We regularly and willingly suspend our disbelief. Keeping one ironic eye on the reality of Peaky Blinders and a critical eye on its artifice, we manage to sensibly consume a host of other mainstream culture: Premier League football matches, meals in Italian restaurants, crime novels – even the theatre of weddings, work and taxes. But despite the apparent maturity in our knowing nods at the appropriate cues, a script that is too frugal, chopped up with the incoherence of everyday speech, just wouldn’t cut it as escapism. Imagine a film dialogue based entirely on transcripts of real speech uttered by real people in real situations: “erm, pass me the erm. That thing. Ta.” Yet how often does the pub quiz pedant cry “but no-one would ever say that”?
The art of John Salt is an interesting example of our insistence on the real in art – but not too real. A painting that looks just like a photograph may as well be a photograph – but the crowds flood in to see his paintings nevertheless. In the meantime, who cares about printed photographs? The inference is that we consider paintings to be real art. A computer-generated film score, no matter how moving, how appropriate, how tender, wouldn’t be real art in the way a John Williams score would be. Right?
Figure 1: cor, it’s really a painting. Honest! Image (c) Ikon Gallery
Now take fake news. We regularly and willingly suspend our disbelief in the consumption of a whole diet of mainstream culture, including “the news”. We know that news programmes are produced, scripted, edited – we see real employees wandering around the real studio in the background, doing real work. Maybe they’re just buying stuff on Amazon in their worktime, paid for by your licence fee. We know that stories are filmed using cameras and microphones. We know that some things are missed out, missed altogether or avoided. We knew there are different news shows on different channels with different styles, content, running orders and language. We know all this. We know it when we half-read and half-listen to it in the background, when we misunderstand it, when we misappropriate it three days later to make small talk in the corridor at work. By this time, all news is fake news.
We trust, as always, our rules of thumb rather than our supposed faith in knowledge, reason, science and repeatable results that puts us above the barbarians and the peasants. Life’s too short to check facts: wouldn’t that be dull? We have sources we respect. Maybe our parents watched Channel 4 news when we were younger. Maybe you just agree with most of The Guardian so it must be right: its values are miraculously coterminous with your own – doesn’t it feel eerie? Yet even after decades of fake news, we suddenly started jumping up and down about it at the tail end of 2016 and used it to beat free speech.
Fake news is the British oblivious to genocide in Australia, or of the bombing raids on Germany in 1944 to 1945, or to the epidemic of heart disease caused by the air pollution caused by the cars we drive, or of the demographic disaster that is our parents and grandparents living for an entire generation longer in houses that aren’t being replaced. Fake news is Ed Balls, transfer deadline day, celebrity deaths and anything mentioning the words “health and safety”. Fake news is just news you don’t agree with: news that looks real enough to be a John Salt painting – but not too real to be just like the real thing. The tragedy of Western capitalism is that we still believe there’s a distinction between fake news and real news.
At least in the Soviet Union people knew everything in the papers was fiction.