Sunday 18 February 2018

Fake News and the Ministry of Truth

The new drive against ‘fake news’ has nothing to do with protecting democracy from outside influence or protecting the populace from falsehood. What this is about, as we have seen with Trump’s campaign against the media, is controlling the message - establishing and maintaining one source of truth. And this source would be beyond question; there is no need for critical thinking, indeed there is no need to think. This is the truth.
In the UK we do not have a free press. Print and online mass media is ruled by self-interested virtual monopolies of right and extreme right wing millionaires, who use their media empires to exert political influence. They control the message, and whilst they do, they can ensure that the political system that will deliver them the most profit remains in power.

The BBC is no better. I must admit that I regard the BBC as a wholly-owned arm of the state, a state broadcaster by definition, that will only broadcast what the state delivers and sanctions. I recognise however that many of you reading this will not accept this point of view, and luckily for me, this interpretation is actually irrelevant -  what I argue here is still valid even if you regard the BBC to be entirely neutral and not currently compromised.

The overwhelming proportion of the UK population uses the BBC as their primary source of news. It has a long-established reputation, worldwide, for credibility and integrity, stemming ironically from its broadcasts during WWII and the Cold War through the World Service. 
Ironically – as its primary function in the 1940s and 50s was admittedly propaganda.

The BBC is bound to be neutral in all cases, but in practice this has recently been interpreted in the extreme. It regularly pits the most polemic and opinionated sides against each other as if equal in importance or veracity – we have seen this in the way it treats ethical and scientific issues such as global warming and immigration. It paints every issue as a zero sum – creating false dichotomies that rarely relate to the real issues which cannot be so simply framed. It courts polemicists as they most easily fit into these boxes, and then will easily drive the narrative, which is something that BBC News strives to do. If The Today Programme can entrap a politician into an easy soundbite they can run that quote in the broadcast news all day; the newspapers will print it bringing in more listeners and viewers, and they can sell the rights to the content to other channels. 'Fake Neutrality' and chasing the dragon of ratings have become two elements behind the collapse of journalistic standards at the BBC over the past few years.

There is another aspect to this which goes to the heart of BBC independence. Is it truly independent – when its governing body and senior exec step straight from Whitehall and the banking establishment into the offices at Broadcasting House? When most of BBC funding is derived from direct taxation through TV licenses that are enforced under threat of imprisonment? The existence of the BBC is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the government.

An established single source of truth is what Trump wants to establish in the US, and it is the way he regards Fox News and the narrative that he wants to control and construct from the White House. In the UK, Theresa May has this on a plate with the BBC, though it can sometimes backfire. It has been well documented that the BBC was biased against the Scottish independence referendum to the point that this is seriously beyond doubt. When it comes to the EU referendum it can be argued that without the BBC, the referendum would never have taken place - and certainly would never have been lost.

Chasing ratings and mistaking featuring opposing polemicists for neutrality made Nigel Farage an almost permanent fixture on BBC News and current affairs programmes in the run up to the referendum and after it. The disproportionate full spectrum coverage that the BBC gave to UKIP and Farage has been well documented. His extreme views, presented on the BBC without comment, were normalized instead of being fact-checked and ridiculed. Even after the murder of an MP, after the UKIP corruption was revealed (by other media sources) and after Farage stepped down and his party collapsed into self-destruction, he continues to be feted uniquely by the BBC. Aside from any suggestion of political bias or the intentions of the government, this can be explained by the perceived desire to drive the narrative, to create the story rather than simply report it. Farage will pull in the punters, and will easily say something offensive or controversial that other news organisations will come begging to use – and willingly buy.

And so we come to the ‘fake news’ campaign. As social media in the UK goes, even if a foreign power subverted it completely it couldn’t hope for the kind of influence exerted by the tabloid press and the BBC. Independent and 'guerilla news' sites - what used to be referred to as ‘indy media’ -  can emphasise is the need for the reader (or consumer) to use critical thinking; not to take anything at face value. In the UK certainly, investigative journalism is now almost wholly coming from independent and freelance journalists publishing to news  sites that started out as blogs. And it is these sources, not commercially driven clickbait sites, that are the true target of this latest dog whistle government initiative.

Would this fake news censor be applied to existing print media? Ask yourself this question as this initiative is being driven by a government with no intention of completing the Leveson inquiry process, and where it has been established in court that newspapers simply don’t have to tell the truth, even in ‘good faith’.

A government-paid and politically motivated censor to take action against any site or internet host that carries something that it determines to be fake news - whilst the print media continues to run Corbyn is commie spy stories with total impunity? Is that what this country needs? Young people don't need 'protection' from the internet - they need to be taught to question everything, to research, to look at issues in depth and not as polemicised - to think and judge critically for themselves. And in this way the internet can be truly democratising, giving everyone the ability to research and fact check in seconds. 

And that is what terrifies authoritarians, and why control of the truth is vital to their hold on power. 

Even if you still regard the BBC as being incorruptibly neutral and inherently a force for good, the fact that most people use it as the primary source for news and never think to question its credibility must be still be seen as a potential threat. It can be too easily subverted and exploited, whether deliberately by an authoritarian government or inadvertently by an editorial – and commercial - policy that simply makes no sense.

Saturday 20 May 2017

Theresa May doesn't want you to vote Tory - she doesn't want you to vote at all

Our democracy is under direct threat. This isn't another conspiracy theory or a rant built of the frustration about the mainstream media deliberately not covering tory election fraud, or money laundering, or the revelations about the misuse of social media and metadata by government and private corporations. This is about the latest corruption of the democratic model. Campaigning to get people not to vote - whilst at the same time using fear to ensure that enough of your core voters do vote for you to win. 

This technique has been used in the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and ensured that Le Pen got to round two of the French presidential election - and a last ditch attempt to discredit Macron only failed thanks to strict French election laws and largely independent media.

It is an evolution of the established ad hominem attack, but goes further than before. It does not rely at all on debate or defending policies to win over voters to your side. The policies are merely presented and a controlled state broadcaster or supporting right-wing media will not challenge them in any respect. It does not expect or require any defence of policy, any presentation of facts or ideology. The heart of the democratic principle, the debate in open forum, has been entirely removed. 

Argument and dissent is not only discouraged but entirely eliminated. But even further than that - the dissenters arguments are dismissed before they even take the floor. Experts are denigrated and despised simply for being experts. Scientific fact is dismissed as conspiracy theory. The opposition to the beliefs imposed upon the collective, the revealed ‘truth’, are branded traitors or saboteurs.  The purveyors of falsehoods become the truth-talkers, whilst objective truth becomes ‘fake news’ - an epithet that instantly obviates any rebuttal. 

If you compare the recent campaigns to those of twenty or even ten years ago, you won’t see this phenomenon to be so pronounced as it is today. Think back for a second to the arguments that surrounded the first televised debates, between JFK and Nixon, to the argument against televising parliament. The counter-arguments have not only been fully vindicated, but they never managed to envision the degradation of the democratic process that 24-rolling news and social media have brought to the mix. Debate has entirely gone. There is no negotiation, no considered argument, no foundation in statistical or other truth. It is all point-scoring soundbites, slogans delivered to the baying mob of party faithful, who truly believe; based on their own perception of constructed identity rather than any objective, rational argument. 

Recognising this to be the case, the shrewd political campaign guru knows that unpopular policies will never win over the other side - as they are by nature contrary to their interests and in some cases unsupported by facts or ethically indefensible. So what they must do is convince the other side to simply not vote. Attack the opposition as a person, or to portray them as incompetent or a threat, or as a hypocrite. But the most powerful weapon in their arsenal is to portray them as being fundamentally indistinguishable from their own candidate - to destroy any perception of real alternative or choice. Seeing this, even the most politically active and dedicated opposition voter will simply not vote. 

The second stage of the strategy is just as important - get enough of your voters out to win. Believing in the received truth and identifying themselves at a personal level with the policies won’t get them out on the day, especially if they are already convinced that it will be a landslide anyway. You have to terrify them into voting. You do this by equating the opposition with a direct threat to their way of life and that perceived identity.  You say the opposition is a ‘threat to national security’, a friend to the invading horde of foreigners which will either erode our national culture or deliberately act to destroy it. You develop a common enemy, scapegoats, to take the blame for the deliberate ideological undermining of state provision of education, health and social care that the government is currently pursuing or intends to pursue once elected. 

The key to winning the modern election is a combination of these two messages - apathy and fear.

Trump lost the popular vote by a huge margin but was still elected into office because his campaign managed to convince enough people in key states to simply not vote. In the Brexit campaign, aside from the straight lies that were told - the tropes that were imprinted so indelibly in the consciousness that they are still being repeated months after they have been irrefutably shown to be untrue - the vote was won by a combination of xenophobia and voter disengagement. Factual counterarguments were dismissed without rebuttal with the mob-cry of ‘project fear’. The racism that was deliberately deployed achieved two things - it built up the fear of the people it deceived to vote, whilst simultaneously convincing others that the country would simply not stoop to that level, further convinced by polling results that the Remain vote was not under threat. 

In the upcoming election the same machiavellian forces are at play. People were stunned at the Tory manifesto launch, as it contained policies that seemed to attack the traditional Tory base, and others, like the removal of school dinners, that would never be vote-winners, But that is entirely the point. The manifesto is not there to get people to change their vote - it is to set out a programme for government under a claim of mandate and hence set obligation to support, justifying whipped votes -  to enforce the unity of the Tory party and May's absolute authority should she be returned to rule. 

The timing of this election was also cynically set for the same purpose - coming just after local elections, when party resources would already be spent and people would be literally fed up of the never-ending stream of leaflets on the mat and canvassers on the doorstep. 

Opposition parties cannot rely on the tactics they have used before as these will simply not work - they don’t have the money, the media or the system to win that way. The only way they can win is to make people aware of this cynical manipulation and to fight it on the ground - and they must do this together, united. Tribalism or traditional party loyalties must be put aside. Differences in policy and approach can be debated -  following true democratic principles - once the threat of a single party far-right government has been eliminated. 

So Labour must vote LibDem, LibDem must vote Labour, and the Greens must stand down in every Tory marginal. The SNP should stand unopposed. Let’s have the debate on government and policy in the place that was designed for that purpose, on the floor of Parliament. And we must get every voter into the polling stations, telling them that their votes do count - and impressing upon them that this could be the very last time they get the opportunity to do so.  

Saturday 4 February 2017

Stop Brexit! Brexit means Trump!

This is an updated version of a blog I submitted to the Huffington Post a week ago. If they publish the original blog now, it will already be out of date, the disastrous Article 50 vote having taken place, and with the events that have occurred demonstrating beyond doubt the  accelerating danger posed by Trump.

If there is any reason at all to put an immediate halt to Brexit, it is President Trump’s first week in office, culminating in Prime Minister Theresa May’s desperate visit to be the first leader to swear fealty – and then her inexcusable refusal to condemn the so-called Muslim Ban.

May scrambled in Farage’s fetid footsteps, obviously keen not to lose any of the momentum or populist support she has gained since adopting most of UKIP’s far right policies.

Only hours before, Trump became the only President in living memory to publicly endorse the use of torture. And hours later, on Holocaust Memorial Day of all days, he signed the Refugee Ban and initiated a policy now being referred to as the Muslim Ban.  Citing 9/11 three times, he banned visa applications and re-entry from a number of middle-eastern countries – though markedly ignoring the countries where the 9/11 bombers actually originated.

But then of course, Trump has substantial business interests in those countries.

Refugees in transit that landed after the edict and US citizens returning from holidays or business trips abroad were detained at their point of entry and denied access to legal representation. Foreign students and US citizens were warned by their universities and employers not to leave the country in case they are not allowed to return.

These actions, breaking treaties and showing no respect for international law, mean that the United States already meets the definition of ‘rogue state’.

But in addition to these acts of inhumanity and xenophobia, Trump is acting entirely irrationally. His first actions were to sanction the parks service for posting photos that showed the actual size of his inauguration crowd. His press officer was made told to go in front of the press and deliver demonstrable lies – something that was later referred to by one Trump’s staff to be ‘alternative facts’. After being challenged on his repeated lie that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election – this being the reason why he lost the popular vote – Trump announced that he would initiate a federal investigation. And being told in no uncertain terms that his Mexican wall would not be paid for by Mexico, and the Mexican president cancelled his state visit, Trump immediately announced a 20% tariff on all Mexican imports.

May has finally admitted that UK would have no chance of remaining in the EU single market and that we would also be withdrawing from the customs union. Both of these actions will result in the UK losing tens of thousands of jobs, rising prices - inevitably pushing more people into poverty. The loss in income tax revenue from the banking jobs already announced will be far more than the oft-quoted £350m a week.

The government consistently has said that it will not reveal what its post-brexit plans are, as it wants to keep its cards close to its chest. But we have nothing left to offer – our hand is already face up on the table.

In this context, May went cap in hand to Trump, refusing to rule out that the NHS would now be up for grabs – this to a US administration hell-bent on removing affordable healthcare from millions of its own citizens simply in order to optimize profits for the private medical and insurance corporations that supported Trump’s election.  And before slicing up the NHS for sale, it means that even our long-taken-for-granted food and industrial safety standards may be threatened.  Our self-imposed isolation from Europe pushes the UK into depending on whatever crumbs the protectionist Trump regime chooses to throw in our direction.

May went from Trump to Erdogan in Turkey, to sell weapons to a regime that will probably use them on its own Kurdish population. Whilst there, she shockingly refused three times to condemn Trump’s actions, despite the effect it was already having on UK citizens and residents.  Days later, she went to an EU leader summit in Malta to ‘act as a bridge’ between Trump and the EU, boasting that she had won his guarantee to meet his treaty obligations to NATO. They dismissed her, the Lithuanian prime minister saying that they didn’t need May to be a bridge when they had Twitter.

Instead of throwing ourselves at the feet of the Great Dictator, we should be distancing ourselves, uniting as closely as possible with the rest of Europe in the face of this very real threat. We should be looking at the possibility of diplomatic sanctions, not deals. This is important not just for our national security and the benefit of the poorest of our citizens, but to prevent the normalization of the racism and discrimination that Trump’s policies will inevitably bring with it, not only to the US but to our society as well.

This visit has already done great damage to our standing internationally. The Murdoch press and our state broadcaster, the BBC, might try to romanticize the ‘special relationship’, but the reaction in the foreign press is not being reported domestically. Even the US press has made disparaging comments about the UK and the PM in the wake of the visit.

So rather than Corbyn setting a three-line-whip for Brexit (with no sense of the irony involved, him being a notorious rebel against such measures in the past), he should have listened to his MPs and what is fast becoming a majority of the people who actually voted in the referendum in the first place. The people who will suffer most because of Brexit, the normalization of Trump and increased economic dependence on the US are the minorities, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society – the very people that Corbyn claims to represent.

One of the big slogans of the brexit campaign was ‘take back control’ - though this week they somewhat hypocritically protested the high court re-affirming the primacy of parliament. Did the brexiters campaign to simply hand executive control to an unelected PM fully beholden to Donald Trump – where we have no say, no control, no rights and no protections?

If there was any time that we needed the support and status imparted by our membership of the EU, it is right now.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

'Rebel Alliance'? Corbyn turns to the Dark Side...

A week ago today, Cambridge Green Party hosted an event to start a dialog on the formation of a ‘progressive alliance’. This is something that has been promoted again recently by Green MP and Green Party leader candidate Caroline Lucas, and is something that has been taken up by party as a whole. Similar events are being held by other local parties, and technical motions have been proposed for the autumn party congress to iron out the practicalities should this idea be pursued.

Our event in Cambridge was very well attended; the venue was filled with activists and councillors from Labour, Lib Dem and Greens, as well as people of no party affiliation – in some cases attending a ‘political’ meeting for the first time. There was even an ex-MP from Hungary who had real-world experience in serving in such a cross-party political alliance. The meeting was extremely positive, and even those, like myself, a little dubious about forging such an alliance, left the meeting with a real feeling of optimism for the first time since the brexit vote and its disastrous aftermath.

The only local ‘progressive’ group that wasn’t represented on the night was Momentum. They wanted to concentrate on Corbyn’s election campaign, they said.

Then today, in an interview given in Brighton, Corbyn ruled out such an alliance, stating that even in Brighton Pavilion, what is by definition the first Green Party safe seat held by Caroline Lucas, Labour would fight to unseat her.

Many in the Green Party have supported Corbyn, seeing him as the first opposition leader in a long time that we can actually work with. On countless occasions, whether it be at CND marches, Stop the War, People’s Assembly or other such protests, Lucas and Corbyn have literally stood side-by-side. They have often gone through the lobbies together, supporting each other’s parliamentary motions. It’s no secret that some Greens have defected to Labour to support a progressive, albeit socialist, platform.

It’s also well known that the Green Party vote share in certain parts of the country, Cambridge being one, was decimated due to what our canvassers termed ‘The Corbyn Effect’. A combination of his re-engagement with the disenfranchised Labour core and a sympathetic reaction against his vilification at the hands of the press served to swing a lot of our voters to Labour – even when the local party and MP do not support him.

So it would seem that Corbyn, buoyed by a groundswell of public support, has decided that he no longer needs the Greens – and instead he means nothing less than to wipe our party off the map. So instead of working with Labour, we’ll be standing once again to oppose them, this time fighting for the very existence of the party. We’ll have to lay aside all our common causes to emphasise our differences, why we are Green and not Red, and why people should vote for us and not Labour – or whatever it is called after the inevitable schism.

Perhaps we can still forge an alliance with the SNP and Plaid – and locally uniting with the Lib Dems to unseat Labour in favour of Julian Huppert (who in fact more closely supports Green policies than the current Labour incumbent) may still be an option. But from this point forward a ‘labour’ party with Corbyn at its head no longer looks favourable for the pursuance of progressive, sustainable Green politics in England.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Tories out! Corbyn in?

I went to the emergency demo in London yesterday, organised by the People’s Alliance and Stand Up to Racism, entitled ‘No More Austerity, No to Racism, Tories Out.' We ran a subsidised bus from Cambridge from our local SUTR group.

There weren’t many Greens in evidence, and as the demo went on I felt more and more uncomfortable with the whole thing. Before the start, chants were practiced, but as well as the usual pro-refugee and anti-racist chants, were ones explicitly for Corbyn.

This isn’t unusual and as at other recent protests, there was a big Momentum presence. But the difference this time was that the chants were being initiated by SUTR and PA. A lot of the placards had nothing to do with the published aim of the protest, and everything to do with Corbyn.

I walked the protest route carrying a PA placard, mostly with my union (UCU) as I lost the Cambridge group – there were 4-5,000 people on the demo. I was at the front of the march when it reached Parliament Square for the rally.  The first speaker was a Labour councillor, which was fine, until the talk became all about Corbyn and his message to everyone on the demo.

And that’s when I walked off.

I’m not a member of the Labour Party. I do feel strongly about the disgusting treatment that Corbyn has received from the BBC/MSM and his own parliamentary party, but aside from the wider issues of media bias, corruption and attack on democracy – and how these impact on all our lives and politics - I’m not involved. There are reasons why I’m not a Labour member and the current mess illustrates many of them.

I went on that demo to support the aims laid out in the title, not to campaign for one of the candidates in the upcoming Labour leadership election.

Both UAF/SUTR and PA are supposed to be non-partisan organisations. David Cameron is a member of UAF(!); the Green Party are signatories to the People’s Alliance charter. If these organisations morph into another manifestation of Momentum then people from other parties (and none) will feel excluded.

The Green Party is currently being encouraged to start work building a ‘progressive alliance’, but this looks increasingly less likely to get off the ground if the groups that we have supported and campaigned alongside in the past are explicitly backing one part of the Labour Party, and using joint protests and actions as a vehicle to campaign for that part.

Obviously if the Labour Party adopted the policies that Corbyn supports, they would be much closer to the Greens and so it would be easier to campaign alongside them. But it's not up to the Greens to choose the next Labour leader, and if we're asked to support a demo, it shouldn't be with an ulterior motive.