The uproar about fake news hides as much as it reveals. It is not just that propaganda has a history as long as the history of politics. The psychological turn modern thinking has taken with its emphasis on groupthink and confirmation bias lulls us into believing modern societies are up against citizens caught in a kind of madness. And that thought is a little too comforting.
Dismissing your opponents as insane may be psychologically satisfying – perhaps one day researchers will find humans have a cognitive bias to do it. Contemptuous waves of the hands, however, fail to understand how charlatans use rational and moral objections to journalism to lead their supporters to irrational and immoral conclusions.
To state the obvious, journalism is based on choices. A journalist picks one subject rather than another. A newspaper places one story on the front page, downplays another and decides not to run a third. Journalists barely question news values, except when they complain about editors failing to run their pieces. Yet the uniformity of news judgements should give them pause. On most days the networks’ news running orders are identical. Occasionally, the BBC, say, will have an exclusive. But uniformity is restored when their competitors follow it up. On days when no important event has taken place, you should in theory be able to switch from channel to channel and see different news programmes with different priorities. In practice you never can.
Newspapers are more diverse. Yet the extent to which journalists agree among themselves about what is and what is not a good story is striking. This should not be a surprise. Journalism is like a club. Journalists move between papers, and socialise and marry each other. As in all other trades, the praise that matters most to them is the praise of their colleagues.
It is not remotely irrational to wonder whether the hyped virtues of ‘media pluralism’ are a joke in such a conformist culture. Nor do you need to be a conspiracy theorist to realise that huge stories are missed in the process: journalists were as culpable as economists in failing to see the banking failure of 2008 coming, for instance. Until the collapse in media incomes, they were also likely to be well paid, or extremely well paid in the case of media managers and celebrities. Once again, it is a fair criticism of the selective bias of the media to say the state of the housing market is always news to them, while cuts in benefits for the poorest are matters of minor concern.
I could go on. But everyone at some point must have watched the television and asked why the newsreader is telling us about X and forgetting about Y.
Modern demagogic movements have proved themselves exceptionally adept at transforming informed frustration at errors of omission into a paranoid belief in deliberate suppression. Not just by one news organisation with a partisan agenda, but by all news organisations.
As the liberal media investigates his potentially treasonable dealings with Putin, Donald Trump tells his base his critics are refusing to investigate the supposed crimes of Hillary Clinton. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters imitate Trump, and transform the failure to cover stories, which are trivial even by the most generous definition of ‘news’, into a plot. The media in general and the BBC in particular are damned for not telling the country Corbyn won a peace prize no one outside its sponsors had heard of, or that Labour has won a by-election on a parish council with no powers worth mentioning on a turnout so low you could fit the voters into a village hall and still have space for a fair-sized jumble sale.
Charges of suppression serve many purposes. They reassure supporters who have invested in a huge ideological commitment that they have not been fools. On the contrary, there is an abundance of evidence that they are right but conspirators stop the public knowing about it. Once convinced, ideologues can move their supporters on to the next level. If journalists, including supposedly serious and impartial broadcasters, hide news that proves Brexit is a triumph, or Clinton is worse than Trump, or Corbyn is not a friend of terror but a man of peace, how can the public trust what they write and broadcast in its stead? They say it is fact-checked and properly researched? But what kind of dupe believes that BS? Charges of suppression of news thus contaminate all news and allow the demagogue to insulate his supporters from information that might shake their prejudices.
When we move from the daily news to exclusives another statement of the obvious applies. Motivated journalists track down stories. An anti-European journalist on an anti-European paper will be more likely to find corruption in Brussels than their counterparts in the liberal press. A left-wing journalist will be better at exposing corporate corruption. It’s true to say in both instances that the reporters are biased, and work for organisations which encourage their bias. It is equally true to say that the prevailing culture is liberal in broadcasting and rightwing in most of the national press. But when you are assessing the merits of an individual story these truths are beside the point. Motive is irrelevant. The only question ought to be whether the story is true.
Insurgent movements have had great success in moving justifiable suspicion of bias into a mindless rejection of uncomfortable facts. Trump is not an anomaly. His path to power was prepared by a generation of Republicans who turned ‘liberal media’ into a swear words. In Britain it is enough to say ‘but that is a Daily Mail/Guardian story’ or ‘that idea could have come from the Daily Mail/Guardian‘ for followers of right- or left-wing movements to suppress their doubts and bite their tongues The targeting of individual journalists follows. The right-wing press, the SNP and the far left are now in an arms race to see who can incite the greatest hatred against the BBC. The fact that the BBC’s political editor brought bodyguards with her to the Labour party conference suggests hatred could degenerate into violence.
In a way, you have to admire today’s propagandists for taking justifiable arguments against arbitrary selection and bias, pumping them up into an overarching theory of fake news, which allows them to foist their own lies on their supporters. It’s no good regretting their success, although you should always seek to expose it. Better to stick to a political tactic as old as propaganda. Trump controls America. The Brexit right controls Britain. Hold them to account, and if they fail to honour their promises (as they will) try to turn as many of their supporters against them as you can.