"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
Trump loves to play the ‘fake news’ card. Anything that is derogatory or undermines his position is immediately portrayed as ‘fake’. It’s peddled by the ‘poisoned, agenda-driven media’ in Trump-world. Unfortunately, there is an element of truth in his assertions. The media are not above falling for distorted or fake news. And yet, this is nothing new. Since the first cave man claimed he’d fought off a huge Sabertooth Tiger, we’ve been embellishing stuff. These days it gets recorded, transcribed and repeated at infinitum.
History is full of examples of fake news, coupled with propaganda efforts. William Shakespeare was a willing agent of Tudor fake news. He helped propagate a distorted version of events to assert a claim to the English throne. Modern historians agree the War of Roses was a work of fiction. Shakespeare like a Magpie, cherry picked bits of fact, spun them and then rewrote events. Richard III is vilified. Cast as evil, deformed, a usurper to the throne; the Tudors sought to disparage him in every way. That process was so successful that even today Richard III is the very embodiment of evil. Dogs bark at the sight of him.
The achievements of his rule get scant recognition. Trial by jury, a ban on suppressing books and the translation of many works from French to English. He outlawed the deceit of selling land that had already transferred to another. These are amongst many innovations he brought about. Richard’s deformity fed the narrative of his evil nature. Given the common view that external features mirrored a villainous nature. Thus, fake news rattled down the centuries.
Nearer to home and in recent times, the Long March of the Chinese Communist Party got the fake news treatment. The battle of the Luding Bridge gets portrayed as an epic struggle. Outnumbered, exhausted, communist troops arrived at the bridge. They then scrambled across, under fire, to overwhelm a superior enemy force. News of this triumph spread to boost the communist cause. Yet, research has established that the bridge was defended by a small force. These troops fled as the communists approached. An unopposed crossing followed. Eye witnesses attest to this version of events.
It is arguable that the American involvement in Vietnam is because of fake news. An attack on two US navy vessels in August 1964, sparked outrage. Time, Life and Newsweek magazines ran stories of Vietnamese vessels attacking the US ships. These stories inflamed sentiment. An outraged public called for action. This all fed the drive for an intervention in Vietnam. A pretext for war. The consequences were terrible.
Over the years, a body of evidence has emerged that the attacks never took place. Miscommunication and faulty intelligence caused a distorted record of the encounter to emerge. A series of events, including a malfunctioning radar, fed a news story that was untrue. Once in the public domain. the story self-perpetuated. The media further embellished matters to create a sensational version of events. The outcome was momentum for war.
These days you’d imagine event-distortion is difficult. The ubiquitous mobile phone is filming everything. Think again. It’s still going on.
The 2014 Hong Kong Occupy Movement has a narrative that is at odds with my direct observations. In broad terms, the events are transcribed as a peaceful student-led movement. Well-organised, tidy, a carnival event. In this story, the Police are the instigators of any violence. They overreact, using excessive force.
This highly romantic narrative is worthy of fiction. The distortions have fed a hubris that ignores much of what actually happened. For example, the use of tear gas on 28th September 2014, was in direct response to a sustained attack on police lines. Rioters sought to storm Government HQ. Later students appeared armed with shields, batons and body armour. They formed premeditated assaults groups. Further, the triads were co-opted to challenge the police. Meanwhile, a campaign of intimidation was mounted against the families of police officers. This included teachers abusing the children of officers and doctors refusing medical treatment. None of this gets coverage or at best scant mention. Why? Because it contradicts a narrative the many in the media have bought into.
Politicians like Chris Patten fed this version of events. US Senators, who’ve never set foot in Hong Kong and couldn't find it on a map, doubled down on these pronouncements. This reinforces the false narrative. Historians assert that history is a patchwork of stories, news and facts. These are woven together to seek a coherent account of events. That account is sometimes far from accurate.
To be fair, some false news is the unwitting twisting of the truth to make events understandable. Whilst in other instances, the warping is intentional. The Tudors set out to destroy the reputation of Richard III. This fed public sentiment to affirm their legitimacy to the throne. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party told exciting tales of daring.
In Hong Kong, agenda-driven journalists distorted Occupy in sympathy for the cause. With many factors at play, it is a challenge to convey events. With a full rendering difficult to digest, a simple tale will suffice. Plucky pro-democracy students facing off against a hard-faced regime is easy to comprehend. In the process, the detail gets submerged.
Even Trump is accomplishing more than it appears. Away from the noise of the infighting, his staff have moved forward on several of his agenda items. These include enhancements to border security and a drop off in illegal immigrants. Some of his policies are working.
All things considered, fake news and its partner propaganda, are all part of the rich tapestry of life. Treat everything you read, watch or hear with caution. Always ask, has someone got an agenda here? Of course, you can always use Snopes to check stuff.
Get the facts.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.