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Controlling the narrative

Published on 23 January 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

The shipwreck of the Costa Concordia has attracted much attention. Some will feel anger at the incompetence of key people; others will enthuse about the integrity of the Coast Guard. As emotions swirl around the catastrophe, I simply look for interesting lessons to be drawn. There are heaps of them, for this is one catastrophe where just about everyone lived to tell the tale. So many tales – and at least twice as many theories, conjectures, plausibilities, suppositions, deductions, and other assorted reasonings from incomplete facts clashing. Among other things we are witness live to the fight for control of the narrative. At the moment the fight about the “moral high ground” is fore-fronted. Who will bear ultimate responsibility: the captain? Headquarters? God – as in “act of God”? In the end it is mostly about economic interests: who is to pay, directly or indirectly? Public opinion will decide whether the ship was “too big to sail”, or whether the shipwreck was indeed an unforeseeable event – like Chernobyl a long tail coalescing around inexcusable ineptitude (stupid people are most dangerous: cleverness might be predictable, but stupidity is infinite). After the shock has worn out, either people will trust suitably revamped and possibly renamed ships, or they’ll desert them, bankrupting the company or even the industry. Too early to tell. And the ongoing economic crisis may blindly roll the dice instead of the public: by the time people have made up their mind to become once more passengers it may be too late for the “big ships” – given their excruciating dependence for profits on a “full house” – to sail again. Meanwhile, all involved plus the baying media and the twittering social sites tell their story, coopt or discredit other stories, slip in distracting elements. The swirl of the arguments and the flotsam of facts will continue until out of this swill emerges a dominant story, on which public opinion subjectively bestows “authority”, while putting all others in the shade. This is a akin to a sudden shift in wind, unpredictable, but worth watching, in order to experience its forerunners. Diplomacy in the end is also (today even mainly) about “controlling the narrative”. A good diplomat will be keenly aware of this. There are two intersecting narratives: the internal one in the negotiating room, and the public one. They are interrelated, for they are both based on persuasion (otherwise it would be a diktat), but far from identical. The external narrative addresses public opinion, for the people must endorse the outcome of the negotiation. The aim then is to ring-fence the negotiation: to set the scope of the politically possible. Such a campaign is geared to securing moral high ground – and the emotions that go with it. It is based on the duality of right/wrong. The weaker side will take refuge, if at all possible, on moral high ground. The internal one better reflects the balance of power. Skillful diplomacy may change the result of the negotiation somewhat, but on average, I’d say, it closely tracks power. Naked power is best displayed in all its lewdness behind the Green Door (if one remembers the porn movie of the 70s) of the Green Room. As long as the world was neatly divided between ideological lines, each side controlled the public (or external) narrative in its own territory. Neither side skimped on the means – they were justified as “for the good of the country”. Facts were far less important than legitimacy of authority – a long term proposition. In a multi-polar world with internet thrown in, the control of the public narrative is much more difficult to achieve. Upstarts challenge the legitimacy of engrained authorities and their subalterns. This is what Al-Jeezira did with CNN and BBC (it was successful – but it also happened to have the contingent advantage of operating on the “home-turf”). Social networks on the net are the latest avatar of this challenge to authority. It is not just “push”, it is also “pull”. After awakening from the narcosis of ideology, many people act as scalded cats. They wallow in conspiracy theories. No story will account for all the facts – just too many of them to fit in a neat and linear narrative. People will gladly knit other stories from the discards. The standards here are far less rigorous: the alternative narrative need not be true, just plausible, or simply baffling. Critical is the recognition that nowadays no authority is alone or enjoys long term and unquestioned legitimacy. It has become catch as catch can. In the case of the Italian ship, what looked before an a unitary “command and control” structure is breaking up, whith each element of the chain seeking autonomy and the right to its own narrative (scampering for the high ground in a competitive race). It all reminds me of the impending demise of the Soviet Empire, with all its components breaking ranks to achieve or salvage autonomy and independent legitimacy. Worth watching as the process unfolds.

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