An account of our 2018 colloquium, by Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Alex Blower

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 16 October 2018
Alex Blower

When Emotive Narratives Trump Truth

On Sunday 7th October I hopped in to my trusty Skoda and set off from Birmingham to Windsor, full of excitement at the prospect of attending my first Colloquium at Cumberland Lodge. The theme of this year’s Colloquium was the Politics of Post-Truth, Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. ‘Post-truth’ relates to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief, and the Colloquium sought to examine the questions that the rise of a politics based on the principles of post-truth pose for a digitally connected society.

Organised by a multi-disciplinary team of PhD students, The Politics of Post-Truth conference brought together experts from a range of disciplines including journalism, philosophy, politics and the media, with the aim of better understanding how we as a society can navigate the phenomenon known as post-truth politics. The two day event sought to further explore how such a politics impacts on key institutions of the state, and enter into a conversation about how we as individuals engage with post-truth political narratives. 

As part of the event, students studying for their Bachelors and Masters degrees were invited to participate in a post-truth poster competition. During the first session of the Colloquium delegates had the opportunity to peruse the five shortlisted submissions, prompting lively debate amongst the attendees as they engaged in a variety of political and philosophical debates around the conference theme. Delegates were then invited to vote for their favourite submission, with Natascha Rietdijk’s  ’Post-Truth Politics as Gaslighting & its effects on autonomous agency’ beating off the competition to scoop first prize.

Chaired by Allie Elwell, founder of the Beyond Brussels podcast, the conference’s Keynote session offered a lively dialogue between Dr Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World, and journalist James Ball, author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World exploring the nature of truth and the declining importance of accuracy in swaying public opinion. Drawing examples from the £350,000,000 NHS Brexit narrative and the result of the US election, the speakers dissected post-truth, illustrating how in recent political discourse an emotive narrative has trumped (excuse the pun) fact in garnering support from the voting population. Raising as many questions as it answered, the insightful discussion gave plenty of food for thought as the session closed and delegates made their way to a drinks reception and dinner, bringing an end to the first day of the Colloquium.

After an evening of discussion and a drink or two in the Lodge’s bar, day two of the conference was kicked off by a Philosophy panel session with Professor Steve Fuller, Professor James Williams and Dr Michael Hannon. In what was a lively and energetic debate, the philosophical underpinnings of post-truth, and the consequences of increased political polarisation were explored. I would be lying if I said, as the proud owner of an undergraduate degree in Drama, that I completely grasped all the nuances of an incredibly theory-rich panel discussion, however the key underpinnings of the discussion were clear, insightful and challenging.

Following a short break, in which delegates took advantage of the opportunity to re-caffeinate, the Journalism session began. With an array of prominent speakers including Hattie Schofield, Head of Communications at Simple Politics, Peter York, President of The Media Society and Professor Jane Singer, Professor of Innovation Journalism at City, University of London, the interrogative lens turned to the reaction of the journalistic community to post-truth politics. Over the next hour and a half the panel of experts examined the rise of unregulated journalism on social media platforms, the power of fact checking organisations as a mechanism to identify inaccurate reporting, and provided a transatlantic perspective on the role that economic capital plays in setting the parameters of political debate.  

The Political discussion of post-truth brought insight from Professor Mark Wheeler, Professor of Political Communications at London Metropolitan University, Dr Darren G. Lilleker, Associate Professor in Political Communications at Bournemouth University and Dr Jen Birks, Assistant Professor in Media at the University of Nottingham. Taking centre stage in the final panel session of the day, the political experts explored the sources of multiple claims to truth and their basis in fact, increasing instances of information being weaponised by political forces, and the hybridization of news and social media leading to the privileging of certain political narratives.

Before bringing the Colloquium to a close, delegates were given an opportunity to reflect on the emergent themes of the panel sessions through a roundtable discussion. Drawing together insight based on the rich political, philosophical and journalistic content of the conference, the discussion gave space for delegates to engage in a thoughtful deliberation with regard to the social and political consequences of a post-truth future.