What's the story?
We live in a time of legend. An age in which fact and fiction – truth and lies – have overlapped and merged to the point that we can no longer tell one from another. There are no truths any more. Just stories.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. For a time it seemed that we had largely won the war on ignorance – that information technology had banished superstition, doubt and falsehood to the furthest shadows. Many of us grew up believing those things were, in all ways that mattered, consigned to the past – existing only as fascinating but obsolete relics of a less enlightened time, a former dark age. The world we believed we lived in was one driven by hard-won scientific fact, peer-reviewed academic research and the indisputable forensic evidence of the law courts. It was a world in which the internet was making knowledge universally available, without prejudice or judgement.
But something else was happening. The very same technology that made possible the global spread of information was, it turned out, equally efficient at disseminating misinformation, and outright lies. As it became harder to distinguish between them, some recognised the strategic potential of this development and began using it to their advantage, confusing their enemies with conflicting narratives and giving specific groups exactly the stories they wanted to hear. This was a world sketched by Orwell, now almost completely realised.
It’s this I aim to address here: misinformation, targeted language, and the weaving together of fact and fiction to create new life narratives – narratives so much more compelling than reality that not even the clear presentation of facts can shake belief in them.
I have worked as a journalist for my whole life, but during that time have also written novels and screenplays. Some of these novels concern themselves directly with ‘legends’ and the creation and use of legends. In the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy, I reworked Robin Hood, making Guy of Gisburne the hero and Hood a smiling psychopath who many mistakenly believe to be their saviour (to find out more about these novels, look for Knight of Shadows, The Red Hand and Hood – all are on available on Amazon). All these reflect a lifelong fascination with stories. Stories and storytelling techniques have been used for centuries to entertain, edify and educate. They are among the first things we ever hear, and we invest millions to bring them to the screen. They have been used to manipulate, to persuade, to sell. They are all our myths and religious texts, every advert, every comic, every film and novel. They are fundamental, and there is no culture without them.
But now, they are being woven into our lives in a different way. They are being used to effect not only massive political change, but our entire perception of what is real – and either we are persuaded that we are the heroes, or we don’t even know we’re part of them.
Victims of tragedy become ‘actors’. A president who has demonstrably used falsehoods to further his cause dismisses those who challenge them as ‘fake news’. A referendum is run with a promise of millions emblazoned on the side of a bus, only for one of Leave’s main proponents to afterwards admit that it was a necessary lie – and there are no repercussions whatsoever.
When fact breaks free from reality and becomes legend, it is infinitely malleable – and so are we. But whose story is it? What part do we play? Is it a tragedy or a comedy – and are we essential or expendable?
That’s what this column is here to explore – and, if at all possible, to help change.
It’s time to question the narrative.