The term ‘fake news’ isn’t just annoying, it’s a danger to democracy

The mutually assured destruction in which politicians, the media and the judiciary are presently indulging in won’t end free elections or free speech. It will lead to a sickly democratic life, infested by cynicism, barley legitimatised by public approval, intertwined with economic decline and hopelessness

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 09 February 2017 18:12
Corbyn accused the BBC of reporting 'fake news' when challenged on resignation rumours
Corbyn accused the BBC of reporting 'fake news' when challenged on resignation rumours

“Fake news”, controversial and offensive a phrase as it is, is really just a euphemism for “lies”, a much older, simpler and shorter description of the same thing. Imagine if Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn told reporters that they were telling lies? Imagine if, instead of attacking Laura Kuenssberg for “fake news” Corbyn’s fan base just called her a liar? Actually they do, and worse, but at least that is more honest.

Often, though, it seems even apparently plain speaking types such as Trump and Corbyn cannot bring themselves to call a fib a fib. It seems, more broadly too, that we cannot even be honest to ourselves when we argue about the supposed dishonesty of political discourse. The only time I’ve heard it said properly lately was about the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. Maybe exchanging such insults would be even more incendiary than the allegations that have been ranged against CNN, the BBC and, indeed, the rest of what’s termed “the mainstream media” by zealots from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I imagine the phrase “fake news” and its euphemism-piled-on-euphemism relation, “alternative facts” are also handy formulations to chuck around in the Senate or the chamber of the House of Commons, where the niceties do not allow for any honourable member to be accused of being a liar, that being unconscionable “unparliamentary language”. But it all amounts to the same thing. It is as old as politics and debate itself; but just because it is old doesn’t make it alright. This long-term relentless assault on the integrity of the political class, the political process itself, and the media that report and comment on it should not be underestimated.

As I say, it is nothing new. Most prime ministers and party leaders have had their run-ins with the press. Somewhere in the BBC’s archive sits a wonderful clip of labour leader Harold Wilson getting up onto the stage at his party’s conference, circa 1967. The economy was in meltdown, the pound devalued, the Empire in retreat, an application to join the European Union humiliatingly rejected by the French (plus ca change), poll ratings at record lows and the unions causing their usual ructions. The delegates, though, gave Wilson a thunderous welcome, and, after waiting theatrically for the tumultuous applause to die down, and for a signal that the start of his speech was now being broadcast live, he declared: “Thank you for what will no doubt be reported by the BBC as a hostile reception”.

Jeremy Corbyn accuses BBC of reporting fake news

Laura Kuenssberg’s tussle with Jeremy Corbyn over the stability of his leadership lies in a long tradition of such conflicts. Sometimes they spiral out of control. Margaret Thatcher and her party chairman, Norman Tebbitt, mercilessly bullied the BBC over its coverage of the bombing of Libya by US planes flying from British bases in 1985, an obsession that was quite disproportionate to any error of judgement. A decade or so later, in the pomp of new Labour, there were similar allegations and counter-allegations. An obscure early morning broadcast on the Today programme by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan with a passing reference to a “sexed up dossier” caught the incensed attention of the Prime Minister's Press Secretary, Alistair Campbell. We all know how that ended: the tragic death of Dr David Kelly, most of those concerned losing their jobs, including the Chairman and Director-general of the BBC, open war between the media and Number 10, a public inquiry, Tony Blair’s reputation trashed and some truly bizarre conspiracy theories. It proved, if proof were needed, that, like many wars, those between the media and politicians usually end up with both sides losing. Worse than that, there is a third loser – the cause and reputation of democratic politics itself.

Without getting alarmist, it is how democracies decline, and sometimes even fail. The old adage that politicians are all liars and in it for themselves slides into a widespread belief that all politicians are corrupt. That, in turn, can evolve into a lack of faith in the power of debate and elections to change anything. When the reputation of democratic politicians as a class declines so badly in the eyes of the public that we become suspicious of, and disenchanted by, democracy itself is when the future of democratic politics starts to sag.

It is even worse – well I would say this – when the media become a distrusted part of some mythical conspiratorial “elite”, the cosy Westminster village turned into a cabal intent on defrauding and exploiting the public. So not only can the public not trust what politicians tell them – but they cannot even trust the reporters and commentators to report, or expose, those very distortions properly – likely as not adding some of their own. It is a poisonous, lethal cocktail we are brewing here.

It has been a slow, almost imperceptible process, and an insidious one. Taking a step back for a moment, though, there are a few moments since about the turn of the millennium that accelerated the trend, at least in Britain. One was the Iraq War and its aftermath, of which the Gilligan affair was a part, the feeling that so much life and treasure had been lost over a war fought on a false premise; another was the continuing damage done by the scandal over MPs’ expenses, long after when those guilty have slunk away from Westminster for good; the Leveson Inquiry and all that told us about the dark side of the press (many parts of which even now refuse to accept they did much that was wrong in the hacking and other scandals); and the revelations about the financial sector and the malfeasance of certain bankers (still unpunished it has to be said). Even sport has been exposed as a swamp of malpractice and dishonesty. Usually democracies have to cope with one or two such crisis of confidence; to have them all coincide is almost lethal.

The great thing about democracy, of course, is that it can be reinvigorated, but I am not sure that is what is happening now. Despite the corrosive, misleading, cynical manipulation that Donald Trump is visiting upon the American people, his use of Twitter to communicate his unvarnished early morning still-in-his-dressing-gown thoughts is at least “authentic”. It is a direct form of communion with millions, unmediated by spin placed on it by others. Much the same goes for the fourth-pint-of-bitter verities spouted by Nigel Farage. What they both have in common, as is well noted, is a tendency to attack the “establishment”. But now everyone is attacking the “establishment”, even those who are plainly integral parts of the establishment in any sensible definition. Nick Clegg, hard as it may be to recall, once painted himself as the fresh outsider, this public schoolboy and Brussels eurocrat; so does Nicola Sturgeon, law graduate of Glasgow University; so, indeed, does Jeremy Corbyn, an MP for 34 years; as well as billionaire Trump and stockbroker Farage.

The press are sometimes willing accomplices in this game of mass suicide – the Mail's “Enemies of the People” deserves its notoriety as a tabloid headline. The mutually assured destruction the politicians, media and the judiciary are presently indulging in won’t end free elections or free speech. It will, though, lead to a sickly, lifeless sort of democratic life, unengaged with the electorate, drained of idealism, infested by cynicism, barley legitimatised by public approval, intertwined with economic decline and hopelessness.

It isn’t Germany in 1933, but it is more like any number of democratic states where the morale of the system sinks so low it is difficult to sustain it – Third Republic France before 1940, say, or Italy by the 1990s, or America after Watergate, when Richard Nixon correctly observed that when people get pounded with revelations about wrong doing night after night then they will lose their faith in the system (adding, famously, “I am not a liar”). Someone, somewhere needs to start sticking up for the establishment, defending the elites, justifying press intrusion where it supports the public interest, defending the independence and fairness of our lawyers and bankers, and explaining to the public why democratic politicians cannot always honour all their promises, and telling them to grow up. Or would we just think that’s all “fake news”?

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