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Home > Politics

Fiction Burns

3 June 2006

'You couldn't make it up' is, of course, the hackneyed, clichéd catchphrase of hateful human skidmark, Richard Littlejohn. This though, like so many things the evolutionary drag factor pontificates on, is wrong.

The walls between our reality and fiction have been growing thin for quite a few years now. Under the auspices of New Labour and the cynicism of the PR industry those walls have finally been breached and everyday reality is now polluted by fiction. You can indeed make it up and largely get away with it.

In Philip K Dick's novel, the alternative history masterpiece 'The Man In The High Castle', Germany and Japan win the Second World War. By use of the ancient Chinese divination technique, the I-Ching, some of the main characters come to realise something has gone wrong and they are living inside a fiction.

In our reality, fortunately, you don't yet need to employ an ancient Chinese philosophical text to divine that much of what is sold to us as truth is in fact fiction. And even though the purveyors of these concoctions are becoming subtler, the incursions of fiction as fact are still easy to spot if you keep your mind and your eyes open.

Take new Home Secretary John Reid, for instance. He was portrayed on the cover of the Mirror last week as every inch the streetfighting man of action: jacket off, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up and fists clenched. 'I'll fucking well work 18 hours a day to sort this out,' the bullet-headed hardman vowed in response to the litany of incompetence at the Home Office. Having sold the public his line - or given his version of reality - he then promptly bogged off to France for the long weekend.

The fuss over John Prescott playing croquet at his (now former) country residence Dorneywood is another example. The reality of this story is that the Deputy Prime Minister has been a finger-sniffing serial sexual harasser since at least the late 1970s. Linda McDougall, the wife of MP Austin Mitchell, has said that in 1978 Prescott 'pushed me quite forcefully against the wall and put his hand up my skirt'. Frankly, that sounds like a very good description of an indecent assault and one wonders why Mitchell has been so vocally supportive of Prescott in recent days. And McDougall's not the only one. One former Labour Party press officer says she took to wearing trousers while working at party headquarters in an attempt to stop the man who, let's not forget, was running the country last weekend, from pawing at her. If it had been a teacher or a social worker or a doctor or a teenager who couldn't keep their hands to themselves (as when Prescott took to brawling in the street) you can bet that the media and Prescott's boss would have taken a different view. But the Government and media have colluded to keep the more serious issues off the news and fashioned the perception that this is merely a story of a hapless, greedy buffoon clinging desperately to his perks.

Prescott's old arch-enemy, Peter Mandelson, New Labour's most famous creator of new realities is still at it despite having been fired twice in the past for lying. According to the current Private Eye, Mandelson recently participated in The Independent's 'You Ask The Questions' feature. Having received too many questions about the Blair/Brown catfight and the darker corners of his own career, Mandelson simply made up some questions and answers about his current job as EU Trade Commissioner. The Independent then colluded in the deception by making up names to go with the questions.

New Labour elevated this to an art form during the last general election campaign when they Imported American propaganda techniques known as 'astroturfing'. Letters written by party press officers bigging up Labour or castigating opponents were planted in local newspapers. One newspaper printed identical letters twice. Another printed a letter from a woman who didn't exist. The people met by the Prime Minister at photo opportunities weren't members of the public but 'endorsers', hand-picked (black, Asian, elderly, families) to present the right image on the news footage.

Of course, it's not just New Labour who like to create their own reality - you only have to look as far as Tory leader David Cameron cycling to work while his chauffeur brings up the rear in the car with Dave's shirt and shoes. It's the same old snake oil, just with a different label.

The more you look, the more you realise that everybody's at it. It was reported this week that the Bush Administration and several large corporations have been caught bang to rights planting fake news stories in the American media. Diana Farsetta of the Centre for Media and Democracy said, 'They have got very good at mimicking what a real, independently produced television report would look like'. This is after the Pentagon were also caught last year paying Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles about the occupation.

Not wishing to be left out, the British Government are a dab hand at fake news as well. Earlier this year in an under-reported story, it was revealed that World Television, an organisation producing television news which is played right across the Middle East, is entirely funded by the Foreign Office (who forked out £340m in 2001 alone) in an attempt to plant propaganda about the Iraqi Occupation. 'This year is not the first time an outside power has sought to construct a modern, democratic, liberal state in Iraq. Britain tried to do the same in the 1920s,' read one introduction. Or as Winston Churchill put it in 1919, 'I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes'.

World Television also produce clips and news for corporations. And, of course, the PR industry is built around the telling of lies in order to sell the public crap they don't need. Rumours are circulating this week that singer Sandi Thom's stratospheric rise to fame might be less down to a grassroots fanbase that watched webcasts of her performing and more down to the dark machinations of her PR company planting stories in the media. (Sandi's guilty of a fiction of her own. Her debut single 'I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker With Flowers In My Hair' betrays a cultural ignorance of the last 30 years which must have had John Lydon choking while he searched for a new expletive to describe it. She's clearly not aware of the Sex Pistols' live album 'Never Trust A Hippy'.)

Advertisers and PR companies will go to extraordinary lengths to shill whatever it is they're shilling this week. The attention to detail can be quite staggering. Last year blogger Tom Coates at plasticbag.org, having written a post about his estranged father, received a consoling comment from a Barry Scott. Or, rather, a comment from some tosser at an advertising agency pretending to be Barry Scott of Cillit Bang indignity. It seems the fictional Barry Scott toured a number of blogs leaving comments in an attempt to kick start a viral marketing campaign.

Another blogger, Jim Bliss at numero57.net, had a commenter on his blog a little while back who wrote of his wife and children leaving him. On the commenter's own blog he spoke of a downwards spiral towards violence. A naturally concerned Jim only sensed things were not what they seemed when the man began talking of trying to attack Tony Blair. It turned out than Jim had been on the receiving end of another, very convoluted, viral marketing campaign - the commenter's website disappeared shortly afterwards to be replaced with an advert for the movie, 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon'. Who knows how many other such campaigns have avoided detection.

As to whether we should be worried that life is becoming seemingly less real largely depends on where you stand on being treated like a servile idiot by public servants and advertising executives. For some - if not most - perception is everything, which is why these people have got away with it for as long as they have. And life's hard - many, many people prefer to immerse themselves in the fiction of soap operas and heavily choreographed so-called 'reality' television rather than face up to some of the terrible things the people they voted for do in their name. Many people simply don't care that the Government and the PR industry regard them as cattle and are prepared to treat them as such - as unquestioning consumers. It's a dignity thing at the end of the day. Some people are happy to trade theirs more cheaply than others.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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