Before reading Matthew d’Ancona’s book, I’d been relatively unconcerned about the fake news phenomenon. I’d seen it as the industrial-level return of an earlier age, when partisan gossip mongers ran candidates’ campaigns. Perhaps the post-war standards of broadcast even-handedness supplied to the millions by BBC News and ITN were an aberration, and fake news purveyors the historic norm. Even during that time we had scandal, corruption and lies. So my view was that while dishonesty had triumphed both in the UK and USA in 2016, fake news was only part of the problem, and there were other structural difficulties with our democracy that also needed attention.
I’m not sure whether d’Ancona’s tract has convinced me that truth is the only, or even the first, place to defend, but I have placed a metaphorical garrison to at least guard the keep. Post Truth links Trump’s re-casting of politics as entertainment and sets out the implication for wider political engagement. D’Ancona argues that news fakery challenges a rational paradigm that stretches back to the Enlightenment and I can’t accept that our search for facts can be so brittle.
Nor am I a buyer for the idea that truth is what arises from arguments in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ – a concept that d’Ancona attributes to Oliver Wendell Holmes. Sure, let ideas battle it out and let’s have great debates, but let’s never pretend that an argument, which can gain popular acceptance on fashion, whim or better marketing, can secure a truthfulness from that acceptance. Otherwise, the earth would once have been flat, and would have become round only when enough people were prepared to believe it. The question of whether the UK should leave the EU is now believed to be settled, but while the Leave camp may well have deployed their ammunition better than the Remain side, it is not widely believed that truth was in their arsenal.
One reason that I’m less concerned than d’Ancona is that I’m less agitated about the spread of postmodernism. D’Ancona identifies that postmodernity has worked its way alongside other societal changes to lead to the emergence of voices that would simply not have been heard say 50 years ago. I think I am more relaxed than he is about the harm that relativism may cause, and in any case I am hopeful that these wider voices will lead to different perspectives and thus the greater scrutiny that d’Ancona rightly calls for.
The last of d’Ancona’s rallying cries has me nodding especially happily. He points out just how easy it is for us all to become passive consumers who construct our identity with little critical thought but instead using dodgy sources to bolster lazily-held opinions. Let’s take back civic responsibility, he almost says, and while it’s less pithy than ‘take back control’ it does have a ring of reality about it.
I think that this notion is especially appealing for me after the general election we’ve just had, and the different claims about who won and what it means for Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. Within the Labour party in particular there is the risk of stifling a much-needed debate about what the election really means and what the party might have to do both in the immediate future and the medium term. D’Ancona reminds us that if we as citizens are to win, then we need to critique, argue, scrutinise and question. It sounds like a good place to start.
Thanks to Ebury Press for the review copy.