Press credibility

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I recently rediscovered a book I’d forgotten I’d read back in 2009, Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies. It’s very relevant to my current interest in the propaganda-world in which we now seem to live, and move, and have our being.

Davies, a seasoned journalist mainly on the Guardian, exposed devastatingly the decline in the effectiveness of the press as a force for speaking truth to power, or even for speaking truth at all. Writing before the dramatic rise of social media and what we now call “fake news” (whatever different individuals may mean by that), his thesis is a rather seedier explanation of press failure than any kind of scurrilous political conspiracy.

Rather, the kind of things he explores are the takeover of the ownership of traditional news media by monopolists primarily interested in profit, their political interference being more about what will gain them benefits in money and power from politicians, rather than, like the previous owners, what will further their own political ideology.

Accordingly, costs were cut (that’s even worse now, of course, as the internet’s independent operators have eaten into the mainstream media’s market share), staff were fired, and newspapers and their online versions became increasingly beholden to recycled and embellished partisan press releases from governments, NGOs, PR companies, and the big news agencies, for their stories. Since the news agencies have also been cash-strapped, their stories, fed to every actual news outlet from your local paper (owned by a conglomerate somewhere) to the international broadcasters, are similarly limited in their actual investigative, or original, journalistic content. Mostly they are not even fact-checked.

Davies also describes the dirty tricks of editors to increase circulation, still continuing because of the toothlessness of regulatory bodies, despite the exposure of illegal surveillance of “persons of interest” and even blatant lying. Editors know that whether they’re inventing a celebrity’s scandalous relationship, or falsely implicating some innocent civilian in murder, at most they’ll be printing a small back-page correction months later, long after lives and reputations are ruined. But if it turns a profit, there’s no problem for them.

A decade on, I suspect there are other factors in press corruption than those Davies mentions. Whistleblowers (real ones, I mean) like Edward Snowden have lifted the lid on state mass surveillance, and senior intelligence officers lied under oath to the US Congress to deny what was later partially admitted, was weakly legislated against, and in practice cannot be controlled because of state secrecy. Snowden is in exile, rather than being given a medal. Katharine Gun only avoided prosecution because it would have revealed the UK Attorney General’s advice that the Gulf War was illegal.

Even back in the 1950s, the western press was used to convey state intelligence propaganda to control the beliefs of ordinary people in the Cold War, and that process now shows every sign of having become pervasive and overt political manipulation. Whether that’s due to the State, a Deep State, or just to Davies’s government and NGO press offices, it produces a press uniformity that is stunning in its international nature.

Today’s example, to avoid anything too overtly political, is the present salacious Royalty scandal – Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein. I’m as much of a Royalist as the average Brit, having been born the week that Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. I’ve never met a Royal, though my brother received an award from Prince Charles and even “shook the royal glove” when he met the Queen.

But Prince Andrew’s troubles are certainly of his own making, whether he is innocent or guilty of debauching young girls: we do need to remember that guilt in such matters ought to come from disproving presumed innocence in a court, not from the public’s feelings about a TV interview. It’s certainly a legitimate story for the press to cover, though.

But the issue is how they cover it, on both sides of the Atlantic, since by rights you’d expect the angles to be somewhat different in the different countries, and even the different news outlets, and yet they are not. Just a week or two ago, in the US, Project Veritas disclosed video of an ABC news anchor complaining that her team had had full information on the Epstein case, Prience Andrew and all, years ago, but that it had been blocked from appearing. Even after this disclosure, not only did ABC not present their findings posthumously, but the video was barely, if at all, mentioned on other networks. No public interest? Tosh!

Now, the current coverage in the American press seems to be, in essence, that Epstein was a paedophile who (good riddance) committed suicide while awaiting trial, and that Andrew has a lot of explaining to do about his relationship to him, especially in the light of the allegations of victims.

But to me that rather conveniently focuses all the current attention on a “foreign celebrity,” and better still on a British Royal descended from George III. This angle could happily hog the entire Epstein case as the media discuss whether the Prince will testify anywhere to anybody, get away with criminal activity or not (who is going to attempt to extradite an English Prince?), or even simply lose his reputation.

But that isn’t the real heart of the Epstein case at all. Notorious paedophile he may have been, but where he differs from our notorious paedophile, Jimmy Savile, is that for the most part the Establishment evil over Savile was to cover for his individual perversion, because he was “talent” highly marketable both as a celebrity and as a charity saint. In contrast, Epstein seems to have made his money largely by setting up high-spec illicit sex for the rich and powerful, and then blackmailing them with the videos he made. The victims who have come forward implicate many others besides Andrew, so who is interviewing them on TV?

Epstein’s “suicide” is highly controversial, “…and Epstein didn’t kill himself” has even become a meme. If there were powerful figures involved in his death, it would certainly be both in their interest and in their power to minimise the press’s attention on them, and to stress instead Epstein’s personal abuses. Even better, it would be advantageous to direct attention outside America altogether, to the complicity of a close friend over in that quaint and overprivileged British Royal Family. It’s safe for the US press to implicate Prince Andrew – less so, Bill Clinton. Scapegoats are always useful to the guilty, yes?

That’s how I read it anyway. But the really depressing thing is that exactly the same spin is being given to the story over here (where, but for the royal connection, interest in Epstein would obviously be minor). We have extensive coverage of all the fallout from the Prince’s disastrous TV interview, but as context, all the BBC or the papers gives us is that Epstein was a convicted paedophile, who committed suicide (no ifs or buts) in jail. There is no mention of the other rich and powerful associates, except to say that Andrew’s excuse, that he liked Epstein because through him he met many interesting people, is weak, given that as a Royal he could meet people anyway.

A properly journalistic press would be asking exactly which interesting people he met, and when, and where, and what they did. In Britain, that investigation would be to the advantage both of royalist journalists, who could spread the blame back to the influence of those randy Americans, and republican writers, who could slag off the Royal Family even more by implicating it in an élite sex ring.

Instead, Britain’s press has followed the banal narrative of the American press, on what at this stage ought to be a British story. And that narrative seems to be calculated as a damage limitation exercise on a major American scandal at he highest levels. It makes our infamous Profumo Affair of the 1960s appear like a minor peccadillo in comparison, both in who was involved, and the evil of what they did.

My conclusion: the people who understand most about the world nowadays are probably those who never pick up a newspaper or watch a news bulletin. The more you follow the news, the less you know. That conclusion would be consistent with Jacques Ellul’s observation that those most susceptible to propaganda are the “well-educated,” because they are the ones most exposed to the message.

Well, check out where all the insanely “woke” people are – you won’t find them in the factories or building your extension, but you may well among the journalistic studies graduates in the offices of the Independent.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Press credibility

  1. Robert Byers says:

    As a conservative I wELCOME the demise of the North american liberal big press. YEAHHHHHHH. hope for more.
    They never were about truth but about left wing agendas and minor truth things if at all.
    i don’t know the stats but understand the 18-55 types reads the press less.
    In diversity one gets OTHER opinions. that heklps truth. having a few media giants was the dumbest idea ever.
    the modern press rewarded upper class unrepresentive types to tell the people the TRUTH and make cases as lawyers. they were evil and i don’t use that word lightly at all.
    I hate the big press. surely the lords hand is in this. A pox on all of them.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      It seems to me…

      …that the current press is just one aspect of the phenomenon that grew over the whole 20th century, ie what I call the “propaganda society,” from commercial PR to state “mind control,” all employing the tools of mass psychology and so on.

      Once “getting your message across” becomes more important than the truth of the message, it takes over commerce, education, politics – and eventually even science and religion.

      The fact the that the New Testament deals quite a bit with increasing deception is reassuring – but only in the sense that it explains why untruth is so prevalent. As I’ve said elsewhere, even when people in Soviet Russia knew half of what they were told was lies, they had no way of knowing which half.

      For the Christian-in-the-pew, I think it is more important to know that they are being lied to than exactly how. The churches’ focus should be on inculcating a far deeper immersion in biblical teaching, which (Scripture itself implies) is the antidote to deception. That was the pattern in the New Testament if you look carefully, in the midst of both pagan and Jewish alternative worldviews.

      It was also the historical answer at times of crisis like those of St Benedict, or the Reformation.

      That, anyway, is the thesis of the book I’ve just finished, which no Christians seem to be that interested in endorsing!

  2. Ben says:

    I admit to an intuition that people ‘losing faith in the media’ is probably actually a good thing. In any case, it seems to me that all this hand-flapping about automatically detecting fake news, or restoring confidence in the media is too little, too late. The genie is out of the bottle.

    They already taught us at school that you “shouldn’t believe everything you read”. The present is just that on steroids.

    The interesting discussion for me is: what does a democracy look like when people stop believing everything they read, or – as you say – they don’t know which half is true? Is democracy even possible in these circumstances? Lots of people would probably say no: a ‘free’ press is a sine qua non of a functioning democracy. Maybe so, I don’t know.

    I think individually there would be a lot to gain from reducing our horizons down to people we actually know, and things we can actually do something about. We spend far too much effort and interest on things over which we have near-zero influence. (c.f. Screwtape Letters). Maybe as a society it would be good as well, though I’m not sure what it would look like. Far more decentralisation?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Much truth there, Ben, especially on the virtues of decentralisation. That’s one reason my emphasis for the Christian response centres on the local church: even in denominations that don’t themselves become part of the problem, it’s the comunity of truth-livers that affects other people for good.

      At the political level, the problem seems to me that the forces of deception (of all kinds) are for that very reason intent on centralisation at a global level: totalitarian governments target the “little platoons” first – the churches, the scout groups, the book clubs. Hence we see the Chinese government intent on putting all its Uighur Muslims in indoctrination camps because they speak differently, think differently and don’t comply with the central party line.

      When antichrist comes, according to the New Testament, it will be to gather the nations against the truth – a highly centralising strategy. Globalism benefits the ideologues, the power-hungry and the monopolists. If it were only a matter of resources, they’d hold all the cards. Fortunately, even at the human level, power isn’t everything because, at some stage, people refuse to submit.

      Practically speaking, though, it’s a struggle for real democracy to exist in a propaganda state. In the 1920s, the same US banks that were financing the Bolshevik revolution (*and* the White and Green armies opposing it) also set up a “grassroots” (we’d call it an “astroturf” now) organisation of concerned citizens fighting fictional Communist infiltration at home. Central power is pretty adept at manipulating democratic institutions to provide the illusion of choice.

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