Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues stand inside a cage during their trial. Photo: Getty.
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Egypt’s Al Jazeera verdict: the death of the free press

The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. And yet, the day before their verdict, the US government released £338m of military aid to Egypt's repressive new rulers. 

Let’s start with the basics. The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. There was no case against them. The Australian correspondent Peter Greste, the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohmmed Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were all charged with “terrorism-related offences”, including destabilising the country and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s former ruling party, which was branded a terrorist organisation in December 2013.

In another context, their trial could have been a black comedy, so ridiculous was the “evidence” presented against them. Their satellite phone – standard equipment for jobbing journalists reporting on a revolution in a country where the phone lines are constantly cut – was paraded in front of a crowded court room as high-tech spy equipment. The videos screened as evidence of their covert support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood included a Sky News documentary on horse welfare, a BBC documentary about Somalia and a song by the Australian singer Gotye. Local media toed the government line by referring to the journalists as the “Marriot cell” after the hotel where the journalists were staying.

The only “crime” Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed can be accused of is a commitment to journalism in a country keen to suppress inconvenient truths. Since Egypt’s July 2013 revolution – which saw the replacement of Egypt’s only democratically elected but deeply unpopular president Mohammed Morsi with a military-backed government – the security forces have conducted a campaign of brutal repression. Last summer, hundreds of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed and thousands injured when security forces opened fire on protests. Since then, hundreds more have been sentenced to death, and even secular critics of Egypt’s new government face jail.

These Al Jazeera journalists reported on the bloodshed and interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members. No journalist with an interest in reporting the truth could have neglected to do so. But they faced two problems. First, from its first days in power, Egypt’s new government has sought to muzzle the media. Second, Al Jazeera is financed by Qatar – one of the biggest funders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This means the news channel – once seen as a champion of the Arab Spring because of its coverage of government atrocities and popular protests – is now loathed, by both the Egyptian government and large chunks of the public.

There is no doubt that today’s verdict is not only a personal tragedy for these journalists, but a dark day for Egypt’s revolution. It is symbolic of the Egyptian state’s disregard for freedom of press, freedom of speech and individual rights. The verdict comes just a day after 182 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in a mass trial. It is tragic to remember that in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in defence of their freedom and to demand the overthrow of their dictator, Hosni Mubarak. This isn’t just a return to the Mubarak era – it’s much worse.

I had hoped that the international attention on the Al Jazeera trial would have put pressure on the government and judiciary to back down – but no such luck. This farcical kangaroo trial is an international embarrassment for Egypt's new rulers, but when America will still help prop them up, they don't really care. The US announced yesterday that it was unlocking the £338m of military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since Morsi’s ouster.  The US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo for “candid” talks with the country’s new president, the former army chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, on human rights. Evidently, however, human rights were not a high enough priority for Kerry to risk America’s relationship with Egypt and withhold aid.

Greste, Mohammed and Fahmy have already spent 177 days in jail, where they have been locked up for 23 hours a day, and been denied access to newspapers and television, or any opportunity to prepare their defence. Fahmy had been refused medical treatment for a dislocated shoulder. Other defendants in the trial said they had been beaten in custody. Last week, Greste’s brother told the Guardian that Peter found his suffering “easier to handle mentally if it’s for a cause”.

The freedom of the press was on trial in Egypt today, and it lost. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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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