‘The more information is available from the new media, the fewer critical questions we seem able to ask’
One of the foundation myths of post-religious societies is the idea that reason will win out-that faced with reason or anti-reason people will follow the former path. But as we gain access to vast arrays of information, the combination of new and old media appears to be making fools of us in unexpected ways — not least in failing to ask any of the questions that so obviously need asking.
Increasingly, our societal position seems to be naivety. But not straightforward naivety, rather a kind of naivety arrived at via extreme scepticism. Scepticism is a curious drug. A good dose of the stuff never hurt anyone. But inhale too much of it and you can be stoned into docility. Those who like to believe that they think for themselves appear to become sceptical of everything other than the things they should be sceptical of.
It starts with the new media. All the mantras of the internet generation encourage it: “Don’t believe everything you read,” for instance. Except that people do — it’s just the mainstream, sourced type of information they’ve become really suspicious of. The sudden boom in conspiracy theory can be put down almost entirely to this phenomenon. People of all ages who would have blushed a few years ago to forward messages explaining how tomatoes cure cancer or coffee prevents headaches now merrily pass on such nonsense. The more information that is available, the fewer critical questions we seem able to ask.
But there is another reason why people seem to have stopped asking the critical questions: they take their lead from the traditional media. Every journalist hopes to break the next Watergate scandal, so they look for their stories in that milieu. It’s like people who think anti-fascism is as simple as looking for men with swastika armbands. The result is that the most fetid and bogus new phenomena go unaddressed right beneath their unquestioning noses. They believe that one day they will ferret such lies out of government ministers that they forget to question anyone else. The note of scepticism the press can usefully insert into public discussion is now almost entirely missing from the places where it is most needed.
I reflected on this again recently when I had the pleasure of debating Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. He left the debate as he had arrived, to a hero’s reception. He also had to leave early for a very particular reason. This may not be the first time an opponent of mine has had to leave the stage early to satisfy bail conditions on rape charges, but it is the first one I know of. And if I had been one of the journalists in the hall that day, or simply a curious and fair-minded member of the public, I think I can safely say I’d have taken something like the following stance: here is a man currently awaiting extradition on serious sexual charges who has become a household name by publishing stolen documents. In other words my reaction to him would be in some manner subdued.
But this is not the reaction Mr Assange received, that day or any other. Far from it: he is treated as a kind of rock star by a media slavishly hoping that he will feed them something. They fail to ask the most basic questions and the public follows suit. As a result our public debate on a range of issues is losing one of our most vital defence mechanisms against conmen and worse.
It’s like the reaction to those people whom US forces in Afghanistan picked up and took to Guantánamo Bay. Because they had been in Guantánamo the press broadly felt they were victims and must therefore be innocent. Critical questions were almost never asked.
I remember being grilled rather more forcefully about one such character on the BBC’s Today programme a couple of days after his release. I expressed a note of caution about the man’s version of his story. “You sound rather cynical about his version of events,” the BBC’s finest said to me. “Well,” I pointed out, as drily as I could, “he does claim he went to the world’s heroin capital to recover from a drug habit.” The point is that long before it got as low down as me on the media food chain a panoply of journalists and investigators should have been around to see that such a person, like Assange, was at the very least not taken entirely at his own estimation.
The media are good at doing this with the old establishment. But a new establishment is emerging which receives none of this attention. It has a following, an influence and a credibility that most of our politicians would give their eye-teeth for. Perhaps it has something to do with letting off anyone who can claim victimisation by America. But I can’t help concluding that a critical gene is disappearing from our society — and that for all our technology and advancement, our vulnerability to villains and fraudsters is correspondingly greater than ever.