Fake news – such as false reports about the royal family, European Union and immigration – has undermined journalism at a time when we’ve never needed good reporting more, writes Joyce McMillan.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, says Shakespeare in The Tempest; and this strange time of political crisis – since the EU referendum of 2016, and the election of Donald Trump a few months later – has certainly created some strange alliances, and forced many to think again about where the faultlines of politics really lie, under 21st-century conditions.
For many on the left, though, the royal family is, and always will be, a bridge too far for any possible alliance; a bastion of unearned wealth and privilege whose very existence is an insult to the idea of modern democracy.
This week’s documentary on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s visit to Africa – made by Prince Harry’s old school friend Tom Bradby – has been greeted with scorn not only by the media whom Harry and Meghan increasingly attack, but by many ordinary citizens who simply, and rightly, can’t tolerate any hint of self-pity from a couple so surrounded by wealth and privilege, and who believe – like a robust member of the BBC Scottish Debate Night audience this week – that if they don’t want intense media scrutiny, all they have to do is resign their royal titles and privileges, and live as private individuals.
Yet one of the strange things about the present crisis is the way it is creating an increasingly acrimonious rift within the British establishment itself; a rift between those, like the royal family, who want to perpetuate the system by pursuing the traditional path – at least appearing to play by the rules, sharing enough of the wealth to prevent social unrest, engaging with society and its problems – and those who, over the last decade or two, seem to have completely lost the plot, and to imagine that they can go on indefinitely looting the planet and its people without ever being held to account, either morally or legally.
The growing conflict between the Sussexes and the media is a symptom not only of that profound falling-out among the powerful in this country; but also of the fact that in damning the Sussexes as a pair of spoiled brats who should put up and shut up, radicals on the left now find themselves in alliance with some of the most vicious right-wing voices in the UK.
Brexit, murdered migrants and royalty
For look, if you will, at the three major stories dominating Britain’s news bulletins, as the clock ticks down towards Boris Johnson’s Brexit deadline.
The first, of course, is the long agony of Brexit itself. The second is the horrifying discovery, in a lorry container in Essex, of the bodies of 39 would-be migrants to this country. And the third is the Harry and Meghan story, doubtless viewed by many as mere light relief, in contrast to the serious news.
Yet there is one factor that clearly links all three stories; and that is the unchallenged power of certain sections of the British media, closely linked to the unhinged slash-and-burn tendency among the wealthy and powerful, to publish complete untruths with absolute impunity.
The Leave victory of 2016 was made possible by a 20-year campaign of outright lies about the European Union published across a range of British newspapers, often accompanied by shrieking headlines likening our relationship with our European partners to a replay of the Second World War.
The current shocking state of UK immigration policy – cruel, bigoted, unfair, draconian and wretchedly administered – is the direct result of public hysteria about immigration built up over years by a similar media campaign of scare-mongering disinformation about the impact of immigration on British society.
And now, as a public figure newly subject to the scrutiny of the British press, Meghan Markle too is discovering that some sections of our media demand the right to lie with impunity, and in some instances – notably in regard to phone-hacking and incitement to hatred – to break the law without any real fear of redress.
In that respect, and despite her privilege, Meghan Markle too is a victim of this culture, one made doubly vulnerable by the hint of racist dog-whistling in some criticisms of her. And the tone of much of the media response to the Sussexes’ recent decision to take legal action – notably the hectoring “advice” of some tabloid columnists that they play the game, and don’t make more trouble for themselves by challenging media lies and intrusions – has all the bullying hallmarks of a section of the fourth estate all too accustomed to abusing its power at will, and to being allowed by more serious media organisations to set the news agenda in ways that have greatly contributed to the degradation of the quality of British public debate, and therefore to our present crisis.
Insidious media culture
In challenging this situation, and the accompanying idea that it is somehow OK for our public discourse to be heavily influenced by deliberate untruths knowingly published in the popular media, the Sussexes are therefore picking a fight with a hugely influential centre of power in our society – one that is unaccustomed to challenge, and likely to fight back with some viciousness.
And in this particular fight, royal or not, I feel compelled to wish Meghan and Harry well. It seems to me that if it takes the wealth, clout and high public status of a royal couple to raise a challenge to this insidious media culture of lies with impunity, and power without accountability, then that is better than nothing.
And I believe this, finally, not only because I despise the waves of deliberate, hate-mongering disinformation that have done so much to destroy the Britain in which I grew up. It’s also because, as a journalist, I can see how those who demand the right to lie with impunity damage and degrade the whole vital concept of freedom of speech; and bring journalism itself into disrepute, at a moment when our society has never needed good journalism more – the kind that instead of colluding with the lies of the powerful and self-interested, sets itself to challenge and expose them, and to offer the public, as a basis for their future decisions, not a blinding miasma of false narratives, but the bracing blast of truth that is their birthright.