Thursday, 22 November 2012

On Censorship

"All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship."  - George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Warren's Profession
"Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship." - Bruce Coville

Censorship is the flipside to propaganda; it is incredibly difficult to succeed in the latter activity without paying due care and consideration to the former. After all, the selective use and dissemination of facts, information, news and opinion - all characteristics of propaganda - requires familiarity with censorship. I am surprised, however, that while the study of propaganda continues to attract academic attention, censorship has fared comparatively less well. Histories of propaganda, especially of the Nazi and Communist eras, and broader studies of warfare from World War One to the 2003 Iraq War, have naturally analysed the use of censorship. It is a recognised technique of persuasion used by governments and militaries, though like propaganda it is now used only as a pejorative label to signify the suppression of truth and accuracy.

However, as far as I know there is not a comprehensive study of the theory and practice of censorship, though I do hope that readers of this post will provide references to the literature I may have missed.

I am inspired to write about censorship after reading in the Observer newspaper (18 November 2012) a short article entitled 'How to turn damning press reviews into PR gold'. This refers to those moments in literature, theatre or film when 'Ambiguously phrased criticism is seized upon and passed off as possible praise'. The Observer article calls this 'Contextonomy'. So, one example:

Philip French, the Observer's film critic, on Anthony Page's 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes:

Actual Quote: An amiable entertainment and about as necessary as a polystyrene version of the Taj Mahal. Hitchcock's 1938 comedy/thriller is a near-perfect artefact ... attaining a precise balance between suspense and laughter.

Quote Used by the film's marketing team: "Near-perfect ... a precise balance between suspense and laughter."

I use similar examples to teach my students about censorship. A bill-board outside a theatre may say 'Must see ...' when the critic actually wrote 'Must see to understand how incredibly bad this show really is.' There are no lies involved here, just the careful selection of facts; and by omitting information and context, these are good examples of censorship at work.

In studying, writing and talking about Chinese media and propaganda I am often faced with explaining how censorship works, even to the Chinese. The guide on my personal tour of CCTV in 2007 was anxious to show me the foreigners tapping away to produce copy. 'Look,' she exclaimed, 'no-one is standing over them looking over their shoulder.' Recently at a seminar in London, an employee at CCTV (not present at the seminar) had explained to a Professor of marketing that there is no censorship in CCTV; no-one tells the journalists what they can and cannot write, and no-one diligently checks their copy. I pointed out that censorship does not work like that - or at least, should not work like that - but then I was accused of perpetuating the stereotypes about Chinese communications and propaganda.

To be effective censorship must be subtle; it must go unnoticed. If the censorship is too obvious, then it loses its power. We are naturally curious creatures, and as the history of propaganda reveals to us time and time again, when audiences know that some information or news is being kept deliberately from them, they grow all the more determined to find out about it. When I am in China and BBC World's transmission on my hotel television suddenly disappears for thirty seconds, I know that the broadcast is being censored. Inevitably the question becomes: What is so interesting/dangerous/subversive that the Chinese censors feel the need to prevent me from seeing this item of news?

"To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it." - Michel de Montaigne.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Chinese government’s blatant media censorship only whets the popular appetite for forbidden information. When Zhao Ziyang, to many a hero of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, died after fifteen years of house arrest in January 2005, the Chinese government controlled coverage of his passing and his funeral. Information was scarce: ‘I live in Guangzhou, and that night I wasn’t able to access two Hong Kong TV stations, so I realised immediately that something major had happened. …’; ‘ … today … my grandmother said, “Zhao Ziyang died, why isn’t the news or the papers reporting it?” I was curious, so I went searching on the Internet, but I found I couldn’t open many Web sites, which made me think something was strange. …’; ‘This morning, I couldn’t connect to any overseas web sites, and I realised that something had happened …’; ‘Putting aside Zhao’s merits and faults for the time being, we have already completely lost the right to speak, and to hear about him! What kind of world is this?’ (Emily Parker, “Cracks in the Chinese Wall,” The Asian Wall Street Journal, 26 January 2005).

David King's wonderful collection of censored photographs from the Stalin era, The Commissar Vanishes (, provides a whole book-full of examples of not-so-subtle censorship techniques.

As King's book shows, simply blacking out faces with ink or paint was a common method of censorship during Stalin's era in power.

Another example, this time from China. This photo was taken at the funeral of Mao Zedong in 1976 and shows the country's leadership lining up to pay their respects.     

Spot the difference with the published version?

The so-called Gang of Four, including Mao's widow, all of whom were jailed (and some were executed) for their part in the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, were airbrushed from the official photo.
The Chinese - journalists and citizens writing on the internet - do find ways of circumscribing the official censorship architecture. A trawl through weibo, the Chinese twitter, reveals the code-words that users use to refer to otherwise sensitive topics, people and events. Journalists adopt strategies of self-censorship, and it is this that is a more worrying practice than overt forms of censorship. The laws on what can and cannot be said are so vague (I was told that there is no rule against talking about the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, but people just know you should not do it) that the perpetual climate of uncertainty prevents risk-taking.
However, it is clear that in an age of global media with information immediately available to everyone with access to a computer – and despite the Chinese government’s best attempts it is possible to circumvent the Great Firewall - it is becoming less and less easy for governments to manage information and the new public spaces that are materialising in cyberspace. Michel Hockx is correct when he says that internet censorship ‘does not necessarily confront Chinese writers and readers with an unfamiliar situation. Censorship is the norm, rather than the exception.’[i] But this should not and does not preclude value judgement of censorship or the possibility of change. Censorship may be ‘a fact of life’ and as observers we may be guilty of ‘foregrounding censorship’ which means ‘highlighting what does not appear on the Chinese internet’ and drawing attention away ‘from what does appear’.[ii] But the mechanisms of censorship reveal much about the architecture of government, elite opinion, and the perception of the power of communications. In accepting censorship as the norm we are in danger of overlooking one important detail: What is good for governance in China – the free flow of information and ideas – is ultimately bad for the Chinese government.
While the old fashioned censorship of Stalin and post-Mao era China may have disappeared (though who needs ink and paint when you have photoshop?), censorship continues to be the tool of choice for some governments who wish to manage the flow of communication and information. Surely it is time for a new comprehensive study of its theory and practice?

[i] Michel Hockx, ‘Virtual Chinese Literature: A Comparative Case Study of Online Poetry Communities’, in Culture in Contemporary China, eds. Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 151.
[ii] Ibid, 149.


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