by Ken Mapley Ken spent his career in the IT industry, initially in the technology of secure distributed banking systems and later as a consultant in policing and other Government projects. His interests are in surveillance, propaganda, the public understanding of science and the use and abuse of IT, including the rise of artificial intelligence "and the parallel rise of artificial stupidity". He has held a number of local officer positions in the Labour Party. He lives in Sheffield.
In recent years I have been an active member of the Labour Party. Although I was already aware of the problem of misrepresentation, this party-political experience has provided me with an inside view of the distortions, half-truths and lies which form a major part of contemporary political discourse. Keir Starmer has broken my long attachment to the party, so I am now more interested in combatting the problem through organisations like CAMPAIN than in getting someone with a particular colour of rosette into Downing Street.
CAMPAIN was formed to fight back against the growth of misrepresentation in the UK media, particularly the mainstream media. Surely everyone would support that objective. Who could possibly not? Well, unfortunately, the current government doesn’t support it because its allies in the media helped it into power by systematically misrepresenting its opponents. Neither does the official opposition support it, as it is now running a very similar campaign, with the help of the media, to discredit its former leader and his supporters. More obviously, the media itself doesn’t support it, because misrepresentation is their side of the bargain in pacts with politicians and others. The combination of Government, official opposition and the media is a formidable coalition.
The CAMPAIN website already features many examples of misrepresentation, so in this article I shall briefly summarise the problem and go on to say why we should address it, and not simply treat it as something with which we must live.
The problem of misrepresentation and its history
We have seen the growth of misrepresentation in recent decades. A significant step down came with the introduction of professionally cynical campaigning by Margaret Thatcher via Saatchi and Saatchi in time for the 1979 general election. Political parties are now sold as a product with both their own unique selling propositions and their targeted attacks on their opponents reduced to simple phrases which are relentlessly reinforced by the media until the electorate can recite them (and frequently do). It is difficult to be precise on timing but certainly before this date it was reasonable to talk about the “Quality Press” which at the time included The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. A key principle was to separate news and comment. News was news, facts were sacred and comment was reserved for editorials and opinion. This distinction has been greatly blurred. Propaganda stemming from the title’s political alignment permeates entire publications including news, lifestyle, entertainment and even book reviews. This was evident when the right-wing press simply ignored Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth which catalogued Boris Johnson’s lies in the run-up to the 2019 election, and when the entire mainstream media ignored Bad News for Labour where five accomplished academics (two of them Jewish) demolished its own narrative about rampant anti-Semitism in the Labour Party The same applies to online, audio and visual media.
There is now less variation among media outlets. In particular, the Guardian, which until recently has frequently been a campaigning or dissenting voice, appears to have been intimidated into line during the last decade, possibly because of its cooperation with Edward Snowden, as explained in this article. Thus, more than ever before, the entire media can take a solidly consistent line on some specific issue and dismiss any alternative view as a conspiracy theory.
Misrepresentation falls mainly into the following categories:
For political advantage, with the intention of influencing elections or influencing public opinion with regards to forthcoming legislation or executive action such as the invasion of a foreign country.
As an extension to corporate lobbying for commercial advantage. Examples are the rear-guard actions fought by the tobacco lobby and the fossil fuel industries.
For pure mischief, to increase media sales and advertising revenue by unethical journalism. An example which stuck in my mind is Ben Goldacre’s description of the MMR Vaccine controversy in his book ‘Bad Science’. As a doctor himself, he identifies the faulty reasoning of the medics involved. However, he reserves his strongest words of criticism for the media which fanned the flames purely for a good story. See here for a summary.
Misrepresentation can also be separately classified as deliberate or accidental. The motive for the examples above is primarily deliberate. However, another significant change in journalism over the last few decades was driven by its increasing commercialisation and focus on profit. Journalists are time-pressured and have less time to consult actual sources or verify a story. There was increased reliance on easy stories such as those supplied by feeds from the Press Association and other agencies. Many of these are likely to have had their origin in corporate or government PR which has greatly expanded over this same period. These feeds are republished in multiple media outlets with little or no checking or rewriting. This enables determined deliberate propagandists to create a narrative on a topic which is then amplified by accidental propagandists looking for an easy life.
The peak of success is when the narrative about a subject is spread widely and taken up into jokes and popular culture. When this has been achieved, journalists find it easier to remain consistent with an established narrative than to put effort into researching its veracity. Contradicting the narrative is hard work and may get you into trouble. Thus, the media is vulnerable to manipulation by propagandists who feed misinformation into the system and let it run. It does not require a conspiracy of journalists to create this situation.
It is rare to find a senior journalist willing to expose what is wrong with the industry, but Nick Davies did just that in his book Flat Earth News (2009). The book is sprawling and imperfect but he provided a comprehensive description of how and why misrepresentation proliferates so easily. It is a particularly good read for anyone who realises that there is widespread misinformation but does not understand the length and breadth of the problem. He catalogued how newspaper owners have determined election results, how western security services compromise journalistic integrity and feed disinformation into the system, how journalistic truth can utterly disintegrate during a war and much more. In a particularly striking statement on page 227, he notes that The Guardian in 1991 reported that the corrupt bank BCCI had been used by the CIA to make payments to hundreds of people including ninety British journalists.
Deliberate propagandists have a wide range of tools at their disposal including relentless repetition, omission, unrepresentative examples, misuse of statistics, selective outrage and, where they can get away with it, simply lying. The perpetrators are not being held to account but, instead, the senior journalists who facilitate this are rewarded with secure careers and good salaries. Lone voices like Peter Oborne can easily be ignored and denied a mainstream platform.
Why is it a problem?
Misrepresentation is self-evidently a bad thing (except for those whom it benefits) but I would now like to focus on the damage it does.
It is a threat to democracy
Most obviously, it subverts our democracy. To a very large extent, the policies of the various political parties reach the electorate via the media. Most people aren’t particularly interested in politics but absorb carefully targeted pieces of misinformation along with the sports, gossip, celebs, scandals, lifestyle advice or whatever else they do want to hear about. Thus, we do not have an equitably informed electorate and our whole system of government is vulnerable to the arts of the propagandist. Given our first-past-the-post voting system, you don’t need to influence many people to sway the result. This is worth millions in free advertising and those parties which do not have this influence are disadvantaged by the process.
There are further effects, less talked about, resulting from the intense negative campaigning we have seen recently. One is that the politicians targeted need superhuman powers of resilience just to keep functioning and this limits the list of candidates willing to put themselves through the ordeal. Another is that potential supporters and campaigners are so intimidated by hostile reactions induced by propaganda that they find it easier to keep quiet.
It is contrary to a major principle of education
Schools and universities teach the principle of conclusions being based on evidence. This is of primary importance in science and is also very important in any discipline which aims to discover the facts of some matter. Propagandists work differently. They decide what conclusion they would like consumers to draw and use their techniques to make this happen. Anecdotes and quotes to support their conclusion are provided while those that are contrary are not. This is the opposite of how a good honest investigator works.
It debases language
The language of propaganda is designed to create a desired impression by any means possible. Quotes from the victim are distorted or taken out of context. Nuance, irony and humour are filtered out of quotes when it suits the propagandist’s purpose of placing the worst possible interpretation on what has been said. Quotes helpful to the propagandist may be attributed to unidentified ‘sources’, ‘senior sources’ or ‘insiders’. Sometimes there are no sources and ‘it is understood that’ suffices. Unidentified sources have a legitimate place in journalism but can also be exploited to support whatever narrative is intended. Similarly, phrases like ‘in the wake of’ or ‘amid accusations of’ are used to draw spurious causal connections between events. It ends up creating a special media language of deception and media consumers seem to have accepted this as normal.
It is a threat to mental health
Misrepresentation creates a spectrum of victims, all of who suffer. There are ordinary people who accidentally come into the public eye, often through some tragedy. Their lives can be ruined by the intrusions of the media, as the phone hacking scandal has shown. It is difficult to cope with unfair allegations, private details and mockery all over the front pages. Existing public figures are similarly vulnerable. Politicians on the wrong side of media influence are relentlessly targeted in this way. Historical statements are scanned for anything which can possibly be misinterpreted. Victims are then likely to be attacked online by trolls - professional or amateur - or even physically targeted or threatened. Propagandists of any type rarely care if they destroy someone psychologically or economically. There are also groups attacked by the media such as refugees from the wrong place, immigrants as a whole and followers of non-mainstream political parties. All these victims can end up in a state of paranoia and self-doubt which is not conducive to wellbeing.
It is messing with peoples’ reality
What is reality? Other than their limited direct experience, most peoples’ understanding of the world further afield is delivered by the media directly or via friends and relatives absorbing media messages and passing them on. The media decides what is important enough to talk about and provides a narrative on these events, including an interpretation of right and wrong. Some countries (generally our military allies) are deemed good, regardless of how badly they behave. Unapproved countries are bad or a joke or led by a madman. Objective standards of judgement often fall by the wayside. The same applies to the presentation of organisations and prominent individuals.
It sours public discourse and breeds cynicism
A teenager might contemplate all this and despair at the world into which they are growing up. Misrepresentation works in opposition to the virtues of fair play, honesty and justice and amounts to organised bullying approved at the highest level. They may also reasonably ask “If they are fooling us about this, what else are they fooling us about?”. This breeds cynicism and disengagement. Indeed, a very recent report shows confidence in democracy in this country declining over the last few decades especially among young adults.
What is to be done?
One approach would be to try to educate the public to see through the misrepresentation. The obvious organisation to provide this education is the BBC. It has nationwide, multi-demographic reach, encompassing TV, radio and online, and its mission is to inform, educate and entertain. The BBC does run features about ‘fake news’ but they tend to go for the easy targets such as misinformation on coronavirus and videos spread by Russians. They point out deceptions by our own politicians only when it suits their purpose. The BBC is part of the current media consensus and is unlikely to rock the boat.
Is there any hope for schools providing this education? Schools do make some attempt to teach critical thinking. Should there be lessons in which the class considers an article from the Daily Mail or the Guardian or the BBC and analyse to what extent it is propaganda? How would that go down at the DfE? Badly I suspect. And as it tends to be older people who have the most entrenched opinions, this approach would give us a fifty-year lead time on solving the problem.
So how to stop this happening?
One approach is to start alternative ethical publications and hope the public migrate gratefully towards them. It’s definitely worth a try. Independent, mainly web-based, publications like Open Democracy, DoubleDown News and Byline Times keep springing up and employ some excellent journalists. CAMPAIN frequently quotes them, though noting certain of them yielding to pressures to conform to the mainstream line on matters concerning Israel and Palestine.
Another is to raise awareness of the problem and oppose misrepresentation on principle, regardless of the topic, regardless of who is being targeted and appealing to people’s sense of fair play.
I hope this works. That’s what we are doing in CAMPAIN.
So, am I optimistic? Nick Davies wasn’t. He ended his book by quoting the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer who said, over a hundred years ago, that: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself”. Maybe it’s even worse than I thought.
Anyway, I’ve had enough with the status quo and I’m taking a small step by supporting CAMPAIN in any way I can. If you feel the same please join us.
And please add your comments below