Presstitutes - Embedded In the Pay of the CIA by Udo Ulfkotte
(Progressive Press, 2019)
I was today years old when I discovered via this book’s foreword that there is such a word as “privlish”: a neologism which is essentially an antonym for “publish”. Udo Ulfkotte’s Brought Journalists - How the CIA Buys the News is one of the most renowned suppressed books of recent years. This account summarises the story well: https://off-guardian.org/2018/01/08/english-translation-of-udo-ulfkottes-bought-journalists-suppressed/
The ProgressivePress.com (defunct now? the link redirects to the Wayback Machine) had an English translation made in 2019, created additional foreword and afterword, and retitled the book. It’s now available as a print-on-demand paperback, and not a cheap one, from a large online retailer, under the new title, and with this very lurid cover. Which kind of sucks.
The publisher explains the change of title thus: “It’s perfectly normal to be hired as a journalist, isn’t it?” (Ulfkotte, 2019, p.9) Indeed.
It wasn’t until quite a few years into his career that Ulfkotte fully realised this. As an undergraduate, from a modest background, an academic’s apparent act of kindness seemed exactly that: largesse. The lecturer took Udo aside and after sounding him out first, arranged funding, travel costs etc for a conference for promising student journalists. But it wasn’t just some lucky break: he had been spotted, he was being groomed, and not much later on he was ushered into a newspaper job and nursemaided along until he found his feet.
It can’t have been long before he realised that the newspaper world, with its cushy life of free trips away, shiny cars to borrow and ‘review’, and the increasingly noticeable prevalence of friendly contacts with organisations keen to foster Trans-Atlantic understanding (and much much more) happened to flavour some of the things he and many colleagues wrote. Editors would rewrite crucial bits of some articles, or neglect to include some of them altogether. Certain colleagues would go quiet at certain times. No-go zones became more and more distinct. One day a naked young woman turned up in his hotel bedroom. Udo comments wryly: “As I recall, it [the trip] had been financed by some South African tourism agency.” (ibid p.68)
As he confesses, eventually turning his back on all this was difficult. The lavish dinners, the awards, massaged expense claims for fully-paid-for trips, the prestige, and all the rest. He explains at some length how the bits of the jigsaw came together for him, and cumulated in such cognitive dissonance, that the only sane thing to do was to get out.
A bloody big red flag, recuperating in hospital from serious health issues arising from being in an area of Iraq that was mustard gassed, was seeing his own job advertised by the newspaper that had sent him there in the first place…. This story, and how he didn’t take this ruthless dismissal lying down, is probably the origin of the story that “Ulfkotte was just an embittered conspiracy theorist”. He was reinstated, but some doors seemed to be no longer open to him after that.
Until I read this book it had never really occurred to me that public enthusiasm for the euro currency had to be confected in Germany. In the UK the launch of the new currency was presented as the brainchild of Germany and France. But it seems a whole lot of PR, and planted articles, the result of the right words in the right ears, was necessary to make the phantasy of popular approval in some way convincing. The nine million euros pumped in by the state helped: “…taxpayers had to pay for their own brainwashing. What’s more, they had to do it twice: first with taxes and the second time with their mandatory public broadcasting contributions…” (ibid p.185). This (former) UK TV license payer can relate.
A tactic used by the state broadcaster related by Ulfkotte will be familiar to any viewer of the long-running BBC political freak-show called Question Time. Put together a balanced panel of ‘diverse’ views where, in fact, only one of the speakers will reliably break out of the Overton window and bingo: the other three or four turn on them and publicly humiliate the weirdo. Udo sardonically tells of one such show fronted by a top-ranked talk show host, where “… actor Heinz Schenk was allowed to impersonate the backward and euro-skeptical average German” (ibid p.188).
The section on the foundations and interest groups, forums, Centers for Study of This and That, the ‘Atlantic Bridge’, is another strong one. The situation since Udo wrote his words has undoubtedly got much worse, and much more blatant, all around the world. The sons, daughters, nephews and wives of the presstitutes have eased into the seats vacated by their parents or uncles. Transcribing press releases, making the facts fit the narrative, and staying safely away from any real dissent are now the overwhelming default style of journalism just about everywhere. (For all it’s faults, see series five of The Wire.)
There are times when the tone of this text is not quite right, far too much use of rhetorical devices like the characteristically Germanic “…not so?” is one that I found jarring. You know that rising interrogative that everyone under 40 (and many besides) uses here in the UK? That? Isn’t it irritating?
There are lots of names and TV shows and publications etc that I know nothing about. And finding the glossary at the end? Irritating, no? After I’d read the whole text?
The story can be repetitious too, and darts around all over the place which makes a review a bit tricky (sans index… apart from an index of names). It’s not a great book, and it’s already somewhat dated, but I don’t doubt a single word of it.
Ulfkotte died before he could write two further volumes that he had intended to sit with this one. One would have focused on the publishing industry and it’s corruption by advertisers and other vested interests. The same publishers, not least Springer Verlag, are key players in the academic journals racket. That could have been a very enlightening study, but see Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt, for example, https://disciplinedminds.tripod.com
The third book would have moved the focus to the public relations industry, a corrective to the vile Edward Bernays perhaps?
Both of these areas are covered to some extent in Presstitutes but it is print media, and the mainstream news websites that were starting to burgeon at the time of writing, that are the primary theme.
I liked this book a lot. It didn’t seem particularly revelatory to me (apart from the euro stuff) but Udo Ulfkotte’s personality and essential humanity come across very clearly and I’m sure he was a lovely bloke. One more sincere guy who was gradually suckered into doing things he didn’t feel comfortable with. The world is full of them.
Ulfkotte spent most of his last few years (he died aged just 56 in 2017) living in the countryside. He found satisfaction in giving refuge to working animals that were considered no longer worth keeping alive. His compassion for these creatures was sincere and based upon their not being “resentful… not deceitful…” (ibid p.249).
Humans on the other hand….