David Aaronovitch talks Brexit, fake news and the state of journalism

30 Aug 2017




David Aaronovitch is an author and broadcaster. As well as a columnist for The Times, he is the presenter of The Briefing Room on BBC Radio 4, and author of such book as Voodoo Histories: the role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History, and Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists.


I recently chatted to him about Brexit, the life of a modern journalist, and fake news.



CH: Brexit is increasingly shambolic, yet it is supported by both the government and opposition. Are there any ways in which young people, who generally voted against Brexit, can still be optimistic?


DA: Had as many young people voted in the referendum as they did in June’s general election, the result might have been very different. There is obviously a lot of resentment about the fact that older voters, from around the age of 45 and over, have saddled the young with something they didn’t want.


The question is whether Brexit can be made a success. My own view is that it cannot, because it’s already a disaster.


I always thought the result would be close, seeing as the Conservatives spent 30 years badmouthing the EU, then suddenly turned around and told people we should stay in.


It is disastrous because it upended our long-term foreign policy of being at the heart of Europe; a way in which a medium power such as ourselves can be of influence in the modern world.


It’s also in a disaster because it’s one of the most complicated management projects in the history of the country – it will take a very long time, and some bits we have no idea how to do.


There may be a second vote, but we probably can’t avoid Brexit. It’s stupid to hope for the best when the political outcome is something you fundamentally disagree with.



CH: June's election result was unexpected, but saw both the hard right and the hard left remain in control of their respective parties. Where do centrists go from here?


DA: It is a difficult time for those on the left of centre. Labour should be their natural home, and still is for many people, but the hard left, a group of people that for many years thought Venezuela was a viable political model, has since taken over. They have some interesting ideas, and nationalisation is good to a certain extent – particularly with issues such as housing – but when populist movements fail, they tend to have trouble explaining why, and end up going down the route of conspiracies and ‘enemies within.’


What must be remembered is that Labour did not win the election, and didn’t even come close. The Conservatives are the government because they won the most number of seats by a large margin. Labour may have run close with votes but our voting system does not respect that, and there seems little appetite to reform it.


So what we have at the moment is a kind of truce – some on the centre within Labour are miserable, others are hoping to influence Corbyn, maybe make him softer and get rid of John McDonnell, even though he’s really the brains of the operation. The Lib Dems remain quite small, and have just elected a septuagenarian as their leader, not that I should really have anything against that. But the situation remains tricky. Something needs to happen to let centrism break through.



CH: In your autobiographical book Party Animals, what strikes the reader is how involved your Communist parents were in politics – it was their whole life. Most of today’s activists are online-based, is this a bad thing?


DA: In many ways my parents were too involved. One of the biggest mistakes that those on the left in their generation made was the belief that everyone can be that engaged. Most people don’t want to attend party meetings, and are at their most active in the community when taking their kids to school or dealing with the council. They tend to be more energised by individual and trivial issues like school parking, while tending to delegate many responsibilities to others.


Yet, during the general election campaign in June my door was knocked more times than I can ever remember. This was only at the general election, not at the local elections the month before, but I seem to have underestimated how energised people can be by online activism, even if it is only for a few days or for the odd rally.



CH: At Backbench we’ve recently launched a new section called Fake News, parodying the phenomenon. You’ve written before about conspiracy theories; do you see similarities in the two trends?


DA: I wrote the book about conspiracy theories just as Barack Obama was coming to power, and featured a chapter about the ‘Birther’ movement, although that was long before Trump endorsed the idea, let alone ran for president. I could easily add another chapter now.


The people who complain about the ‘mainstream media’ as if they’re out to get them are certainly indulging in conspiracies, and the idea of a false or partially true news story is nothing new. But what is genuinely new is Trump’s habit of denouncing true information as fake.



CH: Is your own profession of journalism dying, or is it simply evolving? And should wannabe journalists at Backbench give up on our dreams and think of a more realistic profession?


DA: Well it’s certainly not dying. People still have a big desire to know things and keep up with the news. I haven’t measured this scientifically but there are probably more journalists than ever before. My work has doubled for the paper in last ten years. But then I suppose that means I am doing things that other people used to.


It is a highly competitive business. People in it often have to struggle, and not all of it is pleasant. I wouldn’t call working for the Mail Online journalism, it’s really just regurgitating what has been written several times before. Also local journalism, which used to be a major thing in my day and was how I started out, has almost completely gone.


However, the BBC still exists and hopefully will for a long time yet. There are also still a large number of newspapers, when many people said just a few years ago that there wouldn’t be.


Most papers have now monetised their online content, and The Guardian will probably have to do it soon. They are reluctant to do so because they tend to go on about freedom a lot, and the trouble is when you go on about the importance of freedom, people believe you.



CH: Could you give us an idea of an average day?


DA: Well, on Tuesdays I am in the office attending various meetings, as well as writing an editorial. Last night [Tuesday] and this morning [Wednesday] I was firming up my column, which goes out on Thursdays. I got up early to make sure it was okay, as I am a terribly slow writer. The copy has to be in by 4pm, but I am often being phoned up about amendments and queries until half past seven.


An average week sees about three to four pieces by me. Often they will be book reviews, which I do a lot of. At the moment I am working my way through a 700-page book on Freud, which takes a lot of time, and I have to turn in 1,100 words on that quite soon.


I also have to see people about subjects I am interested in, such as the use of NHS data, as well as various subjects such as the Trump phenomenon, which like many other people fascinates me. I also have to prepare for The Briefing Room on the BBC, and last Friday I was challenged in that I had to compose a 500-word article about men in spas on my phone.


Some days, I just want to turn off, take myself out of it all, but the job requires you to do a lot of reading and really keep up with all that’s going on. There’s no day I’m not working, as falling behind can be very bad. This is not to say it’s all a miserable trial - it’s a fantastic job.


Calum Henderson is a co-editor at Backbench

This interview is the first of a two-part series, celebrating the 5th birthday of Backbench.


Our second piece, an interview with Conservative MP Chloe Smith, can be found here.

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