Philip Roddis from Steel City Scribblings
Matthew d’Ancona, in yesterday’s Guardian, is concerned about the threat to democracy from fake news. He wants to see ‘social media giants’ …
…legally redefined in a new, third category that radically enhances their accountability for the content they host, without imperilling free political discourse. Striking the right balance in this jurisprudential task will not be easy. But who expected it to be?
He also wants…
…a new system of “credible annotation of standards, so that people can see, at a glance, the level of verification of a site” – essentially, kitemarking of the sort that is standard in almost every other sector of consumption.
I am less sure that the government should “initiate a working group of experts” to oversee this process. If there is one thing worse than what the committee describes as the “wild west” of today’s digital prairies, it is anything that even resembles a Ministry of Truth, or an Oftruth regulator. Better that independent charitable bodies perform this grading task – gaining the public’s trust incrementally, as the admirable Full Fact and other fact-checking organisations have done in recent years.
Matthew d’Ancona being on the liberal wing of British Conservatism, that last paragraph is to be expected. He sees the dangers, earnest democrat that he is, of state censorship but believes, credulous liberal that he is, these can be averted by a few judicious mechanisms of the classic ‘checks and balances’ sort. I’m not going to argue with him on that. With bigger fish to fry, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that his ‘admirable’ Full Fact is led by Mayborn Group CEO and Tory Party donor Michael Samuel, while so many of those ‘other fact-checking organisations’ have on closer inspection proved to be at best self righteous – and self appointed – custodians of truth; at worst risibly tainted.
d’Ancona’s complacency is neither the inevitable nor exclusive product of a costly education and privileged lifestyle, but is nurtured and at every turn reinforced by both. How do you think the man would respond to the question put to one similarly placed, the BBC’s Andrew Marr, in a 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky?
The media are selling privileged audiences. These are big businesses, big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of such a structure?
Marr had no answer and I don’t suppose d’Ancona has either. Neither man is a liar; both are the successful products of an ideological matrix upheld, confirmed and reaffirmed in those myriads of conversations and everyday acts which define – if we don’t ask about the nature of power – ‘common sense’ and what is ‘moderate’. It’s through such conversations and acts that normality is most thoroughly demarked, lines most durably drawn between ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’. But those conversations and acts do not take place in a vacuum. They arise within particular social relations of class division, their heavy ideological lifting done in the education, entertainment and news industries.
Specifically here, many read a superficially broad spectrum of media views on small to middling matters – Mail at one end, Guardian at the other – as proof of an ‘open’ society whose forms of democracy they take at face value. Others call that spectrum a slit-window view on the world, a painfully limited vista constrained not by Truth – though that can’t be entirely bypassed: it has in normal times to be accommodated – nor yet by blunt censorship. Liberal media do indulge in crude onslaughts of the kind directed at Corbyn, Assad and Putin.
They do not, however, make a habit of telling outright lies. To do so entails risks only undertaken when the alternatives pose an unusually stubborn impediment to ruling class interests. In the main, liberal media lie by omission. (When did you last read a Guardian or Independent piece on how those who took the decision to invade Iraq and demolish Libya have profited from their reconstruction? When did such media last run a piece on the extent of Syria’s privatisation? Come to that, when will we get a fearless Guardian investigation of the implications, as ad revenues fall, of growing donor dependence on American liberals well to the right of Britain’s?) And they spin with scant regard for consequence, as with the demonisation of Assad and Putin by daily repetition of unproven allegations to the point where inflammatory claim  can no longer be distinguished – ‘no smoke without fire’ – from proven fact.
Chomsky, with his gift for framing subtle truths and complex observations in simple but never simplistic terms, raises the issue of that ideological matrix more than once in his BBC interview with Andrew Marr. When Marr asks with incredulity if Chomsky supposes he and his colleagues profess beliefs not sincerely held but calculated to advance their careers, Chomsky responds:
No, I am sure you believe everything you say. What I am saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sat in that chair interviewing me.
Neatly put. Similarly, the owlish Mr d’Ancona wouldn’t be sat where he is but for his touching faith that the core aim of his various media employers is to pursue truth, as opposed to selling privileged audiences to other big corporations. To be a useful idiot you have to be, well, useful.
- 1. See for instance this Spiked piece, which asks “Who exactly will judge which news is ‘real’ and what’s ‘fake’, and decide whether the world’s citizens are ‘properly informed’? While ensuring ‘those in positions of power are held accountable’ is a laudable aim, the question remains: accountable to whom? The people in a democratic system? Or our self-appointed ‘fact-checkers’ in a software package. And perhaps most pointedly – who will the fact-checkers be accountable to?”
- 2. While education and news media are routinely and rightly decried by capitalism’s critics, I’m coming firmly to the view that the cumulative effect of decades of soft propaganda from TV and cinema is every bit as vital to its ideological underpinnings. That near infinite accumulation of subtexts, seldom intended as propaganda – rather, as Giving The Public What it Wants – is all the more effective for that ‘innocence of intent’ in its nurturing of deeply orientalist assumptions of Western and especially American beneficence. And of Arab and Slavic villainy for villainy’s sake.
- 3. My concise definition of a ruling class is its monopoly ownership of some essential of wealth creation. Under capitalism this is the big money and production infrastructure without which wealth cannot be produced. Of course there is far more to say, but all else derives from this one central reality.
- 4. Of all the charges to be laid at the doors of BBC, Guardian and Independent, none is graver than that their coverage of Russia, Syria and Ukraine – and mix, on Yemen, of near silence with unsubstantiated claims of Iranian backed Houthis – has the effect, regardless of intent, of promoting the high tech and highly lucrative delivery of death to the near defenceless peoples of the global south.