Why defenders of Britain’s press need to stop bastardising the Enlightenment and why Voltaire wouldn’t read The Sun

Those of you who have been following the election in the UK will have no doubt witnessed the unedifying spectacle of the British ‘free press’ prostrating itself before wealthy owners while misrepresenting the arguments of Labour and the Conservatives, subverting democratic debate and engaging in vicious character assassinations in order to secure a Conservative victory. I say this, but in fact this is doing the press too much honour. What it boils down to is the endless repetition of scare stories about a Labour-SNP deal (which Labour have ruled out), harassing a 17 year old girl who started a fandom to counter the negative portrayal of Ed and recycling pictures of Ed eating a bacon sandwich.

It’s a bleak picture, and no one who seriously cares about the democratic process or press freedom can defend it. Yes I feel more aggrieved as it’s my party and my views they’re attacking, but I would be just as critical of a left-wing press that just repeated ‘Cameron has a shiny face like a dish and Eric Pickles is a fat bloke’ while making hackneyed comparisons between the Tories and Mein Kampf. The prospect of this sounds absurd right? Yet when the press spends five years saying Ed Miliband looks like some weird dork and absurdly conflates Labour with the The Communist Manifesto, it’s treated as more or less par for the course.

It seems obvious that this is clearly destructive and wrong, yet often if you point this out certain on the right, and occasionally the left, will shout ‘FREEDOM OF THE PRESS THO’. So let’s get this straight. To pretend you are some bold inheritor of Enlightenment thought carrying on its fine tradition of defending the right of Chloe, 22 from Basildon’s right to say Ed Miliband looks odd while getting her tits out, is a ridiculous position.

The reason Enlightenment figures so passionately defended the idea of press freedom wasn’t so that in 200 years people could start Change.org petitions concerning trolls writing columns in the national press. The first argument was that encouraging free and rational debate aimed at discovering the truth was the best way of ascertaining it. A fair assumption. The second was that for too long this had been suppressed by the most powerful forces in their respective countries – at this time, a state comprised entirely of an elite gentry and the Church. Another fair assumption.

Yet is obvious to anyone that the reality of press freedom hasn’t turned out quite the way Voltaire and Diderot would have wanted. Our media, particularly the tabloids but also the ‘qualities’, have spent most of these five years engaging in one long ad-hominem argument against Ed Miliband, backed up by straw men misrepresentations of Labour’s stance on, well, basically everything. For the sake of balance, I should point out that it’s no better when the Mirror print a picture of Cameron in a dinner suit and use this as a justification of not voting Tory, but the level of sustained attack is not nearly the same from the left as it is the right. As well as this, there are a raft of other logical fallacies, such as picking on one example of a benefit claimant or migrant and portraying them as representative of the entire demographic, or selectively choosing data such as polling to make it fit your argument and ignoring contrary stats.

We can see that this does not even slightly resemble rational debate, but worse than that, it’s not aimed at unveiling the truth. In fact, it’s sole aim is to obfuscate the truth to bolster the favoured views of the owners and editors of the paper and therefore the presence they have in national policy making. Effectively, these owners and the interests they represent have become the new powerful class who subvert and suppress debate, not brave challengers. This is far from the ideals of the Enlightenment, and they have no right to claim its mantle.

So, what do we do about it? Obviously, no matter how much I loathe it, I’m not going to call for a Pravda-esque state-owned newspaper as our only media outlet. Vile as they can be, The Telegraph‘s exposing of the expenses scandal was magnificent, and truly what the purpose of journalism should be. In fact, I’m not even against morons like Jeremy Clarkson writing their ill-informed opinions in tabloids; they may be ridiculous, but at least everyone knows these are opinion pieces, written by someone who, usually, makes it quite clear what angle they are coming at the debate from.

No, what I am against is newspapers who pretend to be doing a service to the nation by reporting news and information purporting to be accurate representations when they are anything but. The line between news and comment has been well and truly crossed, and this should never have happened. So I completely support Lord Leveson’s recommendation of a state-backed regulator with real teeth. I would go further. This regulator should have the power to force a paper to print prominent, full-page apologies whenever they lie about policies or data, and it should demand that any generalising claim about specific areas of society or policy are backed up with evidence.

I strongly agree with the principles behind the idea of a free press, as I do with practically every Enlightenment ideal. There are many unfair criticisms levelled at this period of the history by some sections of the left, not least the idea that they’re irrelevant as they come from ‘dead white men’. However, one just criticism to be made is that the Enlightenment thinkers, like Marx, were simply too naive about human nature. They read philosophy and idealised literature about the perfect nature of man etc and based their ideas on that. Yet we are not perfect. Power and wealth corrupted the nouveau-riche just as it did the aristocracy before them, and they have become the new enemies of freedom. If Voltaire et al were alive today, they would recognise this, and I have no doubt they would be just as critical of them as they were of the powerful in their day. So defend the indefensible if you wish, but please, don’t pretend doing so is noble.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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