Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years

fakenewsFake news is often presented to us as being a new development. but in fact the phenomenon has been around for a long time (so false information about fake news!). It is only the source and speed of media dissemination which has altered. So why is it a problem and why should we worry about it now?

A Very old Threat Wearing New Clothes

Looking back in history we can see many of the features of fake news familiar to us today. During the 17th Century printing technology had evolved to the point where news-sheets were published to bring information to an increasingly curious public.  During the English Civil Wars (ECW) of the 1640s fake news was a standard tool of highly partisan pamphlets with both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies employing officials to engage in what we would call today ‘spin doctoring’. Beyond the official sources any number of presses dodged legal restrictions to present the views of a myriad different groups. For example, The Moderate presented news and views from a Leveller perspective and frequently employed writers and editors from their ranks.  Beyond mere interpretation, some facts were simply made up and it was a regular occurrence for Charles Stuart to be pronounced dead by Parliament-biassed sheets. That is, of course, until January 30th 1649 when fake news became factual news! Some of the fake news was the result of poor communications and was published in good faith so should more properly be categorised as misinformation. Some, however, was deliberately fabricated as described in this this excellent article by Andrew Hopper of the University of Leicester.  As Hopper points out, this also included nationalist overtones with one 1643 pamphlet painting Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of the Royalist army, as a cruel German barbarian having committed any number of unspeakable atrocities.

The ECW was in reality no different from more recent wars where, as the saying goes, the first casualty is truth.  The fact that official Government sources disseminate fake news, not only during wartime, is generally accepted and it is the reason why a free press is regarded as a central requirement of an open society. But in 2017 fake news can arise out of any number of sources and, as this New York Times article illustrates, can have a complex history from generation to dissemination.

Continue reading “Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years”

What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

Thomas Rinborough

In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:

..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;

All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can  learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:

I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.

As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason.  Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.

Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values

Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”

A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.