Friday, 7 July 2017

Media have played a major role in creating the post truth world

There has been much said about the post truth society, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, but surely a lot of the responsibility for this phenomena rests with journalists themselves.

Take the Brexit vote, when two of the leading advocates, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, just happened to be journalists. Ok, they were in the government but neither hesitated to use the channels available via their past profession to advance lies like the £350 million a week that would be going to the NHS if the country left the EU.

Some have argued that neither individual expected to succeed with their campaign to withdraw from the EU but they saw it as a good wheeze. Famously, Johnson wrote the two columns for publication, one for staying and the other for going.

Beyond these individuals there are three other clear examples of the British media contributing to the creation of the post truth world.

The first was the ascent of Nigel Farage and UKIP to a place of significance in the political lexicon.

UKIP were a little known force of no more significance than the British National Party until some media outlets decided to give the party huge exposure. The excuse at the time - when there was an outcry about allowing BNP leader Nick Griffin a pew on the BBC’s Question Time  programme - was that covering UKIP was the more palatable option in terms of covering far right politics.

This view may or may not have been valid but what is for sure is that the publicity given to UKIP but denied the BNP saw the former rise to a position where it could dictate policy on Europe and immigration, whilst the other largely withered and died.

Farage himself was goldust particularly for producers of broadcast mediums. A media star, always ready with the quick soundbite and witty quip. A man from a City background, who pitched himself as a man of the people.  Forever seen in a pub with a pint, the Farage image appealed to the populist discontents. Farage amounted to good box office for the media.

There was precious little effort made for a long time to scrutinise the members of UKIP. Eventually some of the barn pot stories began to emerge, like the individual who blamed bad weather on voting for gay marriage and another who referred to bongo bongo land.

Farage though largely remained untainted. Notably, during the referendum campaign, after declaring there would be violence on the streets if immigration was not curbed,  the response from the BBC interviewer concerned was “want an ice cream Nigel.”

Indeed, the BBC deserves high marks in the post truth stakes when it comes to UKIP. The Corporation gave the party so much air time it was ludicrous. UKIP has appeared on 25% of the flagship weekly Question Time since 2010. The party itself got a regular pew to the exclusion of other parties, like the Greens (7%) and more recently the Liberal Democrats, despite its lack of Parliamentary seats.

The result of this easy run for UKIP was a large contribution being made to the EU referendum debate. Indeed, Farage and his party can take high marks for making immigration such a central issue in securing a leave vote last June. 

The second area where untruths can be said to have abounded has been the coverage of immigration. This debate was increasingly shaped by the right wing tabloids like the Mail, Sun and Express. Any negative story relating to migrants was given full play without any sign of balance the other way. A migrant who committed a crime would be given front page billing, whilst the positive contribution of overseas students to the university system and GDP of the country never appeared.

The lack of any positive news regarding migration in a country looking for scapegoats at austere economic times resulted in a logical conclusion.

The drip drip negativity regarding the immigration debate had its impact with the whole context being set according to the UKIP/Migration Watch agenda that there are too many migrants in the country and that they must be reduced. This negativity provided the key to securing the leave vote in the EU referendum.

Finally, there was the referendum question itself, where a whole number of untruths were put out into the public lexicon and not really challenged. This applied to both sides of the argument. The leave side had things like the £350 million change, whilst remain warned of the immediate dire economic consequences of a leave vote. Both claims make great examples of untruths in the post truth world.

The development of the post truth world has ofcourse also been hugely aided by the development of social media. Courtesy of the likes of Facebook and Twitter, individuals can surround themselves with like minded people, who just provide echo chambers for their own thoughts and prejudices. These prejudices are not challenged but reinforced in such a context.

So we have post truth, a situation where facts don’t matter. If a particular scenario does not fit with the prejudices of an individual then they can be dismissed as untrue. The scenarios that fit with those prejudices become truth.

It is a highly dangerous world, amounting to a mass of people continually putting two and two together but failing to come up with four.

The Brexit vote and triumph of Trump in America are due in the main to the way in which the mass of working people have been made to pay for the banking crisis of 2008. The austerity measures, the lack of pay rises and job insecurity have bred the discontent. But instead of seeing the causes and maybe asking for more from the rich and those who created the crisis in the first place, other scapegoats have been found such as migrants and the EU. It is a worrying world where ignorance almost becomes a badge of honour for many people.

Many in the media at the moment are struggling to try to put truth back on the agenda. In America, the post truth world has reached such a level that the President can cut out a large number of the news media on the basis that they are not telling his truth. Whilst it must be hoped that some sanity returns, the media have a long way to go to get back to a truth based world. What is more before that can happen, some need to hold up their hands and admit to the role they have played in creating the post truth world in the first place. Covering serious issues was seen as a game, entertainment triumphed over information and education functions of media. The result, the host of a reality TV game show is not President in the White House and Britain is set to leave the EU.

* published 14/7/2017 -Tribune - "The media have played a major role in creating the post truth world"

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