Censor and resist: the role of radio and reporting in Star Wars
From its inception, Star Wars has always existed as political allegory, with its goodies-versus-baddies narrative also acting as the marginalised struggling against far-right supremacy. As a politically opinionated film student, George Lucas imbued his work with a social commentary that would transcend his early avant-garde efforts and supercharge his blockbuster fairy tale franchise. The original trilogy leaned heavily into real world conflicts like World War II and Vietnam, while the prequels were more political still, mirroring current affairs and, in portraying a despot’s rise to power, they proved frighteningly prescient.
The Clone Wars moved away from the macro view of the saga films, offering a more intimate exploration of war and its effects on communities. Here we saw how supply lines were disrupted, starvation and displacement utilised as tactics, and how civilians were caught in the middle of conflict. It’s a tradition we’ve seen continue with the new canon, with a greater emphasis on the role of media and journalism in both peacetime and war.
It’s hardly surprising that journalism and the role of media have become more prominent in Star Wars over the last few years given our current socio-political climate. Misinformation, false news and the power of social media have all been attributed to the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the groundswell of anti-vaxxers. Yes, Star Wars pulls on ancient storytelling threads, but it has always been responsive to current affairs. Chris Taylor puts it best in his magnum opus, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe:
“The villain of the fairy tale, the Empire, was inspired by the US military in Vietnam; the Ewoks by the Viet Cong; the Emperor by President Nixon. The fairy tale was charmingly benign enough to mask that fact, and now every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself in the Rebel Alliance.”
As with our own real-world news and information media, this countercultural, liberal-leaning franchise has entered the post-truth age.
Broadcasts to discredit a senator
Queen’s Shadow, the new novel from E.K. Johnston chronicling Padmé Amidala’s transition from the Queen of Naboo into a senator, takes place on the precipice of the Clone Wars conflict. One of the novel’s important subplots shows how the media influences public opinion.
Upon her arrival on Coruscant as a freshly-minted senator, highly opinionated, politicised news stories are published, stretching the truth on the HoloNet, the Republic’s far-reaching communications network:
“FASHION-PLATE QUEEN RETURNS TO SENATE
Longtime political followers will recall young Queen Amidala of Naboo. Four years ago she came to Coruscant and deposed the Chancellor to questionably hasten along aid for her home planet. Though no hard evidence of the Trade Federation’s misdeeds was ever produced, Amidala swayed the opinion of the senate. Her speech, which was most likely written for her, given her age at the time, was stirring . . . and we can’t help wondering what she’ll stir up this time.
Now a senator for the Galactic Republic, Amidala has returned. A puppet queen no longer surely, but the question remains: who is pulling her strings now?”
– Queen’s Shadow, E.K. Johnston
It’s obvious from the first of these stories that the news corporation responsible is acting on another agenda, keen to discredit Padmé, robbing her not only of agency but of any potential allies in the senate. Digging deeper, her handmaidens discover that the Trade Federation — still angry at Padmé for foiling their plans on Naboo years before — owns the corporation behind these stories. Though libellous in nature, it bends the truth rather than fabricating it, meaning Padmé has no grounds to contend with it. To do so would only further cement the image the Trade Federation wish to push.
Rebels on the radio
The Imperial HoloNews grew out of the Republic’s HoloNet and, appropriately, was first introduced in the 2014 novel A New Dawn where Hera Syndulla posed as a journalist. This Empire-owned news channel features prominently in Rebels, continually broadcasting a narrative in which the Empire keep the peace and has everyone’s best interests at heart. This propaganda dispenses with reality and employs the illusory truth effect, whereby people believe information to be truthful after repeated or prolonged exposure. As seen on Lothal, these broadcasts are mandatory in public spaces, while any dissenting voices are quashed. Under the Empire, there is only room for one narrative. The rest is censored.
The Empire’s stranglehold on Lothal has a myriad of comparisons to real occupations of the last century. Its broadcasts likewise have a basis in our own history. In the 1920s, political transmissions from the Soviet Union began the practice of broadcasting outside government regulation and the national boundaries of the signal’s target audience. This developed in the following decades with propaganda broadcasts across Europe, coming from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Nazis even had their own term for these dissenting broadcasts — ‘Feindsender’ which literally translates as “enemy radio station”. It spoke as much of broadcasts from the Allied forces as anti-Nazi sentiments from radio stations inside Germany itself.
In Rebels, the Feindsender comes in the form of Ezra’s parents, Ephraim and Mira Bridger, who together with a group of disenfranchised allies recorded and released pirate radio broadcasts. These revolutionary messages took direct aim at the Empire, criticising its role on Lothal, and even earned the support of the planet’s governor. It was inevitable that the Empire would stamp out the dissent and arrest the Bridgers. Years later, Ezra himself would deliver a message of rebellion, inspired by his parents and the desire to free his captive planet:
“We have been called criminals, but we are not. We are rebels, fighting for the people, fighting for you. I’m not that old, but I remember a time when things were better on Lothal. Maybe not great, but never like this. See what the Empire has done to your lives, your families, and your freedom? It’s only gonna get worse…unless we stand up and fight back. It won’t be easy. There will be loss and sacrifice. But we can’t back down just because we’re afraid. That’s when we need to stand the tallest. That’s what my parents taught me. That’s what my new family helped me remember. Stand up together. Because that’s when we’re strongest — as one.”
– Rebels, ‘Call to Action’
Rather than allow their own narrative to be questioned, and in an extreme act of censorship, the Empire destroy the communications tower, putting an end to Ezra’s message. But words spoken cannot be easily withdrawn and his words spark hope across the galaxy. Therein is the true power of journalism and the media: to shine a light in darkness, to find truth in lies, and to inspire. Stronger, darker forces might conspire to control the media, own the narrative and allow the propagation of misinformation to discredit and confuse, but sometimes all it takes is a spark, one broadcast, and things can change forever.
This is a companion piece to From Empire to First Order: rewriting history to keep control, which explored how the First Order, and the Empire before it, rewrote history in order to keep control of the galactic populace.
Originally published at raisingarebel.com on March 19, 2019.