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Methods of Misleading Public Opinion

IN introducing the lecturer the President, Lord Halsbury said "I think it would be of interest to you to know that Mr. Christopher Mayhew, M.P., who is going to deliver the 37th Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture is actually the grandson, through his mother, of Stephen Paget, and I am sure that it will be a source of pleasure to him to address us this evening and a great source of pleasure to us to preserve the continuity between Stephen Paget and his descendents in this capa­city. I think Mr. Mayhew is pretty well known by public reputation to all of you. He served with distinction in the Second World War, serving from 1939 to 1944, and left the Army with the rank of Major and went into politics where he avows the Labour cause and is now Member of Parliament for Woolwich East. He entered the Government almost coterminously with entering Parliament and has remained there until 1966 when he retired as Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy. In Parliament he keeps a watchful eye on our interests which is an activity we are very grateful for, but he not only does this for us, he is a member of our Council also. So without more to do I call upon Mr. Christopher Mayhew to deliver the 37th Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture.


Methods of Misleading Public Opinion



MR. MAYHEW said:


The subject I have chosen—'Methods of Mis­leading Public Opinion"—would, I think, have pleased my grandfather. His work for this Society, his writings, the testimony of everyone who knew him bear witness to his passion for truth and for exposing propaganda which seemed to him false and harmful.


Indeed, apart from his acute sensitiveness, and his hatred of suffering, which he obviously inherited from his father, the distinguished surgeon, Sir James Paget, this hatred of mis­leading propaganda was perhaps his most out­standing characteristic.

It led him not only to campaign against the falsehoods of the anti-vivisection lobby but to oppose the A-V agitation against inoculation which was widespread during the First World War. It was indeed his work in lecturing to troops on this subject which undermined Stephen Paget's health.


Judging by the virulence of their attacks on him, anti-vivisectionists had a great respect for Stephen as a propagandist. I cannot hope to compare with him as a lecturer tonight and indeed, if the anti-vivisectionists are to be believed, it might cause some surprise if I followed his example too literally. The "Aboli­tionist" of 15th September, 1910 declared:

"His manner in either lecturing or debating is as original as everything else associated with him. He varies his posture occasionally, but his favourite attitude consists" in lying flat across the Chairman's table. He has been known to stamp his feet upon the platform with considerable force and energy especially when he had no ready answer to some particu­larly awkward poser. On one occasion he flung books and papers upon the ground in eloquent majesty as a protest, apparently, against being unkindly heckled".


In one respect, however, I do feel inclined to follow my grandfather's example as it has been described by the anti-vivisectionists:

"At meetings of his own Society Mr. Paget invariably declines to answer questions— unless an unwary Chairman commits him unexpectedly. In that case he frequently has a train to catch".


I doubt very much if these quotations do justice to Stephen Paget. But in a lecture deal­ing with '"Methods of Misleading Public Opinion" it seemed appropriate to include some examples of anti-vivisectionist propaganda.


There are three distinct methods of misleading public opinion. First, the selection of facts and the suppression of facts.   This is by far the commonest and most effective method of mis­informing the public in democratic countries. Because the facts are unchallengeable in them­selves, people can easily be led to believe that they give a true picture whereas, since they are unrepresentative, their very authenticity is part of the process of deception.


I recall illustrating this method of deception on BBC Television. I filmed the good and bad features of the Borough of Shoreditch and out of this material created two films, one portraying Shoreditch favourably and the other unfavour­ably. Both films used only authentic material and, while giving totally opposite impressions, were extremely convincing. Like the viewers I was appalled by the simplicity and effectiveness of this technique of deception.


I believe that television is particularly well suited to this propaganda technique. Our ears are well trained in spotting mendacity in speech, but our eyes are not yet sophisticated enough for the television age.


A sophisticated variant of selecting particular facts is the selecting of particular commentators, journalists, or interviewees. I visited the Soviet Union andChinain 1956 in order to try to get filming facilities for BBC Television. The con­ditions laid down were too restrictive to make a fair picture possible, and I refused them. But similar conditions were accepted by commen­tators acting for an ITV programme company and as a result the viewers were given tenden­tious, pro-communist programmes. It is on an occasion like this that one feels grateful for the public service broadcasting which has no motive to produce programmes which are popular and exciting but have no integrity.


Sometimes there are facts which are so simple, important and undeniable that they can neither be highlighted nor suppressed. A good example of this situation was the entry of Soviet tanks into Czeckoslovakia. On these occasions, where the facts cannot be selected or suppressed, it becomes necessary to angle them. The entry of the tanks was presented to the Russian people as assistance to the fraternal Czeck people: to the Chinese people as a fascist aggression concerted between the revisionist leading cliques in Moscow and Prague: to the French the invasion was presented as a consequence of the Yalta Con­ference, and to the Egyptians as a consequence of "the destructive role of world Zionism".


Angling facts is more difficult than selecting them and pre-supposes a degree of ideological conditioning of public opinion. Since it is harder to slant pictures than words it is more difficult to angle facts on television than in the press or on the platform.


The third method of deception is the lie direct. This is difficult and dangerous and usually un­necessary, since other methods of deception are normally available.

The great deceptions, of course, are those practised in totalitarian countries, but the climate of our own society is extremely favour­able to mendacity. The most rewarding political and commercial propaganda and the most sensa­tional television programmes tend to have the least integrity.


Commercial advertising selects and angles facts mercilessly and, unlike political propa­ganda, cannot be challenged and exposed effec­tively. Television commercials would annoy us much less if they were followed by television anti-commercials drawing our attention to the weak points in the advertised product.


Obviously we must rule out the proposition that it is always right to tell the truth and to do so in the starkest and most objective manner. No good doctor, parent or statesman could accept such a proposition. Truth is a supreme but not an absolute value. Truth can be unkind, indecent, divisive, irresponsible and inflamma­tory, and there are times—fortunately quite rare —when it is right to subordinate it to greater moral imperatives.


But this is an awkward fact. It opens up a gigantic loophole for liars of all kinds who cheer­fully subordinate truth to commercial profit, party advantage, television ratings, newspaper circulations, or their own personal image. Our society is full of people who do this and, although they have a legal right to mislead us, we have a moral duty to debunk them if we can.


Can we draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of persuasion? Obviously we must take a tolerant view of those who are openly pleading a cause which they honestly believe to be just. We can also be more forgiving where the propaganda for one side is met on equal terms by propaganda for the other side. Some people find all propaganda and all clever tricks of persuasion objectionable, and I am temperamentally inclined to their side. But if the advocate openly acknowledges that he is stating x case; if in addition he genuinely believes in the case he is putting; and if finally he exposes him­self freely to counter propaganda, then all our reasonable objections are met.


It is impossible to draw a precise line between objectionable and unobjectionable methods of persuasion.  Most of us, however, would surely agree that the line should be drawn more strictly than it is at present. In our public life mendacity has increased, is increasing, and needs to be diminished.


Looking to the future, I have some positive suggestions to put forward. There should be more teaching in the schools about the mass media: there should be a strengthening of the public service element in ITV; There should be more encouragement for consumer organisations such as 'Which?’; and there should be rigorous protection of the independence of broadcasting.


I also recommend the BBC and ITV to pro­duce programmes demonstrating to viewers the various techniques of deception which can be and sometimes are practised by the mass media. How many viewers realise, for example, that in filmed interviews the film they see of the inter­viewer asking the questions has probably been shot after the interview has ended—perhaps after the interviewees have all gone home!


Mr. Crossman and Mr. Benn call for a deeper and freer political coverage on television. I wish they would have a word with the Chief Whip, who, on at least two occasions in the past two years, has protested officially to the BBC against M.P.s like myself appearing so often without taking the strict party line.


On both occasions, the BBC stood its ground —and quite right, too. The corporation's great­est glory is its robust independence of powerful Establishment figures, including Prime Ministers.


The greatest enemies of free, serious political television are not the broadcasters but the political leaders. If political programmes or interviews deviate a hair's breadth from what they themselves consider fair, they rise up in wrath. In their hearts they want television, in Mr. Crossman's terms, to strengthen the plebis­citary element in our democracy, that is, the simple division between leaders and followers. This also explains their over-sensitiveness to tough interviewing.


Television is at present a very serious rival to Parliament. The average television commen­tator is far more influential than the average M.P. A backbencher on Panorama probably addresses three or four times more M.P.s than he would in the House of Commons. Ministers will listen to him on television who would not dream of staying to hear his speech in the House let alone of reading it in Hansard afterwards.


Yet who stands in the way of televising Parlia­ment? Not the broadcasters but the politicians.


One of the most surprising parts of Mr. Benn's speech was his suggestion that the BBC, which he criticised for triviality and lack of integrity, should be encouraged to accept advertising. Does he not recognise that easily the most trivial and misleading feature of our broadcasting is the television commercial. Day after day, night after night, we are brainwashed with the message that if we do not use a particular soap or hair-spray, or drink a particular brand of Vermouth, we are missing out on something really important.


Even when we reject the specific message of an advertisement, refusing to believe, for example, that every detergent washes whiter than every other detergent, or that every brand of petrol gives better acceleration than every other brand, we often unconsciously absorb the scale of values which underlies it. We begin to accept that imperceptible difference of whiteness in our household linen, or of power in our petrol, are matters of importance. Though trivial and often misleading, advertising is persuasive and effec­tive.


Sometimes one wonders what the effect would be if the £600 million now spent each year in appeals to our greed, vanity, snobbery and ambi­tion were spent instead in extolling the simple virtues of kindness, truthfulness and unselfish­ness.


But perhaps the biggest deception is to be found in the well-promoted theory that through advertising we get our commercial television free. In fact, of course, we pay our licence fees when we buy the advertised products. A future generation will deride us for allowing our pro­grammes to be interrupted by commercials in the foolish belief that we were thereby getting some­thing for nothing.


The President called upon Professor F. E. Camps to pass a vote of thanks to the lecturer:

"Mr. President. Mr. Mayhew, Ladies and Gentlemen: It would be gilding the lily to say anything after this magnificent lecture. I, who am regarded as a cynic, am very second class when I listen to this. Some time ago I invited a psychiatrist to come and talk to my class who chose for his subject "Information or Arrogant Misinformation". Mr. Mayhew has shown me exactly what he meant and how true it is. How powerful the written word, the spoken word and the television are has been shown by him and I think it is highly appropriate on this 'Golden Anniversary' of the Research Defence Society that he who actually derives from the founder should speak tonight and I ask you without any hesitation at all, and with all humility, to show him your appreciation in the usual way.


Last edited: 19 January 2018 13:57

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