The Careful Craft

“The truth, carefully crafted, is the biggest lie of all.”

One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Brexit fiasco has scarcely been picked up on, and that lesson is this: the mainstream media are not only wholly unfit for purpose, they are primarily responsible for this unfolding slow-motion catastrophe. It’s not just the misinformation that was widely pedalled at the time of the UK referendum on Britain quitting the EU, it was the years, and years, and years of misinformation before that which did the real damage.

This issue about our mainstream media is desperately serious. People cannot form sound opinions or make good decisions unless the information they receive is beyond reproach. The overwhelming majority of us obtain most of our information about the world around us through the mainstream media, therefore it’s abundantly clear that the duty to provide good, faultless information is a very serious responsibility. But the hard fact is that day in and day out, year in and year out the mainstream media not only fail in this critical duty, their output frequently borders on criminality. The evidence for this is so voluminous that it actually provides a good example of the expression about not being able to see the wood for the trees: there is so much proof of the routinely irresponsible, occasionally-criminal activities of our news providers that it’s difficult to see the fact, and effect of it.

It’s not the purpose of this article to provide detailed and comprehensive examples supporting my case; such proofs are easily found elsewhere. But it is, of course, relevant to cite a few examples. Once people see the truth, there’s no further need to keep on proving it. Like the little boy who pointed out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, doing it once was sufficient.

Journalism is, or should be, a fine and very important vocation. There have been a number of truly great journalists, people who value the truth, together with a sense of humanity above all else; people who frequently endanger their own lives in order to try to communicate to us the awful truths they witness, and the importance of those truths to humanity. Phillip Knightley was one such journalist. He wrote a book titled “First Casualty”, which is an excellent comprehensive account of the routine deceits and deceptions of news providers, and those who control them, going back to the very earliest days of newspapers. One of the numerous examples he provides is an account of a cinema newsreel that was shown to British audiences during the Boer War at the dawn of the twentieth century. It purported to be film of a savage Boer attack on a largely defenceless British Red Cross tent. What those cinema audiences didn’t know was that the film was a fake, shot with actors on Hampstead Heath, a suburb of London.

Falsehood in Wartime is a book written by Arthur Ponsonby, and published just after the First World War. It’s a fairly comprehensive account of some of the outright lies told by the press about the war, whose purpose was to trick the British people into supporting what everyone now knows was an horrific and unjustifiable abomination.

These are just two sources of the abundant proof which supports the central argument of this essay: that our mainstream media must be completely reformed. There are many other sources of proof of this need: Chomsky and Herman, for example, William Blum or John Pilger. Nor is this a case of isolated historical wrongdoing that should be consigned to the history books because it was once a problem that’s now been eradicated. Media Lens, the most excellent media watchdog in Britain, continues to document some of the many current lies and deceptions of today’s so-called “news” providers. Media Lens’ tireless efforts provide a continuous litany of examples of the deliberately cynical manipulation of information by those we trust to tell us the truth.

The impending disaster of Brexit is a shining victory for Britain’s tabloid press, because it is they who, over many years, decades even, have poisoned the minds of British voters. It’s the tabloid press that never miss an opportunity to stoke the flames of racism and xenophobia, so that when the economic austerity policies so loved by capitalists inevitably inflict hardship and suffering on the poorest and weakest sections of society, their anger and frustration can be easily directed to focus on immigrants, asylum seekers, and “foreigners” generally. There’s no escaping the fact that most of those who voted for Brexit did so for xenophobic reasons, blaming Eastern European workers for the economic austerity policies of British elites. This distraction of voters’ attention away from the real causes of Britain’s economic woes was the singular achievement of the tabloid press – which, unsurprisingly, are mostly owned by the same elites who benefit from the distraction.

The mind-numbing banality, stupidity and outright lies that have long passed for news in the tabloids influenced and changed the so-called “serious” broadsheet papers about fifteen years ago, when they began to use the tabloid format. But it wasn’t just the size of the pages that followed tabloid form, the quality of journalism in the broadsheets quickly deteriorated too, adopting the sensationalist style of what was known, with good reason, as the gutter press.

Local newspapers, radio and TV news all copied the growing trend. “Dumbing down” became a widely recognised phenomenon all over the country. The editor of the local newspaper where I once had a weekly column told me that I should imagine the readers of my articles all lived on the most deprived council estate in the town (a mere 5% or so of the actual population), suggesting that my pieces should not be intellectually challenging. I pretty much ignored him.

The fact that a sizeable number of people are clearly impervious to the best efforts of the mainstream media to treat them like dribbling idiots is always a source of comfort to me, for that shows there is hope. When the iniquitous Blair regime frogmarched Britain into an illegal war with Iraq in 2003, for example, it relied on, and received, wholehearted unquestioning support from all the mainstream media. But even so, over a million people marched through the streets of London protesting what they knew was wrong. The majority of Britain’s politicians, and nearly all the nation’s press, lied, and claimed to believe the lies of the US empire, but still a million people marched.

The Brexit referendum was quite different. For that, both of Britain’s main political parties advised voters to remain in the EU. So too did the US, the IMF and World Bank. But Britain’s main tabloid papers all promoted the “leave” campaign. Most British voters will usually support the status quo, and seldom go against their rulers. So the only plausible explanation for them defying their leaders must surely be that they believed the vitriolic misinformation and outright lies about Brexit that were published in the most widely-read tabloids. To repeat myself, however, it wasn’t just the misinformation and lies about Brexit that did this, but also the years and years of racist and xenophobic bile produced by the tabloids long before the referendum that had already prepared the ground. For years beforehand the tabloids churned out countless sensationalist stories about immigrants defrauding the welfare system, for example, or about new European rules that appeared to be ridiculous. Many of these stories were no doubt based on truth (although many were not), but their unimportance and extreme rarity, compared with the far greater number of cases where immigrants benefited society, and European rules helped protect the weak, were invariably ignored altogether. And, of course, the real cause of Britain’s economic woes – a corrupt and criminally irresponsible system of government, was hardly ever suggested. Thus were the minds of British voters softened up to believe that their hardships will all disappear by the simple expedient of Britain quitting the EU. “Taking back control” was one particularly false slogan that was widely promoted by the Bexiteers and their propagandists. It’s highly significant that the one individual who, perhaps more than any other was responsible for Brexit, Nigel Farage, ran for the hills and immediately quit the leadership of UKIP, his political party, once the result was in. Not for him the task of resolving the disaster he almost single-handedly created – with the full support of the tabloid press.

So there can be no real argument about the detrimental effect of the mainstream media in general, and the tabloid press in particular. This communication system, upon which most voters totally rely for their information about the world around them, is not only wholly unfit for purpose, it is also deceitful, dishonest and often criminally culpable. It’s obvious that it must be changed.

Some might think that this is an argument for censorship. It isn’t. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are absolute fundamentals in a free society, which is the only acceptable type of society. Furthermore, censorship of the media is simply unnecessary. All we need is, firstly, proper education of the citizenry to better understand the role of news providers; and secondly, a state-operated public information service whose standards are second to none, and beyond any reasonable reproach in terms of accuracy and ethical values.

At the moment we have nothing like this. Our citizenry are poorly educated in the cynical wiles of government and their active complicity in providing poor information; and the one public information service we have, the BBC, has never been anything other than a solid supporter of Britain’s corrupt and frequently criminal system of government.

The privately owned media should always be free to produce whatever rubbish they like; but the people should be properly educated to recognise rubbish, and to be careful about what they believe. The public information service should be driven by two goals – to produce the truth, and to provide it with a humane perspective. This is no trivial matter.

The BBC frequently promotes itself as being honest and impartial in its news reporting, as do many other so-called news providers. But there are countless examples which disprove this claim, and Media Lens, for example, has a sizeable catalogue of proofs. One standard trick used by these honest purveyors of “news” is the telling of the half-truth, whereby they relate with a fair amount of accuracy one side of an issue, but ignore, minimise or distort any other side that doesn’t conform to their propaganda model. Take, for instance, the many British wars the BBC has reported on over the years. From their positions as routinely “embedded” with the British army, they provide endless coverage of a war through the perspective of the troops. This creates a massive popular base of support at home for the war. What the BBC almost never does is provide the perspective of the victims of the army, or challenge why there’s a war at all, why British troops are even in some foreign country killing defenceless people. There are countless examples of this. What we need is a news provider that tells the real truth about war – the real reasons wars are fought, and the many horrors inflicted on the many victims of wars – on all sides.

A properly organised state news provider would do this, as well as the many other serious issues which are currently improperly reported, or hardly reported at all – the disastrous effects of capitalist economics, for example, or the catastrophic situation with our fragile, overpopulated planet’s dying ecosystem – all things the BBC routinely fails to do.

Although our education system is also a major problem in that it fails to teach people how to think rationally, and how to search for truth, and how to apply a sense of humanity to knowledge, the single most important area for reform is our so-called news providers. Because even with poor basic education, people could soon begin to properly understand the world as they grow into adulthood if the world was always being properly explained to them by a thoroughly reliable public information service.

The great journalist John Pilger recalled the words of American journalist TD Allman who once said,

Genuinely objective journalism’ is that which ‘not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. Objective journalism is compelling not only today. It stands the test of time. It is validated not only by “reliable sources” but by the unfolding of history. It is reporting that which not only seems right the day it is published. It is journalism that ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.  (My emphasis).1

That says it all in a nutshell. Those words should be the guiding principle of a new public information service, and engraved on the hearts of everyone who works there – but perhaps add the word “humane” to the type of mirror we use.

During a recent BBC “news” bulletin the presenter was talking to a couple of politicians about Brexit. He asked one of them if he thought that voters had properly understood the issues involved before they voted. The politician waffled and never answered the question. The answer was, of course, no they didn’t, and still don’t.

A couple of days later, the same BBC newsreader said the programme would be discussing the subject of “fake news”, and asking whether viewers would recognise fake news if they saw it. The answer once again is, in the main, no they wouldn’t. The question was related to the supposed influence of the Russian government in the election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit result. The “news” item focussed on information obtained mainly through social media – especially twitter feeds – and never went anywhere near the far more important role of mainstream news providers. It was actually a little gem of fake news in its own right.

Although the misinformation and outright lies of most of the mainstream media are frequently infuriating to endure, I wouldn’t support any move to silence them – because we don’t need to. What we do need is a properly-funded, properly effective public information service.

  1. Hidden Agendas, John Pilger, p. 525. []

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out John’s books: Fiction: The Road to Emily Bay; Non Fiction: The School of Kindness and
The People’s Constitution.

Read other articles by John.