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Press: The big, bad Fox and the many little porkies

24 February 2023


WHY has no one yet denounced J. K. Rowling as the Great Whore of Babylon?

The relevance of this question to the Anglican schism may not immediately be obvious, but, I think, the emotional dynamic is the same in both rows: in the fevered progressive denunciations of the author, and in the solemn conservative anathemata pronounced against the Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Synod.

In both matters, I’m on the side of those denounced, which makes it quite urgent to understand the otherwise inexplicable fervour of their enemies. It stems, as I wrote last week, from a dynamic of betrayal: here, betrayal by a spiritual leader, someone who was both a moral exemplar and who held open the door into a world of magic and significance. This is also how Luther must have felt about the Pope, and Protestants more generally about the corruptions of the Church of Rome.

Obviously, there are all kinds of other motives involved, once these campaigns get rolling: the enjoyment of cruelty and bullying, when these are morally sanctioned; the desire to remain in step with your friends and your community; fear of the consequences of being denounced for heresy yourself; the desire for power and prestige. But these operate on both sides and in all conflicts. There is nothing distinctive to them here.

Given the power of these motives, it would be foolish to think that the Church of England can be separated cleanly from the Global South. The split runs through the Church here, too. The next stage to watch for will be the secession of large conservative Evangelical congregations to the oversight that the conservative Primates are offering.

This kind of thing will have been planned a long way in advance. If it happens, it will be presented in a way to do maximum damage to the rest of the Church.

AND so to happier — or at least very different — things. Fox News is being sued for libel in the US by a maker of electronic voting machines, Dominion, for claiming that the companies’ machines were hacked to produce a crooked majority for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

This claim was central to Mr Trump’s pretence that he had not lost the election, something taken up and shamelessly amplified by Fox News’s biggest hosts, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, all through the autumn, until the invasion of the Capitol and the attempted coup on 6 January 2021 (Comment, 15 January 2021). But the lawsuit has uncovered a cache of internal messages that show that the presenters — and Rupert Murdoch himself — knew perfectly well that Mr Trump was lying.

The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times have all gleefully and variously reported from the trove of 50,000 internal emails and texts unsealed last week. We learn that Sydney Powell, one of Mr Trump’s lawyers, was “a complete nut” and “lying”, according to messages sent among the top presenters on the channel.

Mr Murdoch himself described the Trump campaign’s claim that the election had been stolen as “really crazy stuff” in one memo. It was “very hard to credibly claim foul everywhere”, he wrote, adding in another note that Mr Trump’s obsession with trying to prove fraud was “terrible stuff damaging everybody”.

“What [Mr Trump]’s good at is destroying things,” Mr Carlson wrote. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”

So they knew the truth. But they dared not admit it in public. For 25 years, the network had flourished and grown by telling the viewers entertaining and comforting lies that they wished to hear. And now it was a prisoner of its own success.

The market for the Trump fantasy world was so profitable that smaller, specialised, even crazier outfits, such as One America News Network and Newsmax, had sprung up to the right of Fox, and the viewers were heading over there to be told what they wanted to hear.

The leadership at Fox understood very well that the appetite for lies in their audience was insatiable, and that huge efforts must be made to keep their fantasy world coherent. When a Fox reporter in Washington fact-checked a Trump tweet to point out that there was no evidence that any voting system had been compromised, Mr Carlson wrote to Mr Hannity: “Please get her fired. Seriously. . . What the fuck? I’m actually shocked. . . It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

What is perhaps most striking is that, when these men kept on worrying about the station’s “credibility”, they did not mean its truthfulness, but the consistency of its mendacity. It needed to be credible to the audience that it had created, which was determined to believe stories that the storytellers knew to be lies.

The story shows that, in the end, those who chase an audience will end up as its prisoners, and those who treat their readers as children are condemned to read them bedtime stories.

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