“We all know that when journalism becomes indistinguishable from organized lying, it constitutes a crime. But we think it is a crime impossible to punish. What is there to stop the punishment of activities once they are recognized to be criminal ones? Where does this strange notion of non-punishable crimes come from? It constitutes one of the most monstrous deformations of the judicial spirit. Isn’t it high time it were proclaimed that every discernible crime is a punishable one, and that we are resolved, if given the opportunity, to punish all crimes? A few straightforward measures of public salubrity would protect the population from offences against the truth. The first would be to set up, with such protection in view, special courts enjoying the highest prestige, composed of judges specially selected and trained. They would be responsible for publicly condemning any avoidable error, and would be able to sentence to prison or hard labour for repeated commission of the offence, aggravated by proven dishonesty of intention.”
These words are an extract from The Need for Roots by Simone Weil, written after the last world war. She frequently dispenses a heady mixture of wisdom and wackiness, which is evident here. I think she’s right about journalistic lies being a crime and also right that they should be punished; but naive to think that her special courts would not speedily be corrupted by powerful interests. My conviction is that such courts could only function if they were composed of people internationally selected, trained and owing allegiance only to the U.N.
With that correction however, I would be happy to see public truth protected as she suggested. Especially in view of the contribution of our so-called free press to tomorrow’s general election. In most cases, the worst kinds of prejudice, distortion and evasion of the facts have been displayed by British Newspapers, almost all of which are mouthpieces for their owners’ interests. With the exception of the Guardian and the Daily Mirror, (the latter not exempt from its own fibs) national newspapers have fibbed daily to rubbish all criticism of western capitalism and to support the worst instincts of the British Conservative Party. Indeed UKIP with its racist nonsense would doubtless have received their support as it did in the Brexit Referendum, had it been at all electable.
All this is only to be expected and is taken for granted by most citizens. But why should we permit such criminal behaviour in our society? Why should those who favour any decent sort of politics or social improvement have to fight constantly against the mafias of malevolent tycoons? When any controls on their constant distortions are proposed, these journalists squeal that the freedom of the press, without which we should have no access to the truth, is under threat. Dr. Johnson once asked about the American colonists, “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for Liberty from the owners of slaves?” I might ask, “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for public truth from those who who are paid to peddle porkies?” Why do we put up with such crimes?
Because we believe that freedom of opinion and speech is essential.
But we do not in all instances agree that we should accept factual distortion or falsehood. If someone has told lies about me in public and damaged my life in some measurable way, I can sue for libel. In the case of the kind of political lying defined above, it may seem that as long as newspapers are careful not to tell obvious lies about individuals, there is no victim and therefore, no crime. Clearly however, citizens are injured by being deprived of the facts they need to vote responsibly. We consider this to be self-evident in the case of states which lack a free press; and of course most British citizens could discover the relevant facts if they worked hard enough. But as it is, those who believe that the greatest freedom is the freedom of the rich to become richer and the powerful more powerful, are hugely advantaged by our national press to the detriment of all others: a crime is being committed.
How should such offences be punished? Simone Weil was a Christian radical who didn’t want anyone to think she was infirm of purpose. She, therefore, wanted them packed off to jail. But I hate to think of the moral deterioration of our ordinary convicted criminals if they were forced to mix with Daily Mail journalists. Moreover, Weil believed in the redemptive power of imprisonment, which I as a former Prison Chaplain regard as myth. So I would revert to the ancient Roman penalty of exile. The convicted person was forced to live amongst barbarians. In this case, I think those convicted of deliberate lying in the public press should be exiled permanently to the USA, presently the world capital of fake news, in the hope that they might see and suffer the kind of society produced by persistent lying.