in themselves. I rejected them without further examination when much of the evidence supplied by the British Government turned out to have been plagiarised from an old PhD thesis taken from the internet, and when the evidence about purchases of nuclear material turned out to be a crude forgery. I had been assured that the evidence supplied by the American and British Governments was only what could be formally established, but that the wilder claims made by others had some basis in truth. Bearing in mind the quality of the governmental evidence, I felt justified in rejecting the other evidence without a second thought.

Even so, I did look at some of this other evidence. For example, I once heard an American journalist called Richard Miniter—a man much respected by some of my friends—explain how the body of every child who died in an Iraqi hospital was commandeered by the government, frozen, and then scattered around bomb sites for showing to the foreign media. He added that British spies had found tunnels “a kilometre long” under Saddam Hussein’s main palace in Baghdad, and that these were stuffed with chemical and biological weapons.

The second claim I dismissed without investigation. If I were storing such weapons, I would not want them under my bed, no matter how many feet down they were. The first, though, I did investigate. I have several Iraqi students. I asked them about the child corpses, and was assured that this would never be quietly suffered in an Islamic society. Even in Iraq, they assured me, there would be an outcry. Their testimony was different in nature from that of the Iraqi exiles who were used by the American and British Governments. These were refugees with no interest in whitening the character of Saddam Hussein. They wanted his overthrow. They were in touch with friends and relatives still in the country, and could tell me nasty and convincing stories about the tyranny there. If anything, their interest lay in endorsing the story. Their emphatic denial of it must, therefore, be taken as a compelling disproof.

It is now almost a year since the big debate over the war. No weapons of mass destruction were used in the defence of Iraq against invasion. None has been found despite months of close searching. No clear evidence has been found of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Quaeda. Despite the whitewashing of the Hutton Report, Tony Blair has been judged a liar or a fool; and President Bush is in similar difficulties. The politicians and security chiefs are blaming each other for misreading the evidence, and the Americans are beginning to blame the British. The conquest may have been easy: the occupation is turning into a nightmare.

I was right in my assessment last year of the justifications for the war. I was right not because I had achieved any marvels of forensic scholarship—though I wished at the time I might be able to investigate some of the claims in detail—but because I applied a few common sense tests to the claims. Clever people can tell some very bad lies. One need not be at all clever to see through them.

As usual, I am writing this article on a railway train, relying for evidence on my memory. There is much more I could say—for example, about the presentation of truth in a report so that it suggests a falsehood, more about the abuse of statistics, and more about how a consilience of testimony may be made to appear, when in fact all claims originate from just one or two sources. I may return to the subject and deal with it at greater length and with a greater breadth of illustration. I think it deserves a fuller treatment. But I have for the moment probably said enough.


  1. I have no more knowledge of the position in Sudan than you, but while a claim that country is a slave society would automatically imply the existence of slaves, the converse is not the case. The existence of thousands of slaves is possible without the society as a whole being dependent on their existence, (which is what I assume you mean by the term ‘slave society’)

  2. Sean:

    I would just like to say that your fine essay is one of the best instantiations of Critical Rationalism I’ve read in quite a while.



  3. Cracking article, especially if you’ve ever been frustrated with the rags. There’s a wealth of information there on Sean’s site, it’s like the far wall of the library, behind the desk, where you can sit and read unharassed. 🙂

  4. I don’t always investigate everything I hear or read, as much as I should. Especially when it is related to something I feel strongly about, I tend to sometimes take things word for word. But more and more I do read between the lines, look at current agendas being promoted, and see links. Over the last month or so there was a wave of things that looked to me like the government tryign to get its filthy paws into controlling what we can read on the internet, using cases involving “children” (as you say, often actually teenagers or older, in reality) because a few had commited suicide supposedly after reading certain websites. Governement were now “scrambling” (the words used) to put pressure on I.Ps to ban such sites. In the same week there was another incident where the conclusion was – “We really need to start regulating that internet, for the sake of the children”. Right from the beginning though I have also doubted this “unprecedented obesity epidemic” by using the same common sense approach Sean has used. Looking around me. People don’t appear to be considerably bigger than normal. Plenty of athletic and even very slim people about. Kids don’t all seem to be porky pigs heaving themselves along paths after school, out of breath and on the verge of cardica arrest, as the tabloids would have us believe. Nor are all of them knife wielding psychopaths stabbing each other for dinner money. 14 people in the last few years out of a population of 65 million years or so is not “Broken Britain” (as the tabloids would suggest). Kids seem just as energetic and child looking as usual, and with a variety of personalitys. “Ah, but it’s all about delayed obesity” they say. “It will show on them in 20 years”. Excuse me? Probably all tied in with the agenda to stop people eating certain things, and forcing them to eat what they want (if they can manage to find a free plastic bag to carry it home in first ).

  5. 65 million years? Had I just been watching a nature program prior to this post? Hmm, seems so. It was supposed to be 65 million people. Furthermore, I really should start using paragraphs you know 🙂

  6. You’re quite right Adam – if fatctthere are several posts on here in the archives by us about this very “obesity” scare. I have no clue when they are but if you google “fat food obesity” or “fat food obesity nazis” or “fat food obesity government” or combos thereof, you should get them all.

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