Writing in the latest Gawsworth parish magazine, the Methodist Rev Frank Bishop reflects on the increased use of “alternative facts” and “fake” news. For those in the real media, it’s a genuine concern. It’s not just the made-up stuff, it’s the propaganda that some of the tabloids happily peddle.
Fake news itself is just that: fake. It’s invented, such as Hilary Clinton running a child sex ring. People generally invent these stories to make money. They fabricate a story for their website, which looks like the real thing, and generate lots of traffic from the credulous and gullible. They then sell advertising on the back of that traffic. They lie, we buy, in all senses of the word.
One fake news site was set up by a Democratic voter in the US, who initially wanted to post fake news and make the Republicans who shared it look stupid. Then he realised how much money he could make, so now posts fake news that denigrates the party he supports, to generate money from those with whom he disagrees. Weird, right? It’s not new of course: Freddie Starr never ate a hamster, David Mellor never misbehaved in a football strip. They were fake news stories – or lies as we called them back in the day – fabricated to sell The Sun.
(Donald Trump, the child in charge of the White House, uses the term “fake news” to describe anything he doesn’t like, though previously “fake” jobless totals are real when it suits him).
As bad as the fake news is, equally bad is the political spin. In the Brexit debate, both sides told massive porkies and peddled them as fact, whether it was NHS money or emergency budgets. Obliging tabloids printed them, and both sides are now stuck with the truth that was kept hidden, that Brexit will leave us worse off in the short term.
Some lies – as we might as well call them – are laughable, in as much as they are easily revealed, such as UKIP leader Paul Nuttall’s claims that he had a Phd and lost personal friends in the Hillsborough Disaster. He blamed his website, and is now stuck with constant mockery on Facebook and a much-reduced ability to sue for libel: the most ludicrous accusation about him only needs to add “..at least that’s what it says on his website”.
Other fake news is harder to pin down, because it’s disguised as politics (and has ever been thus). For example, it’s not true to say the Government is giving the NHS more money, at least in any sense you I would use the word “more”.
This all stems from a rather silly prediction by NHS boss Simon Stevens*, who stated in a five-year review that the NHS needed an extra £30bn over five years but could make £22bn saving in efficiencies. (*Perish the thought he was leaned on by ministers).
George Osborne took this as meaning that the NHS only needed £8bn, hence the Government’s claim it is giving “extra” money to the NHS.
But Stevens’ predicted savings were based on the utterly baffling assumption that people would self-care — take more exercise, eat more healthy food and cut down on drinking and smoking, saving the NHS billions of pounds. (No, I’m not making this up, and he’d clearly never read his own organisation’s predictions for type two diabetes).
This flaw in his plan became immediately evident and the figures were £2bn adrift before you could say two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, and Stevens was forced to ask for £4bn of the £8bn up front.
Osborne then claimed to have given £3.8bn more to the NHS, but £1.5bn of that was already in the health budget.
In real money, the increase in funding to the NHS has been less than 1% a year since 2010 and will continue at that level until 2020. Before that, the NHS relied on an annual 4% increase in funding. Ten years of flat funding will destroy the NHS.
Jeremy Corbyn has promised an extra £7.5bn in NHS funding a year — even if that’s on top of Osborne’s £8bn, it’s still less than half what the NHS needs. The truth is out there, but’s hard to pin down.
The real news with the NHS is probably that it’s screwed unless heaps of money are paid into it: we’re all living longer and we all expect more lavish treatment and it can’t be done using the present mindset that the NHS is free, and a handy political football. It wants removing from political control and having its budget increased, whether by ring-fenced taxation or compulsory health insurance.
What’s more interesting (but not necessarily more important) are the perceived facts: stuff that’s considered true but is not. This is not really fake news, just skewed perception.
Here’s one for the Rev Frank, who started this column off: most people would agree that football is booming and the church is in decline, based on what the media reports. In reality far more people go to church on a Sunday than watch football.
Sunday attendance for the Church of England alone is around 760,000, while (this is a rough estimate based on slightly out of date figures, but it’s ball-park correct) about 850,000 Catholics go to weekly mass.
As for total adult season-ticket sales for the Premier League: the latest I could find was 476,776 tickets, just over half the number going to CoE services on a Sunday.
Championship clubs sold a further 326,000 season tickets, making about 800,000 in total — meaning Church of England attendance is on a par with season ticket sales for the Premier League and Championship combined.
That’s not counting the Catholics, with around the same number turning up every Sunday, let alone the other churches, including the booming evangelical sector. We bet New Life Church attracts as many people as all the other Congleton churches combined. The English Church Census in 2005 reckoned that 3.1m people went to church. What pastime gets the most media coverage though? Soccer is wall to wall on the BBC, religion diverted to odd times during the week as a minority interest.
And take the trope that CDs are dying. Ed Sheeran sold about half a million copies of his album in its first week and CD and vinyl accounted for 63% of those sales. Digital downloads accounted for a further 31% of sales with streaming — which many would have you believe is the future — making up that last 1% (I’ve rounded up as streaming was actually 0.6%).
It’s not fake news to say “nobody goes to church any more” or “CDs are dying” but it’s not accurate, either.
In his parish magazine article, Mr Bishop wrote that the best bulwarks against “fake news”, “alternative facts” and “post-truth” were people of truth and integrity. To him that means Christians, to us reputable news sites.
He concluded that truth was important for all reasonable human beings and we’d expand that and say that truth is important for democracy, as we need the facts to make rational decisions. It’s possible Trumpanistas and Brexiteers may well discover this in the near future.