There’s much talk of “post-truth politics” as if it were the sole creation of social media and fake news websites. This is misleading, because the mainstream media – and in particular the prominence given to Westminster correspondents – is itself partly to blame.
I’m prompted to say this by Tom Crewe’s superb account of the Tories destruction of local government. Austerity is not merely an abstract policy, but causes real damage in the form of closures of libraries and Sure Start centres, cuts to bus routes and increased homelessness. And to this we could add worse flood defences, less care for the elderly and disabled and increased likelihood of prison riots.
It’s in this context that Westminster political reporting is positively dangerous. In presenting politics as a “he says, she says” knockabout, the ground truth of real damage to real people is overlooked, and instead it becomes merely a matter of abstract debate.
George Osborne managed to present himself as being on the side of devolution because he talked so much about the “Northern powerhouse”. But the reality of big cuts to local government meant he was in fact a centralizer. Post-truth Westminster correspondents who listened to words rather than looked at ground truth let him get away with this.
This trend, of course, contains a vicious class bias. “He says, she says” reporting tends to be deferential towards those in power. This isn’t just because they have better-resourced PR departments but also because, as Adam Smith said, there’s a “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful.” Such reporting also favours those with superficial charm and over-confidence – traits more likely to be possessed by men from rich backgrounds such as Cameron and Farage. And of course in giving a voice to Westminster politicians, the voices of people on the ground are not heard.
All of this is to support Paul Mason who says:
One of the most pitiful things about the political class...is their distance from the actual experience of work.
A media which paid more attention to the ground truth of workplace coercion, wage stagnation and casualization would give us a better understanding of strikes than “he says, she says” debates between partisans. But this is absent in post-truth reporting.
What I’m appealing for here is for journalists (and economists) to get their shoes dirty, to look for facts on the ground rather than quotes from “senior sources” who are themselves often ignorant or careless of ground truth; in fairness, many do so – though I suspect these tend to the less well-paid reporters*. It’s people like Kate Belgrave and projects like Migrant Voice or Unpaid Britain we should listen to more than empty suits and gobshite columnists. Remember the original and correct meaning of Raymond Wolfinger’s words: the plural of anecdote IS data.” All of this, however, is a long way from a lot of the journalism we get.
* I know, I risk the charge of “physician, heal thyself” here. But I like to think that in my day job I don’t confuse getting a quote from a fund manager with pursuing the truth.