I SPENT an hour with some very senior Google lobbyists on Monday afternoon, and there was a lot of talk about the importance of newspapers for democracy.
They weren’t just weeping crocodile tears for a business they have helped to destroy. Americans do tend to believe in a Free Press and Democracy with capital letters, and I suppose the fact that Donald Trump banned The Washington Post from any kind of official presence on his campaign — something that in this country only football managers try — is a testament to the fact that he thinks the paper matters.
But, looking at the ease and speed with which lies fly around the world today, it can’t be said that the media do a very good job of fact-checking. Even Stevie Smith’s wonderful quote “Magna est veritas, et praevalebit — which means that truth is great, and will prevail, a bit” — looks pathologically optimistic some days.
This week, the really dangerous and horrible lies have come from the Right. The claim that £350 million a week is paid to the EU is right up there with the claim the Saddam Hussein was 45 minutes away from launching a chemical attack on Britain. Far more of the people making it or repeating it know that it is a lie this time round than they did when we were preparing to invade Iraq, but no amount of explicatory graphics in The Financial Times will shame them, or undeceive their audiences. Essentially, it is a dramatisation of the claim that we are poor, and foreigners or aliens are to blame.
The second, and to some people more worrying, example is the extraordinary outpouring from Donald Trump, a man who is actually running for the Presidency of the United States as candidate of one of the two main parties.
First, he suggested, on television, that President Obama might be part of a terrorist conspiracy: “We’re led by a man who is not tough, not smart, or has something else in mind. . . The something else in mind — people can’t believe it: they can’t believe he’s acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. There’s something going on.”
Then there was his simple, blank assertion, that Omar Mateen “was born in Afghan, of Afghan parents”, when the man was born in New York City. This is all the more remarkable because he had a (presumably truthful) script in front of him on the teleprompter, but could not resist the urge to lie anyway.
Normal politicians actually seldom lie, though they will often choose their words with care. But it is quite likely that these lies will reward their tellers in ways that the truth never could. The media fact-checkers are powerless against the people’s wish to pull up the drawbridge on their castles in the air. The only thing that would neutralise the liars is that the voters themselves get a sudden craving for the truth.
THIS is a very long way round to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s piece in The Mail on Sunday, but it does, perhaps, explain why it’s more than uplifting waffle. The Archbishop got the splash on the front page to announce he was voting for Remain.
Naturally, the Daily Mail (which hates The Mail on Sunday) ignored the story entirely; but if you actually read the piece, you would find an appeal to the kind of virtues that would give reasons to reject lies and self-deception: “Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless . . . are forward-looking virtues. Those who fought in two world wars were not looking back but forward. Those who built the EU after the two wars, in which millions of Europeans had died, looked forward.”
The practice of such optimism would do a lot more for the country than a free press could on its own — but then I remember some of the first YouGov polling I was shown by Linda Woodhead. One question asked whether people thought British society had got better since 1945: 51 per cent thought it had got worse. Among religious groups, only Jews and Muslims thought it had got better. Anglicans, by a margin of 60:25, believe that society has got worse in the intervening years of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
It would be interesting to know when and where it all went wrong.
STILL, there was bright news for Scottish tourism in The Guardian, which reported that the Scottish Episcopal Church’s vote for gay marriage “will also raise the prospect of a 21st-century Gretna Green, the border village once famous for runaway weddings of young English couples who had not secured legally required parental approval. By the end of next year, same-sex couples who want a religious wedding may head north.”
And, in 15 years’ time, they may have to cross a border fortified against refugees to get there.