It’s such a relief to turn on the radio and hear the voice of Neil MacGregor. That reasoned authority, his deep knowledge of history and how things have come to be as they are, his measured common sense and ability to see round an argument or story. He’s like the voice of how things used to be, when the world was not so topsy-turvy and the news reports made sense. His series, As Others See Us, returns to Radio 4 this week (produced by Tom Alban), taking him this time to Singapore, the USA, Australia, Poland and Spain to talk to people there about Britain’s past connections, present woes and future prospects. It’s fascinating, salutary, and more than a little disturbing.
Take Singapore, for instance. MacGregor finds plenty of evidence for those colonial connections, laid down in 1819 when Stamford Raffles established British rule over the colony. But how do the denizens of that unusual city-state see us now? The characterful Catherine Lim grew up reciting ‘Daffodils’ by heart at her convent school as did her contemporary Tommy Koh, a former diplomat who spent many years at the United Nations. She became a writer in English because of her love for the books of Richmal Crompton. She was brought up to accept that British culture was superior, and every day looked at a picture of Princess Anne, pinned up on the wall of her classroom. This, in spite of the disillusion that followed the fall of Singapore in 1942.
MacGregor reminds us that in places such as Singapore the British displayed not so much ‘tenacity and resolve’, as an ‘incapacity to shape events on its own, and to keep the promises that it had made to its allies’. Koh added that it was the second world war that brought about a complete change in the way that the ‘colonial peoples’ regarded Britain. They could no longer depend for their defence and future development on the UK but realised they needed to build alliances with their immediate neighbours.
In 1967 Singapore co-founded Asean (the Association of South-east Asian Nations) and, says Koh, ‘it has given us 50 years of peace’. He can’t understand why ‘a slim majority’ in the UK voted to leave the European Union. We should, says Koh, ‘be so grateful that the second half of the 20th century was not a repeat of the first half’, because of the EU.
His words were echoed by a World Service documentary on Wednesday. The new series, Detours (made in an intriguing alliance with the Sundance Institute of Utah), seeks to find out why and how people’s lives suddenly change direction, focusing each week on a different global story from Bulgaria to Assam via America and an island in the Pacific. In the first programme, David Borenstein travelled to Veles in North Macedonia to find out why it has become the ‘fake news’ capital of the world. It’s not a comfortable listen.
He talks to Elena, a medical student, who decided to start creating ‘fake news’ as a way of paying her bills, rather than spending months each year working in a petrol station in Germany. She was planning to become a surgeon. It was so easy, she says, and many people she knew were already doing it. She explains how it’s done.
First create a website (and there are plenty of neighbours in Veles who will help you to do this, she promised). Next identify your target group (you can do research on Facebook, she advised). You need to find a group (such as feminists or Trump voters, it was suggested) who ‘really believe in something’, because then it’s much easier to persuade them to click. Third, find an article that affirms their opinions. Copy and paste. And post on Facebook.
With luck, if you have chosen the right kind of article, and given it a suitably ‘emotional’ heading, you will attract attention, or clicks, to your website, for which Google and others like them are ready to pay. Suddenly, it becomes possible to earn $5,000 a month (30 times more than an average monthly salary in Veles). Eighty per cent of young people in the town have been tempted into creating these ‘fake stories’, following the collapse of industry. Elena began by finding a video of Trump that was critical of him, which appealed to his supporters by demanding sympathy for him as the underdog. It went viral in a couple of hours, with 50,000 likes or shares.
Elena regrets what she did and has gone back to working in Germany in between her courses. In late 2016 a lot of the websites were closed down by Google and Facebook. But, as Borenstein was told, ‘It’s too late.’ Veles is gearing up for 2020.