If COINTELPRO, a government-sponsored program from the 1950s to the 1970s, was meant to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” alternative perspectives on the prevailing political order, the lessons learned during those years appear to find application in the political and economic upheaval presently unfolding across the globe. The ongoing plight of journalist Julian Assange, threatened with extradition to the US for reporting on war crimes committed by Western governments, highlights the severity of threats to basic civil rights like freedom of speech. At the same time, emerging legislation resting upon poorly conceptualise terms such as ‘disinformation’ and ‘malinformation’, operationalised through the Censorship Industrial Complex and coupled with an array of legislation purportedly designed to protect us all from online harms, threatens to birth a new era of censorship.

In this troubling context, academia has itself been subjected to unprecedented pressures to censor ideas and their free expression. The COVID-19 event in particular has seen a wide variety of academics and researchers subject to censorship and repression for questioning both the nature of COVID-19 and the draconian responses to it. Here, medical practitioners and researchers across a wide range of scientific disciplines have experienced the smearing, bullying and harassment that is all too familiar to the many social scientists who have researched and critiqued foreign policies and wars.

On 18 February, the Organisation for Propaganda Studies and Propaganda in Focus, in collaboration with UKColumn, hosted its inaugural symposium dedicated to the issue of freedom of expression within academia. Drawing together a range of speakers from the world of academia, all of whom have extensive first-hand experience of the pressures to self-censor, battles against character assassination campaigns, and unlawful dismissal from academic posts, the symposium provided powerful insights to the pressures acting upon academics as well discussion of how to move beyond the current censored and constrained environment that characterises mainstream academia.

Introduction to the Symposium with Dr Piers Robinson

Professor Daniel Broudy’s Introduction to the Organisation for Propaganda Studies and Propaganda in Focus

Daniel Broudy is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Okinawa Christian University. With a doctorate in applied psycholinguistics and experience as an imagery analyst, he lectures in areas ranging from visual rhetoric to communication theory and practice, and from composition to rhetorical grammar. His research focuses on sounds, symbols, signs, images, and colors as tools deployed by power centres to shape knowledge, human perception, and emotion. Daniel is an associate researcher with the Organisation forPropaganda Studies and co-editor of Propaganda in Focus. Selections of his scholarly work can be found at ResearchGate.

Daniel reflects on his experiences during the invasion of Panama in 1989, the social pressures to self-censor, and the aspiration to think and speak freely in the academy. The Introduction references the earlier work of Herbert Schiller and his effort to explain how centres of power and authority reproduce the status quo by controlling the names and definitions of keywords and concepts through access to the “informational infrastructure”. The events of 9/11 and the COVID-19 event are referenced as model examples of how states seek total control over the words used in public discourse during the exchange of ideas and perspectives.

Dr David Miller ‘Battling the Israel Lobby’

Dr Miller is one of the world’s leading academic experts on Islamophobia, and also specialises in the analysis of state and corporate lobbying. Until his recent sacking by the University of Bristol, he was Professor of Political Sociology. David is also involved with the UK’s lobbying watchdog, Spinwatch, which has tracked corporate power for 15 years. Spinwatch’s work has included investigations on the pharmaceutical lobby, the fossil fuel and fracking lobbies, as well as state lobbies that promote Islamophobia, such as those of Israel and the United Arab Emirates. His publications include: What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State. Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power.

David’s presentation sets out the details of his experience at the University of Bristol, the concerted campaign to smear him, his firing, and then the subsequent and successful industrial tribunal which found that Bristol University guilty of unfair dismissal. David’s vindication was also a land mark ruling protecting the right to criticise Zionism.

Professor Oliver Boyd-Barrett ‘Writing Truth to Power and the Battle to Publish’

Professor Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Emeritus Professor of Journalism at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. He specializes in international news organizations and propaganda. His most recent books include Russiagate Revisited: Aftermath of a Hoax (a collection edited with Stephen Marmura); Conflict Propaganda in Syria: Narrative Battles; and Media Imperialism: Continuity and Change – a collection edited with Tanner Mirrlees. He publishes a Substack column, “Empire and Communication”. The sociology of media studies gather in-depth evidence of how the state pen

Oliver develops a discussion of the larger historical context in which states have intervened in the policing of public speech and have attempted to control only the ‘acceptable’ ideas, the ‘official’ points of view, and the (re)production of knowledge. These domains of public interest to states seeking total control appear in journalism, academia, entertainment, and in communities of faith. To propagate the status quo, the Public Relations (PR) industry as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have figured crucially in the manufacture and dissemination of all the necessary illusions. The talk features in-depth analysis of the prevailing ideas in society that reflect those of the ruling classes.

Dr Piers Robinson ‘Smear Campaigns and Researching the War in Syria’

Piers Robinson is a co-director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, Research Director at the International Center for 9/11 Justice and executive committee member of PANDA. Piers is also co-editor of Propaganda in Focus and the Journal of 9/11 Studies. He was Chair/Professor in Politics, Society ad Political Journalism, University of Sheffield, 2016-2019, Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in International Politics (University of Manchester 2005-2016) and Lecturer in Political Communication (University of Liverpool, 1999-2005).

In 2017 he established the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda which was quickly subjected to mainstream/corporate media attacks. In this presentation, Piers describes these character assassination/smear attacks as well as setting out the motivations for them. The controversy the working group had stumbled upon was that of a strategic deception, perpetrated by the US, UK and French governments, regarding chemical weapons attacks in Syria and the corruption and manipulation of the Fact Finding Missions (FFMs) co-ordinated by the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Professor Jared Ball ‘Mainstream academic Constraints on African-American/African Diaspora studies’

Jared A. Ball is Professor of Communication and Africana Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and author of The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power (Palgrave, 2020 / 2nd Edition, 2023). Jared is also host of the podcast “iMiXWHATiLiKE!”, co-founder of Black Power Media which appears at BlackPowerMedia.org.

In this talk, Jared discusses the context in which the field of Black-Africana studies is situated within the Western academy and the challenges and various pressures exerted upon academics at traditionally black colleges in the United States. How is academic discourse at present affected by strange paradoxes? He presents a perspective that is hardly broached about a field of study that had emerged as an officially unsanctioned intellectual bloc of the black liberation struggle which has since become elemental to the sanctioned effort by the state to suppress collective memory of that struggle. The talk deconstructs keywords such as “colonisation”, “insurgency”, “empire”, and “citizen” to bring clarity to W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of the “propaganda of history”. Jared can be found @imixwhatilike on most social media, and his decades of emancipatory journalism, media, writing, and political work can be found at imixwhatilike.org.

Panel Discussion

The discussion following the talks included debate over how academia might be reformed and emphasised the need for scholars to develop innovative and more fully independent epistemic spaces in which genuinely critical research can be undertaken.

(Featured Image: Designed and shared by UK Column)