Published on Sunday, November 19, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
The Truth is Out There ... Somewhere
by Will Hutton
Information is everywhere. A couple of clicks of your mouse and via Google or Wikipedia, you can check out anything pretty much instantaneously. Last week, even the Chinese government gave up its futile blocking of the Wikipedia website, while British citizens can now watch an English-language version of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV station. If you want a counterweight to the West's view of Islam, terrorism, Iran and the Middle East conflict, here it is.
Thus the paradox. So much information seems to mean its degradation. As the websites, podcasts and narrowcast television channels multiply, it becomes easier to find information that suits your prejudices or, at least, is cast in a context that suits your prejudices. If you want proof that rising carbon in the atmosphere does not cause climate change, the CIA and Israel were behind 9/11 or The da Vinci Code is true, you can now find it. Truth always was in eye of the beholder. Now the beholder can create the truth he or she wants.
Nobody can be sure where this trend will lead. Optimists say that the democratisation of information is vastly empowering, against which not even the last bastion of thought control, the Chinese Communist party, can hold out. The capacity to abuse and spin information on twisted websites or biased television will be short-lived because it will be challenged by true information. Good information ultimately chases out the bad.
Pessimists say that we are living in an era in which objectivity is collapsing, in which the avalanche of information becomes the excuse not to seek after the truth, but, rather, to seek for what you want to be true. The greater this appetite and the greater the capacity to meet it, the more powerful have become those whose trade is fashioning information to meet our demands - the media - with little or no accompanying rise in their accountability. Against the charge that they are compromising truth and objectivity, the media's comforting reply is that they are only responding to popular demand.
And thus a vicious downward spiral, with the casualty being impartiality. This has been the direction of travel for the last 20 years, reinforced by a postmodern conviction that there can be no truth because everything depends on context. Objectivity is an impossible dream. This, for example, was the argument used by the American right in 1987 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine that, since 1929, had obliged American broadcasters to try to report fairly and impartially. The doctrine was based on bad philosophy, Reaganites argued; impartiality was just a cloak for liberals to present their particular point of view as objective. The best objectivity was to allow a multiplicity of opinions and views and let the viewer and listener choose.
This opened the floodgates to the right-wing 'shock jocks' of American radio, to the establishment of Fox News, cheerleader for the Republican party, and to reporting where the aim has been to prove the preconceived prejudices of news editors and, above all, to entertain.
The University of California's John Zaller claims that on American television by the mid 1990s, the number of human-interest stories had doubled while the ratio of hard news stories collapsed to a third of what they were. The culture has crossed the Atlantic. A survey by the British Film Institute a few years ago reported that 52 per cent of those working in television news and current affairs felt the need to distort contributors' views to make programmes more exciting and watchable. Objectivity could go hang.
The impact on Britain's public discourse is hard to deny. For example, no account of the dangerous decline in vaccination against mumps, measles and rubella is complete without the way the media hyped Dr Andrew Wakefield's infamous, and wrong, study linking the MMR vaccine with autism. Facts are distorted to create an alternative 'truth'.
This culture impacts on politics, most calamitously in the way the American media and, to a degree, our own, colluded in President Bush's portrayal of Saddam Hussein as a supporter of international terrorism and a world menace. The collapse of the Fairness Doctrine and the desire to serve up what American media consumers wanted - patriotic support of their President at a time of national peril - meant a virtual suspension of American journalism. There was faint criticism of Bush's case, little scrutiny of the claims made about WMD and no bite, until recently, in assessing policy after the war.
The pessimists are right except in one respect - they underestimate the ability of individuals collectively to want to understand, notwithstanding their prejudices and beliefs, and, thus, ultimately the power of truth to win out.
Tomorrow sees the launch of Oxford University's Reuters Institute of Journalism, with an opening lecture by Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, on why the American media so neglected their responsibilities over Iraq, the Bush administration's attempt at information control and the disastrous consequences. Like Polis, its newly established counterpart at the London School of Economics, the institute's aim is to ask hard questions about the practice of journalism.
The two institutes are part of a wider process in which the quest for fairness and an accurate depiction of reality, win out - and to which al-Jazeera also contributes. For, despite postmodernism and the temptation to distort, truths remain. The MMR scare turned out to be a scare; climate-change deniers have to explain why world temperatures are rising; Israeli intransigence towards Palestine is self-defeating.
I have been a pessimist in the way the media have developed over the last few decades but paradoxically, the freedom to express this pessimism is one of the very forces that may create some self-correction. The Chinese could not resist Wikipedia. The Western media, in the last resort, cannot resist the demand that we should be able to trust them - as long as there are honest voices prepared to be self-critical and media leaders prepared to hear. The battle, at least, has begun. And the ammunition is information.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2006