Duran Duran's Girls on Film.
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Who’d have thought I’d learn the meaning of life from an Avaaz petition?

Englightenment via Avaaz, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

A visit from my great friend J—. We’d been out of touch for decades but one afternoon a few years ago I was walking in a desultory fashion through the snow in Regent’s Park, looking sadly at the frolicking youngsters, when her phone number popped into my head. I remembered the number because when we were at school I had the most debilitating crush on her, and while such things are on the whole no good to anyone, they do at least have the virtue of making you remember phone numbers, whose first six digits you have dialled often and on flimsy pretexts.

It is a long shot that she is still in the same place but as it’s round the corner I think: why the hell not, and she answers it, which she says is unusual for her as we have reached that period of western civilisation where landline use is largely confined to scammers. We meet up again – and so, every few months, she pops round to the Hovel for a chat and a glass of wine and a game of backgammon.

This time she’s asked to come round at very short notice but as I am at a loose end and could do with some company this is a most pleasant surprise. I had been brooding over a petition that a friend had asked me to sign – for Avaaz, of all people. While its deeper purpose escaped me, the immediate goals of the petition were clear: it laid out three principles for living in 2015 – to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom and “practice [sic] gratitude”.

“We will show kindness and respect towards ourselves and others whenever possible . . .” it began.

They sort of lost me at the words “towards ourselves”, on the grounds that thinking you’re groovy just for the hell of it is an obstacle to self-knowledge. I mean, Prince Charles thinks he’s pretty amazing and look where it’s got him, the meddling fool. After this, the petition invited us to promise that: “We will seek to be wise in our decisions, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and balancing our heads, hearts and intuitions in a harmony that feels right.”

I glance at the photo. In a crowd of happy disposable- cagoule-wearing people there is a young woman with a circlet of flowers in her hair and a heart painted on her cheek. I also notice that we are to listen deeply to ourselves before we listen to others. Would I want to act on the wisdom of a woman who paints a heart on her cheek and sticks flowers in her hair? That boat sailed in the Sixties. The third plank of the petition, in which we are invited to “practice gratitude”, I have no problem with, but one out of three isn’t enough.

As I’m thinking about this, I get an email asking me if I’d like to be interviewed for a forthcoming television programme. The world has gone mad, I conclude.

J— comes round with a nice bottle of white. I rustle up a couscous and invite her to talk because I gather she has been having a rotten time of it lately.

As she talks, a suspicion that had begun to form a few days earlier – while I’d stared at that meaningless petition – grows, like a crystal in a kid’s chemistry set. The details of J—’s tale will remain private but they involve legal matters, which, unusually even for legal matters, defy all notions of common sense and make the word “Kafkaesque” seem laughably inadequate. She pauses to say that, on the bright side, a plaque is to be put on the wall of the recording studio she runs, acknowledging the important contribution made to local culture by, among others, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

Now, I will not hear a word against these bands, and such a plaque will be an adornment to the area and bring a smile to the lips of many who pass that way. What with one thing and another, and considering all I’ve heard over the past few days; what with the stupid hippies, my ridiculous existence, lawyers, death, Prince Charles, the continuous underlying vapid mutterings of idiocy everywhere, I tell J— that I no longer think that life is meaningless, or a waste, or so on, but that it is, simply, silly.

I think, fleetingly, of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when Arthur decides, after an impromptu song and dance routine, not to go to Camelot, because it’s a very silly place. I wonder if I have offended J— after all she’s been going through but she sighs and says, “Yes, it is silly. I think that’s the word.”

Which makes me wonder: have we inadvertently achieved, as that petition urged us to, wisdom?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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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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