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The New Advent - Mark Anthony Falzon

I have often wondered how people in places like North Korea can take it. By ‘it’ I mean the propaganda music blared out on the streets, the masses of posters and statues of the Dear Leader, the laughingly heroic tone on tele­vision, and much, much more. Assuming the water supply is not tampered with (I wouldn’t be too surprised), I’m sure there must be an army of sane North Koreans who see right through and vomit all over it.

Partly the answer is the other army, which consigns those who do not take it to a firing squad or, on a sunny day, a labour camp. The rest probably learn to not go there by not going there, so to say, and to barnacle out the rubbish as they get on with their lives. Perhaps it is not so difficult, then, to see why the subjects of vicious, totalitarian regimes have such high tolerance levels. Put simply, they have no choice.

It is much harder to understand why people take it in a democracy. Take Malta. As imperfect solutions go, it’s not particu­larly gloomy. We have fair elections, and we are generally free to express ourselves without the fear of government retribution. I don’t buy the argument – and I speak from some personal experience – that the Labour government is a threat to the freedom of expression.

Which is why I’m surprised at how we seem to have grown cheerfully accustomed to what can only be described as shameless propaganda, paid for out of public funds.

I can hardly turn on the telly or look at anything online these days without having to watch the story of one Antonio, who graduated as a podiatrist and who plans to marry his fiancée of 12 years. Then there’s the charming couple Abigail and Jurgen, who spend their time doing up their family home (their ‘post’) and dreaming of happiness ever after.

Bully for them, of course, except I’m not terribly interested in the bathroom tiles in other people’s post, or in how long couples I don’t know have been together. Never mind, because the message is elsewhere. Antonio, Abigail and Jurgen, you see, are there to tell us of the munificence of the Budget. As the slogan reminds us, they are partaking in the great success (‘Ngħixu s-Suċċess’) of a great government.

I’m surprised at how we seem to have grown cheerfully accustomed to what can only be described as shameless propaganda, paid for out of public funds

It turns out that it’s that time of year when we await the good news. Government spending on social media ads spikes in November. The Office of the Prime Minister, which is responsible for the stories of Antonio & Co., is among the biggest spenders.

Now one might argue that it’s perfectly legitimate for government to inform citizens of how the various Budget measures might affect them. There’s a fine line between information and propaganda. Problem is, this is not it.

I remember a time when the Budget included things like a six mil increase in the price of a sack of winter potatoes. Sugar could go down by as much as a staggering three cents per tonne if the bulk-buying adventure went well. That meant endless airtime, usually just before the 8 o’clock news, during which lists of foodstuffs were read out and matched to prices.

Not quite the World Cup final, then, but what it lacked in nail-biting value it made up for in usefulness. The price of potatoes and sugar was the kind of information you absolutely needed when you went down to the grocer’s.

The same cannot be said of the story of Abigail and Jurgen. If that’s information at all, it informs you that government is performing so swimmingly that everyone is happy, optimistic and looking at the stars without as much of a mutter about the gutter. Propaganda, in other words, about which I’ve shortlisted three things that are the matter.

First, propaganda and democracy are not normally conjoined. The television ads churned out by the Office of the Prime Minister may be of fairly refined quality production-wise, but they’re inescapably Third World – in the sense of the term that brings to mind a dodgy polity obsessed with self-ascribed greatness. In a democracy, the understanding normally is that people will be convinced by means other than triumphalism.

Second, there is the small matter that the money for this propaganda is coming out of our pockets. In other words, that we are paying government to remind us every waking minute of our lives how great it is. It’s just me maybe, but I’d rather my tax money was spent on things like books in libraries and better conditions in prison.

Third, ad money can, and probably does, serve as a means by which government buys the docility of the independent media. As far as I can tell, our newspapers and other media invariably take the bait. Nor do I blame them, given how strapped they are for cash. Government has got in the habit of making the media an offer they can’t exactly refuse – even if they know it’s one that comes with more strings attached than a puppet jamboree.

I know I’m in trouble when I find myself missing the price of winter potatoes.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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