The dangers of post-truth journalism
Roger Scruton, poses at his home on September 28, 2015 in United Kingdom. Credit: Andy Hall/Getty Images)   

Only a month ago, a journalist from a prominent British publication gave an interview to the online student magazine Kettle. The interview included advice for any young person aspiring to become a journalist. It included the following such nuggets:

“Twitter is incredibly useful in helping me think about subjects to write about but you also need to be reading widely. Try to understand your opponents’ arguments and think about what you can learn from them.”

And reflecting on the state of the media as a whole this sage advised:

“A challenge for journalism is the rise of social media and the fact it allows false information to spread like wildfire. I think it’s an important time for trusted, credible titles to remain relevant and prominent. Journalists must win the trust back they have lost. It’s not enough to lecture the public, you need to earn that trust and have a degree of mutual respect and I think one benefit of social media is that if something is wrong, audiences have a platform to call this out.”

The speaker of these words? It was George Eaton, deputy editor of the New Statesman magazine. And within days of him issuing this wisdom, he decided to publish an interview with Sir Roger Scruton which – as I have described elsewhere – serially misrepresented the philosopher’s words and got Scruton fired from his government appointment.

Afterwards, Eaton took to social media to publish (and then unpublish) a photograph of him swigging champagne over his ‘triumph’. He has reportedly been on gardening leave since his malicious and false reporting was uncovered. The hope would seem to be that once the incident blows over, and everybody forgets about it, Eaton can go back to work, lamenting the low levels of public trust in journalists.

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Such highly visible hypocrisy cannot be viewed in isolation. Take a piece this week in The Guardian, which reported on the findings of a YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project survey. The survey found that people whom the survey and The Guardian define as ‘populists’ are “far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories”.

The conspiracy theories include the idea that the US government was secretly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that alien contact is hidden from the public, that harm from vaccines is hidden from the public, that the official accounts of the Holocaust are exaggerated, and that AIDS was invented by the CIA.

There are several serious problems with this analysis. The first is the lazy tendency to adopt – as though it were agreed upon – a term (‘populist’) which is highly debatable to say the least. If one characteristic of populism, for instance, is a belief that there is a great divide between those who govern and those who are governed, are people always misguided (and, therefore, ‘populist’) when they feel that such a divide exists?

The other problem is what should be defined as ‘conspiracy theories’. It can, for instance, safely be said that somebody who believes the US government to be so nefarious and organised that it could coordinate, carry-out and cover up an attack on its own Department of Defence (among other targets) believes in a conspiracy theory.

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But are other things listed as examples of conspiratorial thinking exactly that? Are the two in five ‘populists’ surveyed who believe that regardless of a change of government “there is one single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together” to be counted as akin to Holocaust deniers?

Obviously there will be some who do believe that the planet is carefully controlled by lizard-men or Jews. But there will also be a great many people who simply observe things that have a rather obvious foundation.

For instance, they will include people who voted to leave the European Union and are wondering why – three years later – they are now being asked to vote in the 2019 European elections. Which brings me back to George Eaton.

For while it may be beyond the ability of any journalist, individual organ, or the industry as a whole to rectify all of the problems of public trust in institutions, what journalists can do is to try to be honest themselves. They can speak truth, rather than either making it up or seeing their role as being some kind of arbitrator between things that happen and the reading public. Whenever a major journalistic scandal erupts, such as the Jayson Blair one at the New York Times, Johann Hari at the Independent or George Eaton at the New Statesman, the idea of journalists being impartial truth-conveyors receives another hit.

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This is why people exposed as having misled their readers are – traditionally – no longer invited to remain in their position. For it is no good railing against the people who talk about ‘fake-news’ if you are providing textbook examples of some such phenomenon yourself.

And the import of such dishonesty should not be under-estimated. For if a person sees that they are being misled in one regard, it is highly likely that they will start to wonder whether they are being misled in others. If you actually know you have been lied to by one journalist, it is unlikely that you are going to blindly believe all others. And if you believe that journalists cannot be trusted, it isn’t such a leap to decide that there are other things that you have been told about over which warrant more scepticism than you had previously afforded them.

A similar phenomenon exists as that among people who have been falsely accused of committing a crime. It is not that after such an experience the accused person believes that crime does not happen; instead, they become highly – and perhaps rightly – suspicious of every subsequent claim about the alleged criminality of others.

It is easy for people in journalism and the media to see scandals in their own field as especially serious. But we are right to do so. Because if the means of communicating information are provably tainted, then people lose one of the only intermediaries they have to delegate legitimate levels of scepticism. This doesn’t meant that it’s a vertiginous slope all the way down to lizards and 9/11 conspiracies. But the organs that have taken their skids off can hardly complain when they see the public slide on past them down the slope.