In a democracy . . .
I usually have some time for BBC Radio 4’s File on Four programme, which has produced some decent investigative journalism. It is generally not afraid to unearth facts which embarrass the government. Today’s programme was somewhat different—it seemed to be based on the idea that in academia there is an infestation of professors who are acting as Putin’s useful idiots in the disinformation wars. The programme kicked off with the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee demanding that government takes immediate action to root out this odious cadre of propagandists. But in 40 minutes we only heard of two, although we were told there are ‘many others’ in all walks of life, including (shock horror) musicians. The underlying assumption is that these people are ‘leftists’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) - an assumption stated as such in the programme and not challenged. I personally doubt that anyone genuinely on the left has any time for the arch-rightist Vladimir Putin. Nor did the programme ask why it is that enquiring academics might want to question official narratives. I recently reviewed a book on the history of disinformation for Lobster which makes it plain that disinformation is a tool used by all governments—so it seems perfectly proper to question the NATO line. That doesn’t mean we support Putin. As one of the academics said, if they have to start toeing the line we’ll be well on our way towards authoritarianism, indeed the very approach which in Russia makes it a crime to call this Ukrainian ’special military operation’ a war.
In the final minutes of the programme we heard from the UK’s ambassador to the UN who said that Russia’s use of disinformation makes it harder for member states who are ‘less well informed than us' to come to sound judgements about what to support. One was immediately reminded of Colin Powell’s masterful disinformation speech prior to the Iraq war. And whilst we’re in the neighbourhood of whataboutism, what about the Gulf of Tonkin incident? Presumably we shouldn’t question such things. But we do. And it wasn’t that long ago that the BBC itself had a policy of airing ‘both sides of the argument’ on climate change, long after the science had moved irrevocably in one direction. Perhaps this week’s File on Four was a subtle form of establishment disinformation?
I’ll save some comments on another Professor, David Miller who was sacked from his post at Bristol University on disproven grounds of anti-semitism (i.e. questioning the Israeli government’s narrative), or indeed the Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery whom Manchester University wanted to dispatch on the grounds that some people didn’t like an exhibition by the group Forensic Architecture relating to the plight of Palestinians. If there is a cancel culture developing in this country, it is very definitely being propelled by a narrow, establishment worldview which in our own polite way seeks to squash dissent. Or perhaps I should say, with respect to Pritti Patel’s latest legislative fits, not so polite.
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