Radio review: Analysis and The Moral Maze

01 November 2019

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“THE internet is not The New York Times but Times Square.” We would like to think that we understand what the journalist Jeff Jarvis means when he says this; and that we are those consumers of internet news content with the discernment to navigate the rocks and shoals of gossip and misinformation. But what of those who cannot? Should they not be protected from “fake news”?

In Analysis (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Peter Pomerantsev examined the case for a “new censorship”: the kind that is aimed, paradoxically, at protecting democracy and liberal values. The internet has turned the paradigms upside down. Today’s authoritarian regimes will expend at least as much effort flooding news and social media with stories as they will silencing stories of which they disapprove. It is the oppression of the loud-hailer, the force of which has been witnessed most recently by the people of Ukraine and Hong Kong.

What makes this strategy so pernicious is not so much the fake news but the fake identities through which it is disseminated. We heard from Vitaly Bespalov, whose job it was to confect social-media accounts and profiles for the St Petersburg based Internet Research Agency. The trolls employed by such organisations can summon up out of the digital ether any number of claques in support of this candidate or that policy.

And it is this element of the fake news agenda, Pomerantsev argued, which should be challenged. Rather than ban misleading content, and by doing so invite the accusation of illiberalism, insist instead on transparency of origin. How this might be done without compromising the security of those who wish, for very good reasons, to remain anonymous, was not explained — and thus, in avoiding one breach of liberal values, one immediately encounters another.

The Moral Maze (R4, Wednesday) has made it its business over more than two decades to grapple with such conundrums. Last week, it faced head-on one of those paradoxes from which flow so many ethical dilemmas.

“Down with intolerance!” is the slogan daubed on the mental wall of any proper, self-parodying liberal; and Michael Buerk and his team explored the paradox through the case study of Anderton Park School, in Birmingham. “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here,” might be a reasonable response to somebody asking for directions out of that particular moral Spaghetti Junction. The head teacher of a private Muslim school, Assad Zamam, said much the same when he pointed out that, in this case, there had been a very particular breakdown of communication and trust.

Perhaps owing to the current vituperative nature of mainstream politics,The Moral Maze seems a good deal calmer and more reasonable than it used to be, even when Melanie Philips is on the panel. On this occasion, both the LGBTQI+ education campaigner and the Christian Evangelical Alliance spokesman were allowed to give full accounts of their positions, without being drenched in the righteous indignation of a professional opinionista. Exhaustion, perhaps; or a recognition that the hardest ethical dilemmas are nothing compared with the current problems that arise from representative democracy.

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