Sunday, 18 February 2018

Fake News and the Ministry of Truth

The new drive against ‘fake news’ has nothing to do with protecting democracy from outside influence or protecting the populace from falsehood. What this is about, as we have seen with Trump’s campaign against the media, is controlling the message - establishing and maintaining one source of truth. And this source would be beyond question; there is no need for critical thinking, indeed there is no need to think. This is the truth.
In the UK we do not have a free press. Print and online mass media is ruled by self-interested virtual monopolies of right and extreme right wing millionaires, who use their media empires to exert political influence. They control the message, and whilst they do, they can ensure that the political system that will deliver them the most profit remains in power.

The BBC is no better. I must admit that I regard the BBC as a wholly-owned arm of the state, a state broadcaster by definition, that will only broadcast what the state delivers and sanctions. I recognise however that many of you reading this will not accept this point of view, and luckily for me, this interpretation is actually irrelevant -  what I argue here is still valid even if you regard the BBC to be entirely neutral and not currently compromised.

The overwhelming proportion of the UK population uses the BBC as their primary source of news. It has a long-established reputation, worldwide, for credibility and integrity, stemming ironically from its broadcasts during WWII and the Cold War through the World Service. 
Ironically – as its primary function in the 1940s and 50s was admittedly propaganda.

The BBC is bound to be neutral in all cases, but in practice this has recently been interpreted in the extreme. It regularly pits the most polemic and opinionated sides against each other as if equal in importance or veracity – we have seen this in the way it treats ethical and scientific issues such as global warming and immigration. It paints every issue as a zero sum – creating false dichotomies that rarely relate to the real issues which cannot be so simply framed. It courts polemicists as they most easily fit into these boxes, and then will easily drive the narrative, which is something that BBC News strives to do. If The Today Programme can entrap a politician into an easy soundbite they can run that quote in the broadcast news all day; the newspapers will print it bringing in more listeners and viewers, and they can sell the rights to the content to other channels. 'Fake Neutrality' and chasing the dragon of ratings have become two elements behind the collapse of journalistic standards at the BBC over the past few years.

There is another aspect to this which goes to the heart of BBC independence. Is it truly independent – when its governing body and senior exec step straight from Whitehall and the banking establishment into the offices at Broadcasting House? When most of BBC funding is derived from direct taxation through TV licenses that are enforced under threat of imprisonment? The existence of the BBC is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the government.

An established single source of truth is what Trump wants to establish in the US, and it is the way he regards Fox News and the narrative that he wants to control and construct from the White House. In the UK, Theresa May has this on a plate with the BBC, though it can sometimes backfire. It has been well documented that the BBC was biased against the Scottish independence referendum to the point that this is seriously beyond doubt. When it comes to the EU referendum it can be argued that without the BBC, the referendum would never have taken place - and certainly would never have been lost.

Chasing ratings and mistaking featuring opposing polemicists for neutrality made Nigel Farage an almost permanent fixture on BBC News and current affairs programmes in the run up to the referendum and after it. The disproportionate full spectrum coverage that the BBC gave to UKIP and Farage has been well documented. His extreme views, presented on the BBC without comment, were normalized instead of being fact-checked and ridiculed. Even after the murder of an MP, after the UKIP corruption was revealed (by other media sources) and after Farage stepped down and his party collapsed into self-destruction, he continues to be feted uniquely by the BBC. Aside from any suggestion of political bias or the intentions of the government, this can be explained by the perceived desire to drive the narrative, to create the story rather than simply report it. Farage will pull in the punters, and will easily say something offensive or controversial that other news organisations will come begging to use – and willingly buy.

And so we come to the ‘fake news’ campaign. As social media in the UK goes, even if a foreign power subverted it completely it couldn’t hope for the kind of influence exerted by the tabloid press and the BBC. Independent and 'guerilla news' sites - what used to be referred to as ‘indy media’ -  can emphasise is the need for the reader (or consumer) to use critical thinking; not to take anything at face value. In the UK certainly, investigative journalism is now almost wholly coming from independent and freelance journalists publishing to news  sites that started out as blogs. And it is these sources, not commercially driven clickbait sites, that are the true target of this latest dog whistle government initiative.

Would this fake news censor be applied to existing print media? Ask yourself this question as this initiative is being driven by a government with no intention of completing the Leveson inquiry process, and where it has been established in court that newspapers simply don’t have to tell the truth, even in ‘good faith’.

A government-paid and politically motivated censor to take action against any site or internet host that carries something that it determines to be fake news - whilst the print media continues to run Corbyn is commie spy stories with total impunity? Is that what this country needs? Young people don't need 'protection' from the internet - they need to be taught to question everything, to research, to look at issues in depth and not as polemicised - to think and judge critically for themselves. And in this way the internet can be truly democratising, giving everyone the ability to research and fact check in seconds. 

And that is what terrifies authoritarians, and why control of the truth is vital to their hold on power. 

Even if you still regard the BBC as being incorruptibly neutral and inherently a force for good, the fact that most people use it as the primary source for news and never think to question its credibility must be still be seen as a potential threat. It can be too easily subverted and exploited, whether deliberately by an authoritarian government or inadvertently by an editorial – and commercial - policy that simply makes no sense.