David Cameron in Liberia: All that glitters is not gold

The Prime Minister will advocate his "golden thread" approach to aid this week - but does he know what he is talking about?

Following his visit to Algeria this week, David Cameron will travel to another African country for a lower profile, but crucially important meeting. The Prime Minister will chair a gathering of the world’s great and good, debating the details of an ambitious, inspirational plan to end extreme poverty within a generation. But is he the right person for the job?

The UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda meets in Monrovia, Liberia, this week. They plan to define a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals. Developing and developed countries will be represented by civil society, government, business, and academia. Cameron, along with the presidents of Liberia and Indonesia, will co-chair.

The defining concept of Cameron's development strategy is the so-called ‘golden thread of development.’ The idea is that development needs to reach beyond aid levels, to focus on other features, such as transparency and better governance. It is hardly revolutionary to suggest development policy needs to go beyond aid – and at the World Development Movement we couldn’t agree more. But Cameron’s emphasis on ‘beyond aid’ is somewhat ironic. His government, to its credit, has stuck to its 30 year promise to reach 0.7 per cent of UK national income in aid. Its record in beyond-aid areas is much less positive.

Development beyond aid is first and foremost about tackling inequality. This is because the extreme inequality we see in many countries today, not to mention at the global level, slashes social cohesion and wrecks children’s life chances. The world has moved on from the days of proclaiming intense relaxation about people being filthy rich. Few now defend extreme inequality; even the denizens of Davos discussed it last week. But Cameron is the man who risked his own political popularity by cutting the top 50 per cent tax rate on the wealthiest in the UK, at the same time as increasing the burden on the less well off. Will he really deal with global inequality? He hasn’t made a good start.

The post-2015 panel has to bring climate change into its deliberations, and it is doing so. This is the must-have component of any sensible blueprint for development. Climate change is already hitting the poorest people in the poorest countries. Worse, if not dealt with, it could completely derail any plan to end poverty. But David Cameron? He is determined to build as many as thirty new carbon-belching gas fired power stations in the UK, a move that will undermine investment in renewable energy for decades. This hardly helps his chances of progressing climate discussions on the global stage.

After the 2008 financial crash proved our financial system is as solid as a house of cards, a beyond-aid development agenda must plan to tame the dangerous power of the financial sector. Amongst a multitude of benefits, doing this would help stabilise and lower the price of food, which can consume as much as three quarters of poor people’s incomes. But Cameron has refused to take serious, common sense action to prevent another banking collapse. For example, he could have separated the high street banks from their gambling investment arms, but instead he has allowed them to remain too big to fail.

Overshadowing all this, is the big economic picture. Cameron is the man who continues to dole out austerity, against the advice of just about everyone – including Nobel prize-winning economists, the International Monetary Fund, and Goldman Sachs. This is similar thinking to the 1980s and 1990s structural adjustment programmes, which were disastrous for developing countries. Even the IMF, which spread these programmes around the world, now acknowledges they failed.

So while Cameron’s support for British aid is laudable, his wider record in government begs questions about his suitability to map out the vital post-2015 plan to end global poverty. Will he tackle inequality? Will he take climate change seriously? Will he tame the financial sector? His recent commitment to deal with corporate tax avoidance is a welcome stride in the right direction (as long as words are followed by action). We can only hope other brave and effective commitments – and reversals of policy to date – will follow.

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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