For most of my life, I wrestled with the nature of truth as it was reported in the so-called free press of modern, democratic Australia. Not yet a teenager in the early 1960s, I was already pouring over the printed word in books of fiction, but more significantly, in the daily newspapers my parents had delivered to our doorstep.
World happenings were of great import in our home where conversation sometimes bubbled, but also burst over current affairs that hit the headlines. Ambitious to become a journalist, I devoured many of my mother’s non-fiction philosophy collection including an American text called Philosophy Made Simple. This text described and defined particular philosophers’ original perspectives such as Plato, Descartes, J.S.Mill, Socrates, Kant, Satre and Hume, among others. The nature of truth was common conjecture for many of them, highlighting a complex issue about journalism and the recording of truth supposedly intrinsic in a free press. China, Russia and other communist countries were infamous as prohibiting independent and individual opinion if it criticised, even questioned, the ruling elite, publishing persuasive propaganda instead of inconvenient truths. That’s what I believed and thought in my teens.
Now in the global west, with the mainstream and social media mayhem of political correctness, post-truth, fake news, alternative facts and digital delusions supposedly sabotaging the truth, is the notion of truth inviolable in a free press? Or has technological wizardry, manipulative marketing and clever clinicians specialising in spin made it no more than a naive and ignorant misunderstanding about the nature of a free press and truth itself ?
Jean-Paul Satre first inspired an appreciation of freedom as relative when I was an adolescent reading The Age of Reason, recognising that the freedoms we cherished in Australia were indeed relative, not just in the laws that proscribed our behaviour, but more insidiously and perilously perhaps, in the socially accepted dictates of ethics, morals and attitudes that imbued people’s lives beyond the statute books. Moreover, these ethics, morals and attitudes were different depending on your pecuniary and professional status, gender, colour, religion, sexual preferences and political beliefs, among other things.
Today, when the nature of a free press and the truth are lamented as an anachronism of past press glory, is there really such an entity as a free press and just how “free” is it? Was there ever? How free could it be? Should it be? In the late 60s and early 70s, comparing the media in Australia to Communist China, for example, it seemed a free press flourished here as journalists were permitted to publicly criticise and condemn various governments for what ‘they’ perceived as erroneous policies or laws. “They’ being the operative word as journalists on diverse newspapers were individually or collectively deciding what was erroneous and needed to be addressed.
This so-called free press often encompassed conflicting ideas about what was erroneous in different newspapers, with these newspapers or the companies that owned them having their own individual agenda about freedom by choosing what they published and more significantly, how the story was published. Contextually, the truth seemed different in different newspapers, with permutations of truth meandering around public discourse with stories in one newspaper often omitted and/or substantially different from another. The publication or not of certain stories with certain facts made ascertaining real truth difficult.
For example, one story I read two years ago in a well-respected Melbourne newspaper reported an increase in suspensions of Year 8 male students at government secondary schools. The story did not include why these students were suspended leaving me to assume about the students’ behaviour resulting in these suspensions. How could I possibly know the truth about these suspensions and the boys, the schools and maybe too, their families or social environs? Discussing this with an employee on the newspaper later, albeit in the pictorial section not a journalist, her defence of the story was the reporter, no less education reporter on the paper, was a young girl just twenty years old. That was no excuse for me except shoddy journalism where significant facts were unpublished and obfuscated the truth. It’s not the first time I’ve read stories in newspapers where basic and significant facts are not included and while I used to pen letters to the editor raising some of these facts, the newspapers no longer publish my letters. So how then can we ever know the truth?
Certainly, while one news outlet might regard freedom to publish what it wants as paramount and integral to its freedom, another news outlet might just as ‘freely’ NOT publish what it deems as damaging to the ruling elite or as a challenge to the status quo, albeit one that is conservative, conventional and conformist. Stories based on veritable facts are often not published for reasons I can only surmise are too controversial or contrary to the newspaper’s particular agenda, whether political, social or sexual et al. Moreover, by only including certain facts and quotes from interviewees who are usually selected personally by the journalist too, manifests all reportage as limited in knowing the truth in its entirety. We may glimpse a particular truth but would that truth change if we knew more facts and more disparate people were interviewed to discuss them.
Even more pertinent to a free press is actually how a story is published, including the headline, its layout, its pictorial content and what context and perspective the story appears in. That begs the question as to whether any journalist can realistically be objective about the truth, as journalists on newspapers select some facts as more salient than others, presenting them in their own writing style and choosing words to convey a meaning to create an engaging narrative for the reader. This choice, conscious or unconscious, engenders an emotive response and believing words have no implicit emotional impact is fallacious as any writer and reader can attest.
This fundamental understanding about language invites reflection on the notion of post-truth as traditionally innate to all reportage and not some new 21st century phenomenon designed to transcend objective facts with emotional and personal beliefs as the Oxford Dictionary defined it in 2016. Journalism has always been, and always will be personal as a journalist is continually exercising personal judgments about facts, no matter how consciously intent he/she is on adhering to an objective, professional code of conduct. What transpires in his/her unconscious is another issue altogether, rendering genuine objectivity an idealistic fantasy and humanly impossible. Journalists employed usually reflect a newspaper’s ideology and beliefs which may occasionally publish an opinion piece offering new insights or perspectives that diverge from their agenda. However, it is rare to read one in our daily free press. Political correctness is thereby nothing new just a modern and/or convenient appellation and explanation for particular agendas that have been inherent in press practices for centuries.
As ideas and insights that run counter to maintaining the status quo are too often unpublished, is the press here really free? Does it adhere to so-called democratic values of freedom or is it manipulating “control” similarly to what supposedly happens in countries where governments practise censorship and disseminate propaganda? Moreover, if freedom is relative as I believe, how are radical, albeit reasonable arguments, represented in the press? Are they at all? Maybe the only difference between so-called western democracies and countries more obviously censoring critiques, is that newspapers aren’t owned by governments in the west with decisions about what’s published concentrated in the minds of media moguls who ‘propagandise’ their views nonetheless. As was revealed in the 2012 Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, journalists and their newspaper proprietors were associates and friends of politicians, regular visitors to 10 Downing St for lunch and dinner. It is not a new phenomenon either with the truth more an ethereal dream, out of sight, out of reach and out of touch with reality.
While journalist purists may lament the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts as distorting and destroying the truth, I can only ponder whether presenting facts with emotive language is any less ‘fake’ than what is purportedly occurring under Trump’s presidency. For example, living and working in the media in Britain for seven years more than 40 years ago, I read about 10 daily newspapers every morning as well as watching the BBC news and current affairs programs and independent television. Stories with supposedly the ‘same’ facts were written and presented very differently, not just via language, but more importantly, in the context of the story’s presentation, often wondering what the ‘true’ story really was. The diverse newspapers were owned and managed by a disparate range of businesses including the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) to the conservative Daily Mail, while the Labor Party had ties to the Daily Mirror and the Tories to the Telegraph.
Certainly, such a diversity of opinions and ideas reflected democracy at work but were some of the stories ‘manufactured’ in the way the facts were revealed and the people chosen as interviewees to present a particular view? Maybe they were not fiction or deliberate lies as fake news is perceived now, but faction, a mix of fact and fiction to present a persuasive argument about social, political or economic affairs of state apposite to their agenda. Too often assumptions appeared as truth with lies of a more subtle kind covertly and cleverly disguised as a presentation of objective facts. Many of these ‘objective facts’ were actually depicted in an alternative perspective and appeared as alternative facts. Pardon my pedantic semantics, but is there a critical distinction I don’t comprehend? Unthinking and ignorant people sadly cannot understand any distinction and it was hard at times to see one, as if alternative facts were just part of a free press. And as British art critic and intellectual, John Berger articulated in the 60s, each and every one of us has our own unique ‘ways of seeing’ including journalists. Mark Twain also suggested in the 19th century to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
Furthermore, libraries, universities and research institutes are full of history books with a myriad of interpretations, analyses and understandings of “objective facts” about humankind and its behaviour; so too science, politics, economics and sex, among other things. As German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in Human, All Too Human: “There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths.”
What Trump and his team are ostensibly now implementing is a selection process of news deemed ‘worthy reportage’ such as that of Breitbart as opposed to CNN. For example, at his first all-in press conference with 200-plus reporters, Trump dismissed CNN reporter, Jim Acosta as “You are fake news” without answering his question. Trump was exercising a freedom of choice but in so attacking Acosta he was in my view, sinking to a self-demeaning depth by deprecating a professional reporter just doing his job. Trump’s verbal disparagement had its own emotive delusion about news per se and revealed him as too inept or stupid to respond with a more powerful and clever retort. What transpired on social media later was “The rest of the news people should have given the floor to Acosta, they were just as bad as Trump in that regard. Shame!” According to The Age Comment article by correspondent, Paul McGeough, “When Trump tells Acosta to be quiet, where is the outrage from the other journalists in the room? In one voice: “ANSWER THE QUESTION!” McGeough asserts in his final paragraph that Trump showed “no respect for press freedom,” preaching to the reporters about the need to have “some moral compass”.
Trump may indeed have no respect for press freedom, but when so many politicians not just in America but worldwide employ smart spin specialists to write their scripts, where is genuine press freedom? Furthermore, how many politicians have failed to answer the precise question they are asked? In Britain in the late 70s, PM Margaret Thatcher was brilliant in avoiding answering confronting questions, accomplishing this feat without obvious rebuttals, instead deflecting focus by wordy waffle to confuse and frustrate the reporter so he/she did not realise she hadn’t answered the question. With a myriad of red herrings in her replies, delivered coolly and calmly, she specialised in fake news, post-truth and alternative facts as real and relevant. This modus operandi has been part of the political landscape since my interest in politics in my teens.
I don’t know what the truth is about that Trump press conference except the entourage of journalists did NOT express outrage. Were they simply being politic to ensure invites and entre to the next press conference? And just how different is Trump’s supposed freedom to silence whoever he likes to these same news outlets not publishing anything complementary about him? Is he any different to Thatcher, whose rambling digressions failed to answer questions either. Political disillusionment with politicians is now so endemic in the west with people no longer believing the ‘truth’ about anything they say, including me, though my disillusionment started in 1969 when I reported Victorian State Parliament. Way back then, clever politicians were also skillful in using language to deny the truth and or disguise it as a tolerable, accepted norm in political power ploys. To me it seems McGeough is disseminating anti-Trump propaganda as much as Trump is encouraging pro-Trump propaganda and in the context of a free press and democracy, is there a political difference? I’m not a Trump supporter but on one level he is “honest” in not answering the question rather than ostensibly answering with a misrepresentation of facts as Thatcher did and so many other politicians still do. This suggests that the nature of the free press might just be an anomaly in every country and that democracy per se and the truth are circumscribed by a realpolitik more significant than any freedoms.
As another Age American correspondent, Josephine Tovey, commented recently, “Trump’s admonishing of the media as the “enemy of the people” (simultaneously selecting) parts of the media…that share and reinforce Trump’s view” is an aspect of society where people live in bubbles – “only reading and watching things that confirm (their)…world view”. The reality is that this is not new either; most people reading newspapers that reinforce their opinions as I propounded earlier. The difference may just be Trump is the US President and we expect reason and respect from him towards the media, ‘expect’ being all significant. More fool those so deluded.
In view of this, I relate a couple of personal, journalistic experiences that reinforce how political reportage was only ‘relatively’ free and democratic in the late 60s in Melbourne and in the 70s in the UK. In 1968, after just a few weeks as a cadet journalist, my newspaper employer, a non-Murdoch conservative daily and the biggest selling morning daily in Australia that supported the Liberal Party Government’s policy to participate in the war in Vietnam, dismissed my offer of writing a story about a conscientious objector to the war who was called up with conscription. Refusing to fight, he was imprisoned for flouting the law. Determined to highlight he had no right of dissent as was supposedly happening in Communist China who we were waging war against because of their undemocratic practices, I penned a letter to my newspaper’s competitor which was published much to my joy. Suffice to say my newspaper company’s editor-in-chief wanted to sack me as the paper’s editor told me later, purportedly because when you work for one newspaper you don’t write letters to another. I told him I thought it wasn’t about the letter per se, but about what I’d written in the letter. I wasn’t sacked but the editor warned me to be “careful” about writing letters, my reading between the lines was “keep your politics out of work”. For more than twenty years in the media, I adhered to that.
In another episode in 1971, non-political I could argue and still working on the same newspaper, I interviewed Hollywood movie star, Rock Hudson, who was visiting Melbourne. He narrated how he had been “stereotyped” as a handsome, debonair, ladies man, disliking that stereotype as limiting and inappropriate. The story wasn’t published much to my disappointment, later being told Hudson was a homosexual but he didn’t mention it and I didn’t know. Was that the unspoken reason why the story was unpublished? Asking exactly why it wasn’t, I was brushed off with the lame excuse that readers wouldn’t be interested in my story. So much for a free press, eh?
Four years later in Britain, I researched a TV documentary about a violent woman who had surgery involving burning part of her hypothalamus supposedly to cure her violence. Only working on this doco after the operation, I found out that the pioneer of these operations, a Professor Sano in Tokyo, Japan, had been discredited, the operations being banned as dangerous to mental health amidst public protests in Tokyo against them. Imparting this to the doco’s director in horror at the Yorkshire neurosurgeon who had undertaken the surgery on this woman, I hoped he would confront the neurosurgeon and take a strong position about having these operations banned in the UK. He did nothing, nor did the executive producer of the science department in which I worked when I informed him about the Japanese ban, too. It wasn’t even included as a fact in the documentary at all and I was told the neurosurgeon knew what he was doing and what would I know? Telling him I’d telephoned Tokyo University and spoken to the relevant scientists and medicos in the Department of Neurosurgery counted for nothing. My research was silenced, the TV company department’s agenda intact to highlight supposedly breakthrough science under a banner of science documentaries ironically called Discovery. The irony of what I’d discovered by passed them all. Not only that but the woman informed me about her life; physical and emotional abuse in a Catholic orphanage followed by abuse with men. Her violence focused on breaking into public gas meters, phone boxes and other easy to destroy dispensers for money. She had also been a street prostitute to pay for food for her five young children. The documentary included no reference to her parlous circumstances and made no mention of her poverty, disadvantage and deprivation of love and caring as a possible explanation for her angry outbursts of violence. The truth was surrendered to the notion of sensational TV. I left the company soon after the doco was broadcast nationally in Britain to much acclaim. It was 1976.
Going on to work in London in an independent TV company, one of the senior reporters on an international current affairs show made a 30-minute program juxtaposing the issue of Northern Ireland’s self-determination with comments from The Queen, implying The Queen was ignorant and merely dispensing spin for the Government, British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary. Without knowing or appreciating any of the complexities or basic facts about events in the province she appeared as a stupid fool with the program consequently banned and never broadcast. I viewed it in house at a private company screening. Political correctness abounded in 1978 at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the program deemed too insulting, controversial and/or inflammatory for the British public to think about; so much for the truth.
In the same year, the same company made a series about sex in our times which featured women learning to masturbate. Never seeing the series I was informed it was also banned and denied broadcast as masturbating women couldn’t be talked about on public TV.
Politics, sex, science and more…propaganda flourishes in western so-called democracies as much as in China, Russia et al. Deluded into believing the west is not orchestrated by a conspiracy of control, too many people have no idea that post-truth, political correctness, fake news and alternative facts have been part of a media landscape since I began perusing the press. The concept of a free press may just be a social construct to impress us with false expectations and unrealistic beliefs. It just doesn’t exist as quintessentially free with convenient and conciliatory truths too often dominating our media instead of those perceived as inconvenient and incompatible with our so-called democratic values.
The last word goes to 20th century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote: “To imagine a language is to imagine a lifestyle” and to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which is as relevant to the nature of a free press and truth as it is to science.