The ancients believed that naming a demon would rob it of its power. The same might be true today after the custodians of the Oxford English Dictionary decided to make ‘post-truth’ their word of 2016. We can now say that we live in a post ‘post-truth’ world and that we are immune to the powers that sought to undermine our capacity for reason and deduction. This year we overdosed on fake news but at least we can look forward to 2017 when we get deep and dirty with facts. Our New Year diet will consist of dried statistics topped with some wholesome analysis that’s good for the gut.
Yet before we embrace our new healthy Fact-Plan diet, we should perhaps begin by recognising all of our sins of the past year. The onus of those of us who believe in some objective reality — let’s carry on calling it ‘the truth’ — is to find ways to make it more appealing than this very modern supernaturalism that has taken hold. Donald Trump has risen to power on something not dissimilar to a shamanistic talent for magic phrases that send his followers into a frenzy. Here in the UK, Brexit was a spell promising something that was poorly defined. That wave of the magic wand was meant to ‘make Britain great again’. We should also not forget Michael Gove’s words uttered in the referendum campaign: ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’ It was a low point, coming, as it did, from a former minister of education, yet it was also prophetic of the great tide of ‘common sense’ and ‘plain speaking’ that was about to engulf the world.
The fight back has to begin with the mainstream news media who are struggled to survive in a landscape of ‘bias reporting’ in which reporters give their readers what they want to read rather than some ‘impartial’ view of reality. So much of our current predicament begins with this problem of ‘news’ and what the mainstream considers ‘impartial’. Back in September last year, long before Trump began to look like a viable candidate for the Republican nomination, I warned that the media’s coverage was too insular and cut off from the reality of everyday America:
The cartoon candidate has resulted in a cartoonish editorialising, in which his outlandish character is made to appear even more outlandish, cartoonish, and even, dare I say, wickedly watchable. Not only is this poor journalism but I think it’s also self defeating. Stripped of nuance, Trump is becoming iconic, a symbol of something that is as profoundly stupid as it is also deeply seductive. This combination of reducing him to a comic creation whilst at the same time failing to seriously draw him out about his policies is a dangerous one. To the liberal, well-educated and affluent elite who form opinion, Trump is a joke. I’m not quite so sure the broader electorate will see it with the same eyes.
So it proved. The media went absent without leave and Trump was rarely tested in what was a long campaign. It was Chris Wallace in the presidential debate hosted by Fox News in March who came closest to challenging Trump, presenting him with hard evidence in the form of slides and statistics. Not that it made much difference. Trump’s appeal is grounded in a much more structural failure of the press. People who felt like they’d been without a voice put their faith in a man with little more than a very loud voice.
What has been startling about the past year is how readily people have been willing to dismiss establishment opinion in favour of some great unknowns. The reasons are complex but, at some point, come down to the disconnect between the experiences of people and the experiences being fed back to them by sections of that establishment. Post-truth is really about people affirming their own subjectivity. It is, arguably, pro-reason and pro-empiricism. It’s just that both have been brought back into the first person. ‘I have seen’ has replaced ‘I saw it on the news’ as the primary mode by which people express their beliefs.
Doubts about the validity of the news and how well it reflects the state of the nation come at a time when the news has also become part of a wider culture of entertainment. Channels that were once committed to good reporting are increasingly aware of advertising revenue and, therefore, viewing figures. Hard news has give way to soft news which has given way to celebrity news. Add the influence of social media and we now have a quite startling situation in which an American TV star will be President of the United States, while here in the UK a former Shadow Chancellor is dancing Gangnam Style on BBC1.
As CNN President Jeff Zucker admitted this past week, ‘If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of [Trump’s] campaign rallies in those early months and let them run’. More to the point is that the media companies never had reason to draw the poison from the debate. Rarely did the media try to explain why Trump attracted such large crowds and why Hillary Clinton attracted relatively few. There were far too many ugly truths that were simply too ugly for the media to voice. Instead journalists got drawn in the circus of love and hate, warped emotions, and the cult of personality. This was also the culmination of, perhaps, two decades in which the news media have carefully moderated the stories they report. Evidence has been ignored as messages have been shaped to an idealisation of modern, tolerant, and liberal values. Too many journalists were simply incapable of realising that the misogyny they attributed to Trump was actually connecting with sections of the electorate. How little they knew about (or wished to acknowledge) the real America…
This is the realisation that we should take from the past year: that superstitions come in different forms. ‘Making America great again’ and ‘Taking our country back’ are just two the most potent from 2016, predicated as they are on some poorly defined notion of nation. Yet the mainstream media should look and recognise their own. Primarily among them is the superstition that has grown up around the immigration debate. Both Trump’s election and the Brexit vote were votes for reality as it is perceived over the reality as it has been reported. They were both, in part, responses to the problems of multiculturalism that have so rarely been addressed sensibly in the mainstream. Since the nineties, each representative of the Labour Party accusing a Tory of racism in a TV debate raised the value of UKIP’s currency. Every protest march demanding censorship and the vilification of, for example, Jeremy Clarkson, gave strength to the alt-right. Nigel Farage could step forward and claim to say what everybody was thinking because the media had spent too long silencing that kind of voice. The best way to rid ourselves of the fear of the dark is to shine a light on those fears and this is nowhere more true than in the news media. The self-imposed taboo the news media made of immigration led to their inadequate reporting of the segregation of communities in places like Bradford, Rochdale, and Oldham. It is understandable why the news has rarely tried to place the predatory sexual abuse going on in these communities in the proper cultural context. Yet fearful of escalating tensions, the media reticence has done little but help escalate tensions.
This does, admittedly, shift the responsibility back to the media ‘elite’ as it also mitigates the excesses of ‘bias journalism’ found in places such as the Breitbart News Network and The Daily Mail. Bias journalism isn’t simply journalism that tells people what they want to hear. It is more complex than simple pandering to an audience. It is journalism that self-consciously addresses some reality beyond that described by the mainstream. Instead of being shocked by the rise of Trump or, perhaps, the tone of the Brexit debate, we need to look at the tone of our liberal media and realise that it has been censoring itself for too long and that censorship has not gone unnoticed by audiences.
The disenfranchisement of Trump supporters, as well as many who voted for Brexit, began the moment the media stopped reflecting the reality as understood by many people. That is a fundamental failure of journalism, whose business should be the reporting the truth, no matter how inconvenient, ugly, or uncomfortable that truth happens to be. Every time the news story runs counter to a person’s experience of the world, that person grows less confident in the news and they begin to look elsewhere, for reports that more closely resemble their experiences. It is time that we recognized that every self-satisfied cry of ‘Islamaphobia’, ‘racism’, or ‘sexism’ deepens the very same prejudice that each of those words is meant to expose.