A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?

The last few days of 2016 have produced a few articles that particularly caught my attention, and which in many ways, summed up the year for me. They concerned two of the main stories that dominated world affairs in 2016: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the war in Syria; and the American presidential election, and in particular the allegation that Russian hacking had been the source of the Democratic Party emails published by Wikileaks.

They are by four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.

These four writers are:

1) Phil Giraldi – a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer – who has a PhD from the University of London in European History, and spent eighteen years working for the CIA in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain (and is fluent in Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish).

2) Craig Murray – a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that intelligence linking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to al-Qaeda was unreliable, immoral and illegal, as it was thought to have been obtained through torture. After making these complaints, he was removed from his ambassadorial post.

3) Glenn Greenwald – an American lawyer, journalist, speaker and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian, beginning in June 2013, detailing United States and British global surveillance programs, based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.

4) Robert Fisk – a writer and journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent intermittently since 1976 and who (apparently) holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent and has been voted British International Journalist of the Year seven times.

Evidence for the Russian hack?

First, three on the alleged Russian hacking.

The last week of 2016 produced the astonishing spectacle of the American president expelling 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the alleged hacking. Perhaps even more interestingly, media coverage often seemed to assume that evidence had been produced which showed that the Russians really were involved. Giraldi, Murray, and Greenwald all take the view that no strong evidence has yet been produced.

Giraldi, writing on the 28th of December, said

“Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin. . . . Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers.”

Greenwald, writing on the 31st, spoke of: “the U.S. government’s evidence-free report.”

Murray, writing on the 31st, simply reiterates his view that the American government is lying about the supposed Russian hacking of emails associated with the presidential elections, and says that the FBI report published on the 29th of December,

gives no evidence at all of the alleged successful hack that transmitted these particular emails, nor any evidence of the connection between the hackers and the Russian government, let alone Putin.

The dishonesty of western journalism

Then there was Greenwald’s article about dishonesty in the media – and in particular, the Guardian

Greenwald writes about a report published … by The Guardian “that recklessly attributed to [Julian] Assange comments that he did not make.” Furthermore, “those false claims — fabrications, really — were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news.”

“The Guardian published an article by Ben Jacobs, which contained two claims, both of which were false. Furthermore, the Guardian article contained no original reporting. Indeed, it did nothing but purport to summarize the work of an actually diligent journalist: Stefania Maurizi. . . . Jacobs’s “work” consisted of nothing other than purporting to re-write the parts of that interview he wanted to highlight, so that he and The Guardian could receive the traffic for her work.

Ever since the Guardian article was published and went viral, Maurizi has repeatedly objected to the false claims being made . . . But while Western journalists keep re-tweeting and sharing The Guardian’s second-hand summary of this interview, they completely ignore Maurizi’s protests.”

Greenwald’s point is that “those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.”

And note what Greenwald said about western journalists re-tweeting and sharing the Guardian’s misleading summary of Maurizini’s interview, but completely ignoring her protests that the Guardian’s story was seriously misleading. Doesn’t exactly encourage one to trust western journalists, does it?

Robert Fisk on Syria

And finally, on the subject of western journalists, Robert Fisk on the war in Syria. Fisk had previously expressed reservations about the way the war in Syria has been reported in an article earlier in Decemberin which he spoke of how we were being given “a narrative of good guys versus bad guys [which was] as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction” and then said “But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East.

But in this more recent article, on the 29th, he wrote:

“The use of social media in reporting the battle of eastern Aleppo has been extraordinary, weird, dangerous, even murderous, when not a single Western journalist could report the eastern Aleppo war at first hand. Much damage has been done to the very credibility of journalism – and to politicians – by the acceptance of one side of the story only when not a single reporter can confirm with his or her own eyes what they are reporting.

The 250,000 “trapped” Muslims of eastern Aleppo – now that 31,000 have chosen to go to Idlib, many more to western Aleppo – appear to have been somewhat fewer than 90,000. It’s now possible that at least 160,000 of the civilians “trapped” in eastern Aleppo did not actually exist, but no one says so. That vital statistic of 250,000, the very punctuation mark of every report on the besieged enclave, is now forgotten or ignored (wisely, perhaps) by those who quoted it.

Can we really shake our heads in disbelief at electoral lies when we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years?”

A post-truth world?

But Fisk’s most interesting comment is this: “We do not live in a “post-truth” world, neither in the Middle East nor in the West – nor in Russia, for that matter. We live in a world of lies. And we always have lived in a world of lies.”

I think that Fisk may be onto something.

For me, 2016 has been the year when my confidence in the western mass media hit rock bottom. Before 2016 I believed that it was biassed and often misleading – but broadly speaking honest and accurate. By the end of the year, I had come to the conclusion that it was often dishonest and sometimes completely inaccurate. Individual reporters often told the truth, but when what they said was not what the powers that be wanted to hear, it was usually buried in obscure places.

But does that mean that the only thing that happened was that the scales fell from my eyes? Or is it also the case that in recent years there has been a real decline in respect for truth, honesty, and accuracy in the west – or at least in some western countries? I don’t know – but it seems to me that this is certainly a possibility.

Some 3000 years ago, the Psalmist David seemed to think pretty much the same thing:

Help, LORD; for there is no longer any that is godly;
for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men.
Every one utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak,
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is our master?”
“Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”
The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
as what is vile is exalted among the children of man.
                                                                                          (Psalm 12)

Yes, we live in a world of lies, for we have lived in a post-truth world since the Adam ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But the truth is not dead. The world may be dark, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Yes, people love the darkness rather than the light – because their works are evil. (For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.) There are a lot of people with plenty to hide, who do not want the truth to come out.

Of course, all the truth will one day come out, for there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and come to light.

But even before that day comes when the whole truth comes out, a remarkable amount of it does come out – and it seems to me that for that, we must be grateful to those people who make it known.