Historians give their views on the ‘post-truth’ world
The issue of ‘fake news’ has barely been out of the news in recent weeks. With this in mind, we asked two historians to offer their perspectives on the ‘post-truth’ era and explore the rocky relationship between politicians and the press
Inthe wake of the bitter and provocative campaigns before the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, both Oxford Dictionaries and The Economist declared ‘post-truth’ the word of 2016. Its use spiked dramatically as commentators expressed concern that emotional appeals and personal prejudices, rather than facts and expert judgment, were shaping public opinion. Central to these anxieties was the belief that the media had abdicated its responsibility to provide an accurate, thoughtful and balanced discussion of political issues, and had been overwhelmed by propaganda and ‘fake news’ – some of it potentially planted by foreign governments or activists.
Have we really entered a new ‘post-truth’ era that marks a decisive break with the past? Looking back across the past few centuries, it is hard to identify a period of restrained, scrupulous and civilised political debate that would form the golden age from which we have fallen. From the 17th century onwards, writers and politicians such as John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill articulated a powerful vision of a free, independent and responsible press facilitating the rational exchange of opinion and ideas between equal citizens. But that was always more of an aspiration or ideal type than a description of reality.
In the 19th century, anxieties about the corruption of political debate grew ever louder. The esteemed critic Matthew Arnold famously described the “new journalism” of the 1880s as “feather-brained”: “It throws out assertions at a venture,” he wrote, “because it wishes them true; does not correct either them or itself, if they are false.” Keir Hardie, leader of the nascent Labour Party, similarly lamented in 1907 that it had become difficult to communicate complex ideas because “a snippety press and a sensational public are outstanding marks of modern times”.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Soviet Union, right-wing popular newspapers such as the Daily Mail repeatedly claimed that communist sympathisers would shape Labour party policy – that a vote for Labour was “a vote for Bolshevism” that would “threaten every man’s house and furniture and every woman’s clothes and jewellery”. The high point of the ‘Red Peril’ scare came four days before the 1924 general election when the Daily Mail published the notorious ‘Zinoviev letter’ under the headline “Civil War Plot by Socialists’ Masters”. This forged letter, purportedly from Comintern chief Grigory Zinoviev – but which is generally believed to have been written by anti-regime Soviets and probably leaked by MI6 – offered backing for revolutionary activity to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Disquiet about press-sensationalism was one reason why the BBC, formed in 1922, was given a duty of impartiality and balance in its reporting.
Viewed in a historical perspective, the defining features of contemporary media culture are the sheer volume and multiplicity of content and the ease of sharing it, rather than a lack of commitment to ‘truth’. In Britain, at least, the partisan media was probably never more powerful than in the early decades of the 20th century, when so few alternative sources of information were available. In an intensely crowded and fragmented media marketplace, it is not surprising that producers shout loudly to get heard, but the tricks they use to get our attention are not as new as they may seem.
In Britain, the partisan media was probably never more powerful than in the early decades of the 20th century ADRIAN BINGHAM
Oneof the 20th century’s most controversial politicians, Enoch Powell, once said that: “For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.” Politicians with thinner skin than Powell’s might retort that, though ships’ captains do indeed depend on the sea, it has been the cause of countless fatalities.
Since Powell’s remark in the early 1980s, the media ‘sea’ has become even more difficult to navigate. The ‘press’ – the printed media – has been losing circulation in Britain and elsewhere. However, its output is still widely discussed on television and radio. The internet may be turning us into ‘citizen journalists’, but it still provides a platform for stories picked up on other media. In a kind of global media echo-chamber, even the best-informed individuals are not surfing but drowning.
Despite this apparent evidence of growing media influence, many academics remain unconvinced. Political scientists, in particular, have tended to argue that media outlets of various kinds can do more than reinforce views acquired independently by members of the public. But even if ordinary voters are not influenced by things they read or hear, many senior politicians are preoccupied by the media. The 2011–12 Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press suggested the unhealthy infatuation of people like Tony Blair and David Cameron. Increasingly, voters in countries such as Britain have to choose between rival politicians who equate success with positive media coverage.
The relationship between politicians and the media has changed since the Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury scoffed that the Daily Mail was a publication “written by office boys, for office boys”. In 1931 the three-time prime minister Stanley Baldwin launched a counter-attack against newspaper proprietors, accusing them of trying to exercise “power without responsibility”.
As prime minister, David Cameron was rather like Stanley Baldwin – a pragmatic politician who preferred compromise to confrontation. However, whereas Baldwin finally lost his patience with the press, Cameron failed to act decisively after the Leveson Inquiry and gave in to the demand for a referendum on EU membership. Presumably he hoped that his undoubted media skills would help persuade the public to follow his lead. Yet unlike the previous referendum of 1975, when almost every national newspaper plugged the pro-European line, by 2016 the balance had swung decisively in a ‘Eurosceptic’ direction.
This is not to say that the ‘Leave’ campaign owed its narrow victory entirely to media support – if there was a simple correlation between headlines and voting behaviour, Brexit would have won easily. Even so, Cameron could have profited from Baldwin’s example. In 1931, Baldwin took on the ‘press Lords’ Rothermere and Beaverbrook, who had been campaigning against him on a specific issue – Empire Free Trade. The lead-up to the 2016 EU referendum was similar, in that Eurosceptic newspapers had long been trying to shape public opinion on a specific issue. The big difference was that in 1931 Stanley Baldwin stayed in his job; in 2016 the voters tossed
Increasingly, voters in countries such as Britain have to choose between rival politicians who equate success with positive media coverage MARK GARNETT
Adrian Bingham is professor of modern British history at the University of Sheffield
A man wearing a mask of Rupert Murdoch pretends to burn the Leveson Report into press practices at a 2012 protest against allegedly biased reporting. Alongside him is a gagged ‘David Cameron’
Labour party leader Keir Hardie speaks in Trafalgar Square. As long ago as 1907 Hardie lamented the “snippety press”
Last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union received massive press coverage
Dr Mark Garnett is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion University of Lancaster