Chapter 6 (Part 2)
Chapter Six – Removing The Veil (Part 2)
Everything is Abnormal
About two years ago, while still living in the south of England, I spent some time walking up and down Oxford Street in London. I was looking for a pub in which I was meant to meet a few people prior to a music gig at the 100 Club. I found the pub, but then had an hour or so to kill, so took it upon myself to free a few people. The first liberation was outside a shop – I can’t remember exactly what it was, but there was a flat screen television in the window showing rolling advertisements, and on this side of the window was a woman in her forties staring. Just staring. From my pocket I brought out what looks like a car immobiliser: black with a button on top and a small infra-red LED bulb at the front. I clicked and immediately the television in the shop window went off (it was a Sony, they are always quick). The woman seemed to wake up, then turned and walked away without a second glance. In HMV, a music and movie store, I got a little more brazen, turning off the screens above the checkouts – the ones that screen music videos interspersed with adverts – and then came across a row of four screens all showing the same commercial for a movie box set. I stood behind the adjacent row of DVD shelves and switched the first screen off (a Panasonic, it took a little longer). The young man who had been raptly watching the commercial moved to the next screen. I switched this one off and he moved on. I switched the next two off, unavoidable due to the acute angle between me and the screens, and he moved away entirely.
No one has ever caught me doing this. No one expects someone to be doing this, so it doesn’t happen – it’s a technical problem. At a John Lewis department store a few weeks ago, armed with a home soldered high-power version of the key fob1, I walked around the audio-visual section switching off row after row of televisions that had been showing adverts, wasting electricity and encouraging people to succumb to the dream of entertainment Nirvana. (As I write this, some English cities are experiencing looting and near-riots that the mainstream media are refusing to acknowledge as the direct consequence of the consumer culture. It is no coincidence that the targets of non-state approved looters are the very same things that corporate marketing has transformed into Objects of Desire: flat screen televisions, designer trainers, iPads, smart phones and so on. The looting is simply the logical extension of rampant consumerism.) The staff were in a technical frenzy! Something must have gone wrong because there was no way all these screens could have been switched off on purpose. Why would anyone want to do that?
Here’s one reason.
At the beginning of the decade, these self-styled in-school broadcasters approached North American school boards with a proposition. They asked them to open their classrooms to two minutes of television advertising a day, sandwiched between twelve minutes of teenybopper current affairs programming. Many schools consented, and the broadcasts soon aired. Turning off the cheerful ad patter is not an option. Not only is the programming mandatory viewing for students, but teachers are unable to adjust the volume of the broadcast, especially during commercials. In exchange, the schools do not receive direct revenue from the stations but they can use the much coveted audiovisual equipment for other lessons and, in some cases, receive “free” computers.2
Sound familiar? There is very little difference between advertising and force-fed “informational” programmes in schools than the same kind of thing in railway stations, along streets, in pubs and restaurants and anywhere else you might want to or need to be. The only difference, I suppose, is that children are legally coerced to go to school, and thus are a captive market for whichever authority or commercial enterprise wishes to push their message home. But when you are standing in a railway station with the giant screen blaring and glowing Murdoch’s finest televisual spew across the concourse, do you really have a choice whether to watch it or not? It will creep into your subconscious – I guarantee it.
We have to be careful at this juncture. The part of my mind that barely contains a tempest of pure anger grabs an axe and takes a swing at the power cable stretching from the ground to the largest flat-screen advertising hoarding I can find. Shortly afterwards a pair of cuffs embraces my wrists and, rightly or wrongly, I am charged with criminal damage. We have to get a sense of perspective. Switching off television sets remotely is worth doing because although the undermining effect is small it takes little effort and is very low risk. On the other hand a very large screen, although symbolically a “great catch” is no more of a Tool of Disconnection than a bank of televisions that could be switched off at the push of a button. This is important.
We also have to take note of what we are trying to achieve in this chapter; the very start of the process. The information flows we need to deal with first – television and radio bulletins, print media headlines, internet news sites, billboards and signs, direct human communication and other more subtle means – are those that keep us turned away from the real world. Specifically those that keep pushing the message, “Everything is normal” or, to quote a famous wartime saying, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Remember the Biggest Lie of All, the idea that economic growth is essential? That is just one example of a totally abnormal, counterintuitive idea dressed up as “normal”. Another is that we, as ordinary people, should have strong, stable governments. Another is that Our Leaders know what is best for us. Yet another is that civilization is the One Right Way to Live.
All of these patently absurd things and more are normalised in the regular communications that reach us via the various forms I listed above. The messages are everywhere and unless we can find a way of dealing with them directly then no amount of mental insulation is going to be enough to counter their inexorable leakage into our brains. I can only provide a launchpad for doing this because the system keeps adapting and changing the ways it promulgates these lies: as we become savvy to its methods then it has to find new ways to keep us believing – new words, new media, new tricks. There is a whole industry, a supra-industry, at work to ensure we remain good citizens.
What becomes clear is that to undermine most effectively we need to strike at the core.
Task 3: Attacking the Communication Core
In the excitement of getting things done we mustn’t lose sight of the undermining process. This is particularly relevant when faced with difficult questions such as, “How do we attack the core of the ‘normalisation’ machine?” The Identification phase comes first; in other words, identifying what qualifies as a relevant target. Time for another mental exercise: take a piece of paper and something to write with and for one day, with an open and connected mind, jot down in some detail everything that seems as though it is trying to make abnormal ideas and behaviour seem perfectly normal. Here are a few ideas to start you off:
• A politician being addressed on the radio as though they truly represent the needs of large groups of people.
• A company promoting extreme consumption during a particular seasonal period as normal human behaviour.
• A major sporting event or the everyday activities of a celebrity drowning out the reporting of more important items in a newspaper.
• A community event or project being sponsored by a multinational corporation.
• The drop in a corporation’s profits reported on TV news as though it is a loss.
Ok, now that you have done that, look through your list and decide which of the items you would like to deal with first. There are all sorts of factors that will determine that including, very importantly, how strongly you feel about something. Motivation is such an important factor in undermining success that personal interest in something is a perfectly valid reason to act on it. Other factors could include how much time you have at the moment, how energetic and creative you are feeling, what is directly affecting you and the people you care about most, and what risks you are prepared to take. That last point should drive home the importance of proper investigation, the second phase in the undermining process.
Until the undermining process becomes second nature then you should refer back to Chapter 4 on a regular basis; even I can’t remember everything in it, and I wrote it. Work through your chosen target, bearing in mind that it:
a) Has to be something that acts as a Tool of Disconnection;
b) Must directly contribute to our acceptance of things being the way they are.
When it comes to Exposure then it depends on what your undermining actually comprises as to whether this phase is relevant. Go all the way through to the Housekeeping phase as though you are actually carrying out the process, identifying all the potential pitfalls and how you might overcome them. Always keep in mind what you are trying to achieve – if at some point the undermining looks like it won’t achieve your aims, even after changing your game plan, then maybe it’s best to bail out and start again. I’m going to work through an example at a high level here, which might be of use. It is related to something I addressed briefly on The Unsuitablog in 2010, and manages to anger me intensely even though I don’t live in the country in which it takes place.
Black Friday is an event of pure commercialism that occurs in the USA once a year. Although not originally named for this reason, it now signifies the time of year when retailers typically move from being “in the red” to being “in the black” due to the increase in material consumption. In practical terms it is the start of the pre-Christmas shopping season and used as a trigger to get shoppers buying goods they would not otherwise consider buying, ringing up huge debts on their credit cards and adopting a pattern of frenzied consumer activity that sometimes culminates in violence in order to obtain those precious Black Friday Bargains.3 The extent to which this normalises otherwise absurd behaviour – making the purchase of superfluous things appear routine – is quite extraordinary. If we consider civilized humans in the USA as de facto Consumers, then Black Friday takes this up another level, to the point at which “normal” consumer behaviour appears conservative.
Undermining Black Friday can seem in one sense to be a point solution, attacking something that is exceptional rather than a normal facet of civilized society, but if it is possible to deal with something so discrete then it may provide some very useful ammunition for dealing with the general problem of the Human as Consumer.
Black Friday is predicated on good communications. The “bargains” offered are generally not particularly good, and are always limited in number – partly to maintain the sense of urgency, but also because retailers are not stupid and have no intention of making a loss on any day of the year. Here’s a partial run down from a NYDailyNews article:
Deals from 4 a.m., with closing times varying by store.
Doorbuster deals for the earliest customers and free shipping at Macys.com for orders of at least $99. Men’s Timberland puffer jacket, $34.99; women’s puffer jacket from Style & Co., $24.99. Girls’ boots from Steve Madden and Madden Girl, $39.99.
- FOREVER 21
Deals from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. (Times Square location).
Customers who spend $40 and over will receive a special gift with purchase – a locket with lip gloss inside (limited quantities, while supplies last.) Select items $3-$12. Buy one get one free all apparel markdowns.
Deals from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thanksgiving Day; 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday.
Doorbusters (like a woman’s peacoat, $19.99), last for only six hours. Select board games will go for $5. A Craftsman C3 drill/drive is $49.99 and a 42-inch Zenith flat-screen is $399.99.
See? It’s crap. Which is why the communication of Black Friday as something that is apparently exceptional is so important; and it has really worked such that retailers no longer have to advertise their deals – they just wait for the queues to appear at the allotted time and hand out flyers as people rush the store doors to get whatever might be reduced. This is indeed a masterful piece of cultural manipulation.
Dealing with this can take many forms, and such is the importance of undermining communications that I’ve provided a list of the different approaches that you might want to consider as an Underminer, and briefly how this might be applied to Black Friday:
1. Stopping the message: Making sure it isn’t originated at all, or at least stopped at source before it can be propagated in any way, e.g. jamming the printing presses that produce the flyers; socially engineering employees to prevent a retailer’s Black Friday strategy from being written.
2. Blocking the message: Preventing communications from being completed in some way, e.g. intercepting the delivery of flyers to stores; taking down hoardings near to stores.
3. Reversing the message: Communicating something that is the reverse of what the originator intended, e.g. a fake Black Friday Facebook page that suddenly cancels the event; press releases to radio stations from retailers saying how damaging Black Friday is to the planet.
4. Subverting or parodying the message: Communicating something that alters the sense of the message, often in a humourous way, e.g. creating a “Black Friday” event for the Amazon Rainforest where all trees are free to the first 1000 loggers; “subvertising” hoardings to show the true impact of consumption on child workers.
5. Amplifying the message: Changing the message to such an extent that it becomes unbelievable (a form of subversion) or, at best, causes problems for the retailer, e.g. creating a Black Friday website that advertises items as free; acting as a company spokesperson saying on radio that Black Friday deals are to be extended indefinitely.
Notice that none of these actually prevent the target of the message from getting to the stores. The idea here is to undermine the means by which human behaviour is altered to fit the industrial model. By impeding access to the stores you are doing something quite different which is relevant to the fourth section in this chapter.
None of these ideas on their own is going to be singularly effective, for instance only stopping one batch of flyers amongst a blizzard of paper, but this is a team effort even if in isolation. That sounds strange, but remember the feedback loop: if only a few people start undermining in a methodological and effective manner then it clears the way for more undermining to take place via the people who have been reconnected through the efforts of you and the loose band of individuals who happen to be doing similar things at the same time. So it’s worth doing, providing it is the right thing.
Walking through a specific action should be useful at this point.4 I’m going to take the example of the annual round of company profits or (more rarely) losses that are announced. When profits – we are talking about money earned on top of all expenses, indicating overall growth, which is then taken largely by shareholders – are announced, any rise is treated in the mass media as Good News:
Energy giant Shell has released its full year results, showing a profit of just over $18.6bn (£11.5bn), a rise of 90% on last year.
Yet these good numbers are hardly surprising as a barrel of oil is now over $100 – only the second time in history that has ever happened. Prices have risen quickly at 15% compared with the same period last year. As the volatile situation in Egypt continues, worries over the rest of the Middle East has pushed prices even higher.
Holly Pattenden is head of oil and gas analysis at Business Monitor International. She told the BBC Shell’s results were good news for those with pensions linked to the company.5
When profits fall this is treated as Bad News:
Profits at private healthcare group Bupa tumbled 72% to £118m in 2010 in a year of cost cutting, write-downs, and redundancies.
Bupa blamed difficult economic conditions in the key UK and US markets, where unemployment and health care reforms have affected operations.
Profits were hit after the company made a £249.2m write-down on the value of properties and acquisitions.6
The aim here is to counter this absurd attitude.
You are going to pretend to be a representative of a major corporate institution in whatever politically-defined country you live, and help people to understand that they are being kept in the dark as to the destructive nature of economic growth. Spend a while considering how you would most effectively do this, based on your own personal toolkit (refer back to Chapter 4), what kind of experience you have, who you know and trust, what might have the greatest impact in a particular time and place, and so on.
Ok? Now here is just one way this could be done; it isn’t necessarily the way I would do it, and probably not the way you would do it either, but let’s be open-minded. Sarah is a woman of mixed race (Afro-Caribbean / Caucasian), who was born in Britain and has lived there all her life. She does not have a particularly distinctive regional accent, but could be recognised as being of mixed race by her voice alone. She has some experience making presentations through her job, and has undergone basic in-house media training although she has never had to use it. It is approaching the end of the financial year, and companies are starting to announce their annual profit figures. Few major companies are showing a loss, except one large oil company that has written off the cost of a major buyout failure. The usual “big growth is good, less growth is bad” reports are coming through the media. Something that could undermine this mindset is a statement by the British Chambers of Commerce that clarifies the reality of this. Sarah concocts the following:
– Financially, all profit is good for that particular company, because it means money for the shareholders, and the shareholders own the company.
– More profit means more money for the shareholders, and bigger bonuses for senior management and investors (remember this is all being stated in a matter-of-fact way).
– Less profit means less money for the shareholders, executives and investors, who will not be able to afford as expensive cars, holidays and houses.
– If a company loses money then the shareholders, executives and investors will be upset, and will lose money, and possibly their jobs.
– We can tell a healthy economy by the amount of energy it is consuming, the amount of consumer goods the public buy and the volume of greenhouse gases being emitted by that economy. If the economy does not grow, then these things will also not grow (again, this is stated in a matter-of-fact, not at all getting the real point, kind of way).
So that’s the message. It will obviously need to be bulked out a bit and overlaid with a bit of corporate-speak, but Sarah has experience of this, working for a corporation herself. Now, how will Sarah be able to get it across most effectively to the largest number of people? Typically, Chambers of Commerce are led by middle-aged white males, but middle-aged white males are not seen as particularly media-friendly, which is one reason young women are often put in PR positions. Sarah fits the bill, and being of mixed-race might (ironically, considering the history of white power and influence) make it easier for her to get a slot on network public radio, for this is where she is going to be executing her undermining.
She rents a cheap room in a nearly city office block near to the real Chambers of Commerce, with a direct telephone line that has a number with the same dialling code as that institution. Financial radio shows are not listened to by very many members of the general public, so she chooses a mainstream breakfast slot on the same day as a couple of major profit announcements are due (these are listed well in advance in the financial press). Early that morning she has been listening to the target radio station, making sure no one from the real CoC has been interviewed or been quoted on the news – this is important as her details will be checked if there is duplication.
A few minutes before the show starts she calls up the radio station, via its news desk number, using an alias. She claims to be the newly appointed PR representative for the relevant industrial sector(s) at the aforementioned Chambers of Commerce, and has an important statement related to today’s profit announcements – the expectation of revealing news makes the show’s producers particularly interested. She is given a five-minute interview slot. At the allotted time she is contacted through the office number she has provided and manages to get her points across, in order, in a sober tone that does not suggest anything underhand is taking place. She does not engage in further discussion with the presenter except to clarify the points made. She ends the call and leaves the office, having paid the rental in cash. That day is not a good one for the economic belief system.
Now it’s your turn.
Quick Win: Heckling the Propaganda Pushers
When Charlie Veitch heckled Sky News presenter Kay Burley through a megaphone, live on British television, he was exploiting one of the few genuinely open channels remaining to the casual Underminer. The result was a wonderful piece of undermining, and there was nothing Sky News a.k.a. Murdoch Corporation could do about it. To quote Charlie:
“Kay, this is the Love Police, my name is Detective Charlie, we have a warrant out for your arrest. You have been convicted of being a propaganda-pushing Murdoch shill. You are feeding lies, you are perpetuating the circus of mainstream media – corporate controlled mainstream media. You’re only doing it for money; you know what we call people who only do things for money. What you’re doing is very dangerous, Kay.”
Planning something like this isn’t easy: you have to know when news is breaking, where the reporters and the presenters along with their interviewees will be putting across their mainstream propaganda, and also make sure your message is perfectly misaligned with what is being spouted at the time. Having a battery operated loud hailer in your bag is certainly a good start, along with some suitable comments. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t so easy, but if you are prone to hanging around government buildings and political headquarters then a little breach of the peace may be in the offing. Who knows, you may get your words on the TV rather than those of your Beloved Leaders.
And if it does kill off mainstream live news reporting then it’s the media that will be losing out far more than the public. We may just see a resurgence of old-style unrehearsed reporting rather than the sycophantic excuse for journalism currently being peddled to the public.
Task 4: Fraying the Edges
Attacking the Communication Core is enough work to keep a team of or many individual Underminers working in every country, region and state busy for years. If you find this, or any of the other tasks are to your liking and you are finding success in what you do then stick with it. Even if a key foundation stone of the thing you are undermining becomes dislodged then it may still remain functional. We need people working in all areas, and that is especially important in this chapter.
Often in the life of even a mainstream activist there arise opportunities that are too good to pass up. The exposed transmission cable; the open door; the unlocked gate; the unattended uniform closet: these are real examples of the interesting paths activism can take. Remember me mentioning conventional direct action as being a potential distraction activity, such as a march being a “front” for something subversive taking place in the absence of police presence? This has an analogy in the world of politics:
A Labour aide who advised the Government to use the attack on the World Trade Centre to distract attention from “bad” news stories was fighting for her job last night.
Jo Moore, who works for Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, was widely condemned for showing spin at its worst when her news management memo was leaked.
Miss Moore’s memo, written at 2.55pm on September 11, when millions of people were transfixed by the terrible television images of the terrorist attack, said: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?”7
Jo Moore’s cynical transgression was not to be the last time attempts were made to “bury” unsavoury news beneath something that had more front page potential, nor was it the first, because the best ideas tend to be those that have been hanging around in some form seemingly forever. So, there is the aforementioned march that allows for actions the marchers themselves – and certainly not the organisers – would not have intended to be carried out. In the specific case of the Veil of Ignorance, making a concerted attack on the means by which we are disconnected from any awareness of being exploited is also an excellent opportunity to carry out undermining actions that potentially have even greater impact and longevity.
A lot has been made in recent years of attacks on computer systems that use multiple machines to flood the networks of targets, usually corporate websites or those of other oppressive regimes. Denial of Service describes a way of making computer systems inaccessible to the outside world. Due to the resilience and more importantly the network bandwidth available to even the smallest operations, simple Denial of Service is usually impractical and without first class security measures is almost certain to be tracked back to the originator. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) largely avoids this problem by using not one very large data stream, but a large number of relatively small data streams. Strictly speaking, there is nothing illegal about DDoS if it is not being carried out in a wholly malicious manner: all companies want lots of internet traffic, and DDoS is usually just a very large amount of internet traffic, albeit not the type that they were hoping for.
Anonymous has frequently been accused of instigating DDoS attacks as during the aforementioned “Operation Payback”, but such is the nature of Distributed Denial of Service that anyone with an agenda and a target can orchestrate a successful attack, at least for a short while. Unlike Anonymous, who do not publicly condone DDoS, other loose-knit groups such as 4Chan-ners and LulzSec openly promote(d) their use of DDoS, although often the motivation is often less about attacking the system as having a laugh at someone else’s expense. There is little doubt that national governments have instigated DDoS and simple Denial of Service attacks for political reasons, and considerable evidence that corporations have at least been party to similar tactics for commercial reasons. It is certainly a popular technique.
This is not the place to go into the mechanics of such a technique – there is plenty of information online, but remember to browse discretely – suffice it to say such attacks have been instrumental in moving particular agendas along in the intended direction whether that be taking revenge on an institution for involvement in a specific act, right through to a concerted effort to undermine the raison d’être of an organisation. The imposition of the Veil of Ignorance is especially pertinent here, given the importance such organisations (corporations, political and lobbying groups, media outlets etc.) attach to continuous communications. But DDoS is not just a front-line attack mechanism; it can be very effectively used as a smokescreen for more subtle interventions.
Let’s suppose the Chinese arm of a Western media conglomerate is assisting Chinese government propaganda in creating more and more industrial workers from a vast, and formerly largely self-sufficient, population. The content of the conglomerate’s Chinese website is controlled by the parent company that is getting the benefits of Chinese market loyalty for their media products (and their advertisers’ goods) in exchange for allowing the government to vet the content of their website. As a result of this cosy arrangement the company website is fully accessible from Chinese internet cafes and via state-controlled internet providers. The arrangement is sound: the media company do what they are told, so they rake in profits from the growing Chinese consumer market. The company then experiences a major DDoS attack, bringing down a significant part of their internet presence and requiring the full attention of their technical staff. Can you see where we’re going here?
While the staff are occupied combating the attack, including trying the trace the myriad different attack vectors and protect their infrastructure from the risk of an open front door, a back door of an entirely different type swings open. A telephone rings on the Helpdesk. At the other end of the line is, apparently, a person from a company contracted to provide security services to the one which is under attack; the caller asks for a range of information including passwords to edge servers and routers, so that they can – as requested – increase the bandwidth of the victim’s internet presence, thus permitting their US-based website to get back online.
No matter that this is just technical gobbledygook; the well-meaning Helpdesk staffer, currently fielding numerous calls from stressed internal staff and worried clients, provides the information, is thanked by the caller, and gets on with answering the next query. What actually happened is that the caller had been party to the DDoS via a hacking forum, which incidentally hadn’t actually had anything to do with the original attack. The caller then searched the name of the company along with the terms “client” and “security” to find out which, if any, other companies provided them with technical services. With this information to hand and a basic knowledge of what might be useful in the future all they had to do was phone an overworked member of the helpdesk, via a number-masked line8 and see if they could glean the kind of knowledge that would never be given out on a less frenetic occasion.
What the caller does with this information is another story, and one that you might like to think about yourself, perhaps with a warm smile on your face.
The first steps in my investigation into public relations were based on the vaguest of hunches. The mainstream news media here in New Zealand had been reporting a public conflict between environmental groups and a rainforest logging company, but the more interesting story seemed to be what was going on behind the news. The aggressiveness and persistence of the pro-logging campaign reminded me of stories I had heard about organised anti-environmental tactics in the United States. I wondered if similar tactics might invisibly be at work. At the end of 1999, after two years of investigating, Bob Burton and I published a book [Secrets and Lies] exposing a large-scale anti-environmental campaign, coordinated by the US public relations company Shandwick. The truth was much worse than my original suspicions.
I believe that journalists and researchers have a special role in democratic society – far beyond the commercial journalist role of just finding stories that are interesting and help sell the surrounding advertisements. It is the job of uncovering news that those in power would prefer remained secret or unnoticed, alerting the public to important issues and scrutinising the versions of truth that are broadcast by vested interests through the media. I call it being a ‘democratic agent’: helping to enable the public to play a serious role in politics. It is a similar role in society to that played by public interest groups (civil rights groups, environmentalists etc), which also uncover important issues, alert the public and challenge the statements and actions of the powerful. Without people in these roles, anything more than token democratic society is impossible.
The first thing that an investigative journalist brings to the job is asking the right questions: what lies behind this press release? Is this really true? Who arranged for that statement/information/event to happen now and why? As I said, our book Secrets and Lies started merely because of wondering what lay behind some attacks on environmentalists. In the case of a public interest group, I think the members should repeatedly ask themselves: ‘what information, if we had it, would make a huge difference to our campaign?’ That is the information someone should be seeking. Key information includes information that allows a group to make news and set the agenda on an issue (exposing plans, releasing revealing official information, publicising statistics or opinion polls, and so on); tactical information about when and by whom decisions are being made to enable public input; and factual information to reply to the arguments or expose the untruths of political opponents.
Often the breakthrough in research comes when we suddenly realise where we should be probing. In my intelligence research, for instance, I conducted extensive interviews assuming that I understood roughly how the western spy agencies co-operated. In fact I had not really considered that the interception facilities in my country and elsewhere integrated into a global system. I simply had not thought to ask about that, even though I was talking to people who used the system every day, and so I nearly missed the whole thing. Then one day I was talking over a draft section with an intelligence officer who said “that’s not how it works”. That was the day I heard my first description of the Echelon system and realised what I should be investigating.
A more dramatic example of this comes from the Gulf War. News organisations around the world ran a harrowing story quoting testimony before a US congressional caucus by a 15 years old Kuwaiti girl. She described watching Iraqi soldiers entering a Kuwait hospital with guns, taking the babies from the incubators and leaving them ‘on the cold floor to die’. This story was repeated many times in the following weeks and had a profound influence on the debate about whether to launch the Gulf War. Although even Amnesty International believed the testimony, an investigative writer called John McArthur, who was researching news manipulation during the Gulf War, decided to check her story. His investigation revealed that the whole story had been invented and that the hearing had been stage-managed to deceive the congressman and swing opinion in favour of war. The fifteen year-old, whose full name had supposedly been kept confidential to ‘prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in Kuwait’, had not been working in a hospital. She was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and had been coached for the part by the PR company Hill and Knowlton, which arranged the whole event on behalf of its client the Kuwaiti royal family.
There are many journalists who would like to pursue stories and probe more deeply but their commercially-motivated news organisations do not allow them the time required. (As a result, many journalists do their most important and rewarding work in their spare time.) Investigative journalists, writers and special interest researchers devote the time it takes to investigate and expose bigger issues and stories.
One of the things that takes time is waiting for answers to letters requesting information. We can seek official documents using freedom of information laws and use parliamentary processes to gather lots of detailed information – but, as it can take weeks or even longer to get replies, these methods obviously have little use to daily news reporters. If we have time, the biggest limitation in what can be found using official questioning is purely our own ability to think up lots of questions.
We can also interview officials and business people to gather non-secret insights into issues. Note also that retired senior politicians, government officials and businesspeople – who might not talk to use while in their jobs – are often very quickly forgotten by their old colleagues once they cease to be powerful and useful and are pleased to be interviewed about their experiences and insights. (Following changes of government and ‘restructuring’ and redundancies in organisations is a good time to find people willing to talk.)
The key to getting information from people is just being brave enough to ask. I find that most people are willing to help. This should be our assumption. Two or three phone calls are often all it takes to locate someone who can help you on the way to the information you are looking for. Once I start asking around, information usually pours in and often does in unexpected ways. During the Secrets and Lies research, for instance, I phoned a woman in a small town who, I had heard, knew about an arson threat against environmentalists. After talking helpfully for a little while she said, “it’s really my husband you should be talking to, he’s in Coast Action Network”. I waited apprehensively for him to come to the phone, as Coast Action Network was the pro-logging group that had been set up as part of the PR strategies. He turned out to be one of the real local people who had joined the group. He was soon telling me how he had left in disgust when he realised that all the group activities were being planned at the
Timberlands’ headquarters. He became one of my best sources.
Another time, I phoned an environmentalist who had been a victim of anti-environmental violence. He suggested I talk to a woman went to university with, who had told a curious story about the Timberlands issue. This woman, it turned out, was being courted by a young man who had confided in her about an exciting job he had had: infiltrating an environmental group for $50 an hour. When I checked the story I found that had he had indeed joined the group and asked lots of questions during organising meetings, that he had had no involvement in environmental politics before or since that time and that he was son of a senior staff member of the PR company Shandwick New Zealand.
Time allows us to locate helpful people and have bits of luck like this. Time is also what allows us to check whether official facts are true. Sadly, with politicised issues and vested interests, we cannot assume that any supposed facts are true. Many times I have forgotten this and assumed that facts stated plainly by people in positions of authority will be more or less true – only to find later that they were not. While writing Secrets and Lies, we eventually found that nearly all the ‘facts’ in the pro-logging public relations turned out to not be so, or that they told a quite different story when put in context. It is very easy for people to manipulate and deceive; especially since mainstream journalism does not usually question establishment spokespeople.
There is a horribly true saying, from Australian journalist David McKnight, that good PR depends on bad journalism. The other side of the coin is that the best antidote to bad PR is good journalism, and the greater public awareness this allows. Just as effective PR often relies on being able to have its effect invisibly, exposing PR machinations to the public often renders them ineffective and even counter-productive.
Which brings us back to secrecy or inaccessability of information. Much unethical behaviour, violence, lies, manipulation and dirty political tactics only happen (at least in reasonably open societies) because the people concerned think they will not have to answer for their actions publicly – either because they are secret or because the news media fail to scrutinise them effectively.
The anti-environmental campaign described in Secrets and Lies might have made depressing reading, showing how relatively easily secret tactics and constant lies could be used to undermine genuine community groups. They were caught out this time, but lots of other times the tactics succeed.
First, publicity about any examples like this helps to raise public awareness. The best defence against these kinds of PR tactics is to know about them. Intimidating legal threats, front groups, systematic attacking of critics: if community groups can recognise the tactics and cry foul when they are used, it helps to reduce their power. There has been more public discussion about public relations in my country (including amongst public relations professionals) in the year since publication than ever before. Also, recognising the tactics is also the first step to exposing them. The Timberlands case turned out to be a spectacular example of how exposing corporate PR activities can undo the strategies. Because of the risk of legal action, Secrets and Lies was written, printed and distributed in complete secrecy, with no publicity until the day it was in the bookshops. I did tell a few journalists, including a TV current affairs reporter who quietly prepared a documentary on the book. The day before it was released, he interviewed the head of Timberlands, who sincerely told the camera that his company had no PR plans and had never tried to interfere with the environmental campaign. The reporter said, “Dave, are you prepared to give viewers your word about that?” He said, “I give you my word.” The next morning we released the book. The reaction to it surprised everyone, including us. It quickly became lead news and the Prime Minister, who had been a staunch supporter of Timberlands, found herself in the middle of a controversy over the dirty PR tactics used by the state logging company. She changed her story three times over the period of a week after the book’s launch, looking increasingly exasperated at the bad publicity. The controversy was later cited by journalists as one of the three issues that had dented her credibility and helped her lose the national election later that year. Shandwick was soon in the centre of the largest PR industry ethics investigation in my country’s history. In the wake of the publicity about Timberlands’ tactics – and especially its covert activities to pressure the opposition Labour Party to support logging – the Labour Party leader personally pushed through a new policy of ending all the controversial rainforest logging. When she became Prime Minister a few months later, one of the first acts by her new government was to begin cancelling logging approvals and preparing for all the forests to become national parks. Perhaps the most powerful lesson coming from this case study is that when companies and governments resort to unethical tactics, they are wielding a double-edged sword. The dirtier the tactics, the more damage it does to those responsible if they are exposed. Timberlands’ reward for using these tactics was that it was seriously discredited. At the time of writing, the government is discussing disestablishing the company. Most investigative work of course does not have quite such dramatic and immediate effects. But it is still fascinating and very satisfying. I wish more people would do it. There is lots of work to be done.
1 Various models are available from TV-B-Gone or Adafruit Industries, and various other “gadget” outlets, sometimes advertised as joke products. Fun they may be, but a joke they are not. Building the high-powered version was actually the first time I had soldered anything, and it worked first time! Undermining is not just about removing the Tools of Disconnection, it’s about gaining a load of useful skills too.
2 Naomi Klein, “No Logo”, Flamingo, 2001.
3 The word “bargain” should be in quotes because unless you intended to buy something in the first place it can only be a bargain if it is free. When you are encouraged to buy something that you were not intending to buy then however cheap something is it is not a bargain. You have been lied to.
4 An early concept of this book was to use a series of real-life case studies to assist underminers create their own strategies. This is useful up to a point, but is an example of inductive thinking in that you can generalise based on specifics. This could be dangerous, giving people a false sense of security. So instead I wrote two chapters giving general processes and rules upon which specific undermining tasks can be based. While a number of real-life examples are used, and reinvention is not always necessary, the emphasis in Part Two is thus on working out your own strategies for undermining, helping ensure that you can take responsibility for your actions for better and worse.
5 BBC News, “Shell annual profits double to $18.6bn”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12355139 (accessed June 2011).
6 BBC News, “Bupa profits fall amid tough times in key markets”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12676334 (accessed June 2011).
7 Andrew Sparrow, “Sept 11: ‘a good day to bury bad news’”, Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2001.
8 I know this section is full of technical details, but Underminers are often specialists in particular fields – experience that can be extremely useful across the board. Therefore I have no intention of dumbing-down the text just because some book retailer says I should be appealing to a wider audience. In this case, “number masking” might just be a case of calling Reception and asking to be transferred; but in practice it is a lot safer to (a) use a number not associated with you; (b) use the appropriate “mask” prefix that a telephone provider usually offers and (c) going via Reception.
9 This is an edited extract from a chapter written by Nicky Hager in the book “Battling Big Business” by Eveline Lubbers (Common Courage Press, 2002). While granting the republishing of the text, Nicky Hager has asked for it to be stated that he does not necessarily condone any other activities described in Underminers.
Version 1.0, published 1 January, 2012