Before I began to write for newspapers, I used to deliver them—not door to door, but by meeting the Dublin-Westport paper train and then transporting the papers by car to news agents around the West of Ireland. My father had done the same job for fifty-one years before me. We were, like the king’s messenger of olden days, charged with ensuring that vital knowledge of doings throughout the realm was conveyed to the populace while they slept.
There were three newspapers: the Irish Independent, Irish Press, and Irish Times, each in its way a titan of truth. No longer, alas. The Irish Press fell by the wayside long ago, but its name, like that of an assassinated chieftain, retains its honor and standing, having been spared the recent years of degradation by virtue of premature death. The others, by the day, sink deeper into a quagmire of shame.
Throughout the Western world, the situation is the same. All the once great newspapers have either folded or been brought ignominiously to their knees, and with them has disappeared the vital conversational relationship between the rulers and the ruled, the powerful and the powerless, the movers and shakers and the moved and shaken.
The term “Fourth Estate,” referring to the press, was coined in the House of Commons in 1787 by my countryman Edmund Burke, during a debate to mark the opening of parliament to the press. He referred first to the “three estates”—the clerical lords of the realm, the secular lords, and the House of Commons—and then, indicating the press benches, said, “There sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
There is, however, this anomaly: Notwithstanding its public functions, the press was privately owned and commercially directed, avoiding dangers of state interference while inviting risks of other kinds. For these reasons, the press’s function as a bulwark of democracy had always existed in a state of jeopardy, functioning in an inexact, approximate fashion by virtue of the existence of journalistic and editorial rules and conventions that protected the public good from the intrinsically volatile nature of the edifice.
The masthead of the old-style newspaper was its bond, a contract sealed with the reader and the wider public declaring that the paper would behave honorably and truthfully. Most of the world’s newspapers still retain their age-old mastheads, but are altered beyond recognition. Now in effect a branch of the entertainment industry, they have become purveyors of sensation, diversion, vituperation, manipulation, and untruth.
Increasingly, the word “newspaper” is a misnomer, since the modern form operates primarily online, where it flatters the conceits and prejudices of its readers with a view to filling their idle moments and addicting them to a merely recreational—and hostile—relationship with the public realm. Terminally challenged, the press has adapted its modes and mores in the vain hope of maintaining coexistence with the online arrivistes. The modern “newspaper” is no longer an instrument of democracy, but something close to the opposite: a tool of tyrannical mischief in the hands of activists masquerading as journalists. Its news and comment sections have been rendered indistinguishable, and at the same time the commercial and journalistic wings of the business have osmotically merged.
As the partitions between news and opinion were demolished, so also were almost all limits on what was acceptable. Grammar, spelling, and house style became optional extras, as attracting “clicks,” “hits,” and “likes” took center stage. Facts were sacrificed to factionalism and a hard-won authority to the new authoritarianism of victim ideology. Most crucially, journalistic rules, codes, conventions, and checks and balances went out the window, and the long-prized values of the newsrooms were shredded like yesterday’s news schedules. The world’s great newspapers descended to the level of undergraduate rag mags. And of course, while the media had long held accountable all other institutions of society, there existed no overarching instrument by which the degeneration of the media might be heralded and confronted.
The contemporary “newspaper” harvests its own echo chambers for moral authority and uses that leverage to break down public resistance to the demands of its audience. In place of a medium that once served the collective conversation, the aim, increasingly, seems to be to enforce groupthink and “political correctness.” Almost overnight, newspapers became battering rams for agendas like Big Gay, abortion rights, globalism, open borders, and anti-white racism, dividing the world a priori into baddies and goodies.
In the old press culture, Twitter would have been regarded as the equivalent of the back of a public toilet door, but once reporters were permitted to join social media with the blessings of their editors, the writing was on the wall. Reporters—still claiming objectivity—by night excoriated politicians or anyone who dissented from the all but mandatory agendas, but still expected their bylines on the morrow to be taken as signifying serious journalism. Without notice or discussion, it became permissible to ignore stories that were inconvenient to the newspaper’s new agendas, and to pursue vendettas beyond the point of reason, decency, or viability.
A contributing factor in this disaster for democracy was the failure to regulate this situation from the beginning—largely due to the inaction of the press in defending its own principles and conventions. Instead of resisting the larcenous interlopers, the traditional media behaved as if the newcomers had immediately and automatically become the ascendancy, donning their soiled clothes and mimicking the almost unremitting ugliness of the web. In effect, the right to a democratic conversation was abolished without a murmur of protest from its longtime custodians. Indeed, what are nowadays termed the “mainstream media” appear to relish their new role as facilitators of a kind of qualified democracy, in which increasingly every decision of the people is deemed subject to a veto by the chattering classes (as observed with Brexit, Trump, and other recent anti-democratic outrages).
It has become impossible to know if something published by the media is true or not, and almost everything is published as though the audience will not care so long as the lies are correctly directed.
A random example: After the recent meeting in Paris between French president Macron and British prime minister Boris Johnson, several U.K. papers ran a photograph showing Boris sitting with one foot on a delicate antique coffee table. Headlines and editorials in the U.K. papers depicted Johnson as a boor. One headline claimed: “Boris Johnson’s behavior in Paris was a masterclass in arrogance.” Twitter, as they tend to say, “lit up.”
A Reuters video of the episode, however, showed that Macron had jokingly suggested that the table might serve as a footstool should Johnson wish to recline. Johnson laughingly touched the sole of his shoe lightly against the table for a split second, at the same time waving to the nearby photographers and muttering, “Sorry.” It is clear that he was—with extraordinary innocence—apologizing to the photographers for spoiling their photographs by larking around.
The next phase promises to put all this in the shade. Jordan Peterson has recently described the development of “deepfake” audio and visual technologies as “a tremendously expanded opportunity for unscrupulous troublemakers to warp our personal and collective reality in any manner they see fit.” To, in effect, simulate the outward personality of a targeted person and literally put words in his mouth. What are being called “deepfake” technologies work by using machine-training techniques to analyze images of the target from existing video footage to synthesize new images of that person’s face, and also to “train” the algorithm to imitate the target’s voice. With even a snatch of footage of a real individual, the technology can build a sophisticated avatar, using a neural network AI to model the shape and movement of the mouth.
Peterson himself fell victim to this phenomenon when a site called notjordanpeterson.com offered its patrons the ability to have the content of their choice read aloud electronically, in an eerily accurate imitation of his voice. In an article for National Post, Peterson asked some pertinent questions: “[H]ow are we going to trust anything electronically mediated in the very near future?”; “What do we do when ‘fake news’ is just as real as ‘real news’?”; “What do we do when anyone can imitate anyone else, for any reason that suits them?” He continued: “Are we entering a future where the only credible source of information will be direct personal contact?”; “What’s that going to do to mass media, of all types?”
Good questions. But it is, I believe, later than Peterson believes. He has called for lawmakers to take immediate steps to make the unauthorized production of deepfakes a felony offense, “at least in the case where the fake is being used to defame, damage or deceive.” We need, he wrote, to seriously consider the idea that the voice is an integral part of a person’s “identity, of their reality, of their person—and that stealing that voice is a genuinely criminal act, regardless (perhaps) of intent.”
The problem is that for roughly two decades, we’ve seen the Big Tech monster grow on the Internet without challenge. Lies were spread, reputations were trashed, and the lives of more than a few youngsters were lost because politicians dared not confront the all-powerful tech giants. Journalists, ever alert to the opportunity for “virtulating,” defended every technological breakthrough as a new victory for human liberation.
If deepfakes had materialized during the relatively calm era of the Fourth Estate, the chances are that this would indeed have been dealt with legislatively and culturally in ways that would have defused the worst dangers. Now, however, the deepfake enters an arena in which the conversation has already been corrupted. As I’ve explained, the checks and balances that might have enabled journalism to assist the world in resisting this threat were dismantled, clause for clause, by journalists—without reference to the needs or desires of the broader society.
Peterson is rarely wrong, but this may be an exception. It is too late for legislation such as he proposes. In my opinion, we ought to stand back and let deepfakes do their worst. Perhaps the outright inability to know if something is true or false will finally demolish what is left of the mainstream media, and enable something new and decent to arise from the dust.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.