This Is Not Propaganda is partly a memoir by radio producer Peter Pomerantzev

This Is Not Propaganda is subtitled "Adventures in the war against reality", and is compiled as six essays, stories of the author meeting up with exponents of dissenting views in several countries. These meetings are spliced with italicised memoir of the author's father, Igor Pomerantzev, and other family members - Igor worked with Radio Free Europe after being pursued and exiled from Russia by the KGB during the cold war.

I was disappointed by this book, which promises much. It ostensibly addresses the subject of propaganda, "exposing the frightening world of coercion and control behind social media and political messaging". But much of the material stands in for commentary without actually providing it.

While the preface outlines the message we should take from each of the chapters - according to which "we will learn how to break people with new information instruments, in ways more subtle than the old ones used by the KGB" and "how the collapse of that idea of the future has made mass murder and abuse even more possible" - on the ground, the point is harder to discern.

Combining a kind of memoir with more didactic prose, Pomerantsev evokes scandals on right and left across the world - Russia, the Philippines, Ukraine, the Balkans, Latin America, Britain - but allows the narratives to dissipate their intellectual energy.

Pomerantsev, a radio producer, fills the book with biographical observations, storytelling, image-making, hand-wringing and namedropping. The writing is constantly shadowed by portent. You can see it all happening as documentary; or better yet, as a six-part British political thriller in which you can never quite follow the plot.

I tried reading the book several ways; as memoir, as journalism, and as political commentary, it left out informed context in favour of incidental biographia that led off-point.

The history of propaganda (and its twin, marketing) since the early 20th century shows us how consistently truth has been suborned and lying has been promoted as a political and commercial technique.

The new factor at work now may not be truth-telling or fact-disputing, but the simulacrum of similarity that is produced by connecting various points on the globe, as if they were having the same conversation, or at least as though our meta-discourse could link them.

This join-the-dots globalism renders the complexity of the political economy as a hazy mirage in which the correspondent stars.

This is not propaganda, but it's not analysis, either.

  • Robyn Ferrell is a Canberra writer and researcher
  • This Is Not Propaganda, by Peter Pomerantzev. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
This story Not propaganda, and not quite memoir either first appeared on The Canberra Times.