As the discussion of fake news grows I have been inclined, without thought, to see it as something generated by the new fast media. Of course, there are new techniques, but I was awakened this morning by Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme on Guernica, that is both the bombing of the town by the Nazis and Spanish Nationalists and also Picasso’s painting. The truth is, the town was bombed to devastation. When an uproar gathered through good reporting, the Nationalists said that the Basques had set fire to their own town themselves and they scattered tell porky petrol cans around. This counter story, though obviously unbelievable, prevented the accountability which Nazi and Spanish Nationalist Blitzkrieg required in 1936. It was, as we say, a smokescreen, and there was enough right-wing support for Fascism in Europe for it to partially work in damping outrage. As Melvyn Bragg pointed out, (thanks to that man) when Guernica, the painting was shown in Mayfair it was ignored. When it was shown at the Whitechapel gallery thousands flocked to it, and many left their boots there for the Republican soldiers.
But it woke me up again to the stream of right wing fake news which I have uncovered over the years. Some of it was predictably bad. Only yesterday I was reading Hitler’s speech when he invaded Russia with Barbarossa, the act that saved us. The USSR had a non-aggression pact with Germany. Stalin thought he might be invaded in say a couple of years but was unprepared for the invasion, and Hitler had to pretend that he was the aggressor, which he did in convoluted nonsense. I invade, but the USSR is the aggressor. Fake news. But then, as was pointed out in In our Time, Colin Powell’s announcement of the invasion of Iraq at the UN had to be carried out with Picasso’s Guernica covered up lest the obvious parallel was drawn. Fake news.
The fake news goes back at least to a newspaper scare in 1893 that we had too few warships, when we had far more than the next two powers, as Gladstone pointed out. But the lie won. Gladstone resigned and the ship orders went through. Then there was a Dreadnought Scare of 1906-9. The Daily Mail even said that Krupp and Co could turn out Dreadnoughts at one a month, when even under wartime pressure they all took more than three years. Fake news. Newspaper threats of German invasions, German spies and a German hate machine contributed to the outbreak of the Great War. Fake news.
The War was run on fake, and hate, news about the Hun. There was a post-War Red Scare in the United States. Fake news. The Fake Zinoviev Letter in 1924 just before the election was of course fake news involving white Russians, the Daily Mail and the Conservative Party. That was a fake election. The Fascist Coup attempt against President Roosevelt uncovered by General Smedley Butler, a massive Right Wing assault on democracy, was obliterated from the American print media because they did not want it discussed. It was fake non-news. The Liberty League run by the Du Ponts and other media stuff was only met by President Roosevelt by his fireside chats otherwise he would have been defeated by the right wing media.
But perhaps the biggest area of reinterpretation we must undertake is Churchillian appeasement. Most people think that Churchill was fighting against pacifism in the era after Hitler came to power. That is an interesting story, but it is not the main one. Mainly, Churchill was fighting against the Fascist and Nazi sympathisers in his own party, in the British establishment, and in similar right-wing establishments in France, Italy, Spain and most of the other countries in Europe and beyond. Fascism was the way of seeing off the workers and socialism, and the rich and the capitalists backed it in their droves. Churchill had Fascists in his own extended family. Oswald Moseley was having an affair with Lord Curzon’s wife. The King, until abdication, had fascist sympathies, as did much of the aristocracy. Hitler got vast amounts of money from American capitalists even after the Battle of Britain. Churchill’s appeasement problem was not pacifists like Clem Attlee, who were defeated by the war machine, but his own kind who actually supported the Nazis and Fascism, as we know from the history of the Daily Mail and Lord Rothermere. The Mail’s version of Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives was that Hitler had saved his country. Which brings us back to Guernica and the Fake spin.
But the pattern continued after the Second World War. The McCarthyite era was in part an attack on Hollywood Socialism. Hitler did not like Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Socialism had to be demonised and the politicians and the right wing press created another Red Scare which put the Cold War in place. The Militarists and the Media lied about the extent of USSR bombers and missiles, so that the arms companies could get more orders. The US Right Wing Media thought they had obliterated US Socialism until Bernie Saunders came along.
For decades in Britain the right-wing media have demonised socialism. The Sun, Mail, Express and other papers with fake and twisted news. My favourite was the Sun’s coverage of one election. They did a double page spread in which they got a clairvoyant to call up people from the past to see how they would vote in this election. A number of worthies including Churchill were going to vote Conservative, of course, and then the demonized figures including Marx and Stalin were going to vote Labour. But there in the middle was John Lennon. What was a Beatle doing in this line-up? Of course, what had happened was that the hack who had been asked to write this page had not heard of Lenin, but had heard on Lennon, and had “called him up” by mistake. That is an example, and there are probably others, of fake, fake news.
And so it continues. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and western authorities knew that from Kamal Hussein and others. It was a convenient fake story. Trump has merely grown up in a fake era, and does fake naturally. Putin backed by oligarch capitalists does fake and may have colluded with Trump. But fake is widespread. It is not a problem of the new media.The Democrats have been talking up the Russian threat because it suited the military. All news needs to be tested, and retested, for the truth.
The Christian understanding of this issue needs to be made central. Those who possess false power, the power to control, who believe in their own power, will use the news, sometimes subtly, sometimes brazenly, to their own advantage and to defeat others. The truth will become obscured, whatever the media. The confrontation of Jesus and Pilate is central. Pilate had the power of the Roman Empire and soldiers, the power to beat and crucify. He could ask, “What is truth?” but he was already compromised. Jesus rule was based on witnessing to the truth and being the truth, without hypocrisy, twisting or fake. It involved crucifixion, because telling the truth involves suffering from the faking people. But the suffering message is clear. The earlier the confrontation, and the acceptance of being subject to the truth, the less the suffering for all. The truth can avert wars and conflict. The truth brings down the mighty from their thrones. The truth secures democracy. None of us owns the truth, but we follow the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.