A bit of mourning before getting organised

By-election defeat, dirty Tory tactics and the festive season party circuit

Moan, moan, moan, moan, moan. OK, I’m in a bit of a bad mood this week, so that’s what this blog is going to be - just one long moan. Sorry ...

Turns out we didn’t win the Kentish Town by-election on Thursday. Although it would have been something of a miracle for us to move straight from third place to first, particularly with the Lib Dems wanting the seat so badly, we did think we stood a chance. And it wasn’t just us. Rumours reaching us from activists in the other parties ranged from ‘you might just win’ to ‘you’ve got it in the bag’.

We ran a very decent campaign in the end. Natalie, our national internal communications co-ordinator (also from Camden) edited and designed some really professional leaflets, and I think she spent more time canvassing than I did as well. Councillors and key Greens from all over the country also joined us for doorstep duties at various points over the past six weeks, and Peter Tatchell came along for a special session to push Labour voters our way last week (Peter was in Labour for over twenty years before joining the Green Party in 2004).

Thursday started at 6am, with a queue of two dozen Greens outside my flat ready to deliver our ‘it’s election day’ postcards.Our polling day HQ was run like clockwork by London Assembly Member Darren Johnson, who took Lewisham from one Green councillor to six this year. But still, about half way through the afternoon we realised how outnumbered we were by LibDems on the streets – we could see about five of them ‘knocking up’ voters for every one of our people.

I was also a bit shocked to see a Tory leaflet going out on the eve of the election with a 'truth table' stating baldly that I am not a local school governor (I am, and my school is in the ward). I'm sure that can't have helped - voters put a lot of store in local connections - and it's not as if the Tories couldn't have easily found out the facts. We mentioned it in several of our leaflets, and the details come up immediately if you put my name into Camden Council’s website.

The Tories of course didn’t stand a chance in Kentish Town and Labour - defending the seat - were similarly outnumbered by the LibDems, so we did manage to take second place, which is a bit of a result at least. This was only confirmed after two (yes two!) recounts. At the first count we were two votes ahead and after a recount this rose to four. But they still called for another count, so it wasn’t until 1am that we finally had the result, with us still four votes ahead. Luckily, the new laws mean it was easy to find a pub still open near the Town Hall in Kings Cross for a team celebration after all the excitement.

Having caught up on my sleep now, I’m feeling a lot less grumpy, and the fact that 28% of the voters put all their faith in the Greens this time (not just one of their three possible votes, which happened a lot in May) is very touching. We are well set up for next time too – after three more years of a LibDem-Tory coalition messing up running the council, ‘we were second last time’ will be an excellent campaign slogan!

More depressing is the amount of paper the parties have gone through in the course of this election. As predicted in my previous blog, with four parties all working hard, the number of leaflets got really out of hand, particularly from the LibDems. I know it works - and fools a lot of voters - but I just can’t bring myself to put out things like their tricksy pretend-handwritten letters (usually printed on twee blue notepaper) which will be familiar to people living in LibDem target wards across the country (‘Dear Friend…’ eugh).

I have been collecting all the leaflets that have come through my door and, including what the Greens delivered, it all weighs in at just over 300 grams. This probably doesn’t include everything, as I’m unlikely to be a target voter for any of the other parties myself, but it’s a reasonable working figure. Multiplied by the 5,800 households in the ward, this means the campaign as a whole used up almost two tons of paper. Sorry forests! I hope it all gets recycled. My collection of blue, yellow and red paper is going in the ‘dodgy propaganda’ file for the time being.

Now I’ve got all that moaning out of my system, I’m looking forward to a few weeks of relative rest. By happy coincidence, the Christmas party season is just starting up and my new job as Principal Speaker means my invitation list includes the odd swanky do this year as well – good timing indeed.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era