Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth. Ebury Press, 2017
Firstly, an admission: I can’t stand Matthew d’Ancona’s journalism. His views are inoffensive enough in a centrist, liberal, Metropolitan way, but his style has always struck me as owing more to the courtier than the cynical hack, not so much holding the powerful to account as acting as their cipher. As Peter Oborne observes in his masterly Triumph of the Political Class, this is a major problem within journalism these days, and perhaps a contributory factor to the subject of his book – that we live in a ‘Post Truth’ age.
I therefore bought this short book for the less-than-charitable motive of schadenfreude, thinking it would be one long Remoan of anguish from a member of the dispossessed liberal intelligentsia. I wasn’t disappointed – d’Ancona loathes both Brexit and Trump, and the author’s prejudices show up very early, when he complains that Remain lost the referendum because it dealt in facts whereas the Leave campaign dealt in emotion. Clearly, ‘Project Fear’ was all a figment of our imagination. Some would say that d’Ancona is engaging in his own ‘Post Truth’ right there, and it is highly tempting after being confronted with such a whopper to throw the book against the wall and yell, Donald Trump-style: ‘Matthew d’Ancona – you are fake news!’
That would be a pity, because this book is a useful primer on many of the issues that do affect the reporting of truth in the modern age. D’Ancona, a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, is an exceptionally clever and erudite man. He writes interestingly and with depth on the subject of Post Modernism – a hot philosophical topic that YouTube luminaries such as Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia blame for much of the West’s current malaise. He rightly excoriates some of the downright wicked campaigns that have been mounted against scientific or historical facts, such as the revival of Holocaust denial. He correctly pinpoints the problems that the internet has brought in filtering truth from lies and the consequent rise in fake news, and he is right to say it has made us retreat into our cultural silos rather reaching out to others, and that we must rise above our own confirmation bias.
However, rising above his own prejudices is something that d’Ancona singularly fails to do. The book reinforces the deeply disturbing insights we have had into the Remainer elite mind since the Brexit referendum: there is no mea culpa, no real introspection nor scintilla of doubt nor real attempt at empathy; the elite are right and the little people – simple souls misled in a ‘Post Truth’ world – are wrong.
Not surprisingly, this also severely limits the effectiveness of his arguments, creating a mass of omissions, contradictions and hypocrisy. He whines that there is no such thing as a siloed ‘liberal elite’, but treats Brexiteers as a lumpen mass, at one point bracketing them with creationists. He approvingly quotes Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, but somehow fails to see that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ was precisely why many voted to leave the EU.
Lack of examination as to how much his own side may have contributed to ‘Post Truth’ also affects his ability to provide a convincing chronology as to its rise. He skates very quickly over the impact of the baby boomer generation and the ascendancy of narcissism over reason – a subject Brendan O’Neill tackles brilliantly here; he fails to even mention political correctness and how its chilling effect on free speech may have contributed to Post Truth; he avoids examining in any depth the lies and spin of the Blair era – a politician d’Ancona was close to – and how this corroded public trust.
Most damning of all, however, is his utter failure to confront, or even acknowledge, that mainstream media bias, particularly in broadcast media, is a major driving force behind the rise of the alternative media and with it the fake news industry (though the two overlap, they are by no means the same). Although he is correct that mainstream outlets do not, on the whole, make things up, they instead sin by omission, completely neglecting stories or angles that are beyond their middle-class, metropolitan liberal comfort zone. As such, they set a narrative, distorting the truth until it bears no relation to many people’s lived realities.
Finally, his solutions to Post Truth are similarly elitist. For instance, he proposes better algorithms to root out fake news online – fair enough – but who watches the watchers? We have already seen exactly how such algorithms are being misused to ban opinions online which the elites find uncongenial, usually on the grounds of ‘hate speech’.
Ultimately after reading Post Truth I was not so much swayed by his arguments, incomplete but reasonable as they often are, but left feeling that his failure to leave his own intellectual silos let down what could have been a much better and more influential book than one that just preaches to the Remoaner, anti-Trump choir. But then perhaps that just reflects my own, deeply held, cognitive bias.