How Fake Are The Analyses Of ‘Fake News’?

in Blog

I keep reading these analyses by commentators and earnest academics on ‘fake news’, its fertilizer of social media, with Brexit and Trump its fruit.

Their thesis is along the lines of: 2016 marking the arrival of post-truth politics, social media being used to promulgate it, and the ‘new’ politics of populism arising.

But it only takes a brief trip down memory lane to remind us that there’s nothing new about fake news.

The Zinoviev letter in 1924 was a straight lie and turned the election four days later for the Conservative party. Its purveyor (Oh My Gosh, the Daily Mail!) was printed on paper. Digital media was 80 years away.

Post-truth politics has been with us for a very long time. The difference is that populist politicians and bloggers have brought it out of the closet.

Up till 2016, a pretence was maintained that lying was a bad thing. The trick was to maintain the charade.

But if caught, then the traditional news media turned judiciary and tried and hung the culprit. Of course, the innocent were sometimes mown down in the hunt.

All that Trump et al have done is to show not the slightest shame in wielding post-truth. They’ve joined in the game but without the pretence. Putin is a master. The West has been spinning terrorism for 30 years. Watch the outstanding Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation.

Politicians have been at it forever – no doubt there’s a quote from Plato somewhere on the state of the truth in ancient Greek government.

Both Tony Blair and David Cameron have said lying is part of the game. Cameron was formerly a public relations executive. Although in their defence, it must be accepted that we all want to be told what we want to hear. Mea Culpa?

Modern spin doctors – Alastair Campbell and after – came about in response to the relentless spinning by traditional media, as well as that voracious beast, 24 hour news, which has to be fed or it will feed on you.

Government ministers in many countries have become adept at rhetorically massaging carefully selected ‘statistics’ to prove the success of their policies and the failure of their opponents.

They are far more skilled at this than actually delivering the policy.

In the course of this daily dose of mis-information such statistics have, quite rightly, got a bad name. As part of a commentary on the first years of New Labour in government, I wrote this for the journal Renewal in 2000 – again well before social media:

On a regular minicab journey, the conversation turned from the expected. The driver said he no longer took any notice of statistics in newspapers because they were misleading, confusing, contradictory or wrong.

This under-formally-educated, person-in-the-street is right: statistics are misread, misinterpreted, and misused by most in pursuit of a public point.

Causality confused with correlation, a mean given universal meaning, the absolute paraded when life is about comparison, a droplet sample extrapolated to truths about the ocean, an inference converted to an answer.

All of this the minicab driver had seen through. A voter making a very sophisticated judgement beyond that with which he/she is credited: far more sophisticated than 90% of the politico-media community.

As ideology, prejudice, and sectional interest recede as bases for assessing governmental performance, so reality comes to the fore. Voters look at what positive and negative change has actually happened with increasing accuracy.

The surrounding necessary but not sufficient, understandable but amazing knock-about of party political debate, of editorial prejudice and inaccuracy, of dirty tricks and of spin has surprisingly little impact unless one side or other neglects its defence completely.

(David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education at the time, was kind enough to describe this section as pure poetry.)

When some rubbish ‘statistics’ and ‘experts’, they have a very fair point. And many of the public know they do.

Statistics can be and are used in many beneficial ways from producing highly reliable cars to isolating causes of disease and reducing plane crashes.

But in politics they’ve been misused to such an extent as to no longer hold any validity, even when correct.

Let’s not forget either how good the seemingly above-the-fray Whitehall civil service is at all of this.

Its trade union, the lightly titled First Division Association, employs a director whose real job is to spin his way round Westminster and the news media to maintain the survival of this species, its status, and power.

Oh, and pensions of course. I know, I was on the end of such a spin at a private session of the Public Administration Select Committee.

My report for Demos, The Dead Generalist, was then a serious threat to the continuance of the Whitehall civil service. They saw me off, as they have every attempt since at substantive reform.

The Daily Mail continues to specialise in fake news on paper and now online. Any attempt to regulate it is met with the PC trump card of shackling a ‘free press’.

The term ‘free press’ applies in truth to a handful of people: the pair of dysfunctional weirdoes at the helm of the Daily Mail, the octogenarian megalomaniac at News Corp, the reclusive brothers for the Telegraph, a porn king at the Express, and the morally superior North London liberal elite at The Guardian.

The rest of us, nearly all of us, don’t have a free press. Except now, we have our own. It’s called social media. This piece would never have seen the light of day without it. (If reading this in other countries, please insert your own set of newspapers and owners)

Journalism was once about reporting. Until about 30 years ago, some of the traditional news media could even be relied upon as sources in learned books and journals.

In early 2000, when I was a partner at PwC, we recruited as a consultant a journalist from the BBC. ‘Why had he left such a high status occupation?’

George replied that he used to go somewhere like Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’, and observe, interview and file his report.

Now his editors in London decide on the story and he is sent to compile appropriate video and interviews to ‘make’ the item for the 9 O’Clock News.

What might be termed story-based journalism: aka policy-based evidence.

George the reporter had become George the story-filler. Tedious. This was the time when BBC News and Current Affairs, without debate, replaced its Reithian remit to ‘Educate and Inform’ with his third objective to ‘Entertain’.

John Humphrys and the Conservative Party’s Jeremy Paxman have always been there with their gladiator interviews. They always entertain but rarely shed light on some complex issues.

No more talk please of fake news as a recent occurrence. It has simply been outed and used blatantly rather than with a sleight of hand. I think this may be an improvement.

But more than that, Brexit and Trump are, in part, reactions to post-truth government that has been conning the public for as long as I can remember (alongside post-truth banking, utilities, and pharma).

These ‘authentics’ – including Jeremy Corbyn – derive much of their popularity from straight talking – albeit we might not like what they are saying but at least he/she is speaking her/his mind.

The irony is that such straightness includes being straight about all of the politico-media world lying, themselves included!

The ‘meta’ story of every ‘people’s verdict’ is one of protest at the consequences of the bent and twisted political, electoral, democratic, and governmental systems we live under.

Elect the first black President – surely things will change now – listen to Obama’s speeches as to where he would like to go, and watch where he has to go because the system of party funding and corporate lobbying sends him there.

This, dear reader, is the problem. Not the social media on which you are reading this. Neither Brexit nor Trump will release us from this jam. But diversity of public comment and commentators provide hope.

Questions then arise:

Is this the way it is from now on: no truth, no reality, just adapt?

Does it matter?

Well, surely it must. Government cannot be run on the basis of illusion. That’s fun in the theatre. But illusion is no basis on which to run a health service, or the trains, or schools, or banking, or anything real.

The way governments work is set out in a country’s constitution. In none of them is there a requirement to use facts, real information, and to speak the truth. Policies can be based on an anecdote heard on a train, a good idea in the bath, or a personal preference.

The real results of policies are most often unrecorded or dissembled. Constitutions remain silent on all of this. Because at the time of their development the scale, demands on, and reach of government was a fraction of their role today.

Systems of government throughout the world have never been designed for their modern purposes.The answer to this shroud of forgery now throttling us is that all forms of fakery have to be banned by new constitutions. It’s that simple. Nothing else will do.

Starting with a Declaration of Information Rights, on which I’ll blog soon.

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