Successful wars have been conducted by great leaders of democratic societies ever since the World War I by mobilizing public opinion through the media. Both, modern democracy and the media have life spans that have relatively corresponded to each other over the last century and a little more. In this context, it is also interesting to note how both compliment each other to steadily flourish across an ever-increasing number of countries around the world.
This relationship has had a pronounced bearing on how democratic societies managed wars although it is true that media was also used quite effectively by certain totalitarian regimes to justify war or sustain violent revolution. There is the famous example of the “WMD theory” of George W Bush to justify US invasion of Iraq on the one hand and the infamous deduction of Lenin – “a lie told often enough, becomes the truth”, to justify violent revolution, on the other.
The WMD bogey that the US media gulped in hook, line and sinker
The build-up to the invasion of Iraq picked up momentum soon after George W Bush became president. Although the 9/11 attack provided the spark, a few other theories were also doing the rounds on the eve of the war. Eventually, the WMD theory prevailed, thanks to the overwhelming support of the US media in particular and the western media in general. Although cynics opine that if it wasn’t going to be WMDs, there would have been something else, it is undeniable that the shrewd media strategy by the Bush administration helped propagate and promote the idea of the existence of WMDs in Iraq in order to justify the war.
Today, after billions of dollars of tax payers’ money went up in smoke to fuel a recession that just refuses to go, the media, in general, is bitter about being taken for a ride on the WMD theory. In retrospect, it is even said that greater US commitment in Afghanistan was held up by unnecessary US engagement in Iraq.
Media was crucial in delivering Churchill’s message to his countrymen to confront Nazi Germany
When Britain was faced with the daunting prospect of being overrun by the Nazi war machine, the nation was steeled into a rare resolve to confront the enemy by the inspiring rhetoric and messages from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In his first speech at the British parliament, Churchill had said, “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”
Of course this sort of rhetoric was perfectly designed to get media attention – and his speeches were always punctuated by several dramatic, quotable headline moments. It was the media, both broadcast and print, that played a major role in carrying the message of the prime minister to the farthest corners of the country. Interestingly, the same media refused to accept Churchill as prime minister in post World War II Britain displaying remarkable balance in perspective.
Helplessness of the media in a totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union
Vladimir Lenin, leader of the world’s first communist country, the USSR, as it was known then, knew about the power of the media and controlled it to spread communist propaganda among the Russian masses. He once said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”, perhaps as a consequence of his policy of disseminating only selective information that fulfilled the objectives of the communist party. By controlling what information got out of his office – and combining it with a strict thumb on what the press could write about – Lenin attained a form of media control that was easily used to justify his military strategy. Most totalitarian systems, including China and North Korea, limit freedom of the press even today – purportedly to “serve the greater good.”
The scope of retrospection and review by the media is literally non-existent in totalitarian systems that do not allow freedom of the press. However, in much of the free world, especially democratic societies, the media is an essential pillar of the system, offering adequate scope of review. The Internet has added an entirely new dimension to the scope of the media and this allows for better balance in reporting. With further advances in technology, the dissemination of information will have more space to present a more balanced perspective, thereby minimizing chances of hyperbole and rhetoric from taking over.