Brexit, the media and the academic world

by Dame Liz Forgan FBA (Hon)

19 Jul 2016

We live in distressingly interesting times. Don’t worry, I will spare you a discussion of the Iraq war. Or the farcical goings on in Parliament. But they share features which emerge even more clearly in the issue which will possibly have an even more lasting effect – on the people of these islands at least – the referendum on the European Union. It’s not the eventual decisions taken in any or all of them that are troubling me. It is the way they were taken.

The gullible, naïve, irrational, way they were taken. The cynical and dishonest way they were presented. And the measure of responsibility you and your colleagues in the academic world and I and mine in the media might have in this state of affairs.

I do not sneer at the Brexiters. I disagree with them. But I look at the evidence for their case and it’s nonsense. The remedy just does not begin to address the stated ailment. There was a perfectly rational argument for leaving the European Union. There was a righteous cause in fighting inequality and political polarisation. But that’s not the argument we had.

Instead, people with genuine grievances, already disillusioned with the political system, sensing themselves powerless in the so-called global race, were lied to. Whopping lies. Quite obviously undeliverable promises. Devilishly targeted at the sore places in the parts of Britain that have suffered most from austerity and the globalisation of economic power. The case was made by means of falsehood and prejudice opposed by a campaign of fear. And the worst of it is that 17 million people believed it.

So how did a handful of self-interested politicians, busy with their own political and personal preoccupations, so easily plunge the country into financial and constitutional chaos? How did they then chuck rational argument out of the window and choose to pursue their course instead on the basis of a packet of simplistic lies? And how did sensible people with deep and genuine grievances about immigration and the cultural and economic effects of globalisation come to believe that whacking the establishment and leaving the EU would fix them?

Could we just agree for the sake of argument that in this case politicians of all stripes are greatly to blame. The last couple of months have given us a parade of the very worst which that often noble and sometimes misunderstood trade can produce.

But never mind them. It’s us I want to think about. You, the academics, teachers, leading thinkers in the humanities and social sciences, custodians of the values of rigorous argument, truthful debate and the effective testing of ideas. And we the media, responsible for informing and educating the public by giving general access to true information, honest argument and the scrutiny of pretence and lies.

How did we fail in our duty so spectacularly that more than a million people who voted to Leave regretted their decision 48 hours later?

How could serious politicians airily admit blatant untruths and then state publicly that the people enjoyed being lied to and that they had had enough of experts? How could people whose minds had been trained in our finest universities (and let’s not forget also blazed successful careers as star journalists on some of our leading national newspapers) have dared to look the nation in the eye totally confident that they could bamboozle it so completely?

How did we embark on a revolution without the smallest attempt to think through the consequences at any realistic level? How did we unleash racial tensions to the point where reported hate crime rose by 42% year on year in June?

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme.

If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media. We must learn to tell base metal from gold and to grasp the difference between play acting and real life. The Foreign Office is going to be a splendid place to study that one.

Let’s start with the media. A plural and unbiddable press is one of the glories of Britain but its role in sowing fear and downright lies in this campaign is a shameful episode. It wasn’t just the politicians who knew perfectly well that what they were saying was untrue. So did the media, with the BBC trapped in idiotically narrow rules of impartiality and the Sun, Mail and Express roaring poisonous hatreds in obedience to their owners. All of us – the Guardian which I chair included – failing to present rational argument powerfully enough in ways people could understand.

And just as we can see the falling confidence in politicians and the political system in the falling turnouts for British elections, so we can see the disintegration of the reliance people place on mainstream journalism in the tremendous growth of social media. 

That is not merely about a change from paper to digits. Not merely a brilliant enrichment of the sources of information and the right to speak as well as be spoken to. It is also part of that same deadly mistrust of evidence, flight from expertise and readiness to substitute trust in personal contact for trust in convincing argument. Facebook – a huge source of information particularly for millennials – is now tweaking its news feed algorithms to enshrine friends and family – “what people like me think” – as its central organising principle. Social media is a blessing of our age but it is also a rebuke to the failings of mainstream media and an invitation to avoid challenging ideas. Don’t read a serious newspaper whose journalists bring specialist knowledge, first hand reporting or careful research to the truffling after truth. All journalists lie so better rely on your mates.

If there are failures by the teachers and academics in all this, you are better placed to know them than I am. But I cannot resist seeing in the appalling aftermath of the last month worrying evidence that for all our pride in British education, particularly at tertiary level, we have a population dangerously vulnerable to seduction by celebrity and wishful thinking, let alone to the poison of racism of a sort many thought was gone from these islands years ago.

Some will see that as moral failing or the stupidity of people. Not I. I think babies are born immoral and it is the job of society and its educators to turn them into civilised adults. Perhaps some people are born stupid but I have always been impressed by the way young people apparently devoid of all academic qualifications can speak about football or music with a depth of knowledge that could get you a doctorate in any other field.

The British Academy stands for the rigorous pursuit of knowledge and a society governed by the humanities, informed by the social sciences.

As an Honorary Fellow I feel enormous pride in that enterprise. But if we look at the way we have gone about the hugely important and difficult decisions that the nation has had to face in these past months I think we have to admit we are falling short of our goals.

We have more university graduates than ever before. But have we allowed too many of them to inhabit safe spaces instead of sharpening their minds on challenge and evidence-based argument? 

Please do not think this is a call for castor oil and misery. That is far from my meaning. I am all for giggling, silliness and knockabout. Life is earnest and for many people grim. Fantasy and escapism are vital to human health. Entertainment is a wonderful and necessary thing and so are jokes in politics. But education is for toughening different sinews. Journalism is for seeking truth not celebrity worshipping and we needed both to sort complex truth from simple lies when existential issues of national purpose were at stake. Faced with serious questions we need to be capable of serious thinking. As Donald Trump chillingly said: “I love the poorly educated.”

I dare say we will extricate ourselves from this awful summer with less damage than currently seems likely. But we have learnt some salutary things about our country and our institutions. Some of them we should have learned long ago and need to be attended to as a matter of urgency.

We in the worlds of the education and the media also need to return to our essential purposes with a sense of failure for what happened last month but more usefully with a determination to ensure that such a betrayal of both our disciplines should not happen again.

Between us we are not pulling our weight in the bumping and grinding of our modern democracy as it negotiates faster and more disruptive change than it has ever known. Not because we got the wrong answer but because we failed to deal effectively with the questions and that was our job.

Dame Liz Forgan, DBE is an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, chair of the Scott Trust, and a former chair of the Arts Council. This personal perspective is taken from her after-dinner speech at the Academy's AGM on 14 July 2016.


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