Greens to have a leader

Sian Berry responds to the result of a Green referendum on having a party leader

So, the votes are in and counted, and the decision of the Green Party members is that we will be choosing a leader or co-leaders at our next autumn conference.

In our first ever party-wide referendum, nearly half the membership cast their votes and the result was 73 per cent in favour of the change from our current set-up of two principal speakers, well above the two-thirds majority required.

I’m very pleased the members have backed the change in such numbers. I have blogged before about my views on this, about how the title ‘principal speaker’ (which I held until earlier this autumn) was a liability with the public and the media, and how not having voting rights on the national executive further stifled our leadership figures from taking a lead internally in party affairs.

The debate that has taken place over the past few months between ‘Green Yes’ and ‘Green Empowerment’ (for a no vote), has been passionate but constructive, and it has also been helpful in shifting the various groups’ views closer to each other.

I can’t think of anyone on the 'Empowerment' side who would still maintain there was a need to prevent our main spokespeople from voting on executive decisions, and I think many on the 'Yes' side understand more fully now that the Greens must redefine the term ‘Leader’ to fit with our own ideals, not drift towards the way the ‘grey parties’ let their leaders completely dominate the agenda.

We will now, of course, have to choose the right people to represent us. Contrary to the fears of some on the Empowerment campaign, I don’t think we are in much danger of electing a disaster or, as their website postulated, "someone with no charisma, a loose cannon, out of line with policy, inflexible, reinforcing stereotypes, having their own agenda or worse."

Given the wealth of leading Greens who don’t fit that description, I’m sure we can avoid this fate. Caroline Lucas, Jean Lambert, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, as well as many others, have shown by their work as elected Greens that they can take the lead on implementing Green policies, while being excellent personal representatives of our principles, and we would do extremely well to choose any of them to fill the new posts.

A leader of any group of people will always be considered to represent those people’s values, and that’s as true for me in the coming election for London Mayor, as it is for the new Green Party Leader. Londoners know that their choice will become the face of their city, and they will naturally want to pick someone who will say something positive about them to the outside world.

Voting for me as a Green mayor, for example, would be a very strong statement for Londoners to make. We would be saying we see ourselves as citizens of a young, forward-thinking, socially and environmentally responsible city.

Similarly, although Ken Livingstone has become more distant from ordinary people’s concerns during his eight years in office, there is still something left of the real Londoner in his self-confidence and independence of spirit - the qualities that first brought him victory over both the Conservatives and the Labour Party back in 2000.

Whatever his faults, the fact is that Livingstone still represents something about the way Londoners see themselves. And this need to embody the values of our city is, I think, one reason why Boris Johnson will not, in the end, be a serious contender in this election. To have our city personified by a right-wing, upper-class Tory japester will prove to be a step too far for London’s voters, come May 1st.

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
GEOGRAPHY PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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