Truth and trust are essential ingredients of all co-operation, be it amongst family, friends, neighbours, communities, business, commerce, right up to governments and world trade. In a free society, many of us take for granted that the information we receive is true and fair. Along with our breakfast, we ‘eat’ the information we receive from mainstream media almost without question. But the impartiality of our mainstream media is no longer guaranteed in a populist world where people may only consume catchy headlines. Processes familiar to practitioners of the branch of psychology known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) are at the heart of our populist media and journalistic hacks:
Distortion – Bending the facts out of shape in a minor or major way. For example “I hate people coming over here and taking our jobs and they’re not even working”. Also Isabel Oakeshott’s recent suggestion that “Brexit would be working were it not for people (not in power) who are thwarting Brexit”.
Deletion – Missing out key pieces of information that introduce bias. For example “The Northern Ireland Protocol is making trade more difficult”. This piece of information, often mentioned on the BBC, cleverly omits the fact that trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is booming. All the while trade between GB and Northern Ireland is suffering, but this is exactly what Boris Johnson signed up for in his oven-ready Brexit deal.
Generalisation – Taking something specific and making it applicable to all. For example, Jacob Rees-Mogg is prone to saying things like “because a small bakery in Chew Magna is thriving under Brexit, that this means that all bakeries and all businesses are thriving under Brexit”.
Let’s look at two case studies that show this wicked artform in action live on TV and Radio.
Laura Kuenssberg v Stephen Flynn
James O’Brien did a superb take-down of the interview between Laura Kuenssberg and Stephen Flynn which cannot be beaten, so I have included it here. Laura forgot that she is a journalist and that she was in the BBC studios and not the Speaker in Parliament, in this interview where she accused Stephen Flynn.
Laura’s objection is to Stephen Flynn’s idea that Boris Johnson lies. Just in case we forgot some of ‘Boris Johnson’s whoppers’:
- £350 million back every week for the NHS as the Brexit dividend.
- There were no parties in Downing Street. Boris Johnson did not know that partying was not allowed.
- We have built 40 new hospitals.
- We have had significant pay increases for public sector workers in recent years.
- Because of Brexit we were able to get the COVID vaccine roll-out done quicker.
- “I have not had an affair with Petronella. It is complete balderdash”.
I wrote a book called ‘Private Eyelines’ to confront our mainstream media and the hacks that feed us daily disinformation. The book’s main purpose was to parody our populist media, the lies they promulgate and show them up for what they are by using the satirical devices of exaggeration, contrast and, of course, pure fantasy. Both comically and sadly, I discovered that some people could not tell the differences between fact and fantasy within my initial trial of this artform, via the front pages of ‘The Son’, ‘The Maul’, ‘The Excess’ and ‘The Telegravda’. I was forced to install a fact and fiction decoder into the book. This somewhat spoiled my satirical ambitions, but perhaps this tells us something about the age we live in.
BBC Radio 4 v Keir Starmer
I should state at the outset that I’m no fan of Keir Starmer’s myopia over Brexit. Nonetheless, this car crash interview by Amol Rajan on BBC Radio 4 should not be allowed to stand unchallenged. I have put the full interview up on YouTube. Here’s ‘three of the worst’ examples of Amol Rajan’s skilfully incompetent interview technique:
- 4 minutes, 20 seconds: “You’ve successfully used up time explaining what your five priorities are, well done”.
It’s perfectly reasonable for Starmer to preface his interview with an introduction. He knows that the interview will be cut into soundbites and there is no guarantee that anyone would have heard the preamble to the interview. But Rajan distorts this into ‘playing for time’.
- 4 minutes, 38 seconds: “… Crimes against the English language and Hemingway it ain’t”.
- This was another classic piece of distortion by Rajan, taking on the issue of expression/language/nomenclature/style rather than the substance. He was skilfully answered by Starmer, when he indicated that did not mind if people used their own words to describe his long-term missions.
- 11 minutes, 53 seconds: Rajan decided to take Starmer on over ancient history. The piece was about Labour’s launch of their five missions. Whilst Rajan is entitled to ask about the question of Keir Starmer’s integrity, he then attempted to insist on a yes/no response to curtail meaningful dialogue. Eventually and possibly in frustration after Starmer dealt with everything Rajan tried to throw at him, he brought on the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to derail the interview.
The BBC also use this corrosive interview style to interrogate SNP politicians on various media platforms. One never hears the same level of enquiry and challenge levelled at Tory Cabinet Ministers.
Defence against the dark media arts
You may say “there’s nothing we can do about this”. That’s a condition psychologists call learned helplessness. There’s plenty we can do to raise people’s levels of critical thinking, in polite conversation with friends and colleagues who repeat lies spouted by politicians, when speaking with MPs or when dealing with mainstream media:
- Challenge deletions, distortions and generalisations, either directly or indirectly. See our approach to having difficult conversations, based on the work of John Heron.
- Be innately curious and ask lots of questions to expose gaps in people’s thinking.
- If sourcing information from the internet, learn to triangulate. In other words, cross check information by examining material from different sources.
- Dig deeper. Never accept headlines at face value.
- Make your own voice heard in mainstream media. Write letters to the press, call in on radio and TV programmes, write an article for Bylines Scotland.