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

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - In­ter­views by Chris Bowlby, a BBC jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in his­tory

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

Cameron over­board.

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

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