The United States is a grim warning of what happens when a society dispenses with the idea of truth. Fragmentation, paranoia, division and myth rule – democracy wilts. Fox News, we now know from emails flushed out by a lawsuit from the voting machine company Dominion, feared it would lose audiences if it told the truth about the 2020 presidential election result. Instead, it knowingly broadcast and fed Donald Trump’s lie that the election had been stolen – in particular the known unfounded allegation that Dominion had programmed its voting machines to throw millions of votes to the Democrats. Fox could have been instructed to tell the truth by its owner, as this month’s Prospect magazine details, but as Rupert Murdoch acknowledged under oath: “I could have. But I didn’t.” There was no penalty for lying, except being on the wrong side of a $1.6bn lawsuit.
But the culture of truth denial is no accident; it was a key stratagem of the US right as it fought to build a counter-establishment in the 1970s, 80s and 90s that would challenge and even supplant what it considered an over-dominant liberal establishment. Unalloyed facts, truthful evidence and balanced reporting on everything from guns to climate change tended to support liberals and their worldview. But if all facts could be framed as the contingent result of opinions, the right could fight on level terms. Indeed, because the right is richer, it could even so dominantly frame facts from its well-funded media that truth and misinformation would become so jumbled no one could tell the difference. “Stop the steal” is such a fact-denying strategy. Ally it with voter suppression and getting your people into key roles in pivotal institutions and there are the bones of an anti-democratic coup.
For years, the right had a target in its sights, rather as the British right today has the BBC – the 1949 Fairness Doctrine. This required American broadcasters to ensure that contentious issues were presented fairly; that both sides to any argument had access to the airwaves and presented their case factually. Like the BBC, it enraged the right and, over his period of office, Ronald Reagan ensured the Federal Communications Commission, which enforced it, was chaired and increasingly staffed by anti-Fairness Doctrine people. Finally, in 1987 the doctrine was ruled unnecessary because it obstructed free speech. Within months, The Rush Limbaugh Show, the ultra-rightwing talkshow platform, was being nationally syndicated as the scourge of the liberal elite – anti-immigrant, anti-tax, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, anti climate change and later denying Covid vaccines – and always rejecting the evidence that smoking caused cancer. No need any longer for countervailing views. A lifelong smoker, Limbaugh died in 2021 of the very lung cancer he denied.
Through the 1990s, many rightwing TV stations were launched following suit, including the “fair and balanced” Fox News – although in 2017 it replaced the logo with “most watched, most trusted”. Donald Trump’s ascent would have been impossible without it, even as the US grew more ungovernable. Tens of millions believe the lies. And anyone who calls out the process is quickly dismissed as an elitist: out of step with the real opinions of real voters in neglected America, opinions that have been forged by the Republican media.
In this respect, the next general election is the most important in Britain’s democratic life. The Tory party has learned from the rise of the Republicans. Voter suppression is one part of the toolkit – the new UK requirement to show photographic ID to vote is borrowed straight from the Republican playbook, as is the weakening of the Electoral Commission. Ensuring appointments to key roles are only available to Tories or known Tory sympathisers – from chairing the BBC and Ofcom to membership of any regulatory or cultural body – is another building block in achieving ascendancy. What remains is to control the commanding heights of the broadcast media, given the right already possesses the majority of the print media. Freezing the BBC licence fee in a period of double-digit inflation helps to enfeeble it – but better still would be to consign it and conceptions of fairness and impartiality to history. Thus the promised end of the licence fee before the current charter expires in 2027. This will open the prospect of overtly rightwing broadcaster GB News trying to reproduce the scale and success of Fox News, as its Dubai-based backer the Legatum Ventures Ltd together with hedge fund owner Sir Paul Marshall – stomaching £31m of losses this year – anticipate.
You may shake your head at the shenanigans in the US, but the Conservative ambition is to go as far, if not further
GB News in important respects goes further than Fox; Fox gives few presentation slots to active rightwing politicians. But from the married Tory MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies via Jacob Rees-Mogg to the deputy chair of the Tory party, Lee Anderson, GB News has become the broadcasting arm of Conservative central office. There is little pretence of journalism, which ceases altogether if a programme can be branded as current affairs. Ofcom raps its knuckles over some of the more egregious examples of bias, but it has no real power. Ofcom chair Michael Grade knows from his spells at ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC what good TV journalism looks like – it’s not on GB News – but equally he knows his role in the Tory scheme of things.
Lastly, the coup needs useful intellectuals to draw the sting from any critics. Step up last week the academic Matthew Goodwin, who has morphed from studying the right to becoming an active rightwing advocate, arguing that a liberal elite constituting Emily Maitlis, Gary Lineker and Emma Watson (some elite!) has the country in its thrall, out of step with virtuous mainstream working-class opinion who it haughtily disparages. Yes, it is possible to understand why many in the working class in “red wall” seats want strong defence and immigration policies and think climate change is only a middle-class preoccupation – but that does not mean that objectively the “stop the boats” policy is not cruel and inhumane, that climate change is bogus or that Brexit has nothing to do with queues at Dover. What should matter surely is the truth – not whether the answer is closer to the view of some member of an elite or red-wall voter. Goodwin’s function is to throw a smokescreen around what is actually happening.
There is endless commentary about how technocratic, charisma-light Keir Starmer lacks definition against proved technocratic Rishi Sunak. Wrong. His election would bring this coup to a halt; Britain would strike out on a different, more democratic course. You may shake your head at the shenanigans in the US, but the Conservative ambition is to go at least as far, if not further in a country with none of the US’s checks and balances. The issue is whether you want that.
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