In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

-          Mark Twain - July 10, 1908

It Says Here is a warning about the danger of fake news, released in the year synonymous with George Orwell's "doublethink".

In 1984, Britain's newspapers were in the grip of a new national tabloid war between Robert Maxwell, owner of the left-wing Daily Mirror, and Rupert Murdoch, owner of the right-wing Sun. For the rest of the 1980s, these two giants of media ownership dominated the content of popular political debate. With a diet of "bingo and tits" (cash prizes that rewarded regular purchase and topless Page Three models), The Sun led the way towards a new definition of the lowest common denominator and The Mirror followed.

In the first half of the 1980s, editor Kelvin MacKenzie helped The Sun overtake The Mirror's longstanding lead in the circulation war. The paper enthusiastically backed Britain's defence of the Falkland Islands with the tasteless headline "GOTCHA!" when the British navy sank the General Belgrano, killing more than 300 Argentine sailors. And The Sun viciously attacked the Labour Party and Trade Unions leader of the day, including Michael Foot (an "old fool") and miners' leader Arthur Scargill ("mine führer"). For his part, Murdoch helped to crush the power of the unions by breaking a strike by print workers, many of whom stood to lose their livelihoods when Murdoch's company, News International, opened a high-tech new printing plant in London's Wapping.

In the light of all this, Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, a youthful and articulate left-wing firebrand and troubadour of 20th Century folk punk, opened his second album Brewing Up with Billy Bragg with It Says Here, a song that scorns the newspapers and warns their readers to "just remember, there are two sides to every story".

That's all a matter of history now. Billy, in his own way, is a pillar of the British establishment. Almost 35 years later, does the warning still have any relevance? Well, of course.

Much has changed in the intervening decades. We've been through an era of "spin doctors" dictating the arena of political debate in the media and we have entered a new era of social media. Today, the conventional printed newspaper - tabloid, broadsheet, national and local - struggles to remain culturally relevant and financially viable. The influence of the papers is set to dwindle more and more. However, here in the UK, the consumers of newspapers continue to be crucial to the nation's future. In 2016, a referendum in Britain resulted in the decision to leave the European Union. If the result of the referendum had been decided by people aged 44 and under, the decision would have been overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. But at the polling stations, many younger people failed to turn up on the day, leaving the decision-making to older voters, the same group of individuals who continue to regularly buy a newspaper.

Which is not to say that we are experiencing the death throes of the media manipulating the political landscape. Far from it. Where once our political focus was sharpened by the likes of Murdoch, Maxwell, Lord Rothermere and the Chapman Brothers, the future of our media consumption will continue to be dictated by the private sector thanks to the unregulated algorithms of Google, Twitter and Facebook. For now, we can only hope and trust that they will make fair and unbiased use of that privilege, but we must be vigilant.

Perhaps we should be worried not so much by the manipulation of news sources by others, but by our own choices.

Returning to the key phrase from Billy's song, it is vitally important in the internet age that we expose ourselves to all information, not merely sources that support our opinions and beliefs. In an age where algorithms and social circles control the flow of news to our screens, it's easy to be sucked into a vortex of self-congratulation. When every opinion you see online reflects your own, it's tempting to believe that everyone out there agrees with you. But just remember: there are two sides to every story.

 

As a footnote, lovers of Billy Bragg's music will tell you that his political songs - whilst powerful and thought-provoking - are only a small part of Billy's canon. If you haven't yet discovered his work, you'll be surprised to know that much of it is made up of tender love songs with beautiful, witty and moving lyrics written in a tradition that draws on Motown, traditional English folk and Americana. There's much, much more to Billy Bragg than Between the Wars.

You can learn more about Billy Bragg here

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About the curator

After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.

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