Tory Trumpism is turning the UK into a sewer of fake news

All memes by the author

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has compared anyone campaigning for free school meals during the February half-term-break to the Trumpist insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. He did so in a WhatsApp message sent to all Tory MPs at lunchtime on Sunday 17 January, explaining why he was whipping them to abstain from voting for or against Labour’s Opposition Day Motion, to be debated in parliament on Monday 18 January. Labour is calling on the government to offer free school meal (FSM) vouchers over the February half-term, and to keep the recent £20 uplift in universal credit for the duration of the pandemic.

As has become characteristic of this government, it is stubbornly refusing to do so – proving it has learnt nothing from the previous two occasions when it riled the public by refusing to issue FSM vouchers during pandemic-hit school holidays. The first time, it U-turned, but the second time it did not, instead sending out a barrage of social media posts claiming it had provided sufficient funding to local councils to cover FSM. This was news to our local councils. A closer look at the guidance linked to the grants, which had as a condition that the local councils spend the money by a date which preceded the autumn half-term, revealed that FSM was not included. In other words, all those Tory memes giving themselves a pat on the back were fake news.

Johnson’s WhatsApp message was leaked to and published by The Sun. Of course it was. The Sun’s political editor, Harry Cole, is Carrie Symonds’s ex-boyfriend. What was astonishing about the message ‒ apart from the outrageous comparison of those looking out for hungry kids, with those involved in sedition – was that it branded people campaigning for FSM vouchers in school holidays as Momentum or Labour activists. Never mind all the millions of apolitical parents up and down the country with their improvised, socially-distanced protests. Or people with a heart who don’t think it’s right that kids should go hungry in the world’s sixth richest economy. They’re either nasty leftie activists or have been whipped up by them.

The government brands protest as ‘leftie’, to quell the cognitive dissonance of its MPs and devotees. ‘Oh, well! If it’s only Labour voters, we can ignore it.’ They are fools to think like this. It is one of the reasons Tory MPs are increasingly out of touch with real people. I personally know of a couple of protests in Dorset where empty plates were left outside MPs’ offices, and not one of them was led by a political activist of any description. It’s all part of the culture war, which government decided to stoke up again this past week with a torrent of fake news and ‘dead cats’ (emotive news items to distract from more serious matters).

We had Totnes and South Devon MP Anthony Mangnall making a highly dubious, unsubstantiated claim about “an EU customs agent” (even though the EU doesn’t have customs agents; individual countries do) allegedly pulling a gun (impossible: customs agents are unarmed back-office staff who help third parties fill in customs forms), because a driver provided faulty paperwork (more fool him). Now, some countries have armed customs officers who are responsible for checking imports and exports, but there are very strict protocols governing the use of arms, and there is no way a driver would have a gun pulled on them unless they were acting in a threatening manner.

Why did Mangnall tweet this story, for which he provided zero evidence and himself admitted was merely “hearsay”, no doubt embellished in the re-telling? West Country Bylines called him out in no uncertain terms. His tweet came across as an ill-advised Trumpist attempt to take the heat out of the anger over the betrayal of British fishing interests by Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. After all, Mangnall’s constituency includes Salcombe, famous for its shellfish; Dartmouth with its plentiful stocks of ray, flat-fish, halibut, bass, conger, cod and mackerel, and Brixham, which is the largest fish market in England, with turnover in excess of £30m. They can’t be too chuffed with him…

Then we had ERG Vice-Chair David Jones sharing a Telegraph article by Julie Burchill, quote-tweeting it with the line, “The pettiness of the vindictive EU is a daily reminder of why Brexit was worth it.” What is this pettiness and vindictiveness that the EU is supposed to be guilty of? Applying the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules for customs between countries that are not in the same customs territory. These are the same rules America and Australia apply to Brits entering their territory, and yet we never hear journalists squealing that the US and Oz are “petty and vindictive”. Tories must still be giddy with the idea of enshrining in law government’s ability to break both international and domestic law, as they seem affronted that the EU won’t indulge in wholesale rule-breaking to cover for lack of UK preparedness.

This is all the more astonishing coming from arch-Brexiter David Jones, one of those Tory MPs who assured us we knew we were voting for, that we wanted third-country status and that moving to WTO rules would be no problem. Of course, when they come up against the brick wall of reality and find we can’t have our cake and eat it, it’s not their fault for promising something they could never deliver. Oh no. It’s that nasty EU’s fault for refusing to undermine the integrity of the single market and customs union just to allow us to have our own way. I do wish they’d all grow up, but I see no sign of it so far.

Sometimes fake news doesn’t consist of circulating a story, but in dismissing a story already in circulation. I wonder how those working in the fishing industry feel, who have been brought to their knees in the first two weeks of Brexit, and warn they will soon collapse, being told by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in answer to their concerns, that the Brexit deal will create huge, sustainable (but as ever, unspecified) opportunities in the short, medium and long term? Or that family fishing firms going out of business after operating for generations, is merely a “teething problem”?

Why on earth would Dover-boy Raab dismiss their lived experience like that, especially as the sums of money involved are massive? To acknowledge what’s happening to them would be to admit that the Brexit project is flawed and that he, along with the Prime Minister, other ministers and Brexit-backing Tory MPs, have lied to the British public in general, and to the fishing industry in particular.

Fake news is even infecting the reporting of good news stories over vaccination. Tweets from government ministers saying, “over 3.2 million have been vaccinated” are wildly inaccurate. You’re not vaccinated until you’ve received both jabs, preferably within the time-period recommended by the creator of the vaccine. So far then, the prime minister’s father Stanley Johnson, health tourist Rupert Murdoch (non-resident, non-UK-taxpaying press baron) and 449,734 other lucky Brits have been vaccinated – maybe. (Some will have had their second jab outside the timeframe recommended by the creator of the Pfizer vaccine, and there is no scientific evidence on the degree of protection that affords yet.)

Government is desperate for good news. It hopes to erase from our memories the shocking death toll (the worst in Europe), the impact on the economy (the worst downturn in the western world), the revelations about corrupt procurement practices, the failure of the £22bn privatised test, track and trace operation, and a decade of cuts to the NHS budget coming home to roost. Unfortunately, the misleading way in which ministers are presenting the news, and government’s inability to resist fudging the numbers to make them seem better than they are, is undermining public confidence rather than lifting spirits.

Fake news has many purposes: it might deliberately set out to harm someone’s reputation (even if later proven false, mud sticks), or to increase advertising revenues (click-bait), or to push an agenda. In the world of politics, it is often used either to incite you to vote a certain way, or to suppress voting – encourage you not to vote, because you think “it’s a lost cause” or “it’s already in the bag”. The most sinister reason is to create mistrust and confusion, since populations who feel they cannot trust “the news” are far easier for a government to factionalise and manipulate.

What can we do? Learn to spot fake news and call it out. A reply to Mangnall’s ill-conceived tweet from Kevin Rampling recommended that he watch the BBC’s excellent documentary, Ian Hislop’s Fake News: a True History. It ends with the following advice:

“We have to stop believing news stories just because we want them to be true. I’m not saying don’t believe in anything ‒ that’s exactly what the peddlers of fake news would love, the idea that no-one even cares what the truth is any more. But there are still such things as objective facts: events either did or didn’t happen. Not everything is a matter of opinion. So I’m not arguing for a more cynical public – I want a more sceptical public, who question the new social media in the same way they do the old mainstream media:

  • Who is telling me this and why?
  • And do they actually know anything about it?

In short, you have to be very critical about who you trust.”

Hislop’s advice essentially boils down to “consider the source”. Can I trust this source? Do they have a reputation for accuracy? Do they have expertise in the subject matter they are discussing? I would elaborate on, or even add questions to his list:

  • Does the headline accurately reflect the content of the article? Always check an entire article before sharing it. Sometimes click-bait headlines give a false impression of content.
  • How does this allegation compare with the facts I already know? In other words, is it credible? Has any evidence been provided? Is that credible?
  • What is the agenda behind this story? Is government, or this publication, or this organisation, or this author trying to manipulate me? If so, how and why?
  • How does this story make me feel? If it elicits a strong response, be wary. Unscrupulous organisations use fake emotive stories to reel us in. Of course, some stories (like the government refusing to issue free school meal vouchers) will be genuine, and anger might well be an appropriate response. But check the facts first.
  • What are my own biases? Are my own views affecting my judgement as to whether this article is legitimate and/or correct?

One final tip: keep reading West Country Bylines! We’ll help you to distinguish between political fact, unicornist wishful thinking and outright stinky-poo lies. And that’s a promise you can trust.