Amidst a heated debate about public transparency and accountability, mainly now trending as the new SDSM government attempts to remodel media legislation inherited from the previous authoritarian establishment that bedeviled Macedonia over the past decade, information surfaced suggesting that the new government—in spite of their public disgust with the corruptive marriage between PR propaganda and the media under the old “regime”—have in fact increased their public relations staff, which now counts as many as 120 people in various offices and sectors of government. These claims immediately raised more than a few eyebrows, and prompted concerns that the new government may have borrowed more than a passion for communications from their predecessors and that this tendency may, in fact, indicate that SDSM might be trying to get a firmer grip on media coverage, one of the things they most vehemently criticized while in opposition.
It is difficult to say whether the problem lies inherently in the old “regime,” the ambitions of the new government, or in the modern style of public politics. I remember a similar debate a couple of months ago, when the new government announced it would rescind government advertising. I claimed then (as I do now), that eliminating paid ads will do little to stop propaganda, for three main reasons. First, the problem lies in the misuse of advertising by the previous government, not in the method itself. There are countless legitimate reasons for public policy advertising (littering, seat belts, education, etc.), so abolishing government advertising because VMRO DPMNE abused it, is like banning toilets in all the Ministries because the predecessors used to steal toilet paper. Second, the need for government communications originates authentically from modern public discourse, and it will not abate but rather probably multiply over time, so closing one avenue of communication will in turn force a beef-up in other promotional channels (like PR). Put simply, the laws of public communication will not cease to exist because the new government is sickened at how the old administration misused tax money to buy editorial policy, and closing this channel of communication will force a build-up in other channels, as evident by the investigative stories about SDSM’s overflowing PR staff. Lastly, the debate should be about the content that governments push through different channels, not about the channels themselves. If you don’t advertise, but keep publishing promotional content which has nothing to do with accountability, only with publicity, say, over Facebook, have you eliminated propaganda? Does misuse, regardless of content and intent, cease to exist if you substitute expensive filming sets and paid ads with selfie sticks and Facebook live videos? In a world of relentless media soundbites, fake news, polarized social media, all giving rise to overarching populism as the mainstream motif in the region, the problem needs to be addressed at a more systemic, fundamental level.
21st century politics has seen a rapid rise of populism across the political spectrum. Whether the anti-establishment Trump voter who believes that Hillary Clinton was involved in a satanic pedophilia ring, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or the xenophobic Brexit supporter who believes in protecting the sanctity of the British isle, or Orban’s zealots refusing to accept refugees, Erdogan’s followers giving him sultan-like powers, down to our own indigenous claims about aluminum chemtrails and the shape of the Earth, we are witnessing a growing trend of oversimplification, demagogy, populism, and constant battle for dominance over the public discourse. These trends will not disappear, on the contrary, the growing pressure on government by ever-increasing public scrutiny will force administrations to adapt, and more often than not, adopt populist communication practices. Modern governments are led by polls and ratings, pressured to deliver quick-fix solutions for immediate benefit, and in countries faced with essential but painful reforms—like Macedonia—that is the real conflict in government. Most administrations, empirical evidence suggests, when faced with the prospect of declining ratings under long term reform, against steady support by soundbites and borderline propaganda, will opt for the second.
So now, as the new SDSM government faces criticism over their abundant communications personnel, the real question facing the worrying public critics is not whether they have employed too many communicators, as this is impossible to ascertain, but other dilemmas. First, should the fact that most of them originate from the NGO sector worry us, or rather, does it imply a lucrative, rather than a principled motive for their political activism? Second, are these positions a haven for party employments, or will the increased staff effect a more transparent and accountable administration. And finally, (this is what plagues me the most), how will this machinery cope with the painful reforms ahead. Bear in mind, these are kids who have spent most of their developing years under an autocratic administration, and have accumulated plenty of anger. They are now part of a new regimen of lemmings, whose mantra may also prove to be intolerant of opposition. Macedonia is a country facing difficult reforms, and the real danger lies in whether the new administration, and by association, their PR staff, opt for a transparent and painful process, or will they revert to proven methods of populism, immediate benefits, and blaming the media and the critical public for being the nation’s enemy and hindering progress. Populism is not exclusive to VMRO DPMNE, it is not ideological, but rather a political doctrine easily adopted by any side of the political spectrum.
Having in mind the latest criticism by the EU, adequately summarized as “more reform, less public relations,” it seems that others share this concern as well. Populism is easy, tantalizing, tempting, and the concerns are well merited. The new yuppie generation of government spin-doctors has been raised in a very confrontational environment, polarized and antagonistic—all cradles of populism—and the question is whether they have inherited the same disdain for investigative journalism, and will they consequently invent new enemies as they are poised to re-enter the naming and shaming game.
Ultimately, are we heading for a new battalion of PR Borg drones, chanting “here comes life, resistance is futile?”