A man walks into a grocery store picks up some food and walks out. The owner screams “Oy! You haven’t paid for that!. Yes I have says the man.
A woman walks to the door of a new neighbour. The neighbour opens the door. She walks in makes her way to the fridge opens it, finds some milk and biscuits and then plumps herself in the lounge to watch the TV. Incredulously the neighbours watch. “Excuse me”, they say. “Yeah what’s the problem? This is my house, or at least it will be soon”.
A politician stands in front of ruins. He wants to make a point about the damage caused by rioters, except he can’t find the owner of the shop, so he lines up a previous owner to pretend it’s his shop before… cue how devastated he is.
Nothing wrong here. Move on.
In my journalism career, I have had the pleasure of countless experiences dealing directly with politicians, from BBC Newsnight in the early 90s, to being a Political producer for Channel 4 and through Chatham House, where I’ve been a member for 25 years. Often, now, like you perhaps, I can but shake my head.
This alt reality — a crass disturbing exercise four years into incubation, borrowed from propagandists, philosophers and historical nationalists — has reshaped perceptions of what’s real and what isn’t. Hypernormalisation.
For a definition here’s Adam Curtis, the multiple award winning British documentary maker
The first two examples above, I’ve plucked from my head, yet I can’t be certain that it isn’t happening today. The last one happened a few days ago from 45. If lying and distorting truth is acceptable for the ruling elite, why shouldn’t it be for the masses? This makes the two examples ripe for reality.
The attempt by politicians to upend truth to the point where humanity e.g. accepted principles in functioning democracy corrode should concern everyone, yet it seemingly doesn’t.
It’s not the first time. The playbook has dog ears. You can find the worst in humans by supporting their irrationalism. Two hundred years ago David Hume acknowledged when reason and emotion meet, emotion wins.
It’s the reason a coal miner in rural Pennsylvania is exercised with terrorist attacks, more so than he might about medicare explained in a more nuanced way in the Political Brain by Drew Western.
But that doesn’t deny the cogency of people’s rational behaviour also has consequences.
Millions supported a man living in the mountains of Obersalzberg, claiming he had the economic solution to their woes, as he promulgated a world war and unspeakable atrocities.
Politics is about winning, but in advanced democracies there was decency in disliking your opponent, just as a football team pays respect afterwards.
It’s still possible to be a McCain and affirm politely to a town hall questioner when presented with an alt reality about Obama, “No Maam. No maam. He is a decent man who I happen to have disagreements with..”
Or not many years ago, British PM Tony Blair clashed frequently with Tory Leader David Cameron at the commons, but listen here from 1.51" when the reporter makes the point that despite this Cameron was civil, even you might, er, think, gracious.
But that doesn’t matter any more. There are a myriad reasons for this all interconnected in some way, developed over the years, history long forgotten.
But the consequences are today’s politicians don’t care. Not all, but a significant number to tilt perception. It doesn’t matter that you rail against, insult, demonise people, because the people you truly care about will benefit.
They’ll love your wheels-off-approach. Their own indiscipline is validated. Anyone who doesn’t like it can take a run and jump elsewhere. Political expert Prof. Timothy Snyder tells us today’s politics isn’t about serving the whole of the people you govern any more than a CEO only cares about the bottom line and health of his own employees and company. Politics is strictly helping those who serve you. Question is should it be?
You could list example after example. If the truth, and rule of law about what’s right and wrong no longer matter, then The Purge film is nearing its alt reality into reality.
Take this encounter in the UK this morning. The UK is seeking a new trade envoy. It appears to have chosen former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Is this a good thing, the journalist is getting to?
It caught the attention of Jay Rosen, who perhaps makes the point which partly covers this piece.
The logic is clear as it sparked twitter memes trending. You could be a peadophile but if you’re good with children’s charity, what’s the problem? You could be repugnant, but that doesn’t matter if your skills as a negotiator are in demand. Politicians simply don’t care. They could face award winning journalists, the worse that could happen is a twitter trend. That’s it! Move on; next story.
Values no longer matter at the highest levels that set an example for others to follow. And the most alarming, but also nothing burger thing is the press no longer appears to matter. What’s a few squirmish moments looking uncomfortable, answering that pressing question before its over. Because it will be over in a couple of minutes.
Politicians will go on to to do as they please.
Journalists were supposed to be the estate that checked on any outrageous conduct of politicians, the rich, people who had something malevolent and of public interest to hide.
And yes, who am I to critique the industry? I rightly acknowledge the big beasts of investigative and news journalism that have existed and practice at present.
The general problem is two fold, coupled with the need for journalism to make money. They journalists are either bereft of ideas. If journalism is about reporting, how do you square what you do without amplifying the propagandists message?
The second is to masquerade under the values of journalism, but promote propaganda. Journalism by dint of its short comings, has managed to unwittingly or otherwise relay to a populace that journalism is less about evidence and more about opinions.
This shift has created part of the crisis we’re in. Either journalists don’t know or in the latter they care not for evidence. This is a merry go round of transactional information. You pat my back and I’ll pat yours. All grist to the viewers’ elbow.
Lacking knowledge of the stakes is akin to a one sided battle. Attempts at news is what Nick Davies, former Guardian journalist, called Churnalism. It’s just information of a PR kind. Because when skilled psychologists and propagandist come together against journalism, under news journalism’s current training it loses.
Remember earlier this month a reporter asked the president if he regretted lying.
It was the follow up that equally interested me. Seemingly unruffled, the president moved on to another reporter assured that the moment of discomfiture was about to be relieved. Sure enough it was. New question.
Imagine being in a court room being represented by your lawyer. She puts to the witness your claims. The witness avoids it. What does she do? She presses.
In that court room there is no greater question that needs a response than if the witness is telling the truth. In that press conference and the kerzillions relatively few questions matter more than variations on asking a question about truth and lying. Because as your barrister says in court, if we can’t trust you to tell the truth now, when can we trust you at all?
The purposeful propaganda by journalists is more difficult to correct, but it again involves squaring what values mean from within the industry. There are still companies that baulk at the idea of being associated with bad news makers — if particularly it hits their wallets. To be forewarned is to be armed.
Sorrowfully, relatively few journalists entering the profession will be equipped sufficiently with schemas of propaganda, psychology, behavioural and practical nudge thinking, or otherwise alternative sets of reportage narrative to address this problem.
Frankly at any of the journalism shin digs that’s where the gaming and sharing should take place. I’m thinking we should convene an international meeting similar to the one on the Future of Education to interrogate the issue.
Journalism has to break out of this cycle.