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The Power and the Story: fact, fabrication and the shaping of the modern media

Author John Lloyd is amazed at how Donald Trump has “set about trashing” the practice of journalism.

“Don’t you understand that if something is not on TV it doesn’t exist? Not a product, a politician nor an ideal!” Addressing one of his closest aides, in an exchange reported in a book published in 2006, Silvio Berlusconi enunciated the first principle of commerce and politics in our time: to be is to be perceived in the media.

Acting on this maxim, Berlusconi amassed an empire in which he and his family controlled half of Italy’s television output, a quarter of the national papers, half of the news magazines and the biggest Italian publishing house. At the same time, using staff from his advertising business Publitalia, he created from nothing a political party, Forza Italia – an expression, usually translated as “Go, Italy!”, which until then had been used mainly at international football matches. Through this he was able to enter parliament (where deputies enjoyed immunity from prosecution) and serve as prime minister in four governments.

Struggling to describe Berlusconi’s extraordinary personality, John Lloyd writes:

…no biography has yet been able to do justice to the amalgam of arrogance, boldness, cynicism, determination, empathy, grotesquerie, hope, intuition, jocularity, kindness, lying, malevolence, nobility, opacity, quixotry, romance, self-confidence, trickery, understanding vindictiveness, wackiness, X-ratedness, youthfulness and zip that he contains.

But it may not have been only this improbable combination of attributes that enabled Berlusconi to build his empire in the media and politics. There may also have been a body of theory, which guided some of those involved in its construction. According to Andrew Hussey, the biographer of the French situationist thinker Guy Debord, one of Berlusconi’s lieutenants boasted that Debord had taught him all he knew. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord suggested that contemporary capitalism was constructing an omnipresent system of images, distracting people from the reality of their situation and locking them into impoverished lives. Berlusconi’s executive absorbed this theory, and used it to strengthen the hold of the spectacle on Italian society.

It seems unlikely that Debord’s writings are among those studied by Donald Trump’s communications guru Steve Bannon, whose knowledge of European thinkers appears to be confined to a few on the far right. But Trump’s campaign techniques had more than a little in common with the strategies that, 20 years earlier, helped Berlusconi build his empire. “More than any other figure in Europe whose business included the production of journalism,” Lloyd writes, “Berlusconi created a political-media world in which his interests were protected, while at the same time the TV experience was shifted decisively on to the ground of instant pleasure – in game shows, popular films, soap operas, musical spectaculars and high-impact news.” Trump’s campaign exploited social media more than television. But it was similarly demotic, deploying racial slurs, conspiracy theories and what came to be called “alternative facts” to create and mobilise a mass movement against the established political classes in both main parties.

Outrageously transgressive in terms of the liberal norms that shape much of American journalistic culture, particularly in the print media, Trump was also shockingly successful, and the strong bond he forged with his followers has survived his failings in office. In his core constituencies, efforts by mainstream media to demonstrate his mendacity have only reinforced the image Trump had fashioned for himself – that of being a truth-telling outsider besieged by Washington power elites determined to destroy him.

At the end of this exceptionally wide-ranging and informative book, Lloyd expresses amazement at the way in which, aping autocrats around the world, Trump has “set about trashing” the practice of journalism. “That this should be happening in America,” he writes, “is hardly credible.”

Throughout Lloyd’s critical survey, which covers post-communist Russia and Eastern Europe, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, China, India and Japan as well as the US and UK among other countries, he points again and again to the links between the practice of journalism and liberal democracy. Proper journalism requires freedom to investigate and to publish. More, it must be able to provoke some response from the authorities. In the absence of these conditions – which exist only in liberal democracies – journalists are powerless. If any overall message can be gleaned from Lloyd’s account it is that journalism is an intrinsically liberal enterprise, threatened by the same forces that threaten liberalism itself. In fact the relations between journalism and the forces that aim to stifle it are more diverse and conflicting than this simple formula would suggest.

A contributing editor for the Financial Times, formerly its Moscow bureau chief from 1990 to 1995, and a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Lloyd does an impressive job in showing how journalism is vulnerable to the power of the state and the market. In authoritarian regimes – whether or not they sport the trappings of democracy – the license of media companies to operate can be revoked at any time, and journalists may have to make a choice between serving the ruling power or following the story and risking whatever sanctions they might incur. These can include death. Some 20 journalists have been killed in Russia since Putin came to power, many of them following years of intimidation and harassment – such as Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her apartment block in 2006 after having suffered a mock execution by Russian military forces in Chechnya, being poisoned on an airplane and receiving many death threats.

 The suppression of journalists in Putin’s Russia has been viewed as a reversion to Stalinist norms, but as Lloyd points out this is not so. In Russia today there are sections of the press and small radio and television stations that allow dissenting voices and books that criticise the regime. Above all there is the freedom of the Internet (though it may be worth noting that Russian MPs recently voted to curb online freedoms by clamping down on anonymous browsing and access to websites deemed dangerous by the government). There is another difference, though Lloyd does not spell it out. Journalists were not singled out to be killed in Stalin’s totalitarian state. Like millions of others, they were swept up in purges and many perished; but they were not individually targeted for criticising the regime. When the media are state owned and serve a single master, all the journalism that is produced is pre-censored; there is no need to murder journalists for attacking the regime, since no such journalists exist. The violent deaths of journalists testify to the relative weakness of the Russian state, not its strength. In this respect Russia today resembles not so much the Stalinist Soviet Union as contemporary Mexico, where journalists have been assassinated for uncovering webs of complicity between organised crime, state officials, politicians and the police.

Where Putin’s Russia is more distinctive is in the media apparatus the regime operates. Since the Soviet-born writer and former Moscow television producer Peter Pomerantsev’s semi-autobiographical volume Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2014), much has been written on how Putin has created a media operation in which truth no longer has any meaning and objective reporting has been replaced by a weaponised version of post-modern relativism – a view of the Russian media that Lloyd broadly accepts. Certainly Putin’s army of “political technologists” has been remarkably adept at manipulating public perception in Russia and (through the television channel RT – formerly Russia Today – which has tens of millions of daily viewers) many other countries. In the virtual world fashioned by Putin’s media complex, facts are lost in a wilderness of mirrors.

This kind of information warfare, however, is not as new as it seems. Flowing from Lenin’s belief that politics and war are one and the same, deception (maskirovka in Russian) was an integral part of the Soviet state from the beginning. Putin’s strategy of denying the role of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine continues this tradition. Lloyd writes that Lenin “did not adhere to the view that there was an objective truth in events”. But Lenin was no relativist: he was convinced he had understood the logic of history and could use this insight to outwit the West. Believing the West is in retreat and using disinformation to accelerate the process, Putin is not so different.

It is true that the contemporary media environment makes it harder to tell the difference between fact-based reportage and fabricated news. As Lloyd notes, this is why populist movements tend to favour new media over more traditional outlets: “The Net, with its promiscuous mixture of fact, conjecture, partisan spin and fake news, deliberately constructed to gain attention and income, is a much more attractive medium within which to work.” Not all the effects of the Net have been negative. As newspapers have lost circulation, revenue and, in some cases, intellectual content, websites have sprung up that match or surpass the old media in ambition and rigour. Washington-based Politico, with seven-to-eight million unique visitors and 50 million page views each month, is a notable example. Again, some magazines – not least the one in which I write – have bucked the trend of dwindling circulation and declining intellectual content. Even so, the impact of new technologies on old media has been mostly destructive.

One such effect is a relentless focus on subjective sensations and emotions. “Tabloid journalists need a few facts,” Lloyd writes, “but above all they need to stimulate or imitate emotion, an approach now leeched into straight news.” As Lloyd implies, this focus on feeling is largely market-driven. Sensationalism is popular and, in terms of ratings, profitable; much of the public may have little interest in digging into the history and causes of events. But the rise of a fact-light, emotionally manipulative journalism is by no means confined to the tabloids and news media.

Opinion columns nowadays have less to do with the analysis of events and more with whatever feelings of outrage the writer is momentarily gripped by or has confected for the purposes of the column. The idea that a columnist might usefully stand against the temper of the age, chastening readers’ enthusiasms and mocking their pretensions to virtue, is too outlandish to be contemplated. A figure like H L Mencken, who regaled his readers with caustic commentaries on the idealistic follies of what he described as “the booboisie”, is inconceivable today.

 One reason for this situation may be the belief that good journalism and liberal values are joined at the hip. Lloyd is right in arguing that decent journalism can be practiced in any continuing and widespread fashion only against a background of liberal freedoms. The trade of the reporter requires that facts can be uncovered and published without the danger of journalists being silenced. But when facts are denied, ignored or under-reported, the reason is not always the risk of sanctions from governments or media barons. Facts can be marginalised because they do not fit into the prevailing view of the world, which in much of the media is liberal.

Consider immigration. That an increased supply of cheap labour tends to drive down wages is an economic truism. In the same way, sharply increased demand for housing and social services tends to make these services harder to access by those who need them. In both cases the impact is largest on the poorest sections of society. Yet mentioning these facts in any discussion of immigration violates one of the axioms of the prevailing liberalism, which lays down that the economic benefits of immigration always outweigh any costs it may have. For many in the media, this is a self-evident truth that only malignant and morally disreputable reactionaries could possibly deny.

If the job of the journalist is, as Lloyd suggests, “to say, and to show, that this happened”, it can be obstructed in many ways. Not only does the power of the state and the pressure of the market stand in the way. So, at times, do journalists themselves. Showing what is happening is difficult when it undermines an integral part of one’s world-view.

 The inherent tendency of the media at the present time is towards a kind of magical realism – the construction of a fabulous world that is less intractable than the one that actually exists. It is not that the idea of truth no longer applies. Conspiracy theory, which is rife on the internet, is based on the belief that the truth is so blindingly obvious that it must be actively concealed. The function of much of the media – mainstream and alternative – is not to subvert the idea of truth, but instead to render the truth emotionally satisfying.

When he suggested that we were coming to inhabit a media-constructed environment, Debord anticipated a pattern in late 20th- and early 21st-century politics. Berlusconi and Trump, Corbyn and Macron are episodes in media spectacles that reveal and at the same time obscure the conflicts of their societies. Where Debord went wrong was in supposing that the spectacle is unitary, and virtually all-powerful. Many spectacles are at work in today’s fragmented and accelerated media environment, each of them liable to rapid obsolescence or a sudden crash. What will Corbyn’s cuddly anti-capitalism be in a few months? What will have become of Macron’s Napoleonic visions? Berlusconi was right in thinking that if something is not in the media it does not exist. Political projects are now little more substantial than television advertisements, and often have shorter lifespans.

The Power and the Story: the Global Battle for News and Information
John Lloyd
Atlantic Books, 480pp, £25

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game