Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda are NOT Mutually Exclusive

Cultural diplomacy has been defined as ‘the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding’ (Cummings, 2003, p. 1). Indeed, while it has been recognised as having ‘a vital role to play in international relations’ (Bound et al. 2007, p. 11), it is often viewed with suspicion due to its ‘connotations with colonialism, imperialism, and propaganda’ (Nisbett, 2012, p. 2). Despite this, attempts have been made to distinguish cultural diplomacy from such unfavourable overtones. Mulcahy (1999, p. 8), for example, argues that cultural diplomacy ought to be ‘distinguished from propaganda’ because, unlike propaganda, it does not contain ‘explicit, immediate political content’. He continues:

Cultural diplomacy rests on the premise that allowing […] cultural activities and cultural leaders to speak for themselves abroad is the best advertising for the virtues of a free society (ibid).

There are two points to be challenged here: (i) cultural diplomacy being distinguishable from propaganda and (ii) cultural leaders speaking for themselves. They are both interlinked and will be addressed here, respectively.

Cultural Diplomacy Being Distinguishable from Propaganda?

When Reginald Leeper founded the British Council in 1934, he openly referred to its work as the dissemination of ‘cultural propaganda’ (Smiles, 2007, p. 167). He was also in no doubt about its role as a political instrument. In a 1935 letter to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Robert Vansittart, he wrote:

I am convinced that our aim should be political rather than commercial and that the Foreign Office should have the major say in the policy of the Council […] we could use our cultural work as a very definite political instrument. This work should go hand in hand with our foreign policy and quite definitely the Foreign Office should be the advisors to the Council (quoted in ibid).

He would later write, in 1943, that ‘the object [of the Council] was not culture for culture’s sake, but culture for policy’s sake’ (Atherton, 1994, p. 27). In 1941 the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, also wrote of the Council’s role:

The supposition is that the British Council exists only for cultural, and not for political propaganda, but this at the best of times was mere camouflage since no country would be justified in spending public money on cultural propaganda unless it had also a political or commercial significance (quoted in ibid).

Evidently, these early twentieth century elites had no qualms about referring to the Council’s work as ‘political’ and/or ‘cultural propaganda’. And as Louise Atherton (1994, p. 26-27), a scholar of diplomacy in the 1930s at the University of East Anglia has written, ‘Although publicly presented as an independent body’ the Council ‘was, from its creation, guided by the foreign office’. Interestingly, nowhere today can such sentiments be found on the Council’s website, not even on the History page. Indeed, the Council now refers to its work as ‘cultural relations’ (British Council, n.d.b), stating that:

the British Council builds links between UK people and institutions and those around the world, helping to create trust and lay foundations for prosperity and security around the world (ibid).

In considering this new description of the Council’s work, we may recall that the UK Government once had a Secretary of State for ‘War’, who is nowadays called the Secretary of State for ‘Defense’. Furthermore, when observing the preference to refer to the Council’s work as ‘cultural relations’ we may also recall that after the Second World War the term ‘public relations’ was chosen as a euphemism to replace the term ‘propaganda’, which had acquired negative connotations due to its use by Nazi forces (Bernays, 2005[1928], pp. 13-16). It would be hasty, then, to not question further the role of the Council, or indeed any organisation in the business of ‘cultural relations’ as a potential tool for ‘political’ and/or ‘cultural propaganda’.

The Oxford English dictionary defines propaganda as ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’. Therefore, to show that an organisation is not functioning as a propaganda tool it would be necessary to show that the organisation operates impartially and not in the interests of a ‘political cause or point of view’. While a detailed study is beyond the scope of this article, the following observations may prove useful.

Cultural Leaders Speaking for Themselves?

As observed above, Mulcahy’s (1998, p.8) distinguishing of cultural diplomacy from propaganda rests on its independence from ‘explicit, immediate political content’ and that ‘cultural activities and cultural leaders speak for themselves’. However, such conditions do not in fact eliminate the possibility of propaganda, as we will now observe.

In 2007, the UK Government granted six leading cultural organisations – British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens, Tate and Victoria & Albert Museum – £3 million to undertake a variety of cultural activities in Africa, the Middle East, India, and China (Nisbett, 2012, p. 3). The venture was called the World Collections Programme (WCP). Remarkably, when discussing it in Parliament, all three parties – Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem – agreed that if money was to be granted then the cultural organisations ought not to be used as political instruments (ibid). This not only seemed to oppose the views of the old elites who saw ‘cultural work as a very definite political instrument’, but it also opposed much of the existing literature on cultural diplomacy, which, as Nisbett (ibid) points out, tends to be critical of such cultural investments for being used to push government agendas (see e.g. Vestheim, 1994, p. 65). Jenkins (2009) calls this the ‘propagandist agenda’. Indeed, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) selected the locations for the organisations to undertake their work, Nisbett (2012), in her ‘empirical’ study of the WCP, claims that:

Beyond the priority countries being outlined, there is no further [Government] direction or prescription (ibid, p. 4).

Concluding from data gathered from interviewing various stakeholders, she also writes:

There is no evidence of propaganda or indeed any other detrimental impact (p. 15).

Finally, she adds that her data:

dispels the accusations [e.g. from Jenkins, 2009] of ‘political diktat’, ‘agitprop’, political ‘naivety’ and organisational ‘subservience’ (ibid).

Certainly, while it is agreeable from the data presented that political diktat did not occur beyond the ‘priority countries outlined’, no legitimate claim can be made for the absence of propaganda, agitprop, political naivety and/or organisational subservience. This is because no enquiry was made into the potential existence of political bias in the actual cultural content produced, exhibited and/or exchanged by the organisations funded. Indeed, the data from interviewees is insufficient to support her claims because, even if the interviewees were aware of having done so, they would be unlikely to admit to serving a ‘propagandist agenda’ or being subservient to organisational demands. As Ellul (1965, pp. 58-9) explains:

The propagandist naturally cannot reveal the true intentions of the principal for whom he acts […] That would be to submit the projects to public discussion, to the scrutiny of public opinion, and thus to prevent their success […] Propaganda must serve instead as a veil for such projects, masking true intention.

More importantly, propaganda can occur more subtly and can even go unrecognised. Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988]) demonstrate this with their ‘propaganda model’, which they use to show how systematic bias occurs in the US mass media (do watch here for a very useful illustration of the process). The model comprises elements of a filtering system that enables ‘the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public’ without the means of force or coercion (ibid, p. 2). The filtering process ‘occurs so naturally’, they write, that media personnel, ‘frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill’, are convinced of their objectivity and independence from external forces (ibid). We may apply this filtering system (propaganda model) to the six cultural organisations involved with the WCP. For example, in defending the management of the British Museum, Director Neil MacGregor explains earnestly that, through a system of ‘extraordinary ingenuity and brilliance’, the museum is owned and controlled ‘not as a department of state, but by trustees’ who are ‘not allowed by law merely to follow government orders’ (MacGregor, 2004). However, he fails to acknowledge that, as is the case with all six organisations, the trustees are recommended and appointed (and reappointed) by either UK government ministers (often the prime minister) and/or existing trustees (see DCMS, 2015). Such a system naturally facilitates a reinforcing feedback-loop of like-minded individuals whom generally share similar views and are thus unlikely to hold views that conflict with established interests. As Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. xii) write, most bias arises from:

the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power.

As we see, then, the possibility of bias towards a political agenda is in fact very prevalent. Nisbett (2012, p. 15) even acknowledges in her conclusions that ‘Government […] policies generally “reflect” the work of the cultural organisations, thus validating their status and power’. Might it not equally be said that the work of the cultural organisations reflects the policies of the Government, thus essentially making them mouthpieces for the Government? This point goes unacknowledged.

Further contributing to systematic bias are processes of funding. As Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. 16) explain, the people that ‘buy and pay’ for the content ‘are the patrons that provide the […] subsidy [and whose] requirements and demands the media must accommodate if they are to succeed’. Indeed, when speaking of their increasing dependence on corporate sponsors, the British Museum’s head of corporate relations Jennifer Suggitt has expressed worry at how criticism of such sponsors could ‘really affect how much arts organisations are funded in future’ (Spence, 2014). With regards to the UK Government’s funding of these organisations, Nisbett (2012, p. 10) also highlights the importance of cultural managers ‘remembering the funders’ and their priorities because ‘funding streams are expected to echo political objectives’. Again, this creates an obvious potential for propaganda that goes unacknowledged in her ‘empirical’ study.

Despite her conclusion, then, that there was ‘no evidence of propaganda’ in the WCP organisations, it has been shown here that there was in fact a lot of potential for propaganda and organisational subservience to the Government. The problem was that no analysis was undertaken of the cultural content promoted by the organisations. Furthermore, we have seen that Mulcahy’s (1999, p. 8) premise of allowing cultural leaders to ‘speak for themselves’ independent of political interests does not eliminate the possibility of propaganda, especially when those leaders are preselected by UK Government Ministers and other preselected ‘right-thinking people’ with potentially ‘internalized preconceptions’. As Orwell (1972) wrote of self-censorship in the British press and intelligentsia:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark […] not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

It is entirely possible that such self-censorship is at play within our cultural organisations and that, as Herman and Chomsky (1994[1988], p. xii) conclude of the US mass media, they predominantly serve to ‘mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity’. It is certainly interesting to consider whether our cultural organisations would possess the autonomy to openly promote the historical facts outlined here. Indeed, considering the issue, we ought not to forget that the locations selected by the UK Government for the six cultural organisations to undertake their work – Africa, the Middle East, India, and China – have all been subject to British colonial and imperial activity and all are of significant economic interest to the West.



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