Daniel Defoe

When the public loved not hated journalists

The view of journalists today among the public is at an all time low. This is not good for democracy. Especially when that hatred is fuelled by populist politicians who resent being scrutinised….by journalists. But this is a new phenomenon – journalists in the past were loved, not hated by the public.

I have to declare an interest here. I’m a former journalist (BBC News, Sky News, Financial Times magazines, etc) and still a paid up member of the National Union of Journalists. And it depresses the hell out of me to see ill-informed people on Twitter writing BS about the so-called MSM. So I’m writing this blog post as a well overdue corrective.

The public loved journalists – even in the pillory

The path to creating a free press was a treacherous one. Not for nothing does the US Constitution protect the right of free speech. Because in the Old World – that right was non-existent or permitted at the whim of an absolute monarch.

Into the early 19th century, British journalists and publishers were literally placed in the pillory for producing work that offended the establishment. Just to be clear – they were put on trial and then taken to a wooden post with a yoke and fixed by their head and hands to be pelted by the mob.

But in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the ‘mob’ often didn’t comply. They came out and supported the hapless journalist in the pillory. They loved them for defending liberty and exposing corruption and vice. How different from today!

Daniel Defoe – journalist loved by the public

One of the many journalists placed in the pillory was the author of Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. Aside from writing a great yarn (based on real events) about a castaway, Defoe was essentially a tabloid journalist. He was also a bit of a spin doctor for the government.

In 1703, he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It was intended to be a ribald commentary on the attitude of the Church of England to Protestant dissenters on the one side and Catholics (or “Papists”) on the other. The CofE was likened to Christ with a dissenter thief on one cross and a Papist on the other. All pretty silly and Defoe wrote the whole thing tongue in cheek.

But the Church of England and government took the pamphlet very seriously and he was charged with sedition. The pamphlet was burned by the public hangman and Defoe went into hiding. However, he was discovered and put in three separate pillories around the centre of London for maximum humiliation.

The public, though, admired Defoe for his literary bravery and instead of throwing rotten vegetables at him – brought flowers and sang songs. Including a song he’d written for the occasion!

Public loved journalists who stuck it to the king!

Even though Daniel Defoe was cheered by the public – the experience of the pillory undoubtedly freaked him out. So much so that he agreed to spy on another journalist, Nathaniel Mist. Mist’s early 18th century weekly journal was hugely popular and it poked fun at the new German speaking king of Britain – George I.

Mist described the great grandfather of George III (who lost the American colonies) as a “cruel, ill-bred uneducated old tyrant”. He served a short prison sentence and like Defoe was sent to the pillory. Also like Defoe, the public cheered him on as a free spirit. But then Mist fled to France unable to handle the pressure and threats from the government.

Edmund Curll – also loved by the public

Edmund Curll was another early 18th century figure in the publishing world. This time, a publisher as opposed to a journalist. His sin in the eyes of the church and state was to publish both radical political works and pornographic tracts. Almost as if to cause maximum rage in respectable society.

One publication, Venus in the Cloister, alleged that while the church was prudish, Jesus Christ had believed in sexual exploration. This was a translation of a French work that went on to influence the notorious Marquis de Sade.

DISCOVER: The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

Curll eventually earned a place in the pillory where, like Defoe and Mist, he was treated rather kindly by the crowds. And the list of pilloried and prosecuted journalists loved by the public – in Britain particularly – goes on and on.

What a sad contrast with today when many of the public would rather side with power against free speech. Or, worse, take the word of YouTube charlatans and hucksters as the truth ahead of people who are on the front line trying to report what is happening in the real world.

Below is the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez in 2020 while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd. A modern pillorying of a member of the ‘fourth estate’.

Russia and fake news – a long history!

Russia and fake news go together like a horse and carriage it would seem. Troll factories in St Petersburg and elsewhere pump out messaging intended to undermine confidence in democracy and western values. And with some success.

The mundanely titled Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg is a global centre of disinformation. But this kind of manufacturing of misinformation on an industrial scale isn’t knew for Russia. They have been dealing in fake news since the Soviet era.

Russia spreading fake news about AIDS in the 1980s

The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.

When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.

‘Active measures’ – the Soviet forerunner of fake news from Russia

This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.

In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted.

The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?

On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons.

Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.

This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.

False media titles spread fake news for Russia

How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!

Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.

Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.

A useful idiot to spread fake news for mother Russia

Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.

How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.

By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.

The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers.

North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.

Russia has second thoughts about its own fake news!

But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view.

Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.

So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.