In the pre-Internet age, our society had an order of information in which knowledge was managed by experts and authorities, as well as representatives of the political, legal, scientific, medical and economic powers-that-be. Academics, scientists, spokespersons for the state and the owners, producers and editors of the major media decided what was real and what was unreal, what was true and what was false. The upside of this was that an awful lot of utter nonsense did not find mainstream distribution. The downside was that some material was misclassified as unreal or false – either by error, or because of interest group pressure, ideology or group-think.
The Internet threatens all this by speeding up circulation of unofficial data and simply bypassing the official information authorities. Crucially, it enables the creation and distribution of pure speculation or outright lies without significant legal hazard.
In the pre-Internet ‘knowledge order’, the label ‘conspiracy theory’ was one of the key management tools of the powers-that-be, enabling the denigration of a political or historical proposition without it having to be falsified. In the post-1964 sections of Dr Christopher Andrew’s 1,000-page history of MI5, In Defence of the Realm (Allen Lane, 2009), Andrew, as the spokesman for MI5, repeatedly dismisses the claims of critics of the agency as “conspiracy theories”. Based on the notion of an authority being allowed to see the official records of a secret agency, to report back that all is well and that the agency’s critics are simply misinformed or conspiracy theorists, Andrew’s book looks like one of the last hurrahs of the old information order.
Elsewhere, though, the new order is lapping at the feet of the old. The first big breakthrough from the margins of the cybersphere to the major media in this country was when, on 27 September, the BBC’s Andrew Marr asked Prime Minister Gordon Brown: “A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through. Are you one of them?”
In the furore which followed, it was revealed that Marr had no evidence other than the “evidence” which lots of other people (including this writer) had: emails circulating which suggested that Brown was taking a particular antidepressant. It was the first time in this country that something so sensitive and potentially damaging had made its way from the Internet into mainstream TV politics – from unregulated to regulated screens, as it were.
America is much deeper into the new information order than the UK. On 29 September, Bill Clinton said on American television that the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ – the phrase used by his wife – which had pursued him through his terms in office had now focused on President Obama.
Obama is experiencing an extreme version of what happened to Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 70s: despite being a centrist, he is being accused of being a Communist (and worse) by the right.
Wilson only had to endure rumour-mongering among London’s financial, military and intelligence elites, with just hints appearing in the major print media and nothing on radio or television: the libel laws and the major media’s demand for evidence prevented the fantasies about “the Communist cell in No 10” being published or broadcast. Obama now has the American right’s considerable Internet, TV, radio and print media cranking away night and day on the themes of his otherness: his illegitimacy as a presidential candidate because (it is claimed) he was not born in the US; his hidden Communism and/or Fascism (example above); his being a secret Muslim; his non-authorship of his memoir; and his links to Bill Ayers, an American lefty and member of the Weathermen in the 1969–1974 period. And with the constitutional right to free speech and the existence of a public interest defence against libel charges existing in America, there is little Obama can do about it.
It is a commonplace on the British liberal-left that British libel laws are too restrictive, too protective of those who can afford the lawyers. As I was writing this, the Guardian reported that it was under an injunction not only to not report a story (a question tabled in Parliament by a Labour MP), it was even under an injunction preventing it from reporting who the subject of the story was!
Ah, the old information order reasserting itself, I thought. But within an hour the information the Guardian had been forbidden to report was on the Net and the injunction collapsed the next day. The new order with a vengeance!
Faced with a banning injunction, any media organisation can just slip the story onto the Net. Is the old information order finished? If this is the major breach it appears to be, do we want to go down the American road to a situation in which anyone can write or broadcast anything? For the evidence from America suggests that a large section of the population are unable to tell the shit from the Shinola. And if there is a middle way, what is it?