Not such a brave new world

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

WE’VE got to get to grips with a world in which truth has be­come a trad­able com­mod­ity. Tim Bern­ers-lee, who in­vented the in­ter­net, has com­mit­ted him­self to fight­ing its use for false news; still de­ter­mined to main­tain free­dom, he recog­nises its cor­ro­sive ef­fect. Don­ald Trump has suc­cess­fully used un­truths as a bla­tant in­stru­ment of pol­icy and, last year in Bri­tain, we wit­nessed the ef­fect of the fraud­u­lent slo­gan about NHS fund­ing on the ‘Brexit bus’.

None of us should ig­nore the mech­a­nism used by th­ese pro­pa­gan­dists. It’s sim­ple. First, de­tect a widely held prej­u­dice, as­sert and re­in­force that prej­u­dice as a self-ev­i­dent truth and, finally, present a news story, how­ever fic­tional, in such a way that it il­lus­trates that ‘truth’. This is be­com­ing, in­creas­ingly, the new re­al­ity, the ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’.

The me­dia has learned that flat­ter­ing the prej­u­dices of its read­ers sells news­pa­pers, even in a de­clin­ing market. It’s gen­er­ally a great suc­cess, but, oc­ca­sion­ally, prac­ti­tion­ers get their come­up­pance. Kellyanne Con­way, Pres­i­dent Trump’s pub­li­cist, got the ridicule she de­served in her con­fused at­tack on Barack Obama’s use of mi­crowaves.

Sim­i­larly, the tabloid colum­nist Katie Hop­kins is more than £300,000 the poorer since food blog­ger Jack Mon­roe took her to court for a mis­di­rected Tweet and won. Miss Hop­kins also earned from the judge the un­flat­ter­ing soubri­quet ‘renta-gob’, which may live with her for ever.

News is now all about in­stant com­ment, the re­in­force­ment of prej­u­dice and the avoid­ance of in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge. It’s per­vad­ing ev­ery corner of our lives. Re­mem­ber the sug­ges­tion that the EU wanted to steal our ket­tles? The re­al­ity was that we all agreed to raise the min­i­mum ef­fi­ciency stan­dards of new ket­tles. No one was go­ing to steal your old ket­tle, but this loony view flat­tered anti-eu prej­u­dices.

This at­ti­tude to­wards facts has also af­fected the way we’ve dealt with en­ergy costs. It’s uni­ver­sally believed that we’re pay­ing more for en­ergy and that much of the blame can be laid on Green taxes. How­ever, re­search by the in­de­pen­dent Com­mit­tee on Cli­mate Change (CCC) shows that to be non­sense— the CCC’S re­cent re­port shows that, for most con­sumers, en­ergy bills have fallen in real terms. That’s be­cause the boil­ers, dish­wash­ers, wash­ing ma­chines, ket­tles and vac­uum clean­ers we all use are much more ef­fi­cient; we’re con­sum­ing less en­ergy—£150 each to be pre­cise.

It’s all contributed to a 38% cut in emis­sions, de­spite a 65% growth in the econ­omy, but it’s a suc­cess story that doesn’t fit our prej­u­dices, so it won’t be the stuff of me­dia con­grat­u­la­tion. In­deed, the pop­u­lar press will go on de­mand­ing an end to cli­mat­e­change charges.

We see the pro­mo­tion of ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’ at ev­ery turn. The or­gan­is­ers of the march against Brexit are hav­ing to deal with a mock-up of their web­site that ped­dles false polls and says it’s been can­celled (it’s on March 25). Mr Trump claimed his was the big­gest in­au­gu­ra­tion crowd—it wasn’t. Em­manuel Macron, a lead­ing con­tender in the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, is fight­ing clev­erly faked ‘facts’ that he’s sup­ported by Saudi Ara­bia. Twit­ter has had to block ac­counts that have been hacked to carry pro-turk­ish mes­sages.

We’re all vul­ner­a­ble in this new world. It’s the world of George Or­well, in which facts are what you want them to be and re­al­ity be­comes a ma­nip­u­lated con­struct. Our reliance on an im­par­tial BBC has be­come even more vi­tal—its World Ser­vice is cen­tral to our sup­port of a free so­ci­ety.

‘It’s the world of George Or­well, in which facts are what you want them to be

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