Feeling the heat (or not)

A fifth of UK households suffer fuel poverty while energy giants cash in.

Last month, secretary of state for energy and climate change Chris Huhne issued the government's latest energy report. The Electricity Market Reform (EMR) white paper makes clear how keen the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to promote investment in gas, despite the fact that the fossil fuel's prices are currently sky-rocketing.

In the same week, DECC published its annual fuel poverty report. This highlights the significant rise in fuel poverty between 2008 and 2009 (most recent figures), with DECC predicting that figures for 2010 and 2011 will have increased further due to ongoing rises in energy costs.

The schism between the two government reports is striking and signals a worrying trend in the British energy market that sees energy corporations taking advantage of the rise in wholesale gas prices to exploit the British consumer to an unprecedented degree.

A household is defined as fuel poor if it spends more than ten per cent of its income on fuel to maintain adequate levels of warmth. Since 2003, soaring gas and electricity prices have been too great to be offset by rising incomes or energy efficiency measures, leading to year-on-year growth in fuel poverty (Fig. 1). In 2009, the number of fuel poor households in the UK was approximately 5.5 million, a rise of around one million from the previous year. In other words, more than a fifth of all UK households are now living in fuel poverty.

Figure 1 - Fuel poverty in the UK, all households and vulnerable, 1996 to 2009

A

Source: DECC Fuel Poverty Statistics 2011

Where gas is concerned, energy firms have blamed enormous price increases on the 30 per cent rise in wholesale cost. However, consumer price rises go far beyond this. Wholesale costs are nowhere near their 2008 peak yet consumer prices are at an all-time high. Energy consumers are therefore being exploited by energy firms at a time when they most crucially require support.

Today, E.ON became the fourth of the six major energy firms to announce increases in its gas and electricity prices, the second rise this year for the company. Scottish & Southern, British Gas and Scottish Power have already announced further price rises.

One of the most worrying outcomes is the impact that this is having on the elderly. Almost 50 per cent of those living in fuel poverty are over 60. Last December, George Monbiot underlined the severity of the UK's failure to address this disgraceful problem:

Although we usually have one of the smallest differences between winter and summer temperatures at these latitudes, we also have one of the highest levels of excess winter deaths. Roughly twice as many people, per capita, die here than in Scandanavia and other parts of northern Europe, though our winters are typically milder. Even Siberia has lower levels of excess winter deaths than we do. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people a year are hastened to the grave by the cold here - this winter it could be much worse.

More widely, the majority of households experiencing fuel poverty are statistically "vulnerable", in other words they contain the elderly, children or someone who is disabled or has a long term illness. In England, over 70 per cent of households are classified as such.

There are several steps that must be taken to address the escalating problem of fuel poverty. For a start, it is fundamental that energy regulator Ofgem starts to assert itself in the face of criminal price hikes. With one of the least regulated energy markets in the developed world, very little will change until the big six are brought under much tighter control.

Investment in energy efficiency measures and implementation of green energy programmes are likewise going to be fundamental to addressing the longer-term energy crisis, particularly in a world needing to get to grips rapidly with climate change and diminishing natural resources.
The energy giants currently have what seems like free reign to do as they please. It's time to tell E.ON and co. to F.OFF.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

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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