Huw Spanner: The truth 'Big Brother' tells us about ourselves

Faith & Reason: We condemn politicians and the press alike for their constant attempts at spin. And yet those same technqiues are woven into the everyday behaviour of us all
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The Independent Online

A week ago today, I was standing on a cliff-top watching the sun sinking from a cloudless sky into a placid sea. It was disconcerting suddenly to remember that the whole exquisite effect was an illusion. The sun was not really going down. The sky only seemed to be blue. The surface of the sea was moving, as I was, at 600 miles an hour as the earth beneath my feet turned on its axis.

A week ago today, I was standing on a cliff-top watching the sun sinking from a cloudless sky into a placid sea. It was disconcerting suddenly to remember that the whole exquisite effect was an illusion. The sun was not really going down. The sky only seemed to be blue. The surface of the sea was moving, as I was, at 600 miles an hour as the earth beneath my feet turned on its axis.

I was struck by the parallel with the other world we inhabit, which is created for us largely by the media. Our perceptions of what is "really" going on around us are no less a product of angle and perspective and spin. Spin may be, as the political commentators like to say, the new sleaze. But, however voguish the concepts have become, both spin and sleaze are as old as civilisation, and flourish well beyond the confines of government.

There was a small but perfect example this week at the end of the Today programme on Radio 4. Scarcely 10 minutes earlier, John Humphrys had been taxing the armed forces minister, John Spellar, about a report that only 2 per cent of the "dumb" bombs dropped by the RAF on Kosovo and Serbia were known to have hit their target. The discrepancy between that statistic and the earlier statement from the Ministry of Defence that the bombing campaign had been "the most accurate ever conducted" was shocking. Yet the minister with some justification pointed out that saying that only 2 per cent were known to have hit their target was far from the same as saying that 98 per cent of the bombs had missed. From six miles up, the pilots could not see where the great majority had fallen.

None the less, at nine o'clock the BBC newsreader gravely declared that only 2 per cent had hit their targets. The misrepresentation was corrected in later bulletins, but it was repeated by The Guardian in a leader the next day. Not only the RAF, it seems, is guilty of inaccuracy.

Perhaps, there, it was an excess of zeal that led to exaggeration. Other cases suggest a less generous explanation. The most successful piece of political spin this year has been the publication by the Sun and The Times in July of a third, two-month-old memo from Tony Blair's adviser Philip Gould. Not only did those newspapers collude in a kind of sleaze, a betrayal of trust, they succeeded in slewing the agenda to displace a far more significant piece of news, the announcement by the Treasury of a historic increase in public spending.

Other distortions in the media are more casual, and go uncorrected. There is a game of Chinese whispers that is played by newspaper columnists whose principal rule is that you do not check the original source but comment simply on the current version of a story. Removed from its context and twisted about in the hands of a succession of opinion-formers, sometimes the most unexceptionable action or statement can enter the collective memory as an outrageous cause célÿbre.

Since the media can never deliver a full account of all that is happening around the world, there is besides an inevitable bias in our selection of what we report. Sometimes, the coverage of events is slanted by logistics - it was much easier to get television cameras to Yugoslavia than it was to Angola, though a much bloodier conflict there was killing far more civilians than the fighting in Kosovo. And anyway the public can only cope with so many wars, and one more in Africa is just one too many.

Herein, perhaps, lies the charitable explanation for a good deal of the deliberate misrepresentation in the press. Everyone knows that Brussels will freeze over before the Daily Mail reports anything that shows the European Union in a favourable light, and it is rarely that The Guardian carries a story that is sympathetic to the Church. Their editors' defence may be that their readers would rather their prejudices were honoured and not challenged.

And yet spin is not merely the preserve of politicians and journalists. It runs so deep now in our social psyche that often we hardly notice it. Very often, of course, it is simply an attempt to put the best complexion on things. Nobody protests that a publisher quotes only the favourable reviews on the back of their book, and only a curmudgeon takes offence when they price it at £9.99. As our society becomes ever more commercialised, so our culture becomes suffused with these tricks of advertising and public relations. And we, too, are guilty of the same ploys. Part of the appeal of the Channel 4 phenomenon Big Brother is that we are given a God's-eye view of the way that "ordinary" people try to ingratiate themselves with others.

From a Christian point of view, there is this further link between spin and sleaze, that in a fallen world we find it as difficult to tell or to tolerate the whole truth as we do to live with integrity. The illusions we help to create are far more congenial to us. Yet, whatever one's perspective, this hard fact emerges, that anyone who wishes to live with integrity has to try to lay hold of the truth. The first step is to recognise that spin is neither the invention nor the monopoly of politicians, or even of journalists. We are all at it.

Huw Spanner is publisher of 'Third Way' magazine

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