Sarah Palin to meet Margaret Thatcher

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sarah Palin has revealed on her Facebook page that she plans to meet Margaret Thatcher (whom she affectionately refers to as "the Iron Lady") on a possible trip to the UK:

Following an article in a British publication on Sunday, I've received questions about a possible trip to the United Kingdom. I have received an invitation for a visit to London, and part of that invitation included the offer of arranging a meeting between myself and one of my political heroines, the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher. I would love to meet her and hope I'll be able to arrange the trip in the future.

As I wrote last year when I offered her birthday wishes, Baroness Thatcher's life and career serve as a blueprint for overcoming the odds and challenging the "status quo." She started life as a grocer's daughter from Grantham and rose to become Prime Minister -- all by her own merit and hard work. I cherish her example and will always count her as one of my role models. Her friendship with my other political hero, Ronald Reagan, exemplified the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

There are lots of brilliant things about this. According to the "British publication" she mentions, the Daily Mail, it was actually Palin's team who made the approach (which seems more realistic -- I somehow can't see Thatcher desperately checking Palin's schedule, waiting for her moment to swoop in and arrange that meeting she's been waiting for).

The Mail also quotes someone "involved with the talks", saying of Palin's team: "Their main interest is getting a picture of her with Lady Thatcher. I'm not sure they know who David Cameron is."

The thread beneath Palin's post is well worth a read, with the comments ranging from "Sit at her feet and learn from her as she is an example of strength and preserverance which you were also given by our Creator" to "Please don't come here!".

Believe it or not, Palin has actually been compared to Thatcher before. After Palin's vice-presidential nomination, the Conservative US commentator Larry Kudlow asked whether "we're not witnessing the western frontier version of Margaret Thatcher". Slightly oddly, Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the late president, said of the same speech that "I saw my dad reborn; only this time he's a she. And what a she!"

I digress. Back to the meeting of the century -- what will they talk about? There is always the shared distaste for unions and penchant for slashing spending, but I can't help thinking that that's where the similiarities end. And, of course, there is Russia . . . the woman the Soviets called the "Iron Lady" talking to the woman who can see Russia from Alaska. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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