“Pay attention Hill, this is important!”
And with that a textbook was thrown at my head by an increasingly irrate teacher.
It missed by centimetres, hitting the wall behind me.
Thinking back now the teacher’s bad aim was probably by design but at the time it shocked me enough to sit up and listen. (Although if he had meant to hit me, back then, whilst corporal punishment was still legal (God, I’m old), he wouldn’t have got in trouble as I was a little shit who was always messing around in lessons.)
I’m sitting in a history lesson aged 12. I used to love history. All those Medieval kings and queens with their deaths and violence. But this term there had been a time jump which meant I had missed out both the 18th and 19th Century and we were now studying 20th Century history. Bored now!
And we were studying anti-Jewish propaganda in the run-up to the Second World War.
Although I didn’t agree with his methods, the teacher’s sentiment that this was important in hindsight was very on the nose as it showed how the populace can be controlled through targeted messaging. A brainwashing of a nation to accept the unacceptable.
We’ve just sat through an election where propaganda was used with abandon.
In my lifetime I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a UK general election where dirty tricks were used so much to fool and desensitise a nation to the unpalatable.
During this election there was propaganda going on from all of the main parties. So much so, that the electorate didn’t know what to think. Literally about everything.
Of course, every party uses marketing and advertising as propaganda to get their message across but in this election it was the huge rise in mendacious factually incorrect messaging that made it impossible for people to work out what was true and what was not.
And like my history lesson there are some very scary bits of propaganda that particularly resonated.
On social media it was rampant from both sides of the left and the right debate. I saw anti-semitic Jewish conspiracy memes and articles shared by the hard left and from the right side of the spectrum I saw more anti-Corbyn propaganda than I could shake a stick at (one friend managed to clog up my feed so much with anti-Corbyn rhetoric that I missed several important cute cat pictures).
But it is in the national press that the propaganda machine went into overdrive. The right-wing press went hell for leather in their drive to demonise Jeremy Corbyn. We all know Labour voters who have gone Tory because they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Corbyn as ‘there’s just something about him’. And with that vague feeling of disquiet that people felt about the Labour leader you could see that the propaganda machine was winning.
It was almost as if huge swathes of the press were essentially an extended arm of the Tory HQ. And on the left you only had The Guardian and The Mirror in their corner.
During this election you even had a Tory run social media account claiming to be an independent fact-checking organisation with hardly any comeuppance from the media.
Fake news stories also abounded to confuse and distract. A Tory aide was reportedly punched by a Labour activist before that was revealed to be a hoax.
And a fully researched and accurate Yorkshire Evening Post story of a child having to sleep in a hospital corridor was immediately claimed by ‘someone on Facebook’ to be a set-up and a hoax. The hoax claim spread like wildfire before it was debunked itself.
So where can you find news that is not tarred with the partisan brushes of propaganda?
Well in this country it would be the BBC who have the unenviable job ot impartiality. And a difficult job it is too. At the time of writing you have the remnants of Labour claiming that they too were an extension of the Tory campaign machine whilst the Tories themselves have announced that they will be reviewing the BBC license amid claims of impartiality going in the other direction. In my mind if both sides of the debate are complaining then the Beeb have got it about right.
Another source of impartial news is the local press who are seen as much more trustworthy than their national counterparts. But even with local news you now have a prolifieration of local news websites that can be from any background.
It is impossible nowadays to truly recognise the bias free truth in stories. To sort out the snakes from the truth-tellers.
But at least with the printed press, it is properly regulated with trained journalists having to adhere to codes of practice like balance and right of reply so it is a safer bet to get your news from there but it is up to all of us to recognise when we are being fed propaganda. We need to properly research the sources of news stories and to know the difference between opinion and fact.
There are some things that need to change for us to move forward. We need proper regulation of news on the web and social media. It’s a free for all at the moment where properly resourced verified stories sit alongside blatantly made up fabrications.
But at its heart, although the press is under a lot of flak at the moment especially with some editors going to quite heinous lengths just to get the headlines, we would all be a lot poorer without it.
Its job is to hold those in power to account and to make sure that the general public is properly informed on a local and national level.
In America, Trump has been making a concerted effort to destroy the free press and it would be a sad day if Boris did the same in this country. It is especially scary that only days after his landslide election he is attacking the BBC and we need to stand up for a free press no matter what.
The free press is important and if I learnt anything from my history lesson it’s that without it the Government can really throw the book at you.