Fake news: how much CAN you trust?

In my previous post, The media doomsday cult, I argued that the news media caters to our basest instincts and drives a wedge between people in order to generate more sales and clicks. In this post I’m going to demonstrate with a real life example how the media can drum up a controversy where none actually exists. Indeed, what actually happened in this case is less important than the political mileage to be made out of it.

Does that make the news ‘fake’? That’s a hard question to answer. Certainly, anyone who believes that ‘the facts don’t lie’, or that journalists are objective, impartial, unbiased recorders of the truth, is simply being naive. By selecting what they report, and what they leave out, their allegiance to ‘the truth’ can be complicated at best. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how unethical their reporting can be.

The case in question is the conviction and sentencing of Cheshire teenager Jamie Griffiths for sexual assault, which has been covered by the usual tabloids but also inspired an opinion piece in no less a newspaper than the Sunday Times. As a case that was heard in a single day in a local magistrates court, the ‘facts’ should be pretty simple, and indeed they are.

If you haven’t been following the story, this Daily Mail headline should bring you up to speed:

‘Shy and awkward’ student, 19, is convicted of sexual assault and told to pay £250 to a schoolgirl after he touched her arm and waist while ‘trying to talk to her’ in the street after googling ‘how to make friends’

The essence of the story, or rather how it has been presented, is this: a lonely, socially-awkward teenage boy twice encountered a fellow pupil on a quiet path in Knutsford. Trying to make contact with her, he reached out and touched her on the arm, but she dodged away and told him to stop. A second time, he bumped into her at the same place. He smiled at her, put his hand on her waist, but couldn’t get his words out, so turned and walked away. By the girl’s testimony, his hand was on her waist between three and five seconds.

As a result of the second encounter, the girl broke down in tears and called her mother, and the boy was reported to the police and arrested. The girl said that if she hadn’t moved she ‘thought he would have touched her breast’, and that the ‘unwanted touching’ had such a severe impact on her life that she was too distressed to revise or sit her mock exams and thus unable to apply to Oxford University. Despite his claims he was only trying to make a friend, the JPs said they could think of no motivation for him to touch her other than sexual, and sentenced him to a twelve-month community order, 200 hours of community service, £250 victim surcharge and £735 costs.

To the press this is a heinous miscarriage of justice. Here’s the headline from The Mirror:

Student who searched ‘how to make a friend’ then touched girl on arm faces jail.

And from the Daily Star:

‘Shy’ teenager convicted of sex assault for touching fellow pupil’s waist.

And from The Sun:

‘Shy’ student, 19, on sex offenders register after touching teen girl’s waist ‘in bid to chat’.

All of the articles and opinion pieces, such as Jan Moir’s in the Daily Mail, follow the same line: that it was ‘a rather harsh price to pay for a bumbling, adolescent attempt at friendship’. The boy was vulnerable; the crime trivial; the girl oversensitive; and the magistrates unfeeling.

But why has this relatively unimportant case been thrust into the national press? I mean, people are convicted of sexual assault every day in magistrates courts up and down the country – what makes this one particularly noteworthy?

Because of the currency to be gained from it. It speaks of a judiciary out of touch with the modern world, the loneliness and social isolation of children raised on the internet, and the unhealthy relationship between the sexes in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Here’s what else Jan Moir had to say:

Today, fear and mistrust flourish among the sexes like never before. What our grandparents innocently called courting is now a war zone, full of traps, pitfalls and suspicions…

This is a sorry tale of our times and another indication that it is time for a complete overhaul of sex offence prosecutions.

In real life, important nuances exist between flirtation and assault, between affection and attack. And that should be reflected in the courts, too.

The comments on these articles reflect this same narrative. They focus on the boy’s vulnerability; they minimise the crime; they mock the victim as a snowflake; they pour scorn on the judiciary; and they wonder how future generations will procreate in such a hostile environment. There are multiple debates about the complexities of law, about intent and the point at which common assault becomes sexual assault. There are numerous threads arguing the boy should have been dealt with informally, with a stern talking-to instead of recourse to law. They can’t understand why he has his face plastered over the papers but his so-called victim keeps anonymity. They blame young people, women, the police, the judiciary. The modern world is just wrong, they shout.

Rebutting these comments are those calling the boy’s supporters rape-apologists, claiming men no longer have the right to touch women’s bodies with impunity, and the boy should be sent to prison as an example. The world is wrong, they say, because people like you are allowed to have an opinion. This case is being used by both sides of the argument as proof that society is unfair to men and that it is unfair to women.

But if you choose not to be whipped up into a frenzy, and apply a modicum of rational thought, you start to realise that something is off about this story. Such an obvious miscarriage of justice cannot be true, or rather it makes no sense unless certain facts have been omitted. So I went searching to see what was not contained in the sensationalized national news reports. Since most nationals simply copy regionals, I checked if there was anything in the local news sources that was missing from the tabloids, and oh boy, there was. I came across two notable facts that cast this case in a whole different light.

  1. Several other women of various ages had been assaulted in the same area by someone jumping out of bushes, grabbing their bottoms and running away, a person whose description matched that of Jamie Griffiths. After discussing the first assault with these women on a local Facebook group, the girl responded to a police appeal for information and reported Griffiths to the police before the second incident.
  2. After house-to-house inquiries led the police to Griffiths’ door while searching for the bottom-grabber, he deleted some text messages to a relative confessing what he’d done and claiming he wasn’t going to do it anymore. This, from Cheshire Constabulary’s own press release:

He wrote: “It wasn’t just one incident but I’m done now. Please I have uni to think about. I was just so lonely.”

A message sent to Griffiths from the family member read: “So you grabbed her butt and then ran immediately?”

And with these facts in mind, let’s reflect on one of the things that people have taken issue with: that if she hadn’t moved, he would have touched her breast. How could she possibly know that? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he was reaching for it and, as she said, if she hadn’t moved, he’d have grabbed her breast instead of her arm? Doesn’t sound so innocent now, does it?

And when, on a second occasion, he stepped out in front of her and grabbed her hip while smirking, in light of his confession about grabbing bottoms, the ‘I was lonely and just trying to make a friend’ argument sounds far less plausible.

And her subsequent bursting into tears when grabbed in an isolated place by somebody she suspected of assaulting women and had already reported to the police is no longer ‘oversensitive’ but a genuine reaction to a real sense of threat.

Regardless, as I said before, this particular case is not the issue. What matters is that between the story being reported in the local press and its arrival in the national press, two factors that led to Griffiths being convicted as a sex offender and that were addressed in the court, and thus are a matter of public record, disappeared.

Why? Why would you deliberately remove two key facts to make a sex offender look innocent? Why would you choose to make the victim of a sexual assault look hysterical and hypersensitive? Exactly which direction does your moral compass point, because it certainly isn’t north?

As I was not in that court, I don’t know what was said. But journalists do. And they have consciously decided, in a pretty unremarkable case of a man being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager, to twist it to fit an agenda: that #MeToo is bad, that women are snowflakes, and that innocent men are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It generates clicks and shares and likes. It’s used as ammunition to further polarise society: men vs women, young vs old, left vs right. So what if they cast a sexual offender as a hero and his victim as the villain? The public will lap it up.

And how. I’ve seen this case being discussed as far afield as the US, Australia and even Pakistan. The most popular comments on the Mail article are:

  1. ‘I am truly gutted for the boy being I was a shy teenager too.’
  2. ‘I hope this is appealed. It is totally disproportionate. Terrible sentence. The kid has done nothing wrong in my eyes.’
  3. ‘He has a life sentence of loneliness. He’s never going to start a conversation with a female again, is he? Absolutely ridiculous decision.’
  4. ‘The Police should be ashamed of themselves for even entertaining this as a serious complaint.’

Plus ‘world gone mad!’, ‘so the judicial system has gone mad along with our political system’, and ‘Draws to the males attention that there are lots of very dangerous females about, and very few worth the rubys or pearls!’ [sic]

Wow. Spare a thought for the poor girl who, after being sexually assaulted and having that assault verified and confirmed in a court of law, is thrown to the wolves by The Sun, the Mail, the Star, the Express, the Mirror and even The Times, who give her attacker the benefit of the doubt by quoting his defence in their headlines and portraying him as the innocent victim of her paranoia! It’s heartless, and immoral, and cruel, but then, I guess we should expect nothing less from an industry that hacked a dead girl’s phone.

So why am I making such a big deal of this really minor case? Two reasons. Firstly, because I was originally sucked in by the deception – as a socially-awkward autistic guy, I understand what it’s like to be lonely and depressed and struggle to understand boundaries and personal space, and I felt sorry for him. And secondly, because it shows how an incredibly simple story – guy sexually assaults girl – can so easily be twisted by the gutter press into something the opposite of ‘the truth’, with no regard for the actual people involved.

Which brings me back to my original question: is the news ‘fake’? The answer is rather troubling. If a simple case such as this one can be so badly manipulated, what about things that are far more complex, such as murder trials, international politics, terror attacks or wars? Far too many people blindly accept whatever the media tells them, whether it’s the latest insider scoop from the Palace, or a proven hoax. There’s nothing unhealthy in maintaining a certain scepticism towards what the media is telling you.

How, then, can we ever know what’s true and what isn’t? The only way is to consult multiple sources from both ends of the political spectrum, look at something from multiple angles, and see if we can’t separate the reality from the spin.

Of course, we can’t do what I’ve done here with every story, so a good place to start would be to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re told. Which facts are brought to the fore, and which ones are pushed into the background? Is this what really happened? How do we know? Could there be any information missing or perhaps another perspective? Is this simply a reprint of someone else’s story or is it being reported on directly? How neatly does it fit into a particular political ideology or agenda? And how does it make you feel?

If you read a story and find yourself becoming angry, or afraid, or bitter, or helpless, odds are it’s deliberately pushing your buttons. The casualty in this is the truth.

Now I’m going to contact Jan Moir to tell her that important nuances do exist between flirtation and assault, affection and attack, and that perhaps if her newspaper hadn’t edited out the most important details, we could make that distinction for ourselves.

The media doomsday cult

I never thought I’d reach the point where I want to look away from the world, but I’ll be honest: I’m the closest I’ve ever been to disconnecting the internet, avoiding the news, and switching channels away from anything other than the comforting banality of Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Sure, every generation thinks it’s the end of the world and humanity can’t survive, and they’ve always been wrong, but these days it’s like watching a slow-motion car crash – or a nuclear strike in treacle. An epidemic of stabbings and mass shootings; a British Parliament crippled by indecision and infighting; a narcissistic lunatic in the White House; innocents massacred in Syria; earthquakes and superstorms; protesters on every street corner; people at each other’s throats; families breaking apart; traditional morals disappearing; and to top it all, the planet is dying. False prophets, nation pitted against nation, wars and rumours of wars, moral decay, signs in the stars, and earthquakes: we’re practically living through the biblical End of Days.

Or are we? I’ve said before that the greatest threat to mankind’s future is the increasing polarisation of society – the division of people into mutually antagonistic groups. Man vs woman, black vs white, old vs young, rich vs poor, left vs right, us vs them, all couched in terms of good vs evil, and as soon as you call the other side evil, or less than human, it justifies whatever you do to them: lock them in cages, deny them their civil liberties, throw milkshakes over them, or acid, drive your car into them, or stab them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s divisive and it’s dangerous and it’s wrong.

We act as though, instead of working together and seeing what unites us, we should double down on the differences and shout at one another, everybody making noise but nobody listening. I’ve never seen a time where civilised debate has broken down into so much name-calling. People are traitors, fascists, Nazis, baby-killers; they’re bigots and racists and misogynists and xenophobes. The validity of their argument is not based on its internal logic, but on their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their sexuality. I refuse to listen to you because you’re a white, male, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied baby boomer; and I refuse to listen to you because you’re a black, working class, trans-female, lesbian, disabled millennial. And you’re evil, not me, it’s you, you, you.

And who has caused this? Everybody. It’s not Trump, not UKIP, though they’ve certainly exploited it as much as the progressives and the politically correct have. It’s all of us. We’ve allowed it to happen. Every time we pick up the Daily Mail or the Guardian; every time we share some random, unsourced, unverified claim on Facebook; every time we argue with somebody on Twitter; every time we demand someone loses their job and their livelihood for having a different opinion to us; every time we question the truth of a message based on the gender or age or colour of the messenger; every time we click on a political video on YouTube; every time we feel satisfaction when someone on the other ‘side’ is embarrassed or humiliated; every time we engage with a book or a TV show or a movie that supports our ideology; every time we buy into this ‘us and them’ rubbish; and yes, every time we vote for people who not only accept but exploit and heighten these divisions, we are part of the problem.

But being on the ‘right’ side feels so damned good, doesn’t it? Fighting the good fight against the evil enemy, we’re all heroes of our own black-and-white morality play. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for shades of grey, or for the people on the other side being simply that – people. People with thoughts and feelings. People who have beliefs formed by their experiences, by their frailties and their fears. People who are sometimes right, often wrong, but are no more evil than you and I. No. The people on the other side are evil monsters. That makes far more sense. And it means we don’t have to think, to consider whether there are other arguments more valid, or more convincing, or more just, than our own.

And while we’re all responsible for the anger resonating around our societies, I think the media plays a massive part in catering to these base instincts. As we all know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Human nature being what is is, we love what stirs our passions, and those negative emotions – anger, fear, jealousy, hatred – feel much more potent, and long-lasting, and somehow more ‘real’ than joy, and hope, and comfort. We even try to justify it in intellectual terms, as though clever, educated, informed people are aware of the world as it really is, and only the dumb, the ignorant, and the ill-informed can be happy. That’s a load of bull.

The media is full of misery because misery sells, and despite claims to journalistic integrity and impartiality, the news is an industry that lives on sales and clicks. The world is incredibly complicated, far too complicated to provide an easily-digestible soundbite for the Six O’Clock news. You can’t provide balance, or nuance, or explain the limits of what we can and can’t predict, or the reliability or likelihood of economic, scientific, or geopolitical projections. It’s far easier to sell narratives that play into good/bad dichotomies of selfishness, greed, murder, exploitation, and the rape of the natural world, than admit that there are positives and negatives to everything, it’s all about balance and compromise, and the influence of this on that is not something we can accurately measure.

The bottom line is that optimism – feeling safe – does not sell papers. But what can kill you, what can scar you, what can make you fear for your future and your family’s future, and what erodes your faith in humanity, is what feeds the media industry. Be afraid: Britain is trapped in Brexit deadlock; there’s a madman in the White House; we’re in the middle of a crime epidemic; and the planet is dying! Be afraid. Don’t miss the next news report! You need to know what’s going on!

Little by little, you disappear down the rabbit hole, and you lose your way back to the light.

So instead of turning away from the news, I think we should seek out the good, the positive, the hopeful and the optimistic – those things that tell us we’re not dying, it’s not as bad as all that. Let’s all stop hating each other and see what unites us.

Here are some news stories you might have missed, because they couldn’t feed into the doomsday cult we all seem to follow:

1. Warfare is at historically low levels. The number of people killed in international wars dropped from 65,000 a year in the 1950s to 2,000 a year in the 2000s despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, from 1989 to 2005, campaigns of mass killing of civilians dropped 90%. There aren’t more wars these days; it just feels like there are because during Vietnam, Cambodia and the Iran-Iraq war, we didn’t have 24-hour news channels and social media showing us every atrocity in real time and sensationalising it for clicks and likes.

2. Global poverty levels were cut in half between 1990 and 2012, a phenomenal improvement to people’s lives in terms of both income and standard of living. And this isn’t just in some countries or continents, but across the entire globe. It turns out that globalisation, the process by which the West exploits the labour and resources of the developing world, actually provides benefits for everyone, but that doesn’t fit into the us/them, rich vs poor paradigm.

3. Every objective, academic, statistical source you consult will tell you the same thing: the crime rate is falling. It rose during the 1980s, peaked in the early 90s, and then dropped off rapidly and has continued to fall year on year. In the US, using FBI statistics, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics records a 71% drop for the same period. In the UK, according to the Office For National Statistics, violent crime peaked in 1995 and then fell two-thirds by 2017. While it is true that the drop-off appears to have stopped in the last couple of years, and certain types of crime (such as knife crime in the UK) have increased, crime levels are still substantially below the levels of the 1980s and early 90s. Anybody claiming we are living through a violent crime epidemic is doing so for sensationalism or political gain.

4. Despite all the dire predictions and catastrophising, there are more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, and far from dying out, they’re actually increasing in number. Indeed, they seem remarkably adaptive to changing conditions. Why? It would appear that thinner ice gives them easier access to seals. The effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict, and talking about it in terms of good and bad denies the reality that some will benefit and some won’t.

5. According to NASA, the world is literally greener today than it was 20 years ago. Thanks to tree-planting programmes in China and agricultural programmes in China and India, there are an extra 2 million square miles of green leaf area, an equivalent size to the entire Amazon rainforest. As Rama Nemani is quoted as saying, ‘Once people realise there’s a problem, they tend to fix it.’ Since it is also the biggest manufacturer and installer of solar panels, China is not simply the mass-polluting monster it’s made out to be in the press, but that wouldn’t keep us all living in fear.

6. The ozone layer is repairing itself. It’s got a long way to go, but thanks to the global community’s efforts to remove CFCs, last year it was 16% smaller than in 2006.

7. By 2018, 101 cities drew more than 70% of their energy from renewable sources, up from 42 in 2015, with 43 powered entirely by ‘clean’ energy. The idea that we’re doing nothing about the environment is at best ill-informed and at worst a deliberate lie to stir up the rage of the young against the old, and the have-nots against the haves.

8. Chinese scientists have developed a new strain of rice that grows in the desert with diluted seawater, meaning global food supplies will be far more stable.

9. The Belize Barrier Reef is no longer endangered. This was thanks to the government of Belize imposing a moratorium on oil prospecting around the reef and implementing protections on coastal mangrove swamps.

And I could go on and on. But you get the picture: there are plenty of reasons for optimism, but only if you go out and look for it.

You know what is getting worse? The suicide rate. And that is the very definition of the victory of pessimism over hope.

There’s a reason for the rise of populism. There’s a reason Trump was elected, Brexit happened (or didn’t). The proliferation of social media, the echo chambers of increasingly divisive left/right media, and our own morbid relationship with seeing the negative in everything has crippled us into cowering intransigence. We’d rather find safety among our own tribe, where everyone thinks just the same as us, and score points against the evil, bigoted, Hitlers on the other side, than reach across the divide and find a solution.

And who benefits?

When people are lost, they’ll follow anybody who claims to know the way.

Even if it’s over a cliff.