“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory over forgetting,” wrote Czech author Milan Kundera. This fact is vital when considering what happened in the past, how prior events continue to shape our lives today, and what gets remembered – or forgotten – and why.
- A short history of the city’s troubled relationship with the truth, which has become more troubling in recent months
- When the general public loses faith in those that govern, ‘fake news’ takes on a malevolent life of its own
In the 1950s, “mosquito press” was a local term for sensational, factually flimsy stories in rags (often subsidised by clandestine political funds) that provided the “fake news” of yesteryear. To counter their wilder exaggerations and control the “narrative”, government information services provision in Hong Kong was ramped up in the 60s and 70s. Widespread introduction of television helped; radio had served a similar function a few decades earlier. Otherwise isolated – and perhaps illiterate – groups clustered around a crackling wireless set and received public information crafted to official agendas.
Skewing perceptions to make a broader point is nothing new. General Douglas MacArthur’s dramatic landing at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines, in 1944, during the closing stages of the Pacific war, was an early “fake news” moment. The picture of the American general wading ashore, in the famous “I have returned” image, was staged for the cameras with the conquering hero far away from enemy bullets.
Likewise, the United States flag-raising photographs on Iwo Jima, in 1945, which inspired patriotic films and evocative memorial statuary, was also re-enacted for the newsreel cameras. Did these events happen? Yes. Did they occur at the time and in the manner that a general understanding of those events today would suggest. No. Both are examples of what could be termed “fake news”; they were dramatised, cinematic reconstructions of events that actually happened, recreated “for the folks back home”.
Closer to home, Pathé newsreel footage that purports to record the British liberation of Hong Kong, in early September 1945, shows Royal Marine commandos spraying Central’s office buildings with rapid-burst machine-gun fire, supposedly to hose out the last remaining pockets of Japanese resistance. “A quick burst of Bren – they learned their lesson!” says the crisp voiced commentator, for the benefit of cinema-goers from Manchester to Melbourne.
A fortnight earlier, in the midst of much else, Hong Kong had been handed over by the Japanese, quietly and with minimal fuss, to British civilian administrators released from prison camps. In their turn, and also without fuss, the administrators handed over to the incoming British fleet; there was no Japanese resistance to neutralise.
But such prosaic facts seldom make dramatic news scenes. From reimagined beginnings, after decades of unchallenged repetition, generally accepted versions of the past eventually become “the facts”. Public historians have the task, seldom more urgent than in these truth-challenged, “fake news” days, of correcting these versions of events whenever possible.
When officialdom has lost credibility with the general public and the legitimacy to rule that flows from that sense of trust, “fake news” develops a malevolent life of its own. And when those allegedly in power regularly tell spectacular whoppers – as has been the case in Hong Kong in recent months – wailing that something they don’t want to acknowledge is just more “fake news” simply undermines an already critically eroded ability to rule.
#RobertReview: 9 | 10
Some iconic historical moments had been staged ‘fake news’.
Published: 27th February 2020.