Pulling Together


Conspirators, conspiracies, and the quality of news

Two Programmes on Radio 4 caught my attention recently. The first was The Lowball Tapes about the LIBOR scandal of 2012. It used recordings of traders’ calls, and records and recollections to piece together an understanding of how this developed and where it might have originated. It implied a possible miscarriage of justice and was prepared to raise questions about actions at the highest level of government. The second was about much more recent events, called Death by Conspiracy, and charted the death of a man who believed COVID is a hoax after being drawn into a group of sceptics labelled as “conspiracy theorists”.

What struck me about these two programmes was the dichotomy between one which characterised a group pursuing an anti-establishment narrative as conspiracy theorists and another which pursued an anti-establishment narrative to uncover a possible conspiracy. They illustrate a problem which seems to threaten the very existence of a free society; how to distinguish truth from lies, and how to protect people from misinformation.

Lies are not harmless. They result in miscarriages of justice, in people dying through ignorance and in populations supporting appalling wars. A well-informed electorate is a pre-requisite of democracy. People cannot judge a government’s performance if they do not understand the issues or the effects of policies. We all depend on access to the truth for our very freedom. Without truth we can make fatal mistakes. Without truth we can’t defend ourselves against false accusations. Truth matters that much.

This might lead to the false conclusion society should outlaw lies. Lies are too dangerous to allow, but the problem that raises is writ large in what has happened in a country which has just legislated to do that.

Russia has just outlawed spreading “misinformation” about its military operations in Ukraine. That misinformation apparently extends to calling the monstrous attacks on civilian targets a war. The problem we can all see in the West is that it is the Russian government and its official media channels which spread lies, and the “misinformation” being outlawed is actually the truth, or something much closer to the truth.

This illustrates the difficulty with trying to outlaw lying. Who is to determine what is true? How are we to distinguish truth from falsehood? Democracy depends on debate between different viewpoints because any well-formed opinion arises from the interplay of evidence and ideas. Imagine a court case where only one side were allowed to present evidence. Clearly, it would be unjust.

Just as in a court it is for the jury to distinguish truth from falsehood, so a society’s understanding should be a matter for all people to agree freely. Not all will agree, but differences in opinion are valuable as they introduce an element of diversity into the judgement. A well-informed public will form a well-informed consensus, and that is what should guarantee both freedom and justice. There should be no need for a centralised determination of what is true and false or for the public to need protection from misinformation. That would actually be the mark of a society which does not trust its members, which has to tell them what to think. It is the opposite of a free democratic society with freedom of speech as not only a value but an essential safeguard of its liberty.

The key here is to have a well-informed public. Just as the jury in a court would be expected to listen to all the evidence and the arguments and then take a serious decision based on that, so it is important the public hear or, at least, have the opportunity to hear all the information and debate before making up their minds. That, I would suggest, is where the real problem lies.

For in our modern world, news has become very thin. Politics has ceased to be in-depth discussion of issues and instead centres on the personalities and appeal of individual politicians. Embarassment and vilification have replaced debate. Issues are less considered than assumed. The media fail to equip the public with the information they need to understand not just the subtleties, but even what is or is not true.

I touched on this in my November article with regard to the pandemic and the controversy over generic medicines. I am far from the only person concerned and perplexed over that. Recently I came across a series of articles by Phil Harper, formerly of the BBC, suggesting vested interests altered review data to weaken the case for the adoption of a proposed remedy and leading to it being mocked in the media.

I’m in no position to assess the validity of what happened, but I do know when I see something requiring more depth so people can understand it. Instead, the public news media call those who question the orthodoxy conspiracy theorists and the outcry is for censorship because their views kill people. There is even concern that a highly qualified medic and research scientist is likely to be struck off for daring to make a contribution to knowledge and questioning the wisdom of current policies. This is not the behaviour of a free society. Silencing dissent is not something we should tolerate. It is only by hearing all viewpoints and having a good grasp of the underlying facts people can reach sound conclusions which protect them from bad ideas, wherever those ideas originate.

Suppression of all views except an official one is what brutal dictatorships do, and prevents misrule being challenged. In a democracy we need to be able to challenge authority. Political and social positions must be open to challenge. Only a society with weak arguments needs to silence dissent. That suppression ultimately leads to cruel dictators like Hitler, Stalin, or Putin. To guard us against those we need an informed electorate with a proper investigative journalism to keep that information flowing.

How though can such journalism be provided? The time needed for detailed research doesn’t come cheap. Who will pay, and how do we prevent those who pay influencing what is investigated and reported? The BBC has long defended its independence, but in recent years that independence has seemed weak. It depends on a government-issued charter which also defines the level of funding. That charter is renegotiated on a ten-year cycle and can only be renewed if the government is favourable. It’s hard to see how independence can be maintained when the government has power to disrupt that revenue source or even the organisation’s continued existence. Other news organisations are privately owned and have a proprietor’s agenda to fulfil. If funding comes from advertisers there’s an inherent common interest in keeping readers or viewers keen to buy, which makes challenging over-consumption difficult along with examining business failings. Separating the piper from the payer is an elusive ideal. Yet if liberal democratic civilisation is to survive we have to find a way.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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