Matthew d’Ancona and his fake news

30 Jul
this post also features in offguardian.1

Matthew d’Ancona, in yesterday’s Guardian, is concerned about the threat to democracy from fake news. He wants to see ‘social media giants’ …

… legally redefined in a new, third category that radically enhances their accountability for the content they host, without imperilling free political discourse. Striking the right balance in this jurisprudential task will not be easy. But who expected it to be?

He also wants …

… a new system of “credible annotation of standards, so that people can see, at a glance, the level of verification of a site” – essentially, kitemarking of the sort that is standard in almost every other sector of consumption.

I am less sure that the government should “initiate a working group of experts” to oversee this process. If there is one thing worse than what the committee describes as the “wild west” of today’s digital prairies, it is anything that even resembles a Ministry of Truth, or an Oftruth regulator. Better that independent charitable bodies perform this grading task – gaining the public’s trust incrementally, as the admirable Full Fact and other fact-checking organisations have done in recent years.

Matthew d’Ancona being on the liberal wing of British Conservatism, that last paragraph is to be expected. He sees the dangers, earnest democrat that he is, of state censorship but believes, credulous liberal that he is, these can be averted by a few judicious mechanisms of the classic ‘checks and balances’ sort. I’m not going to argue with him on that. With bigger fish to fry, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that his ‘admirable’ Full Fact is led by Mayborn Group CEO and Tory Party donor Michael Samuel, while so many of those ‘other fact-checking organisations’ have on closer inspection proved to be at best self righteous – and self appointed – custodians of truth; at worst risibly tainted.2

d’Ancona’s complacency is neither the inevitable nor exclusive product of a costly education and privileged lifestyle, but is nurtured and at every turn reinforced by both. How do you think the man would respond to the question put to one similarly placed, the BBC’s Andrew Marr, in a 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky?

The media are selling privileged audiences. These are big businesses, big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of such a structure?

Marr had no answer and I don’t suppose d’Ancona has either. Neither man is a liar; both are the successful products of an ideological matrix upheld, confirmed and reaffirmed in those myriads of conversations and everyday acts which define – if we don’t ask about the nature of power – ‘common sense’ and what is ‘moderate’. It’s through such conversations and acts that normality is most thoroughly demarked, lines most durably drawn between ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’. But those conversations and acts do not take place in a vacuum. They arise within particular social relations of class division, their heavy ideological lifting done in the education, entertainment3 and news industries.

Specifically here, many read a superficially broad spectrum of media views on small to middling matters – Mail at one end, Guardian at the other – as proof of an ‘open’ society whose forms of democracy they take at face value. Others call that spectrum a slit-window view on the world, a painfully limited vista constrained not by Truth – though that can’t be entirely bypassed: it has in normal times to be accommodated – nor yet by blunt censorship. Liberal media do indulge in crude onslaughts of the kind directed at Corbyn, Assad and Putin. They do not, however, make a habit of telling outright lies. To do so entails risks only undertaken when the alternatives pose an unusually stubborn impediment to ruling class4 interests. In the main, liberal media lie by omission. (When did you last read a Guardian or Independent piece on how those who took the decision to invade Iraq and demolish Libya have profited from their reconstruction? When did such media last run a piece on the extent of Syria’s privatisation? Come to that, when will we get a fearless Guardian investigation of the implications, as ad revenues fall, of growing donor dependence on American liberals well to the right of Britain’s?) And they spin with scant regard for consequence, as with the demonisation of Assad and Putin by daily repetition of unproven allegations to the point where inflammatory claim5 can no longer be distinguished – ‘no smoke without fire’  – from proven fact.

Chomsky, with his gift for framing subtle truths and complex observations in simple but never simplistic terms, raises the issue of that ideological matrix more than once in his BBC interview with Andrew Marr. When Marr asks with incredulity if Chomsky supposes he and his colleagues profess beliefs not sincerely held but calculated to advance their careers, Chomsky responds:

No, I am sure you believe everything you say. What I am saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sat in that chair interviewing me.

Neatly put. Similarly, the owlish Mr d’Ancona wouldn’t be sat where he is but for his touching faith that the core aim of his various media employers is to pursue truth, as opposed to selling privileged audiences to other big corporations. To be a useful idiot you have to be, well, useful.

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  1. I’m dismayed at the virulent antisemitism of some comments below the OffGuardian version of this post. For me they cross the boundaries of acceptability, though I respect the restraint of OffGuardian editors understandably  reluctant to censor.
  2. See for instance this Spiked piece, which asks “Who exactly will judge which news is ‘real’ and what’s ‘fake’, and decide whether the world’s citizens are ‘properly informed’? While ensuring ‘those in positions of power are held accountable’ is a laudable aim, the question remains: accountable to whom? The people in a democratic system? Or our self-appointed ‘fact-checkers’ in a software package. And perhaps most pointedly – who will the fact-checkers be accountable to?”
  3. While education and news media are routinely and rightly decried by capitalism’s critics, I’m coming firmly to the view that the cumulative effect of decades of soft propaganda from TV and cinema is every bit as vital to its ideological underpinnings. That near infinite accumulation of subtexts, seldom intended as propaganda – rather, as Giving The Public What it Wants – is all the more effective for that ‘innocence of intent’ in its nurturing of deeply orientalist assumptions of Western and especially American beneficence. And of Arab and Slavic villainy for villainy’s sake.
  4. My concise definition of a ruling class is its monopoly ownership of some essential of wealth creation. Under capitalism this is the big money and production infrastructure without which wealth cannot be produced. Of course there is far more to say, but all else derives from this one central reality.
  5. Of all the charges to be laid at the doors of BBC, Guardian and Independent, none is graver than that their coverage of Russia, Syria and Ukraine – and mix, on Yemen, of near silence with unsubstantiated claims of Iranian backed Houthis – has the effect, regardless of intent, of promoting the high tech and highly lucrative delivery of death to the near defenceless peoples of the global south.

5 Replies to “Matthew d’Ancona and his fake news

  1. A sort of Parish Guardians system for information filtering.

    Meanwhile, speaking of the State Broadcaster

    Seems the moral panic inside the shrinking Westminster and Corporate Media Bubble is resulting in some kind of action to test the water against non corporate media sources. Not sure entirely what is going on here as there are suggestions in the Twittersphere that some right wing sites have also recently experienced this kind of take down.

    Chances are if this is systematic the process will be working its way down the food chain rather than up. Investment in carrier pigeons could be an option I suppose?

    • Ha ha. I’ll this minute order two turtle doves. From Amazon, naturally.

      I’d expect early moves against ‘extremist’ sites to be against the right, Dave. The manufacturers of consent, fearful of losing their best ideological weapons, would surely start with the easy targets. Incidentally, the whole concept of ‘extremism’, as opposed to inaccuracy, as a Bad Thing shows how easily manipulated we are. If we start from the basis – easily ascertained from a plethora of horrifying facts about global injustice in a world run by and for the few – that the mainstream is, in Tariq Ali’s words, an Extreme Centre, then the ‘extremist’ epithet loses its sting. Those who dismiss views like mine as extreme ask the wrong question. Rather, they should ask: are such views supported by ascertainable facts? But then, it takes a moment to call me extremist and dismiss all I say. Checking out my claims on the other hand – not by running to some self appointed fact-check site but by scrutinising my sources – well, that takes effort.

      Back to your point: I see three likely responses to the loosening of our rulers’ 200 year grip on hearts and minds via the play of market forces in news delivery. One is as you describe: “some kind of action to test the water against non corporate media sources”. Another, too extreme and out of step with notions of market freedoms to be used quite yet, is outright censorship. Third and most worrying is the possibility that the illusions of liberal democracy and open society – ever subject to the greater needs of Profit – will be cast aside as our rulers care less what we think, and look instead to controlling what we do. Which of the three it will be – and how and when – I would not like to say but one or more seems inevitable.

      • PS – the Guardian is on a roll here. See today’s piece by Zoe Williams, who uses d’Ancona’s precise wording, ‘social media giants’, to rally liberal opinion against easy targets: the ‘hate speechers’ online, and the corporate interests reaping the benefits – again by selling audiences, in this case with screeds of monetisable data, to other corporations. Like Marr and d’Ancona, Williams means no harm. Rather, though her line of work must surely leave her cognisant of media’s business model, she is blithely unwilling to draw the appropriate conclusions. As Upton Sinclair so pithily observed, it’s hard to get a man (or woman) to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing.

  2. In other words, us peasants should only read what the MSM royalty decrees is the truth. Reading any non-sanctioned Big Brother outlets is VERBOTEN and will be punished.

    • Hi Greg. More or less well meaning folk like d’Ancona and Williams would no doubt invoke C P Scott’s maxim: comment is free but facts are sacred.

      But as I and many others argue, that hasn’t helped Guardian readers much as they ingest its daily and dangerous bile on leaders who stand in the way and so incur the wrath of Chomsky’s ‘big corporations’. The d’Anconas and Williams of this world are either too naive to see, else too comfortably placed to draw appropriate conclusions, that the influence on ‘democratic decision making’ of said corporations is not the same as yours, mine or for that matter their useful idiots’.

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