Monday 20 January 2020

Conor Skehan: 'The truth emergency'

We are living in a world where every populist claims to be campaigning about an emergency, writes Conor Skehan

'Antivax' movements have their origins in the lies of a now disgraced British medical researcher who was struck off when it emerged that he had deliberately falsified research that claimed to show a link between MMR vaccination and autism (stock photo)
'Antivax' movements have their origins in the lies of a now disgraced British medical researcher who was struck off when it emerged that he had deliberately falsified research that claimed to show a link between MMR vaccination and autism (stock photo)

A wise old rabbi, the story goes, once taught a lesson to a mischievous gossip by making him cut open a pillow and watch every feather scatter from the roof. "You will be forgiven," he admonished, "when you have gathered back every feather", explaining that slander was an irretrievable wrong, like murdering a reputation.

RTE recently issued a formal apology to Kevin Myers for defaming his reputation by suggesting that he was a Holocaust denier. In these pages last week, Niamh Horan outlined how in 2017, the news of the accusation - the scattered feathers - filled the pages of newspapers around the world in less than 24 hours.

To date, by contrast, the story of his exoneration has been carried by very few newspapers. The silence of his former loud accusers now lies like a heavy fog of guilt. There'll be no gathering back of those feathers - that man's reputation has been murdered.

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A measles epidemic is sweeping Samoa that has resulted in over 4,500 infections, with 57 deaths in children under four.

The cause is reported to be an anti-vaccine group using a social media campaign to discredit vaccinations. 'Antivax' movements have their origins in the lies of a now disgraced British medical researcher who was struck off when it emerged that he had deliberately falsified research that claimed to show a link between MMR vaccination an autism. Those children have been murdered by the wilful spreading of untruth. More feathers, each a precious child, that will never be gathered back.

Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has been unsparing in accusing Boris Johnson of telling "so many lies" during the Brexit campaign, while ex-president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, referred to "an unprecedented readiness to lie" during the same period.

The Small Business Prices group in the UK claims that 420,348 jobs have already been lost directly due to Brexit, many in the poorest parts of Britain, while the UK's Office of National Statistics noted last month that Britain's economy - still the fifth largest in the world - has grown at the slowest annual rate in almost a decade. More feathers lost to a lie, each a job, a family, a life. They'll never be gathered back.

Now we are faced with the prospect of the UK being led by a government that recently caused the resignation of the senior UK diplomat with responsibility for Brexit in Washington. She said she was quitting because she was no longer prepared to "peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust", and because of "the use of misleading or disingenuous arguments about the implications of the various options before us".

The children in Samoa really did die, Kevin Myers really was ruined and the European Medicines Agency really took 900 jobs out of London - as well as the other 420,000 jobs lost because of Brexit lies. These things are true.

At the other end of the spectrum there are things that are not untrue, they just haven't happened yet. We are told that social inequality could ruin the future of developing nations; that the loss of forests or climate change could lead to mass extinctions; that trace amounts of pollution could lead to millions of deaths.

Increasingly, the list of things that could happen in the future is drowning out the here and now. There are no facts about the future; no statement about the future can be true - yet we are asked to declare emergencies about the future, while all round us real things are happening to real people. We are living in a world where every populist claims to be campaigning about an emergency. The list of wrongs is long and includes social justice, opioids, homelessness, climate, poverty, biodiversity, drugs, refugees and deforestation. It appears that the declaration of an emergency happens for two reasons. The first is to obtain more attention, by instilling a sense of urgency. The second reason deserves more consideration because a declared emergency can be used as an excuse to set aside normal behaviour - like telling the truth.

An example of setting aside the norms includes matters such as the judiciary - witness how in the last 12 months unprecedented attempts have been made by elected leaders in both the UK and the US to criticise their highest courts for unpopular judgments about what is true, or not.

Dictators and populists have long used the tactic of declaring an emergency to set aside the law in order to usurp power. In the US, detractors of left-leaning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal - a set of radical proposals to address the emergencies of climate change and social injustice - describe such eco-socialists as 'watermelons' - green on the outside and [socialist] red on the inside.

The justification of an emergency is now showing worrying signs of spreading further and tainting one the most important bulwarks of an open society, the free press.

In response to the declaration of a 'climate emergency' a grouping of many of the world's leading media have joined an American activist movement, Covering Climate Now, that is dedicated "to bringing more and better coverage to the defining story of our time". Its membership includes AFP, Bloomberg, The Guardian, El Pais, The Daily Mirror, BuzzFeed News, Harvard Business Review, Newsweek, Scientific American, CBS News and RTE.

It can sometimes be instructive to note who has not joined a club - with both The New York Times and The Washington Post eschewing involvement in 'activist journalism' - as being inappropriate for their standing as objective media.

These developments paint a worrying picture of journalism under attack from within. What facts can be trusted as being accurate and fair when prominent media have formally aligned themselves to promote and propagate one point of view because there is an emergency?

We appear to live in a world of ever-increasing alarmism where activists and populists seek to grab attention by declaring a perpetual state of emergency.

The online activity of those warring for attention and dominance increasingly seeks to control and distort the reporting of facts. This can be done by outright lies, by concealing the full truth or sometimes just by staying silent. When truth is replaced by silence, that silence is a lie.

With the formation of a new Tory government, Ireland now has a ringside seat at the spectacle of the slow-motion disaster befalling the UK as it is led, by lies, out of the EU, in "one of the most spectacular mistakes" in the history of the EU, according to Donald Tusk.

The contraction of the British economy is increasingly evident - it is already estimated to be 2.9pc smaller than it would have been without Brexit - with a loss to British public finances of an estimated £145m per week. These types of truths leak out only slowly, while false, bad news travels very quickly - like feathers in the wind. As the true cost of Brexit becomes more apparent, new lies may be needed to cover old lies.

Next time a populist calls for an emergency to be declared, look at the facts behind the claims. There appears to be only one true emergency - the war on truth itself.

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