[...] What Richard Sennett wrote almost 40 years ago is perhaps as true now as it was then:
A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programmes he espouses. The obsession with persons at the expense of more impersonal social relations is like a filter which discolours our rational understanding of society; it obscures the continuing importance of class in advanced industrial society. (The Fall of Public Man, p4)
And so it is our politics is declining in terms of both the public acceptance and moral high ground it can reclaim for itself. The job of a politician isn’t to tell – or operate with – the truth. The job of a politician is to be believable. It may even be the case that the politician believes him- or herself when they declaim and proclaim their gobbets of wisdom. Self-confusion, self-delusion, self-deception … well, they’re not uncommon skillsets these days – perhaps, indeed, not uncommon in many fields of human endeavour.
Credibility involves making out you know what you’re talking about. Truth only comes from the rarest of qualities: that of choosing to pursue doggedly the profoundest essence of an issue – no matter your tribal loyalties; no matter your preconceptions; no matter your instincts to want to win a consequential battle; no matter your fear of losing terrible face.
Our society really does not put much of a premium on truth, because truth involves putting oneself – one’s ego, in fact – completely aside in a selfless impulse to do what’s often painful. Whilst credibility, constructed – as Chris so rightly points out – from so many class-based trinkets, bolt-ons and add-ons (clothes, accessories, cars, parking places, gadgets, company positions, hairstyles and skin types) can, actually, be purchased with a modicum of wealth quite easily.
Simply put, credibility can be faked whilst truth will never be so.
And that is why our public sphere has begun to fall so awfully in on itself.
Contemporaneously, the period had also been referred to as the Twilight War (by Winston Churchill), der Sitzkrieg (“the sitting war”: a play onBlitzkrieg), the Bore War (a play on the Boer War), dziwna wojna (“strange war”), and drôle de guerre (“strange/funny war”).
The term “Phoney War” was possibly coined by U.S. Senator William Borah who stated, in September 1939: “There is something phoney about this war.”
Meanwhile, over the weekend, a €100 billion bailout of Spanish banks was announced – and the markets, on opening today, apparently felt very positive about this fact. I’m not clear if we the citizens should feel as cheerful, though. As I tweeted just now:
To be honest, there’s so much spin around at the moment that I’m immediately suspicious of anything which makes me feel moderately OK.
So let’s run with this idea. A sense of generalised disorientation; a feeling of widespread insecurity; a lack of understanding as to where the next disagreeable surprise will pop up from … all the aforementioned coupled with the perception that the elites aren’t even able to provide us with the breadcrumbs they used to fob us off with. How do you expect us to react?
A phoney war indeed.
It’s the sort of situation which surely engenders a societal paranoia. In my mind, I’ve always connected trust to rust – as inscribed by the story of that Lancia Beta model from the 1970s: once the urban myth becomes one of engines dropping out after a couple of years of hard-won ownership, you have a mighty difficult task ahead of you to regain the support of your clientèle. And business more widely needs trust in order to function well. I don’t just mean the banks which lend excessively on what we deposit; I mean any company involved in the business of planning for and selling to the medium- and long-term. Uncertainty exists enough in life for our politicians and economists to want to exacerbate our perception of it.
What then do we need from our leaders in the absence of any logically-arrived-at understanding that life isn’t quite as bad as it appears to be? Do we want the balm of massaged porkies? Do we actually need salespeople at the very top of the greasy pole – even when this seems quite counter-intuitive in the light of current experience? Are we looking for people to act decisively – even where this might mean they do exactly the opposite of what the hindsight of history would have demanded of us? Should we trust our existing systems of organisation – or is there time, energy, the political will and enough common sense out there to change everything for the better?
Should we tumble forwards uncontrollably – blithely trusting that the rust of recent past is simply a flaky optical illusion? Can we ever trust the elites to get their act together enough for their breadcrumbs to once again supply our basic needs – or should we go full-steam ahead in our pursuit of a definitively and sustainably just society?
That is to say, as parents, husbands, wives, partners, artists, workers and human beings various, what degree of ambition should we really allow ourselves the luxury of exhibiting?
Especially when we search for a certain sense and sensibility in a world where – let’s face it – lies have become the standard rate of exchange for that precious currency we used to call truth.
A former News of the World reporter has claimed that journalists at the now defunct newspaper regularly made up stories and unethical practices were rife because of a “culture of fear” at the tabloid.
Graham Johnson, who worked at the newspaper between 1995 and 1997, said many employees carried out illegal operations and fabricated articles due to pressures from the top.
Yes, with bemusement I say. Who on earth might have believed it were otherwise? It’s not only the tabloid newspapers which have operated on a continuum of the truth – most organisations and individuals which like to believe they edit and describe reality as it is are inclined to waver towards and away from a theoretical accuracy. Therein the importance of a democratic society which depends for some of its freedoms on a supposedly free press. Getting it wrong in the short-term can sometimes be a requirement for getting it right in the long-term. We sometimes need to tell lies in order to dig out the truths.
Whether we like it or not, slander and libel are necessary extensions of a healthy democracy.
Journalistic truth is a little like psychosis, surely: the defining line of whether someone or something might be deserving of such a label or not depends on how it affects their ability to function appropriately. We cannot say whether the tabloids or the broadsheets fiddle about with this continuum I describe more to our advantage or to theirs (though I’m inclined to believe it’s generally to their advantage instead of ours); what we can say for sure, however, is that the truth is neither necessarily to be found between two extremes nor never to be found in the obvious centre.
Sometimes, then, the attempt to tell a truth involves a sticking-a-pin-in-the-donkey’s-tail unpredictability.
Made-up stories in the News of the World? I’d be surprised if we assumed there weren’t any in our broadsheets. Just imagine if we lived in a world where truth was guaranteed: how lazy and uncritical might we become. In fact, either by omission or by default, the truth is malleable and never precise. Only the winners get to fix our histories; only the powerful to fix our news.
Any mainstream media organisation which tries to imply they are so very distant from what they now allege happened at the News of the World is simply in denial as far as their relationship with the world, and its reality, is concerned. This is not a post-modern argument I am making: just an observation that our recent past has very clearly demonstrated that the truth is fragile.
And, what’s more, highly dependent on where you stand – as well as with what authority.
I published this a few months ago, under the title “Is ‘people talking about other people’ really the sort of news we should be promoting?”:
It’s made the news this morning because it involves one important person talking about two other important people in a supposedly secret and confidential context. But, leaving the WikiLeaks issues to one side for the moment, is this rent-a-quote kind of news really the sort of stuff we should be promoting?
Too much of latterday journalism is actually churnalism:
The study, carried out by postgraduate students in 2010, found that between 11.6% and 21% of newspaper stories across eight major daily publications were mainly or entirely generated by public relations material, and that between 32% and 50% of all stories contained elements of public relations material. The worst offender was the Irish Times (21% of stories comprising all or mainly public relations material) with the Evening Herald scoring best (11.6% comprising all or mainly public relations material).
The other newspapers examined were the Daily Mirror (12%), the Irish Examiner (16%), the Daily Mail (13%) and the Irish Sun (13.6%). All the figures for the Irish Independent are currently unavailable, but the students found that 46% of all stories in the Independent contained public relations material – a figure which is broadly in line with the other newspapers.
And a lot of those press releases involve repeating word for word what (self-)important people believe the rest of us need to know.
pressthink.org/2011/09/we-hav… Very nicely expresses a longstanding dissatisfaction I have had with ‘News’ journalism #hesaidshesaid
As the piece starts out by saying:
Apparently, NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. It’s not about editorializing. Or taking sides. It’s failing to do the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims.
Well worth a full read if you’re interested in fashioning a journalism which doesn’t simply position the journalist in the crossfire of opposing extremes – but actually looks to analyse exactly where the truth might lie.
And, I would argue, the reason for this sterile “he said, she said” journalism is not because journalists are bad people but, rather, because – a little like the case of the bankers perhaps, and even Ed Miliband’s wider vested interests (more here) – good people who in any other system would flourish and grow are at the mercy of the economics of concentrated wealth.
Let’s look at some alternatives, first. Evidence-based blogging – as self-declaimed and defined – has been around for a year or two now. It aims – with evidence not rhetoric – to pull apart the claims of vested interests and institutions, with the objective long-term to improve the quality of public debate. And in part, it has found its niche precisely because the mainstream media have given up on their journalistic role to analyse and inform the voting publics appropriately.
Meanwhile, Andrew has suggested other mechanisms such as assertion-flagging systems which notify writers of perceived holes in their arguments and provide both commenters and original posters to attack and defend with grace. I have also suggested a kind of Last.fm of thought, which – through self-education and community participation – would improve the wider quality of thought we all exhibit through broader and more finely-tuned access to key historical texts as well as good current content.
But where the Truth-O-Meter outdoes all these proposals is in its ability to provide – and its desire to go back to – mainstream media, with a tool which allows the latter to recover the basic tenets of the journalistic profession within the context of the need to make money. Inscribed by an industrial model which needs to sell its visibility, either through paper-based editions and/or online access via a combination of paywalls and/or advertising (that is to say, whichever model the organisation in question manages to make work), the Truth-O-Meter allows information businesses to contemplate a dumbing-up of news content which involves greater interaction from readers, greater involvement in fact-checking and better debate all round.
The most fearful thing about news-gathering and dissemination organisations such as Fox has been the creeping feeling that perhaps – from a business model point of view – Rupert Murdoch is righter than he would dare to imagine. The Truth-O-Meter system of outsourced and insourced fact-checking, however, means that journalists are protected from the games communications chiefs play when they try and ensure that those who follow government and business only report what these institutions want. And it seems to allow newspapers which choose to use it to go down the route of truth-telling in order to gain and retain audiences – as opposed to the manipulation the yellower end of the media has had us accustomed to.
So is objectivity back again as a business model which also makes money? Can we avoid the travails and rent-a-quote mentalities of “he said, she said” journalism? Is this the dawn of a brand new era in political reporting? And, more importantly, for us bloggers out here, might this signal the end of that currently important niche we call evidence-based blogging?
Well, I’m beginning to wonder if all the above mightn’t be true.
Anthony Painter has just published a powerful article over at Labour Uncut. One phrase which particularly caught my eye was the following:
Tim Wu’s The Master Switch details many such moments in US history where communications and media companies have reached a size where they dominate the marketplace and begin to infect public and cultural space. [...]
He then asks a most apposite question:
All this begs the immediate question: what is too powerful? It can take a number of different forms. In the case of News International, it is its ability to subvert democratic process and divert law enforcement from its proper course. In other words, it’s not the morally reprehensible and criminally abhorrent phone hacking that occurred at the News of the World per se. It is the fall out from hacking that makes clear the degree to which News International and the News Corporation have been able to prevent due process from occurring and its capability to resist political and public revulsion at its behaviour. [...]
Maybe we need algorithm to calculate when media organisations are too powerful and need breaking up. Automatic. Trip switch of truth.
To be honest, I’ve thought about this idea for a long time now – and in a wide variety of circumstances where individual discretion and political patronage have all too often gone hand in hand. If our political masters and mistresses were to know that their decisions in such transcendental circumstances would be triggered by transparent criteria such as these, whether they be automated algorithms or specialised checklists to be used by qualified servants of the state, then it would take the burden of decision-making off the shoulders of those who might be tempted – for purely political reasons – to finally allow a genie such as Rupert Murdoch out of his communications bottle.
What’s absolutely clear is that any decision-making needs to be in the hands of a system which isn’t open to criticism from any party. Without that, the crude converting of technocratic Britain into a massive Mafia-like family of contacts and influences will not only continue unstopped – it may even become unstoppable.