Friday, 3 June 2016

Welcome to a fact-free world

See if you can spot the odd one out: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, David Cameron.

All but one of them, you will have noticed, are celebrities, people to whom the cameras are irresistibly drawn as if by some mysterious magnetic force.

The exception – of course – is David Cameron. And that may be one reason why the Remain campaign, as it counts down to the EU referendum in three weeks’ time, looks as if it could now be in real trouble.

Politics used to be described as show business for ugly people. Now it is simply show business – a truth that Mr Trump, who is nothing if not a showman, has exploited with phenomenal skill. If you are master of the medium, you become master of the message. It is the most dangerous development in contemporary politics, because no longer do you have to persuade people to vote for you by the force of your argument or the power of your ideas. As long as you entertain them, preferably by being outrageous, they will flock to your banner.

They won’t mind if you lie. (‘All politicians lie.’) They won’t mind if you make a fool of yourself. (‘He makes me laugh.’) They won’t mind if you are crass, rude or insulting. (‘He says what everyone else is thinking.’)

They will vote for you anyway. Because you are ‘different’, ‘authentic’, ‘a real human being’.

The BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant wrote this week about what he called the US media’s ‘relationship addiction’ to Donald Trump. ‘At a time when media organisations are struggling still to monetise online news content, and to make the painful shift from print to digital, along comes the ultimate clickbait candidate, a layer of golden eggs.’

As Bryant pointed out, Trump is a ‘great story’, so much more entertaining and outrageous – and therefore much better copy – than boring old Hillary Clinton, or that grumpy old socialist Bernie Sanders. The same goes for Boris Johnson: always good for a laugh and ready with a joke. No one on the Remain side can match him for sheer entertainment value.

So am I suggesting that some UK voters are likely to cast their referendum ballot according to who entertains them the most? Why not? Jonathan Freedland put it well in The Guardian recently: ‘In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king. The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper.’ No one cares that Boris Johnson has twice been sacked for lying: from The Times, for inventing a quote, and from the Conservative front bench by Michael Howard for lying about an extra-marital affair.

No one cares? Perhaps you haven’t noticed that both the bookies and the pundits now make Johnson the favourite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, and the polls in the US are suggesting there’s a real chance that Trump could be the nation’s next president.

More than a decade ago, the American journalist Ron Suskind quoted an aide to George W. Bush as decrying what he called ‘the reality-based community … people who believe that solutions emerge from [a] judicious study of discernible reality.’ That's not the way the world really works any more, the aide said. ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ 

Welcome to the post-truth world of ‘our own reality’. It is a world in which the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels (which it does not), has no power to stop Turkey joining the EU (which it does) and no control over its borders (which it also does). It is the world of Boris Johnson, Penny Mordaunt and Nigel Farage.

Who cares what the former immigration minister Damian Green says? ‘The UK checks the passport details of every single person who comes into our country, including EU nationals. They are checked against terrorist watch-lists and other alert systems, and we regularly stop people – including EU nationals – at our border and deny them entry. Since 2010, we’ve turned away 6,000 EU nationals because of security concerns.’

According to a study by the Oxford University Migration Observatory, 442,000 EU citizens are employed in British retail, hotels and restaurants; another 360,000 work in banking and finance. Manufacturing companies have more EU workers as a proportion of their workforce than any other sector, with just over 10% of the total workforce.

They all pay taxes and contribute to the UK economy. But in a post-truth world, who cares about facts? If you do still care, which I hope you do, I hope you’ve had a chance – or will try to make time – to listen to my series of EUTheJury podcasts. You can find them by clicking here, and they are guaranteed safe for anyone with politician allergies. They are also stuffed full of facts.



Anonymous said...

"Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.” 
― Neil Postman "Amusing Ourselves to Death"

When this book came out in 1985 there was considerable criticism in the press, mainly on the lines of "He's an academic, so what does he know?" 31 years later and his words ring even more true than they did then. Sadly.

Anonymous said...

Lie after lie after lie has been left unchallenged by the present UK government. It sets an appalling example to the world and to its citizens. No wonder such buffoons (?) are allowed to prosper. :(

Anonymous said...

I think that you are jealous of those people with personality. Sorry.

David said...

Nice one Robin! I remember the quote from the Bush aide "‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ from many years past when we worked together. It sent a shiver down my spine then and I have quoted it to others many times since. To be honest, the whole "fact-free world" concept scares the hell out of me.