As someone who’s worked in journalism for some 40 years now, much of it in the tabloid arena, I’m no stranger to the unlikely stories that people tell. We’ve heard a great deal over recent decades about the press fabricating stories, manufacturing evidence and doing unspeakable things in pursuit of a headline. Much of it was true, and I recall the mid-1980s in particular as being a time when much of the UK media was running out of control, with rummaging through dustbins, listening in to emergency calls on short wave radios and paying the police for leads was regarded as perfectly normal.
On the flipside of this, it was also a time when the public began engaging with the press in ways which were largely unprecedented. Perhaps one methodology led to the other – if the media were prepared to listen to anyone and publish anything, then it probably was to be expected that anyone might contact the media and say anything. When this involved the exchange of large sums of money things were understandable; less so was the fact that individuals seemed prepared to come forward with the most fantastical stories that sounded completely convincing, but had absolutely no basis in fact at all. Despite the obvious fallacy of these stories, some editors were perfectly prepared to ignore reality and go with the fabrication, which always dumbfounded me, as an editor is not only responsible for the rational conduct of his publication, but is uniquely and solely responsible when things go wrong. That’s the remarkable power of the job – what you say goes absolutely but if you get it wrong what you say can also send you to jail for a very long time!
This came home to me very sharply in my secular journalism days when the paper I was working on was approached by a local woman in the late 1980s who claimed to have evidence of ritual human sacrifice by a Satanic occult group that was part of a national network. It sounded warped and bizarre, and frankly pretty unlikely but, under the pretext that the strangest things do happen, the paper and its investigative team began to engage with the woman, and with the story. After only the most perfunctory of enquiries about who was saying what, and where was the evidence, the headlines began to roll – and, boy, were they headlines!
This kind of story – often presented to the media by Christian fundamentalists with American connections, resulted in a near moral panic across the late 1980s and early 90s about alleged Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). One of the worst SRA misinformation scandals occurred on the Island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, in February 1991, when police and social workers removed children – five boys and four girls, aged eight to 15 and all from the families of English “incomers” due to allegations of ritual abuse. All aspects of the handling of this case were appalling, and it was six years before the last of the children were returned to their parents. Throughout the investigation and court cases there were shockingly irrational assumptions made by people who should have known better. It was as if a time of medieval nightmare and superstition had gripped the most previously sensible of people. Tragically, elsewhere in the UK during this time there were other cases of SRA that were proving to be far less fictitious, which only made it even harder for all involved to separate truth from fantasy.
Working out where truth lies always used to be the job of a journalist, and the media industry built itself on its ability to act as the public’s voice of discernment. Over the centuries it has scored some remarkable victories, and even as a schoolboy I became captivated by process by which journalists investigated and uncovered the most resistive of scandals.
The turning point for me came in 1976 with the release of the movie, All The President’s Men, after which Woodward and Bernstein (or rather Redford and Hoffman!) became my life-influencing heroes. Classic lines such as Redford’s “I don’t mind what you did, it’s the way you did it!”, Hoffman’s story-cracking “I’m going to count to ten …” and Jason Robards (as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee) rapping the table with his knuckles and finally exclaiming “print that, baby” have followed me through the years, but here’s the problem. I have no idea whether Woodward, Bernstein or Bradlee said any of those things (in fact it seems they didn’t) but in my subconscious I just can’t separate those moments from whatever the reality was. Indeed, I had no connections with the reality of the Washington Post’s Watergate exposé, so the Hollywood version IS my reality.
This might seem an innocent enough delusion, so long as I retain the knowledge that truth might be something other than what I’m experiencing. Unfortunately, today the rational capacity in the human mind seems to be fading. You only have to read this week about the absolute terrors experienced by the Sandy Hook shooting victims’ families at the hands of blogger Alex Jones to recognise that people can readily convince themselves of the most deluded and irrational of narratives.
Twenty children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but notorious conspiracy theorist Jones, founder the completely mad Infowars website and talk show, argued for years that the massacre was a “staged” government plot to take guns from Americans and that “no-one died”. He called the parents of victims “crisis actors” and argued that some of them never actually existed, which led many of his numerous followers to embark on a decade-long campaign of threats, abuse, misinformation and terror against the grieving parents.
In court over the past few weeks some described receiving a deluge of online hate and others said they had to move homes repeatedly for their own safety. One father, Mark Barden, recounted hearing that people were desecrating his son Daniel’s grave by “urinating on it and threatening to dig it up”.
Ten years on, Jones has reluctantly admitted that the Sandy Hook massacre actually did happen, but that’s way too late. Unimagineable damage has been done to many innocent and already devastated human beings. Yesterday a US court ordered that Jones pay an unprecedented $965m in damages to the Sandy Hook victims. That may sound like a living fortune but it isn’t troubling Jones. He’s declared himself bankrupt anyway, but he has amassed a multi-million dollar personal fortune from his online activities. Most ironic of all, when he was eventually banned from Facebook and Twitter in 2018, his income soared – the increased notoriety and publicity just enhanced his already warped reputation. In fact there is increasing evidence that banning people and groups off social media just boosts their power and influence, especially as the perpetrators just flip to other social platforms of mechanisms.
Warning about the influence of and damage being caused by the internet and social media is nothing new, it has merely replaced long-held concerns about the impartiality and influence of print and conventional broadcast media. The big difference, however, is that – until the 1908s – there was at least some surety that what the media was presenting was researched, tested and fireproofed for legality and truthfulness by a fair number of highly-trained and qualified individuals whose careers, income – and sometimes also their liberty – was at stake. Of course that didn’t prevent nuance or bias, but these deviations were writ large over the publication’s identity, so at least you knew what you were getting, from whom and from what perspective or bias.
The fundamental and worrysome change in the world moving to digital media is that it is a free for all, free access platform that quite intentionally has a profound commitment to a lack of policing. The very essence of the worldwide web is that no-one has control over it, and its founders ensured that their commitment to the free and uninhibited flow and sharing of information wasn’t going to be frustrated by the interference of the law, moral and social concerns and the damage the platform might possibly do to individuals.
Everyone knew this was opening Pandora’s Box, but few really cared. And now it’s far too late. A classic example of this bolted horse is the joint legal action that a group of celebrities including Elton John, Prince Harry and Elizabeth Hurley, brought this week against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, for alleged criminal activity and breaches of privacy carried out way back in the murky 1980s. Personally I’m not sure if there ought to be a statute of limitations on being outraged, or whether or not it has just taken these celebs three decades to get angry. More likely it’s a very late and almost certainly futile attempt to muzzle a mare that fled long ago.
Back in 2005, the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI preached a now-famous homily condemning what he called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires,” said Benedict.
His speech was not only informed, but utterly prophetic. We are currently tumbling headlong into a world where some pretty fundamental realities are getting very dangerously blurred, and the only point of view that seems to matter is ‘how I see it’. It used to be the case that people were pretty capable of discerning the lines between truth, opinion and pure fantasy, but that’s receding fast.
As Christians we are often accused of living in our own unique kind of unreality; but it might just be that in a world where anything goes and everything can be hailed as truth or dismissed as lies, God becomes is ONLY certainty.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk