I was just watching Sunday’s The Big Questions, available on BBC iPlayer, a discussion of fake news and whether the internet should be regulated.
First off I want to stress that there is fake news out there and the internet is responsible for some of it. So what?
The key argument from Dan Brooke from Channel 4 was that since they were regulated, why shouldn’t everyone be constrained? Well, my first thought was that even with regulation they manage to spout a lot of fiction during news slots. They manage the news by inserting a lot of opinion sections, and selectively interviewing the public. They prune the facts with an intent to deceive, even if they claim a lack of time as an excuse. That’s if they’re not just unashamedly putting out falsehoods. How many times have the news outlets interviewed someone about climate change and made no reference to their background if they push the warming message, yet done everything bar put up a flashing red sign to warn when someone isn’t part of the consensus? The BBC might have been mildly rebuked for Emma Thompson’s drivel on Newsnight but it certainly wasn’t punished for it. I then realised how very much they drive fake news but that they have a far more insidious way of invading people’s minds.
Just before the 3 month political purdah for the last UK election the BBC ran a drama called A Casual Vacancy, adapted from a J K Rowling novel where the author made a thinly veiled attack on the Conservatives. At roughly the same time Channel 4 aired a mockumentary called UKIP: The First 100 days, where few efforts were spared to outline what a disaster it would be if they won the election and what a monstrous lot UKIP MPs would be. Whether you agree with those views of the political parties or not, they were created with all the skills of the drama departments to simulate reality. How can that not be an attempt to influence? However, reality turned out to be stranger than fiction and you can now see the media treating a new victim to the same political manipulation but this time the target Jeremy Corbyn is from the left. I may not like the man or his policies but I’m aware that there are media forces working to get rid of him with all the tools at their disposal. Brexit is also being fictionalised in a multitude of ‘what if’s but if we compare the pre-Brexit predictions with reality, who could be accused of making fake news?
The other part of the discussion was about online abuse, and my first thought was ‘yes, that should be regulated’ but then I realised that the TV is where that abuse was born. Where did we all learn to be so aggressive and rude, especially when we’re behind the barrier of a screen or window? I’ll be honest, I swear like a docker. The main place that has come from has been the TV, with a much milder influence from printed fiction. Ironically, the internet is slowly weaning me off my foul language. I’ve probably lived a sheltered life but I’ve never seen serious adult physical violence in real life and yet on the TV, I can see rapes, murders and any number of atrocities on a daily basis, not to mention photographs and video of real events I would not naturally experience. I hear swearing and vitriol, the like of which I rarely come across in the internet venues I frequent. Yes, I’m sure I could find much worse than anything on TV somewhere on the internet but I’d have to go looking.
It’s TV that has systematically driven the appetite for violence. TV that then has argued against the proper regulation of itself and violent computer games, an area that like TV can completely engage a person in what it portrays. It’s euphemistically called ‘pushing the boundaries’. TV dramas and films regularly encourage people to empathise with violent individuals and groups. They paint them as anti-heroes and our allies.
During the programme they brought up death threats by the public. Unacceptable we’d all agree, but what could be more personal than an acclaimed author publicly fantasising about the assassination of someone the author hates, especially as it was based on true events? In December 2014 BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime aired a short story by Hilary Mantel where the author imagined the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. It is as fake and as biased as it’s possible to get, the only escape clause is that it is fiction and not news. In addition, the story was on the short list for the BBC’s 2015 Short Story Competition, which, although it didn’t win, was bounced around for a new burst of ‘news’. Was it OK because Mrs T was already dead? Was it OK because she was once the elected PM? Or was it OK because the BBC hated Mrs Thatcher too?
The TV media gets away with massive amounts of political influence by calling it opinion or comedy or drama. It imitates politicians, and attributes words and actions to them that are 100% fake. They generate fake news all the time and even hope that people will be influenced by it. I’m convinced that Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote were partly as a result of a backlash against the traditional media’s refusal to positively portray any opinion other than their own. If Brexiteers, Trump and his supporters are deplorable – well, we’ll be deplorable with knobs on.
TV is full of fake news, violence and personal abuse, and it expects to continue supplying it with hardly any restraint. It is a testament to the public that we’re not a massively violent and abusive society. It seems that we are pretty good at separating fact from fiction after all, no matter how it is presented or by whom. The dismay from any of those complaining about fake news is that it doesn’t fit their views. We’ve always been in a post-truth world but now we’re a consumer-driven, rather than supplier-driven, fake-news world. That sounds like an improvement to me, even if the traditional media like to sneeringly call it ‘populism’.