One of the guiding beliefs of our consuming age is that we are all free and independent individuals. That we can choose to do pretty much what we want, and if we can’t then it’s bad.
But at the same time, co-existing alongside this, there is a completely different, parallel universe where we all seem meekly to do what those in power tell us to do. Ever since the economic crisis in 2008, millions of people have accepted cuts in all sorts of things - from real wages and living standards to benefits and hospital care - without any real opposition.
The cuts may be right, or they may be stupid - but the astonishing thing is how no-one really challenges them.
I think that one of the reasons for this is because a lot of the power that shapes our lives today has become invisible - and so it is difficult to see how it really works and even more difficult to challenge it.
So much of the language that surrounds us - from things like economics, management theory and the algorithms built into computer systems - appears to be objective and neutral. But in fact it is loaded with powerful, and very debatable, political assumptions about how society should work, and what human beings are really like.
But it is very difficult to show this to people. Journalists, whose job is to pull back and tell dramatic stories that bring power into focus, find it impossible because things like economic theory are both incomprehensible and above all boring. The same is true of “management science”. Mild-mannered men and women meet in glass-walled offices and decide the destinies of millions of people on the basis of “targets” and “measured outcomes”.
Like economics it pretends to be neutral, but it isn’t. Yet it’s impossible to show this dramatically because nothing happens in those glass-walled offices except the click of a keystroke that brings up another powerpoint slide. It’s boring - and it’s impossible to turn it into stories that will grab peoples imaginations - yet hundreds of peoples’ jobs may depend on what is written on that slide.
I want to do a series of posts that will go back and reveal the forgotten roots of some of this fake objectivity that surrounds us today. They will be a series of stories that show how over the past fifty years both the political Right and the Left have gnawed away at the idea of objective truth. Sometimes almost colluding together to help bring about today’s uncertainty and confusion about where power and influence really lies in our society.
The first is an odd story - with a very strange character at its heart. It is about how in the 1950s the richest man in the world, an oil billionaire in Texas, invented a new form of television journalism. It pretended to be objective and balanced but in fact it was hard core right-wing propaganda. It was way ahead of its time because, in its fake neutrality, it prefigured the rise of the ultraconservative right-wing media of the 1990s - like Fox News, with its copyrighted slogan, “Fair and Balanced”