Three-D Issue 22: NSA/GCHQ, state power and surveillance

Lee SalterLee Salter
University of Sussex


The ways in which the revelations about the NSA/ GCHQ surveillance scandal have been handled by the media have been interesting to say the least. It’s not often that such a clear test of hegemony theory is presented to us by a case study that involves the most sensitive and powerful of state organs.

What has been revealing in the whole debacle has been the response of the news media to the scandal. The scandal highlights some rather significant blind spots in much of media and cultural studies, where the cultural, important and significant as it is, has in many respects supplanted the more directly “political”. As Mike Wayne (2003: 82) put it, media corporations ‘interlock with the state in a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit’. Yet he argues that alongside “class”, “the state” is a concept that has gone out of fashion in media studies, often regarded as a vulgar term, or meaningless in times of individualised interpretivism and consumer pleasure.

When scholars such as Herman and Chomsky present the case for media analyses that take account of the realpolitik that animates the world, they are often dismissed as vulgar or conspiratorial. Indeed, as Andrew Mullen (2010) has suggested, the Propaganda Model has indeed been generally ignored within academia, which itself is being re-fashioned to more directly serve the interests of corporate and state power (Salter, 2013) as, Mullen suggests, such work ‘has been systematically marginalized within the field of media and communication studies’ (Mullen, 2010: 673).

The notion of ‘soft power’ is well accepted in politics and strategic studies as a way of influencing culture and attitudes, and includes everything from the use of the US State Department to forcefully lobby for the MPPA to the funding of the BBC to spread “liberal” values around the globe, and align audiences with the interests and concerns of the global hegemons. At the same time we have seen from Seattle in 1999 to Iraq in 2003, from Guantanamo bay to the ideological lock-down over austerity that the state is still here and is perhaps stronger than ever and is still working in the interests of a small minority of people who we may call a class. Whilst it is not true that there is no alternative, when the status quo is taken as given, and political subjects are encouraged simply to manoeuvre themselves within the current system, any alternative appears faintly and far away if at all. As those other unfashionable scholars of the Frankfurt School put it, one dimensionality indeed seems to be colonising our life worlds.

Indeed the preoccupation of Marcuse and Adorno with the ironcage of modernity that obscures reality in favour of a superficial world of observable phenomena presents the world as an inexorable order that cannot be overcome, and in which the category of potentiality fades away. We know well that this situation is not most successfully brought about by jack-booted thugs working for a visibly repressive state. Long after Gramsci introduced us to the concept of cultural hegemony, Neil Postman warned that Orwell got it wrong, the real Big Brother would be fun. Effective domination must be subtle, entertaining. Forceful domination is too easy to see, and therefore to resist.

And so the NSA/GCHQ scandal presents us with an opportunity to consider how the news that “liberal” states have secret police forces and surveillances operations that make the Stasi look pedestrian and limited can be reported with such little concern.

The contradiction and hypocrisy of the likes of the Daily Mail in its reporting of the scandal is to be expected. One can imagine no other way than to have Paul Dacre champion “press freedom” at the Leveson Inquiry whilst his columnists construct Snowden and Greenwald as akin to terrorist threats. One might have expected, however, a more vociferous response from other sections of news media. Perhaps it is naive to expect the liberal media, described by Media Lens as the “Guardians of Power”, to have constructed a narrative of the scandal built upon Britain’s colonial legacy (of which the US is a part), seeing the surveillance scandal as part of a continuum of state power that incorporates the genocide of Native Americans, the vicious land grabs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the establishment of the first concentration camps in South Africa, the suppression of the Mau Mau, Vietnam, Bloody Sunday, CoIntelPro, National Propaganda, the Economic League, Echelon, the MI5’s DS19 division or F2 Branch. The list could go on and on, culminating in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Belmarsh, the PATRIOT Act, Terrorism Acts and so on.

Despite the rhetoric on the “War on Terror”, we do know that terrorism acts and many of the other tools of “state security” are employed against “domestic subversives”, whether from trade unions, political campaigns, environmental groups and so on. This is to say that state power has become all too visible at precisely the time that so many tell us that globalisation has supposedly made the state irrelevant. State power is, to borrow from Stuart Allan, hidden in plain sight. Yet this narrative was almost completely absent from the reporting of the scandal.

Despite the excellent and very brave work done by journalists at The Guardian, the news media have hardly presented a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the state their discourses. Indeed, in my own research most of the British news media have worked hard to illustrate the distinctions between the likes of China, North Korea or East Germany and “our” surveillance. At best the concern is that the state has overstepped some kind of imaginary boundary, which “their” states don’t have. In this sense, paradoxically, much of the rhetoric seems to work to shore up the legitimacy of the state by presenting the case as a scandal, abnormal, an exception. Yet as we know from Georgio Agamben, the modern state of exception is ongoing and unexceptional. In this sense, much of the media coverage, and indeed academic studies, of both WikiLeaks and the latest scandal have focused either on the responsibilities of the journalist or how to moderate the “excesses” of the state – that is, how the state could survey and spy less intrusively. If only the state could provide for our security by surveying, arresting and imprisoning more precisely, like its drone strikes kill more precisely, the problem would be solved. Rarely do news reports, or academic studies, foreground an appropriate level of concern that “we” have secret police, just like “they” do, despite the incontrovertible evidence. Despite the fact that we know the secret police have used intelligence and surveillance for political policing, the concept, like the “political prisoner” exists largely in only “alternative” discourses.

My own study of Newsnight’s coverage of the scandal demonstrates how journalists have turned the scandal on its head. At no point in her interview of Glenn Greenwald in October 2013 does Kirsty Wark consider that the real problem “we” face is not how to resist state repression, not least because she lacks the discursive tools to accurately reflect the situation as it really is. At no point is Wark, or many other mainstream journalists, able to see a solution to the problem by suggesting the British and US states simply stop invading places in the first instance, that the permanent arms economy must end, or at the very least address the fallout of their imperial pasts and present. The only option presented in news discourses on this matter is to find ways to better conceal Big Brother, to make it more friendly, like the TV show. Indeed, for Wark as for many journalists the problem “we” face is how to deal with the threat of those who expose our oppression rather than with the oppressors themselves.

Because in its very fabric the BBC as an organisation denies that there is a state that has historically evolved to facilitate an economic system that works in the primary interest of an elite economic class, of course Wark is unable to articulate a discourse that might distinguish people from the state, or the interests of one class as distinct from those of another. Where the vast cultural industries have spent decades inculcating in people the sense that there’s a dangerous “other” whose threat is simply wilful, and against whom, for all its flaws and contradictions, the state exists to protect “us”, of course the boundaries of the discussion are limited. Where we have been encouraged to find state surveillance to be entertaining in the form of Big Brother or utilitarian in the case of smart phones, of course the threat from the state is unnoticed, or at best seen as a necessary evil. It may be bad but it can be fun, funny and useful.

Yet the reality of state power is clear to see, in the same way as the diminishment of its social functions, especially under circumstances of crisis, make it easier to recognise in the final analysis that it works in particular interests. The resulting repression, political prisoners, secret policing, political policing and so on have been seen not so much in mass arrests of Muslims, but the application of “exceptional” state instruments to trade unions, environmental protesters, student activists, peace campaigners, anti-fracking protesters, disabled activists and so on. Outside the odd article in The Guardian there was little said in the mainstream media about the use of surveillance against such political freedoms.

Where the news media seem to have failed miserably because of their structural conditions of operation, perhaps the academy has an important role to play? Ought media, cultural and communications studies step in to remind journalists and publics of the reality of state power exercised in the interests of the elite? Whilst there is certainly much going on in this respect, for example Arne Hintz and colleagues at Cardiff University have just won a large grant from the ESRC to investigate Digital Citizenship and the Surveillance Society, such concerns about the state ought to be mainstream rather than marginal concerns. With all we now know, the starting point of today’s media and cultural studies ought surely to be that we inhabit a cultural fabric in which the state and corporations use media of various forms to ensure the continued domination of a particular system and the interests of those in charge of it? Yet the academy is of course as embedded as any other institution in the nexus of power relations that constitute the state.

This is not to say the duty of academics to stand for the public and the interests of people is lost, but we must be aware of the implications of the realignment of universities that we are currently seeing. The struggle against this realignment, what Des Freedman called The Assault on Universities, is a struggle that has far reaching consequences. Indeed we know the totalising aspirations of many senior managers and government functionaries. As research, teaching, the student experience and knowledge exchange are morphed ever more to satisfy the needs of the state and capital, so our ability to critically engage those forms of power are diminished.

This is not accidental. It is not a coincidence that across the country it is critical studies in media (and anything else) that are cut. I was unsurprised when a friend at a large university told me they’d inadvertently been informed by a senior colleague that management was happy they’d purged “the Marxists” from the university. It was not simply a slip of the tongue when the current Vice Chancellor of Liverpool University, Howard Newby, insisted in a speech whilst heading HEFCE,‘It was once the role of Governments to provide for the purposes of universities; it is now the role of universities to provide for the purposes of Governments’ (Newby, 2004). That most universities have become or are becoming so precisely subjected does not bode well for our ability to resist or even effectively criticise state power. At the very least we need to ensure that we try to communicate what has been revealed by these revelations – that in addition to the insights into the more subtle forms of power academics have done so well to highlight, we need also to understand that alongside such forms of power we still face more direct state powers that we must address more fully.

Posted by Auguste Janutaite