“Article 20 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights states that, any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law. Therefore, Canada has an obligation to make war propaganda illegal, as hate literature is.” So says neuroscientist Dr. Arthur Clark.

Tall, with stark white hair and beard, Clark is a familiar figure at Calgary peace marches and progressive fundraisers. Among other responsibilities, he administers the Dr. Irma M. Parhad Fund at the University of Calgary, which he created in memory of his first wife. Through the fund, he brings world-renowned thinkers to town to present free public lectures.

This year, Robert Fisk, Middle-East correspondent for The Independent, will present the annual Parhad Lecture on “War Propaganda” on March 14. The next day, Fisk will participate in a round table discussion with Canadian journalists and media executives including Marcus Gee, Linda Slobodian, Robert Hackett, Tony Burman, and Bob Bragg. Also participating will be Dr. David Swann, a co-founder with Clark of the Canadian Action Network to End Sanctions on Iraq (CANESI).

In a presentation to the local Unitarian Church, and in a private interview subsequently, Clark explained his argument. “Propaganda for war is easy to detect in its graphic form,” he said, “such as on the cover of a newsmagazine. Demonizing the enemy is one of the standard devices.” He showed a sheet with four Newsweek covers: two from the Operation Desert Storm period depicted Saddam Hussein as “Baghdad’s Bully” and “More Than Just a Madman.” A 1999 cover showed Slobodan Milosevic tagged “The Face of Evil.”

The fourth cover showed a military pilot in his flight mask, cockpit cover up, giving the thumbs-up sign. The headline: “America at War.” “In my view, these can be considered war propaganda posters,” said Clark. “Notice that all the covers have ‘war’ in very large letters. They’re selecting out aspects of war and presenting them to the public. They are demonizing the enemy and cheerleading for the military. That’s propaganda for war.”

He pulled out Exhibit B. “This is the National Post from January 8.” In it, David Frum talks about his work as an advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush. The headline says, “I was told to provide a justification for war.” Clark shook his head. “This was an explicit instruction to the advisor to the President in a country that has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The President is instructing his advisor to develop propaganda for war.”

Robert Fisk tackled the issue of propaganda head-on in a recent column: “In the end,” he wrote, “I think we are just tired of being lied to. Tired of being talked down to, of being bombarded with Second World War jingoism and scare stories and false information and student essays dressed up as ‘intelligence.’ We are sick of being insulted by little men, by Tony Blair and Jack Straw and the likes of George Bush and his cabal of neo-conservative henchmen who have plotted for years to change the map of the Middle East to their advantage….”

And on this side of the Atlantic, syndicated U.S. columnist Molly Ivins wrote recently: “…the United States has put itself in the unfortunate position of looking as though we’d rather go to war, unprovoked, than work at a way to defang Hussein peacefully. It is this bellicosity that is so unbecoming to us and so troubling to many of our allies. Why this disdainful dismissal of a peaceful alternative?”

Perhaps the Bush administration’s public relations machine is showing signs of wear. After all, if spinning became a crime, the PR and advertising industries would collapse. In an article for PR Watch Journal, “War Is Sell,” Laura Miller noted that, “The techniques being used to sell the war are familiar PR strategies:

The message is developed to resonate with the targeted audiences through the use of focus groups and other types of research and media monitoring. The delivery of the message is tightly controlled. Relevant information flows to the media and the public through a limited number of well-trained messengers, including seemingly independent third parties….A seamless blend of public and private money and organizations are executing their war campaign….The Bush administration has not hesitated to use outright disinformation to bolster the case for war…

The same International Covenant that bans propaganda guarantees the right to freedom of expression and to receive information and ideas of all kinds. But it also stipulates that this right carries special duties and responsibilities, including protecting the public order. It should be interesting to watch journalists discuss whether limits on propaganda would interfere with free expression.

For Arthur Clark, the situation is clear. “We face a choice between respect for international law on one hand, and the old way of doing things, which is deference to the dominant power, on the other  which effectively is lawless violence. If governments are not going to be the initiators of substantive changes that need to take place, then however difficult it is for us to bring our own government into compliance with international law, that effort would bring us a future in which the rule of law is dominant, and that’s likely to be better for all of us. On the other hand, if we allow this to drift towards the dominant state, we’re leaving our future to chance.”

Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...