Trouble in Manchester

The RSA's Matthew Taylor on the whispering cabinet minister, an antagonisic local and the train that

Sunday was just one of those days. I was booked to chair a fringe meeting for the New Statesman at lunchtime and so got to Euston in good time for the Manchester train. That’s when it all started to go wrong. The train ‘wasn’t ready’ which, given that Virgin had presumably had since Saturday night to prepare it, was hard to understand.

When we finally did board the train it was chronically overcrowded. There were three announcements from the buffet (or ‘shop’ as it is now called)) one to say it was opening late, another to say it couldn’t take charge or credit cards and a third to say it had closed down due to ‘unforeseen’ problems.

The train then stopped and we were told it would arrive at least an hour late. But at least something was working; the air conditioning in our carriage was set so high that people were scrabbling around in their luggage for woollies.

I arrived in Manchester far too late for my meeting but in time to run to the Piccadilly Sports Bar and watch the last five minutes of my beloved West Brom losing to Aston Villa. Thoroughly grumpy and miserable I walked the streets of Manchester. Eventually I found a pub with the Chelsea v Man United game but distracted by the match I accidentally picked up someone else’s drink at the bar.

As the rather large person in question was remonstrating with me Chelsea equalised an event in which I could immediately tell he somehow felt that I as a Londoner was somehow implicated. I beat a hasty retreat.

Of course, I could have gone to the conference but ever since the Observer printed a tendentious piece two weeks ago suggesting I had been appointed to advise David Cameron I have been getting funny looks from my old comrades.

Eventually it was time for the RSA World at One fringe meeting at the Raddison Hotel. The room was packed and hot and the audience having to be patient as we had pushed back the start time by half an hour to accommodate David Miliband.

Our first speaker was supposed to be Ben Page from IPSOS MORI but for reasons best known to them, the Social Market Foundation had taken his pass and despite my pleadings were utterly indifferent to the fact that he was stuck outside the security cordon with minutes until our meeting.

As the minutes ticked away Ben kept phoning to say the police were getting increasingly suspicious of his story and he was starting to worry about the prospects of a full body search. At this point I snapped, losing my temper with various SMF staff and bellowing (mild) obscenities in front of several rather startled members of the Cabinet.

Eventually I tracked down the pass and Ben and I ran up five flights of stairs to a meeting room so hot that it could only have felt tolerable to anyone who had just stepped of the super cooled 8.36 Euston to Manchester train.

Ben was a star and entertained everyone with his slides showing the contradictory nature of public opinions. I made my short comments. But RSA and WATO staff were frantically waving at me to indicate that the Foreign Secretary was ten, no fifteen, no five, no ten minutes away so I slowed down and extemporised.

After 25 minutes which ranged over my life at the RSA, Number Ten, the Labour Party and Bootham Street Junior School I dried up so we had to move to questions.

Eventually, after very enlightening exchanges about how to canvass in Mitcham, the design of leaflets and engaging with your local park, Mr Miliband showed up looking relaxed and commanding. After he had made a few comments Martha Kearney started to quiz him, presumably aware that we were by now running well over time and that several people were showing signs of heat exhaustion. But the conference delegates have been well briefed so the moment Martha mentioned the leadership issue she got drowned out by a combination of booing and the soft clump of expiring bodies falling to the carpet.

So that WATO could get something to tape for today’s programme there was no choice but to overrun, anyway, we couldn’t get out of the doors until all the people on stretchers had been carried to safety. Suddenly I realised I had fifteen minutes to get the last train back to London. There was no choice but to run. As I sprinted past a Cabinet minister I can’t be sure but I think she murmured ‘that’s right Taylor you can run, but you can’t hide’.

I made it to the station with two minutes to spare. My body was steaming, my shirt was soaked and there was sweat running in rivulets off my forehead as I sat down in the carriage. ‘Ding dong’ went the announcer ‘welcome to the 20.10 to Euston. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances. the air conditioning will not be working on this journey’.

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.
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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