Counter-factual history and fake news

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Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?

The Newseum

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I discovered the Newseum during a recent trip to Washington DC. As the name suggest, it’s a museum about the gathering and reporting of news and it’s an absolute must for anyone interested in journalism, current affairs, politics and all things similar and related.

Inevitably, it’s world history, current affairs and the like through an American lens – extensive coverage of the Vietnam War; 9/11; the role of the FBI; little about the role of America in the rest of the world; more about the Kennedys than the British or any other royal family.

But there are exhibits covering a range of issues around reporting that have global resonance – what drives journalists to report, even in conditions of immense danger; the ethics of reporting and the importance of reporting the truth; presenting the story to the public; freedom of the press; privacy versus security; the rights of the individual versus the rights of the state.

The Newseum presented these topics against a constitutional backdrop, with particular reference to the first amendment to the US Constitution – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

One exhibit looked at where the tension points have been – and continue to be – in interpreting the First Amendment. When considering freedom of the press, for instance, the position of bloggers and whether they should have the same protections as traditional press journalists still seem to be testing Constitutional boundaries.  And that will continue as new channels of communications, media and types of reporter and commentator evolve.

I can’t tell whether the presence of a codified Constitution and a body of decisions made by reference to it result in different views on ethics, privacy, security and press freedom. But it feels that there’s a pre-existing framework that the UK lacks – even though we set out rights of the individual versus the King in Magna Carta and the rights and liberties of subjects in the Bill of Rights in 1689.