I once passed through a town with the very odd name of Truth or Consequences, in a remote part of New Mexico. Its name came back to me recently when I was asked about “fake news”. How, went the question, does it differ from the infamous “spin” of the Blair years? Well, there is little difference in its intent. Like the “propaganda” of yesteryear, or even the “agitprop” of the Russian revolutionaries, they are all varieties of the same treacherous tendency to deceive. The hope of its purveyors is that the public will be duped into believing – or, at least, accepting – that which is simply untrue.
A recent example of this was the recent alleged “news” item run by the Echo claiming that an unremarkable council backbencher had 730,000 Twitter followers. Such a figure would put him ahead, not only of senior national politicians, but also internationally followed celebrities like sportspeople and show business luminaries. Is this the case? I neither know nor care (on-line commentators claim that over 600,000 of the claimed figure were fakes). However, the story illustrates the world in which we now live.
Firstly, large numbers of people who use Twitter will believe it to be true without question. Secondly, it underlines the belief that social media are vital channels of communication for many, if not the ONLY channel, particularly for the politically ill-informed. Thirdly, regardless of the veracity or otherwise of the Twitter message conveyed, it is extremely difficult to counter it. It is modern confirmation of Mark Twain’s pithy observation that a lie is half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on (except that today Twitter can instantaneously circumnavigate the globe).
Another truth exemplified by this little non-story is the Echo’s inability –or refusal – to check much of what it prints before publication. It repeatedly fails in its duty to inform on matters of substance. Across Merseyside, there are many people (although the number is dwindling daily) who look to the Echo for information on what is happening locally. Older people in particular depend on the paper for information on the issues which relate to them. Instead, as younger people are fed “fake news” on-line, an older generation are force fed via hard copy a diet of unbalanced and often inaccurate reportage masquerading as news.
This is an absolute tragedy for those who have a passionate belief in transparency as essential for accountability. Without knowledge of the unvarnished facts of any matter or situation, it is extremely difficult to have true accountability. Without accountability, democracy is simply a sham. Far too often, there is widespread ignorance of what is really the case in public life, hidden behind a smokescreen of misinformation. With regard to public affairs, it can translate as voting for a political brand lacking in substance. Voting ought to be a matter of conviction, based on a knowledge and understanding of policy and of record.
Worst of all is the apathy of a disenchanted part of the electorate which can ignore their personal responsibility with the excuse that “they are all the same”. That is plainly untrue, although I do not see any urgency by those who ought to know better, to dispel the ignorance, bigotry, and complacency too often ailing the body politic today.
Self-serving letters from councillors in the local press have a limited use in enlightening people as to what is really happening to their services and in their areas, but they are no substitute for an enquiring, objective and critical media. The city-region deserves better. Instead, we are given overdoses of Dr. Feelgood’s panaceas for an information-deprived electorate – sport, violent crime and nostalgia.
These have now become the staples of a cheap media product offered to the local electorate in the mistaken belief that such limited handouts will satisfy them. It will not. Such a miserly approach to news gathering might keep the management and owners of our local media happy temporarily, but it will be at a cost. Their “bread and circuses” vision of public life might reflect that of some local politicians but it debases the traditional (and not yet moribund) role of the media of speaking truth to power. The consequences of failure to do so are all too obvious.