Monday, 13 August 2018

Brexit has become an information war


Last July, Liam Fox said a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU should be the “easiest in human history”. He was right. It certainly *should* be. That, however, all depends on knowing what you want. Once we know what we want the EU has a number of templates to cover most eventualities.

The big problem, however, is that this government is struggling to strike a deal with itself. It knows what it wants. They just can't seem to come to terms with the fact they cannot have it. They started off believing they could have all the benefits of the single market with none of the obligations.

Despite being told from the outset that the EU would uphold its own principles the UK political apparatus refused to take no for an answer and has instead devoted all of its intellectual resource to devising creative but implausible workarounds. We've had two years of churn from Tory think tanks, conjuring up ever more elaborate schemes, none of which take into account anything thus far said by Brussels. 

Having lost the argument at every turn, refusing to entertain solutions which could work, they have collectively decided that no deal is workable and will tell any lie in support of that aim. From there we ceased to have debate and moved into an all out information war. 

Here we see the oft repeated assertion that the EU already trades on WTO terms with 120 countries, as do the UK. This demonstrably untrue. You can check for yourself on the EU treaties office database. The fact that Brexiters believe otherwise in the face of evidence from primary sources shows that WTO brexit fanatics are deranged anti-knowledge lunatics. We then find that battle lines are drawn entirely along tribal lines where we see the debate of reasoned debate.

This is exacerbated by the media, particularly the phenomenon of false equivalence which Patrick Howse describes in The New Statesman. "When you have people of goodwill and good intent discussing an issue from different sides, balance can be a useful tool: you tell both sides, and let the audience decide. It breaks down, though, when applied to people who have no interest in telling the truth, and who in fact set out to deliberately mislead. The result is a confused “he says this, but she says that” narrative that gives false equivalence to the truth and a pack of lies".

To a point this is right and certainly in the post-referendum debate we have seen how the Tory Brexiters have resorted to bare faced lying while the BBC gives these liars equal footing with expert testimony. The problem being that our class of experts haven't exactly covered themselves in glory either. Brexit is intensely political and emotionally charged and experts are fallible. The subject matter is also one of considerable breadth where we find experts straying out of their lane to opine on things they know nothing about. 

Being that so many scientists, economists and politicians have a vested interest in the status quo, often disregarding the political motivations of voters, fixating instead on the technocratic issues, they very often cannot see the woods for the trees. Brexit is not just a question of trade and economics. It's a question of what sort of country people want and what they are willing to sacrifice to get it.

The reason we're not getting clarity is because of the way the media functions. It isn't a "balance" issue. It's actually about competence and the way journalists are taught to do research.  They go to their "sources" and ask them what they think and if there are a variety of opinions, they air those opinions. What they should be doing is finding out the truth on an issue, as best they can from their own independent research and reporting on that - stating it as fact. If there are then people who disagree, and there is a controversy, then that should be reported as an adjunct to the report, not as part of it.

If you applied the current methodology to, say, the Normandy Invasion, you would have the BBC reporting Montgomery saying "we are invading Europe", followed by an interview with Rommel saying, "this is not the invasion - it is a feint. We fully expect the main push across the Pas de Calais any day now".

Howse being a former BBC journalist sees the problem in respect of the BBC and misdiagnoses it. He does not understand that this is a problem affecting all legacy media journalism; the obsession with "biff-bam" adversarial news reporting.

When you think of it though, this is the way we do our politics, so it is hardly surprising that the media should do political reporting the same way... "the government says this, but the opposition says that". This then bleeds into all forms of reporting. At fault, therefore, is the fundamental structure of the way we do news.

The more you think about it, the more it becomes obvious. Facts have no fixed quantum: facts are what people with prestige assert. The greater the prestige, the greater the authority of the facts asserted. However, if someone of equal or equivalent prestige asserts something different, then their dissent must be recorded.

Thus, influencing the media becomes a process of acquiring or developing prestige. All influencers play the game, exacerbating the problem. The battle becomes one of building the level of prestige to support one's preferred set of "facts", rather than in acquiring more and better evidence to support them. Prestige trumps evidence every time.

This is problem I routinely encounter when arguing with WTO Brexit fanatics. For all the forensic analysis done on the issue, painstakingly dismantling the numerous misapprehensions, it is all nullified when Sky News, without any verification, runs the headline "Brexit will not cause UK trade 'disruption' - WTO boss".

Here it then becomes a question of who you choose to believe according to your own political bent. The EU's own Notices to Stakeholders flatly contradict such an assertion if you know what it is you're looking at but so long as the it lacks prestige it lacks authority even though it's as official as official gets. Disbelief is a choice and once a person has made that choice there is little you can do to talk them out of it - which is why I no longer try. I know a waste of time when I see one. 

Once these misnomers are lodged in the public debate the propagandists will make good use of them and without trusted authoritative media scrutiny, a lie travels around the world while the truth withers on the vine. Almost every day now we see the repetition of a same handful of lies penned by those with prestigious titles with no regard to the facts. Depressingly the legacy media is still trusted and editors are now abusing that trust for political ends.

Unless this malfunction in the media can be addressed there is no possibility of a functioning democracy. A democracy cannot function if public debate is reduced to factionalism, trading manufactured narratives based on deliberate falsehoods. If professional liars are setting the agenda then the public become victims of their democracy rather than masters of it. 

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