Fake news: surely the greatest current threat to truth, honest reporting, sincere debate – even to democracy. Falsehood, it seems, is nowadays more powerful than truth, and carries more weight, and telling porkies has become part-and-parcel of public life. So is there anything we can do to stop people, powers and mechanisms messing with the truth?
On Friday 28th September I was proud to see nearly 2,000 headteachers march on Downing Street. I was secretly sorry that, now retired, I had no business to join them. But I was shocked (see my piece for the education press) by government’s cynically untruthful response to their courteously, if firmly, argued concerns about school funding.
Whether he knew the true facts or was badly briefed I don’t know, but Schools Minister Nick Gibb repeatedly asserted that spending per pupil is at record levels. He boasted that the OECD – which compiles international measures – identifies the UK as globally the third-highest spender on education.
The government’s own statistics watchdog has now formally castigated the Department for Education for misrepresenting the nation’s spending on schools. DfE’s much-trumpeted figure included the billions students contribute personally in university tuition fees and even what parents pay for private schooling, rendering its boast a lie.
Staying with education, in an excellent article for The Guardian Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum, fears that Darwin’s theory of evolution is being removed from school curricula around the world. India’s minister for higher education claimed recently that Darwin was “scientifically wrong”, while Israel and Turkey are erasing evolution as a topic of study. Even in the UK some fundamentalist religious schools (Christian, Muslim and Jewish alike) have been accused of clinging to the literal teaching of creation myths. Teaching primitive falsehoods to children in the name of religion is a grievous sin in my book.
In the US Donald Trump derides any report he dislikes as “fake news”. The most powerful man in the world seems able to dominate even media networks hostile to him. Attempts to counter his outrageous statements with facts are dubbed Democrat conspiracies by his supporters, blind to facts.
Back in the UK, no reasonable Brexiter will deny Boris Johnson peddled the myth (emblazoned on the Brexit bus) that leaving the EU would free £350m a week to spend on the NHS: reiteration of half-truth and exaggeration, the stock-in-trade of the habitual political liar.
What can we do? Even our individual opinions on social media can be distorted or selectively quoted to create fake news. Often we can only hope that the truth will eventually emerge from the camouflaging chaff – though, revealed subsequently, it’s often buried amid the latest scandal.
By contrast, it’s been good this week to see Russia’s spokespeople, from its belligerent president down, red-faced while failing convincingly to deny the growing proof of state-sponsored poisoning and hacking: even at home I suspect their posturing is finally sounding hollow, and their counter-accusations almost as absurd as the bungling of their agents who, apart from the tragedy of the death they caused, appear more Johnny English than the sinister Moscow Centre of John Le Carré’s novels.
If we could only turn the clock back, we might emulate something I discovered in the medieval Buckinghamshire Church of Saint Edward the Confessor, Shalstone.
Elizabeth Purefoy was widowed in 1704, aged 32, but lived for a further 61 years. Her memorial tablet reads thus:
She was a Woman of Excellent Sense and Spiritt
Prudent and Frugal
As well as a true friend To the family She married into
And was moreover endued
With all Those Graces and Virtues
Which distinguish and Adorn
The good Wife The good Mother and good Christian
She wrote that epitaph herself: and had it carved and erected in the church during her lifetime. Literally setting it in stone, she ensured that no one could mess with it: no fake news for her, no porkies.
I wish we could do something similar in 2018.