During his rise to power in 1930’s Germany, Adolf Hitler’s inner circle had a major problem – their leader was an unpalatable weirdo. A peculiar, solitary figure who lived alone, had manic temper outbursts and scowled at cameras, Hitler was quite the spin doctor’s challenge.
His inner circle formulated a plan to only have Hitler shown as either a dominant leader, authoritatively standing up high at public rallies with adoring crowds way below him, or as a man photographed in tastefully decorated family homes (most of them owned by other people) or walking in nature, often with animals or small children borrowed from sympathetic friends.
These manufactured stories were promoted not just in Germany, but around the world. The stories and images were planted in the New York Times and even Homes and Gardens. Toward the end of the 1930s, Hitler was viewed by many as a strong leader who commanded respect from the population, as well as a caring, family man who loved animals and children and had great taste in home décor. As history has shown us, none of it was true, but such is the art of the spinmeisters that even the most repugnant humans alive can be turned into something palatable.
All it takes is bullshit and spin.
And speaking of unpalatable leaders, as we’ve been happily shown on the ABC this month, the opposition leader Peter Dutton is a renaissance man who enjoys preparing fish soup and who suffers PTSD from his time in his honourable career as an honourable QLD police officer.
Dutton claimed all of this while chatting away at his part-time weekend home that is presented as his full-time family home as he proudly marvelled at a giant tree on his part-time property, without ever once mentioning his role in the destruction of the environment and the shortened life of that tree by his championing of fossil fuels, or the PTSD he inflicted on thousands of others in his former role as minister for locking people up, or the fact that he was actually a police officer for 9 of his 52 years and the other 34 have been heavily dedicated to being a politician and a property developer.
But in scenes reminiscent of the 1930s, the image of the genial, nature loving, at-home, family man has been given another coat. All it takes is bullshit and spin.
In a similar vein, Australians were treated this month to images of Anthony Albanese queuing up for a pork roll in the suburbs of Marrickville, showing everybody what an ordinary punter he is, a man of the people who queues along with everyone else for their take-away in the burbs. If the public want to believe Anthony Albanese spends his days queuing for take-aways then that’s on them, but I’ll put it to you forcefully that queueing for his lunch on suburban streets is not actually what the Prime Minister engages in on a regular basis.
And while that little photo-op may have been an innocuous touch of bullshit and spin, the minor fall out from it was something from the dark-arts, that part of public relations that has nothing to do with relating to the public, the part where the real dark-arts masters live, the kind that coordinate the second-hand leaking of private texts and tapes concerning high profile men accused of rape.
Because suddenly, Anthony Albanese’s fluffy pork roll photo-op became a manufactured melodrama. Under Albo’s pork roll social media post, the usual gang of assorted grievance pushers arrived to tell the PM what they thought of him – which is nothing out of the ordinary for any leader of any country. But before you could say dirt unit, the right-wing sewer outlet, the Daily Mail flipped the story on its head, presenting the PM as Australia’s most-hated man because he eats take-away while people can’t pay for fuel.
This became fodder for the bullshit-and-spin machine, partly because outrage and melodrama sells to the Daily Mail’s simple-minded readers and partly because their editors cultivate spinmeisters of the right-wing variety who give them, oops, suggest stories with a right-wing narrative to them. Suddenly a boring post from Albo’s team attempting to paint him as a man of the people is turned on its head to pump the narrative that he’s out of touch by eating $10 pork rolls. Cue the predictable outrage on social media, cue the follow up stories on outrage on the story they’ve created out of thin air, and you’ve got an idea of how contemporary spin-doctors work.
All it takes is bullshit and spin.
But what is this thing we call “spin”? Because we all know what bullshit is. Or do we? Official figures suggest there are over 31,100 people employed in the public relations industry in Australia, which is a total crap-shoot of a wildly unreliable guestimate. The people who work in manipulating the narrative to alter and influence public opinion don’t all identify as PR pushers. Lobbyists, communications advisers, advertising agencies, journalists, Channel 7 Spotlight producers, political staffers; they’re all PR agents, all spin doctors.
Scott Morrison had 51 staff in his personal office when he was Prime Minister, and every one of those 51 staffer’s jobs entailed in some way ensuring Morrison’s image and words were spun and rinsed for media and, ultimately, public consumption.
The reality is that you’re fed a diet of bullshit and spin every hour of every day, 24 hours a day, in a world that spins on spin. Manufactured stories, slanted framing, stories suddenly appearing that coincidentally support a government’s current positioning or the leaking of text messages of an alleged rape victim from a federal police agency who were the custodians of those messages – all of it forms part of manipulating public opinion.
Just this month, the Labor Party headed into their national conference with one of their most dreaded agenda items up for debate – the support of the Albanese Government for the AUKUS partnership, something that has caused the federal government endless controversy since their initial slavish and sycophantic support of the deal.
But lo dear reader, verily it came to pass that on those exact same days the ALP conference raged about the need for a US-UK strategic partnership, the media was suddenly awash with the oh-my-god-how-alarming news that Chinese satellites were spying on Australia and the US.
Now let’s be clear here, Chinese satellites have been spying on Australia and other countries every day for many, many years. And yet when the Albanese government needed to reinforce and influence the public narrative that AUKUS was needed for Australia’s own national security, the interwebs and the daily headlines were suddenly awash with intimate details of Chinese satellite activity; activity that goes unremarked every other day of the year. Who provided the information? And why now?
It takes a practised eye and an especially canny nose to sniff the bullshit and spin before it reaches you, but you can help vaccinate yourself against it by asking a few core questions:
Why is this story an “exclusive”? Who gave it to them and why?
Why is this story here at this time?
Have the photos I’m seeing been posed for?
Has the vision I’m watching been posed for?
Do the questions being asked sound unnatural, overly sweet or planted?
Is this a real story built organically or has it been puffed-up and created out of very little?
And, of course, the greatest bullshit detector question of all time:
Whose interests does this story serve?
Because if you practice sniffing and testing and interrogating every piece of information you consume every day, you make the job of the spinmeisters harder. You create an intelligent audience that demands content that is produced honestly and authentically. And for once dear reader, that isn’t bullshit and spin.