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Technology hasn't disrupted the truth, it has provided a new coat of paint

There are many evils attributed to the Internet and the rise of publishing on the Web, but none quite so astounding as those claimed by the former editor of the Guardian Australia, Katharine Viner.

In a long, rambling article that stretches to nearly 6000 words — incidentally, not the length of article one would have written in the supposedly "better" pre-Internet days Viner cites example after example (Brexit, Trump etc) to try and advance the argument that the "truth" has now become a more malleable concept than in the past.

One of the telling paragraphs in her thesis is: "For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths."

And then this: "Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the Web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob."

Viner's lament for the good old days of journalism leads to generalisations of this kind: "Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these 'facts' to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago)."

The other side of the coin, that patent falsehood in any number of online publications can be shot down by even the smallest publisher, does not seem to register with her. The situation of big print publishers being able to make their version of the "truth" stick with more people and the smaller publications being unable to command the belief of more readers has always existed. It's quite surprising that the influence the Murdoch press has had on one British election after another in pre-Internet days does not seem to have registered with Viner.

Money has always made the mare go and it is no different now from what it was before.

Truth and lies have always been around in journalism.

The fact is that many journalists of yore, who enjoyed tremendous clout no matter what falsehood they pushed — Rupert's father, Keith, is a good example have been cut to size after online publishing came into its own. The emperors have often been shown to have no clothes on the Internet and been forced to go into perpetual hibernation. It happens to business people too: witness the beating that Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos is taking right now.

It is not a great time to be a journalist. No longer is one regarded with respect and awe, but rather as someone low down on the social scale, between a real-estate salesman and someone trying to sell used cars.

As to being caught between "confusing battles...", well, Viner should know better; that has always been the case. Truth, as defined by the capitalist class and as defined by the worker class, are two different things. There has never been an absolute truth and the ruling class has always been able to get away with lies and myths.

The claims about the Gulf of Tonkin that led to the Vietnam catastrophe and the lies that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq are about 40 years apart, yet achieved more or less the same ends. In 1964, there was no Internet but the US was still able to sell its lies – as it did in 2003 when George the younger got WMD on the brain.

The headline on Viner's masterpiece reads "how technology disrupted the truth" which is actually far from the truth itself. Technology has not provided any new truth; it just clothes the old lies and delivers them in a different format. People and society are the same, human foibles have not changed.

Journalism is still the same craft but it is human character that decides what one practises.

The fact that the Guardian, in which Viner wrote this treatise, is unable to turn a profit — it makes huge losses every year is probably not unconnected from the whole article. Her heartfelt plea for "a business model that serves and rewards media organisations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything – building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable," seems to be crying out, "reward the Guardian for its wholesome journalism, not the others who incline to the lurid and sensational".

Indeed, at the end of the article, there is a plea to help fund the Guardian's type of journalism by becoming a supporter of the organisation and contributing one's mite.

This is the longest sales pitch I've seen for any product. But it is very thinly disguised and shows that journalism is not the forte of the writer; indeed, if one needs 6000 words to mount such an argument, then one would be better off writing doctoral theses for a fee. That would bring in much better returns than from journalism.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.