ADELAIDE - In 1897, the New York Times adopted as its motto, ‘All the news that’s fit to print’.
These seven words rapidly became adopted as the de facto motto of US journalism as a whole. The inference was that good journalism meant only reporting that which was true, verifiable and in the public interest.
While this motto was and remains much admired, the days when the print media dominated the distribution of news have long since passed into history.
Now, we live in an era where what passes as the news is distributed through a multitude of media and an even larger number of outlets.
Disturbingly, many people now take news stories from outlets like Facebook or Twitter in preference to more reputable news organisations like the New York Times.
The USA’s imperial President, HRH Donald Trump, has labelled the NYT as a principal purveyor of ‘Fake News’, which is to say that news and opinion he does not agree with or, worse still, which casts aspersions upon his magnificence.
That The Donald is obviously and manifestly both wrong and blatantly self-interested seems to have escaped the attention of far too many Americans, who continue to cling tenaciously to the Trumpian view of the world in which America is the hapless victim of perfidious Chinese communists, scheming European bureaucrats, criminal Latino illegal immigrants, some Russians and nasty socialists who think a national health system is a good idea.
Of course, Trump is just taking to its logical conclusion the efforts of all governments to duck, weave and spin their way out of trouble when expedient to do so.
The truth becomes a necessary casualty of this process.
Much of what now passes as news is focussed on the doings of the mad, the bad and the sad, as well as the hordes of so-called celebrities who now infest Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and the ubiquitous scandal sheets like New Idea, Women’s Day, the National Enquirer, the Daily Mail and The Sun.
It is still possible to get access to news that is mostly true and verifiable through organisations like the New York Times (USA), The Times (UK), The Age (Australia) and the BBC, ABC and the USA’s Public Broadcasting System, but it seems that only a minority of citizens bother to pay much attention to anything that is not salacious, fictitious, offensive or all three.
Disturbingly, much of the mainstream media in the democratic world has become captive to the neo-liberal conservative side of politics, the notable example being the Murdoch controlled News Corporation. Given just how pervasive this organisation is in all forms of media, this is very bad development for the health of democracies everywhere.
Papua New Guinea has not been immune from these trends in news reporting.
Its print media appears to have become captive to the whims of the government. If this were not true, the major newspapers would presumably be much more diligent in pursuing stories about the obvious incompetence, graft and corruption that now besets the country, to the great cost of its peoples.
The enemies of democracy have been quick to understand how the changes in the ways in which news is gathered, analysed and reported can be exploited to disrupt things like election campaigns.
It is notable that the identity politics which is a hallmark of the modern era in much of the democratic world can be and has been exploited to promote discord, disruption and distrust between different segments of the population.
Seldom has a well-intentioned set of ideas about recognising the real and legitimate issues of identity for many people as a step towards creating a fairer, more just and unified society been so effectively hijacked to create the very opposite effect to that intended.
Right now, the democratic world is more aware of what divides it than what unites it. This is hugely beneficial to the many authoritarian regimes that now proliferate across the globe.
They are able to present an entirely false impression of internal unity, stability and economic progress, ignoring the oppressive tactics used to stifle dissent and suppress any real expression of the popular will, as well as the dubious foundations of much of their economic success.
Worse still, they have become very adept at presenting themselves as rational and technocratic actors operating within the rule of law. In fact, they are merely the usual suspects, albeit dressed in good suits and, surprisingly often, highly educated at institutions like Harvard or Oxford or Paris or Bonn.
Only belatedly have democratic countries like the USA, Britain and Australia come to understand just how effectively they can be attacked and damaged through the use of various news media and outlets to influence public debate to promote discord, division and dissent.
The news, whether fit to print or not, has become weaponised at a more extreme level than ever before and far too many people are yet to fully realise this.
Happily, there are clear signs that a fight back is occurring. A hitherto undeclared Cyber War has begun between the forces of democracy and those of authoritarianism.
Much less happily, this war is being accompanied by the resumption of the nuclear arms race that many of us fervently hoped was a thing of the past. So a very hot war looms once again as a real possibility.
History shows that even small political miscalculations and misunderstandings have the capacity to escalate into full scale disasters without any of the major players involved actually intending such an outcome. World war is a classic example of this.
So, here we all are, stumbling or being dragged into a new Cold War in which the weapons, for now at least, are computer code and data but the damage being done is real and growing.
This is a war with no rules and no boundaries. Worse still, because no-one fully understands the potential or limitations of cyber warfare, an accidental lurch into an Armageddon scenario is an all too real risk.
In the digital world, if a thing is thinkable it can rapidly become feasible but the risks involved are frequently either misunderstood or ignored. This is the pathway to catastrophe down which we have stumbled far too often in the past.
The political class always assumes that such risks are manageable, only to be horribly disabused of this notion later on.
My great concern is that this vital lesson of history remains unknown to a new generation of politicians or, even worse, they harbour the entirely erroneous idea that they can somehow avoid the traps which snared their predecessors.
As far as PNG is concerned, it is no more immune from the impact of this new Cold War than the rest of us. The price of joining the digital world is being conscripted into the fight, on one side or the other.
I wonder which side the PNG government thinks it is on? That of its new friend, the Peoples Republic of China, or the democratic world?
The time to make a decision on this matter may be much closer than any of us think.