“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” This is how Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Ace In The Hole (1951), pitched for a job at the Albuquerque Sun.
Manufacturing the news has always been a part of the job. Newspapers were founded, like the stock market, in the coffee houses of 17th Century London where false news stories were often published to shift the value of stocks. Pamphleteers, like Daniel Defoe, were adept at blurring fact with fiction. The exploits of Robinson Crusoe were, for years, passed off as true. Fake news pays. In ancient Greece, corn merchants spread rumours of disastrous storms and shipwrecks to raise the price of grain. False rumours were considered so powerful that, in Athens in 413BC, a barber was tortured for spreading unrest after repeating news he had heard from an escaped soldier of a disastrous military defeat in Sicily. Even though the story was true they gave him, as Roger McGough called it, “a short back and insides.”
It wasn’t until 1914 that a journalists’ creed appeared which included “clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”
Even so, when I started work as a journalist in the 1980s, one of our standard playbook persuasive tactics to get people to talk was: “if you don’t, I’ll just have to make it up.” The line was credible because journalists weren’t and the threat was so effective I never did.
That’s not to say, on slow news days, small stories weren’t ‘embellished’. With their policy of never confirming or denying stories, the royals were always a good target for a little fiction; which is probably why the Daily Mail is currently baiting the Duchess of Sussex to see how far they can go in painting her a bossy Hollywood diva from hell… before she bites. On a slow day at one national newspaper, I once wrote about a football match between two youth clubs in Hyde Park which Prince Charles had passed by. By the time the story got to the copy desk, the Prince of Wales had stopped, shown off some fearsome keepy-uppy and even scored a goal. The Palace said nothing and as Tatum puts it, “It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap a fish in it.” … but then you’re going to have to start all over again and find something else to “report on.
The temptation to disregard facts is driven by the media’s endless demand for content; a relentless pressure that used to be reserved for journalists. Now, with the monetizing of click-bait, a vast number of vloggers, bloggers and twitter-feed cloggers, experience that same pressure.
Just look at the volume of news in comparison to “comment” in any modern newspaper, (including this one), or news-site or news programme like Radio 4’s Today, and it’s clear that fact, accuracy, and empirical evidence consistently loses out to outrage, opinion, belief, fluff or uninformed celebrity views. And this decline has been going on for decades; while the armchair rage rousing internet content providers are only accelerating it.
Facts, reality and truth have become dangerously plastic. Brexiteers and Trump not only dismiss expert opinion but facts too. When challenged with telling an outright lie, White House spokesperson Kelly Anne Conway coined the phrase “Alternative Facts.” Breitbart News editor Joel Pollak argued this was a harmless and accurate term in a legal setting, “where each side of a dispute will lay out its own version of the facts for the court to decide.” Justifying one “Alternative Fact” with another.
But Pollak unwittingly pointed to an age old fundamental problem in the Anglo-American pathway to truth… our systems are adversarial. Instead of facts or the balance of probability we allow the concept of multiple truths until we decide which is the most compelling. Which means that in most Court disputes one side has to lie. And if that’s true, why aren’t the majority of court verdicts accompanied by perjury charges? Could our tolerance of multiple truths, be leading us to lose our grip on reality?
For centuries, we have believed that we are the children of the Enlightenment and that we use empirical truth as the basis of our values. Capitalism is built on the agreement of value. But the great Capitalist manifestos were all written when money was still commodity backed (like the gold standard). Money represented something unwaveringly material. With the loss of Empire after WWI, Britain could no longer claim new gold reserves ripped from its colonies, and for a small island with finite precious resources, money had to become notional, virtual, a matter of conviction. Today money in exchange for goods or labour, is just an idea, an agreement, numbers in computers, a belief, and so it’s vulnerable to intangibles, human frailties, opinions and feelings such as hope, despair, confidence, and trust.
Value is an act of faith. It is as real, rational, or empirically substantial as gods, demons, fairy tales, vampires and the origin of a denied fart. It is a mass delusion based on the stories we tell. Banksy adds an impossible story about a shredder on standby for a decade in the frame of a work of art and doubles its value. I trust my expensive Duchy organic milk is really produced by cows listening to Mozart and not weeping from their udders because their calves have been placed in the next pen so they can hear and smell them but will never be allowed to feed them. In every shape and form, stories and provenance create value, and fiction is an integral part of stories.
What is so amazing is that it is so hard for us to see that. Non-western cultures have watched in awe at the grandstanding of our culture backed by a fiction as ridiculous, unprovable and unsubstantial as any faith.
In Homo Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that our willingness to believe in fictions has been the secret of success for our species. “We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.”
Good stories have grains of truth but the balance of truth and fiction in our stories has passed the tipping point. In 2008, when the subprime mortgage story – that overpriced housing can be supported by selling poor people into continuous debt – was exposed as pure fiction, the banking world collapsed. The consequences of that lapse in confidence has sent us spinning ever since. Distrust of “The Man” has informed the Brexit and Trump “base”. “Truth be buggered”, they say, “nothing was ever true.”
Democracy, the cornerstone of enlightened politics, is proving unfit for a culture willing to believe stories while no longer needing to trust the source. The democracy that May is currently defending from a second referendum is as much a sham as a Russian voting booth or “fun size” Mars bars.
In HyperNormalisation (available on iPlayer), filmmaker Adam Curtis argues that Russia has for years, purposefully created entertaining chaos to keep its populace thrilled and scared and confused and at odds with each other: and so unable to work together in a democratic way as consensus is always frustrated. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political technologist, calls it non-linear warfare. He would finance different extremist factions, even anti-Putin groups, and then reveal that he had backed them. Nobody knew what was real or not. In a broken post-perestroika Russia there was only one thing you could be absolutely sure of, Vladimir Putin.
Surkov harnessed the anxiety of falling down the rabbit hole to keep Putin in power for years. Through the internet this policy of undermining reality has been leaking into the West; most obviously with Trump and Brexit, both now provably supported by Russian disinformation tactics.
If the first casualty of war is the truth, we have to realise we’ve been in a non-linear war now for some time. And even if there are no bombs dropping, and even though we cannot be sure who our enemies are or what is really happening, with the Brexit implosion it seems harder and harder to deny we are at war, that we’re losing, and that’s the truth.
A version of this article first appeared in