Spreading fear

2013-04-17 00:00

“WORK expands to fill the time available for its completion,” wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, and instantly created a whole new domain in the study of human affairs. “Parkinson’s Law” was one of the most profound insights of the past century, but he didn’t go far enough. There is a media corollary that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

It is this: “International confrontations expand to fill the media space available.” There is a lot of media space available nowadays, and a striking shortage of truly terrifying international threats, so the few modest ones that do exist are magnified to fill the scary news quota.

That’s why you hear so much about the North Korean nuclear threat, the Iranian nuclear threat, and the international terrorist threat. Unless you live in South Korea, or Israel, or lower Manhattan, none of these “threats” will ever disturb the even tenor of your life — and even if you do live in one of those places, it is still very unlikely.

The very unlikely did happen in lower Manhattan once, 12 years ago, but it is very, very unlikely to happen there again. Nevertheless, 9/11 is used to justify an ongoing “war on terror” that has provided long-term employment for several million people and justified well over a trillion dollars in “defence” spending over the past decade.

Which brings us to another law, the Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” In other words, armed forces, intelligence services and those parts of the foreign policy establishment that have prospered from “fighting terror” will instinctively preserve that threat. They hunt down and kill individual terrorists, of course, but they also keep coming up with new terrorist threats.

Moreover, fighting terrorists does not justify aircraft carriers, armoured divisions, and planes like the F-35. Those branches of the armed forces need the threat of wars in which weapons like those might be at least marginally relevant.

Credible threats of high-intensity warfare are scarce these days, so you have to be creative. There is, for example, a remote possibility that the inexperienced young man who now leads North Korea might be paranoid enough, and the generals who supervise him stupid enough, to attack South Korean forces somewhere. That might lead to a major war in the peninsula.

The probability that this would lead to the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula is vanishingly small. The likelihood that it could lead to the use of nuclear weapons elsewhere is zero. Yet this confrontation is getting as much coverage in the Western mass media as the Berlin crisis did in 1961 — and the Asian media generally follow suit.

The same is true for the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. Iran is probably not planning to build nuclear weapons, and there is no chance that it would launch a nuclear attack on Israel even if it did build a few. Israel has hundreds of the things, and its response would destroy Iran. Yet the Israelis insist that it might happen anyway because Iranians are crazy — and both Western and Arab media swallow this nonsense.

Fifty years ago, during the Berlin crisis, a single misstep could have led to 10 000 nuclear weapons falling on the world’s cities. Bad things can still happen when politicians miscalculate, but the scale of the potential damage is minuscule by comparison. Yet our credulous media give these mini-crises the same coverage that they gave to the apocalyptic crises of the Cold War.

Hence Dyer’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law: international confrontations expand to fill the media space available. Little ones will be inflated to fill the hole left by the disappearance of big ones. The 24-hour news cycle will be fed, and military budgets will stay big. You just have to keep the general public permanently frightened.

That’s easy to do, because people in most countries know very little about the world beyond their immediate neighbours. They’ll believe almost anything the media tell them — and most of the media go along with the official sources because scare stories sell a lot better than headlines about the remarkably peaceful state of the world.

How ignorant is the general public? Well, Hollywood recently remade a paranoid film of the eighties called Red Dawn, in which Russian troops occupy the United States and gallant American high school pupils launch a guerilla war to expel them. Now the Russians aren’t the enemy any more, so this time the invaders are North Korean paratroopers.

The film doesn’t explain where a country like North Korea, with 25 million people, is going to find the troops to occupy the U.S., which has 330 million. It doesn’t go into awkward details like how could huge North Korean transport planes, if they existed, make a 20 000 km round trip to drop those paratroopers on American cities. Why bother? Few Americans know how big North Korea is, or how far away it is.

Okay, that’s Hollywood, not CNN. But the difference between them is smaller than most journalists would like to believe.

Humbert Wolfe’s judgment almost a century ago still applies everywhere: you cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist.

But given what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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