One of the things that marks out ‘post-truth’ – the word of 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, which defined it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ – as originally an American concept is the fact that in Britain the press has been pushing fake news for decades. ‘BLUE MURDER’ was the Sun’s headline on 19 April, the morning after Theresa May dropped her ‘election bombshell’: ‘PM’s snap poll will kill off Labour.’ The Daily Mail cheered May’s ‘stunning move’ as finally providing an opportunity to ‘CRUSH THE SABOTEURS’. The Express summed up with ‘VOTE FOR ME AND I’LL DELIVER EU EXIT.’ The Times led with ‘May heads for election landslide’; the Telegraph was dazzled by a ‘Bolt from the Blue’. ‘Theresa May is dead right to call a snap election,’ the Sun trumpeted. ‘A thumping Tory victory – and surely few can imagine any other result – will give her the mandate she lacks as prime minister and crucial new authority before negotiating with EU leaders.’ For the Mail, May’s was ‘a brave and shrewd decision. It was her only way of clearing the political air, ending the dirty tricks of her Remoaner enemies and maximising her chances of driving the best possible deal for our country in the Brexit negotiations.’
At first everything seemed to be going to plan. On 17 May the leaked Labour manifesto was described by the Sun as ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist masterplan to transform Britain. And transform it he certainly would … into a crumbling ruin of a country where aspiration is crushed and success punished by massive tax rises. We believe the verdict – of the many, not the few – will be merciless on 8 June.’ But then, ten days later, a little jittery: ‘Theresa May needs to up her election game as Labour’s “freebie manifesto” is starting to fool some.’ By 1 June, as the polls skid, there is a discernible note of panic: ‘Theresa May must spell out why voters should choose her – not being Jeremy Corbyn is not enough.’ The next morning was judged time to wheel out the old warning that ‘a toxic leftie coalition’ with the SNP ‘would spell Brexit betrayal, havoc with the economy and the destruction of Britain.’ On 8 June, election day, alongside the headline ‘DON’T CHUCK BRITAIN IN THE COR-BIN’, the threat posed by Corbyn and Labour was helpfully itemised: ‘Terrorists’ Friend; Useless on Brexit; Destroyer of Jobs; Enemy of Business; Massive Tax Hikes; Puppet of Unions; Nuclear Surrender; Ruinous Spending; Open Immigration; Marxist Extremist’. The next morning: ‘It is almost inconceivable that … the Tory majority may have been wiped out. But they ran a dreadful election campaign, trumped by Corbyn’s endless pledges of giveaways.’ 10 June: ‘The idea he is a political genius is laughable. But that is not to say he didn’t put his finger on something. Young people are sick of being short-changed compared with past generations. Mrs May must fix it. Or next time Britain will buy the Marxists’ fool’s gold – and the Tories will be helpless to prevent the inevitable horrors that will follow.’
The Sun wasn’t alone in having thrown everything at it. The Telegraph accelerated further away from its staid traditions, running a series of headlines that wouldn’t have embarrassed Paul Dacre: ‘May unleashes fire on Europe: Keep out of our election, angry PM tells Brussels’; ‘Labour tax to hammer workers on £80,000’; ‘Corbyn’s manifesto to take Britain back to the 1970s’; ‘Corbyn engulfed in IRA furore’; ‘Labour’s secret plan to increase migration’; ‘Corbyn ducks terror challenge’; ‘Fake web accounts boosting Labour vote’; and culminating on 8 June with an image of May as Supreme Leader and the headline ‘“Your country needs you.”’ The Times wasn’t far behind: ‘Brussels is meddling in our election, says May’; ‘May “on course for landslide”’; ‘PM woos Labour voters with help for 1.2 million families’; ‘Labour’s tax raid in tatters’; ‘Mainstream May reaches out to Labour heartlands’; ‘We will use SNP to give us power, says Labour’; ‘May woos working classes with tough line on Brexit’; ‘Tories savage Labour “triple tax whammy”.’ (The Financial Times described Corbyn as a ‘pacifist relic of the 1970s, in hock to the trade unions, with no grip on economic issues’.) In a last-ditch effort to steer the ship away from the rocks, on 7 June the Mail devoted 13 consecutive pages to trashing Labour. Three days later it was forced to admit that voters were, apparently, even more stupid than feared: Corbyn ‘offered some of the biggest electoral bribes in history, making lavish promises of non-existent cash to pensioners, the public sector and those on the minimum wage. And he bribed the gullible young by pledging to scrap tuition fees and hinting he’d write off tens of billions in student debt.’
Does it still matter what these papers think and print? As recently as six weeks ago, the answer would have been yes, definitely. ‘British politics,’ Andy Beckett wrote in the Guardian last October, ‘feels relentlessly tabloid-dominated. From the daily obsession with immigrants to the rubbishing of human rights lawyers, from the march towards a “hard Brexit” to the smearing of liberal Britons as bad losers and elitists, the tabloids and the Conservative right are collaborating with a closeness and a swagger not seen since at least the early 1990s.’ On election day, Labour supporters around the country bought up stocks of the Sun and the Mail and set them alight: the accompanying videos went viral on Twitter. But the failure of this right-wing alliance to deliver the predicted electoral gains – in spite of all those stated certainties and hysterical warnings – seemed to confirm two long-extant theories. First, that the tabloids’ influence would inevitably wither year on year in line with their circulations (the Sun has shed 1.5 million readers since 2003, and sales were down 10.5 per cent in 2016; the Mail has dropped a million in the same period, and its sales were down 6.7 per cent). Second, that the perception of tabloid dominance is determined by the extent to which they appear to reinforce, or to be reinforced by, the preoccupations of the government of the day. This idea, that the impact of the tabloids on voting behaviour is overstated, that they follow political trends rather than make them, has been current since at least the 1940s (‘People tend to resist newspaper influences that lead them in a direction they are not disposed to follow,’ a Mass Observation report stated in 1948). But in that case why were we so quick to fall for the illusion of influence in 2016-17? And why were we so much more scared than before?
When the tabloid press is in lockstep with the government, its usual tone – strident, faux-naive, doctrinaire, authoritarian, chauvinistic – makes it a frightening force in public life, especially when it raises its voice to drown out those who don’t share its views, as in the early, heady months of May’s supremacy (remember ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’?). But I think the real reason the tabloids infuriate and worry us is that even now they are still read in large numbers (1.6 million for the Sun, 1.5 million for the Mail); that publications so blatantly propagandist, so ugly in their prejudices, are still blithely unfolded on breakfast tables every morning, discussed on the BBC and laid out in every newsagent and supermarket in the country. Painful as it is to admit, there is a good deal of truth in Brendan O’Neill’s sneer in the Spectator that the ‘underpinning of anti-tabloid sentiment’ is ‘a belief that the kind of people who read these papers – we all know who they are – are putty in hacks’ hands. That their outlook and emotions are moulded by newspaper bosses, shaped by the 800-word opinion they read on the bus to work … When they read things, there’s a very good chance they will act on them.’ Pre-election anxiety about a new post-truth politics in Britain had a lot to do with the latent belief that working-class readers read their copy of the Sun without discrimination. (You roll your eyes at the Telegraph and the Times, but you don’t put a match to them.) That belief was encouraged, too, by the vote for Brexit – a tabloid vision of Britain if ever there was one, all bunting and border controls – which seemed to represent a victory for white van men everywhere. A huge Tory majority looked like the next tabloid fantasy to come true, shoving Britain down a Trump-shaped hole into a post-truth world.
That the Daily Mirror, despite being a tabloid, tends not to be written about as if it were one is suggestive of the partial nature of this anxiety. People on the left don’t get angry about the Mirror, not because its readership is nothing like as large as that of its two main rivals (700,000 daily), but because it is pro-Labour, a red red-top in a sea of blue. We are happy to cheer a degree of partisanship (or post-truth) – ‘Lies, damned lies and Theresa May’ was the paper’s headline on 8 June – that we find disgusting elsewhere. The problem we have isn’t really with a lack of objectivity in the press, it’s that the lack of objectivity hurts one side more than the other: what’s dressed up as criticism of how the media operates is mostly displaced frustration about its one-sidedness, which isn’t our one-sidedness. Being angry at the tabloids keeps us from noticing the bigger problems elsewhere.
One of these problems is that the election did indeed shove us rudely into a post-truth world, just not the one we were expecting. ‘Truth’ prior to the election was a set of largely unexamined assumptions about the way British politics works and the degree of change it allows for – assumptions largely shared by the media, on the right and the left. (It was also a discipline: no journalist so-called could afford to take their eye off the polls.) No one made bonfires out of copies of the Guardian or the Observer on election day, but as guides to reality they were in many ways as unreliable as any of their right-wing rivals. The Observer, in its first comment during the election campaign, concluded that Labour had little to say about the ‘growing economic and social inequalities that characterise modern Britain’, and that there would be ‘few opportunities to debate key questions about the shape and size of the state’. ‘It seems there is no platform Labour could adopt that would address the doubt in many voters’ minds about Mr Corbyn’s credibility as a potential prime minister,’ the Guardian said on 9 May. After the draft Labour manifesto leaked, it was more favourably inclined, but still regretted that ‘on immigration he has no obvious retail offer. This leaves Labour candidates without a comeback on a key doorstep issue.’ The commitment both to the abolition of tuition fees and to ‘higher taxes for those earning £80,000 or more’ were described as ‘virtue-signalling’. The next day, the Guardian stated that ‘Labour’s agenda has the appearance of a backward-looking union special interest wish-list, not the overarching response to the new world of work the country needs.’
When the Labour manifesto was officially launched on 16 May, the Guardian stretched itself to be more accommodating: ‘What is beyond doubt is that this manifesto proclaims that politics and government in Britain do not have to be done in the way the country has long been accustomed to. That is true.’ On the other hand, ‘its weakness is that it does too little to make the thinkable seem realistic and practical. That reflects Mr Corbyn’s preference for energising his own support rather than persuading those outside it.’ It had fewer doubts, two days later, about the viability of the Conservative programme, declaring that ‘like Tony Blair in 1997, Mrs May is where the majority of voters are: to the left on the economy and to the right on social issues.’ The Observer was even more enthusiastic, seeing May’s election manifesto as ‘a watershed moment in British politics … Theresa May’s principles are little short of astonishing.’ (In these initial responses both papers had only the mildest of criticisms of the ‘dementia tax’, which was to derail May’s campaign almost immediately.) On 21 May, the Guardian was still dismissing Corbyn’s policies as ‘conventional, retreads of the 70s’. But as the tide began to turn against May – that social care policy, so carelessly overlooked – it began to change tack. On 2 June, in an editorial endorsing Labour, it admitted the party ‘has set the terms of the political debate: most notably with a Keynesian response of increasing public investment’. (The Observer couldn’t bring itself to endorse anyone.) The day after the election, the Guardian completed its full turnaround: ‘The country demanded a better and different way … Britain has rejected Mrs May’s divisive banalities. The result this week was very unexpected. But it is also very exciting. It is the cry of the revived possibility for a better and fairer Britain than we have known for at least a decade.’
The issue here is not that these ‘left-wing’ papers failed to predict the results of the election – they were not alone in that – or even that they should have been more sympathetic to Labour in their commentary. It is that they were so very far from understanding what was happening outside Westminster. There were ‘two main reasons many journalists were wrong-footed,’ Gary Younge argued in Prospect. ‘The first was a chronic lack of curiosity.’ It doesn’t matter, he wrote, if you don’t support Corbyn’s ‘leadership, but it does become a problem if you don’t take any interest in where it came from or what it might mean’. The second, he suggested, ‘was the failure to expand the gaze from Corbyn, the individual, to broader forces and places. Left challenges had, after all, been erupting across the West … That didn’t make this inevitable in Britain, but it made it a possibility. A possibility some wilfully ignored.’
‘Post-truth’ is a faulty concept, then, because it presupposes the existence of shared, accepted ‘truths’ which are actually, you know, true. But also because it implies the existence of a ‘pre-truth’ period, a lawless Wild West of unmeaning and misunderstanding that was at some point tamed by the self-discipline and integrity of politicians and the formation of the national media which until recently we held in such high regard. This second assumption is equally misguided. Politicians have always lied, or half-lied, and the media has always leaned one way or the other. In Britain, press opinion never used to be so one-sided, but it has always been divided into two camps: we fret now about people existing in silos, but throughout the 19th century even small towns usually sustained both a Liberal and a Conservative newspaper (see Eatanswill’s rival editors, Mr Pott and Mr Slurk, in The Pickwick Papers). Voters have always chosen to believe what they wanted to believe – it’s just that now social media has allowed us to eavesdrop on them. In fact, for all its dangerous openness to manipulation, the existence of the internet makes us better able than previous generations to detect lies, to conduct our own rapid research and to weigh up the competing claims of politicians and their pamphleteers. The real issue at stake seems to be whether we trust people to be left to their own devices, picking and choosing their information in ways both hard to control and diffcult to understand. In Journalistic Authority: Legitimating News in the Digital Era, Matt Carlson makes a useful distinction between the ‘monovocality’ of newspapers and the ‘polyvocality’ of a digital news ecosystem. The division between the two, he says, ‘is not just about news forms or who should be allowed to make news but a deeper rift concerning what news knowledge ought to look like’. As an anxiety, ‘post-truth’ reveals itself on this point to be profoundly conservative: it is instinctively ‘monovocal’ in its preference for old-fashioned news, with its well-understood rules and conventions. The consequence is that every time someone cries ‘post-truth’ it further envelops the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit period in a myth of objectivity, and in so doing sets up as an ideal the longstanding relationship between the media and the political class.
The advance of democracy in Britain went hand in hand with the development of an unhealthy degree of co-dependency between politicians and journalists. When the sketch-writer Henry Lucy first joined the parliamentary corps of the Daily News in the late 1860s, the ‘authorities … regard[ed] the Press as an intruder’. When, around the same time, Wemyss Reid, later editor of the Leeds Mercury, joined the press gallery he discovered that ‘the overwhelming majority of the reporters had never exchanged a word with a Member of Parliament in their lives.’ This standoffishness only ended when the dramatic expansion of the franchise, from 1.35 million in 1866 to 2.5 in 1868 to 5.8 in 1885, forced politicians to consider how they would manage. ‘In these times,’ Francis Schnadhorst, secretary of the National Liberal Federation, wrote in 1886, ‘to appeal to an electorate numbering millions, a man must constantly appear before the electors.’ For the new mass politics to function it needed to be visible: only the newspapers, whose circulations had been growing for decades, could provide the publicity that would allow governors and governed to see each other properly.
It was in this period that the House of Commons authorised the enlargement of the press gallery (in 1881), doubling the number of journalists able to view its proceedings. The overall space allotted to the press in Parliament was progressively expanded: journalists were allocated their own dining room, reading room, tea-room, smoking-room, library and rooms for work. Journalists were allowed for the first time to occupy the Lobby and to approach MPs who passed through (a Lobby list for authorised entrants was first drawn up in 1885), and the practice was begun at Downing Street of releasing information to the press every afternoon. Within thirty years, mutual self-interest had transformed relations. Arthur Balfour admitted in 1895: ‘I cannot pretend that the work of the politician under modern conditions could by any possibility be carried on except with the co-operation of the great body of the Press … aiding us in the general work of carrying on the institutions of a free country [by ensuring that] … Ministers and Parliament find an echo of their proceedings in every part of the kingdom.’ Asquith went further in 1909, describing ‘relations between the press gallery and the floor of the House’ as ‘relations between men who breathe a common atmosphere and share common traditions, who are in the strictest and fullest sense of the word co-operating in a common work’.
If the relationship is no longer quite so gentlemanly – it has become unhealthier over time, as each side has attempted to control, exploit and bully the other – it remains fundamental, and incurs the same risks that have been there from the start: that close access inhibits perspective, thus affecting sense of proportion on both sides, making political journalism overwhelmingly Westminster-centric and vitiating its evidence base. Whatever the government of the day, the connection is too cosy to allow for radical critique. (Robbie Gibb, who recently quit his job as editor of the BBC’s Daily Politics and Sunday Politics to become Theresa May’s director of communications, is only the latest figure to pass through the revolving door between the media and Downing Street.) It is therefore unsurprising that the two events that have generated the most anxiety about ‘fake news’ are the EU referendum and the election, both occasions on which the press-politics axis failed to operate in the normal way. In the referendum the majority of the political class, including the leadership of the Conservative Party, found itself opposed by the majority of the media and came out on the losing side; in the election, Corbyn fought a campaign with almost no press backing (after two years during which many of his MPs had drip-fed criticism to eager journalists) and defied all expectations to achieve a very creditable result.
In the election campaign, the upsetting of the natural order of things opened the way to influence from unfamiliar quarters. Thomas Clark, an ‘independent blogger’ based in Yorkshire, manages the ‘Another Angry Voice’ page on Facebook: he was responsible for some of the most viewed material during the election campaign, including one viral article, ‘How many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do you actually disagree with?’, which was seen by as many people as buy the Sun. His pro-Corbyn articles – 163 of them, produced over seven weeks and clearly sourced, including other viral successes like ‘Why you need to speak to someone who works in the NHS’ and ‘30 things you should know about the Tory record’ – were read by millions. A post-election analysis by Buzzfeed found that Clark’s output, along with that of two other pro-Corbyn sites – the Canary and Evolve Politics – massively outperformed online almost all the material produced by the press and the BBC. Memes and videos produced by Momentum, the JeremyCorbyn4PM Twitter account or anonymously by members of the public in their bedrooms were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media. No pro-Conservative material gained any serious traction on Facebook or elsewhere. The internet not only matched and exceeded the reach of the national press, it was even capable of generating identifiable issues of concern for voters – like the Tories’ position on the sale of ivory, sparked by the absence of a commitment on the issue in their manifesto and by a well-circulated photo of Theresa May shaking the hand of a Tory MP in favour of loosening controls – that were barely covered by the mainstream media.
Already, by influencing the course of national politics, social media strategies and self-starting internet campaigns on the left have demonstrated the unreality of much of the news provided by the traditional media, and exposed how the rhetoric about the press’s centrality to the democratic process – as providing independent scrutiny of politicians and facilitating public debate – has obscured its entrenched privileges as part of the apparatus of the state. (A similar challenge could conceivably come from the right, as in America, and those mounting it would be perfectly within their rights, though currently there’s little sign of it happening.) Professional journalists, in Matt Carlson’s definition, ‘gather information from sources, package it into a news story, and then present it to audiences with the hope that they will take it as legitimate information to be acted upon’. Proponents of ‘polyvocal forms of news support alternative means of establishing authority, including enhanced participation, decreased boundaries between news producers and consumers, subjective voice, a commitment to advocacy and networked reporting.’ What does that remind you of? The new media sounds a lot like the new politics, and for good reason: Corbyn’s networked Labour Party at least holds out the promise of an alternative to the old, corrupted alliance between journalists and MPs, a top-down Westminster duopoly. The experience of the 2017 election hints at the possibility of a modern democratic politics that, for the first time in our history, is not structured around the press. For a very long time, we have used the newspapers as a kind of shorthand, to define ourselves and other people. But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that what we thought we knew turned out not to be true. Post-truth is a place of opportunity.