In the present febrile climate of suicidal terrorism, readers of Ledbury's local newspaper might have missed a heart beat when they read last week's headline: 'So shocked as armed police guard parades'.
News that Ledbury's Remembrance ceremony 'may' have been attended by anti-terror police marksmen was direfully received by town mayor, Debbie Baker: 'I can't tell you how shocked I am... The idea of armed police is mind-boggling. It really is, and it shows the times we are in right now.'
Not even faraway Ledbury is safe from the shooters and bombers it seems. As shuddering Cllr Bob Barnes noted: 'We could become a soft target, and where the lone wolves are operating we do not know.'
If true, this report would indeed be shocking. Except it wasn't. The only shock was that so much could be made of so little. Exchanging newsworthiness for truthfulness, the story had been confected by local journalist Gary Bills-Geddes. To be 100% clear, there have been no armed police on the streets of Ledbury. The story was a fiction.
That Andrew Warmington had attended a West Mercia Police seminar on crime priorities began a flight of journalistic fancy which ended with a front page sensation worthy of a right-wing red-top.
'During this seminar,' Andrew later explained, 'the Chief Constable listed seven key concerns in crime terms for the region as a whole, giving them in descending order of importance. In fourth place was terrorism and he told the councillors present that armed police had been on guard at Remembrance Day parades at unspecified places in the region. Next thing I know, this is front page news.'
Consistent with the Ledbury Reporter's flourishing 'post-truth' credentials, when challenged, Mr Bills-Geddes excused himself airily: 'Cllr Warmington's report was merely the starting point for a series of questions we've been asking West Mercia police all week.'
The police are sensibly reluctant to divulge operationally sensitive information but after days of pestering by the Reporter, finally conceded that 'armed officers were available to be deployed to any incidents in the Ledbury area during Armed Forces Day should they have been required.' They were not required. Ergo, there was no deployment of armed police.
Mr B-G said this news arrived after the print deadline. But hey! Why spike a good story by waiting for a fact-check? Come on, there are papers to be flogged.
May or did: Take your pick.
Gary is an experienced wordsmith. In his opening paragraph, he made sure to insert that important little caveat word: may.
The Daily Express does this when it runs one of its 'snowstorm Armageddon set to batter Britain' stories. 'Forecasters say the UK could be in for the storm of the century'. It's called wriggle-room. When the snowstorm doesn't materialise, those Express hacks can't be accused of exaggeration or distortion. We didn't say it definitely would, just could, runs the well rehearsed script...
Deputy editor of the Ledbury Reporter, John Wilson predictably wriggled in his reply to Cllr Warmington's complaint: 'Our report does not say armed police attended parades in Ledbury'. It says they ‘may’ have. If the police tell us categorically that there were no armed police at either Remembrance Day or Armed Forces Day in Ledbury we will publish it.'
That, Mr Wilson is never going to happen, as you well know. The police would never be so irresponsible to confirm or deny to would-be attackers any of their anti-terror manouevres, past or future.
Mr Wilson claims his readers are not 'dupes'. Quite so: the troubling question is that if it's on the front page with such an emphatic headline, the hushed seriousness of Gary's copy lending dead weight, bolstered with quotes from the Town Council's would-be top brass, and backed up with a portentous reference to 'talks with police chiefs' (another fiction), why wouldn't readers think it was authentic? If it wasn't true, or in any way doubtful, the question is: why print it at all?
Try the 'duck test': if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
2016 will be remembered as the year of Post Truth. In the UK, the Brexit campaign was exposed as lying in its claim that millions of Turkish nationals were about to flood into the UK. It promised a weekly £350 million injection into the NHS if we left the EU. Who cared that none of this was true, except the bleeding heart 'libtards' and 'bremoaners'? After June 16, the material was simply removed from the official Vote Leave web site, and it ceased to exist. There, nothing to see. Donald Trump repeated the trick before the US election with so many falsities it is difficult to know where to start.
The Oxford English Dictionary voted 'post-truth' as its Word of the Year. It is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
Back in the seventies, one of my favourite novelists, Muriel Spark, caught the spirit of the post-truth age even before it existed: 'It's not true', says one of her characters in Not To Disturb, 'but that's not to say it isn't right'.
What is truth anyway? When I was young and worked in advertising, I had a cigar-chewing old school boss who told me that 'what people believe is as good as the truth.' He was either a cynic or a genius. Or both.
Philosophers discuss the nature of truth a great deal. It's called epistemology. What can we ever know for certain? Is there an objective reality out there? If there is, can we ever know it? In the past, scientists would say yes, there are immutable truths and laws that govern nature; now in the realm of quantum mechanics, even they are not so sure. Social scientists are more troubled still by definitive truth claims.
Politicians, ideologues, advertisers and some journalists, have snatched the clothes of such sceptical post-modernist thought and refashioned them as propaganda, spin and political smear. It is how you win elections these days - and sell newspapers. You say what you need to.
Perhaps 'post-truth' is just a euphemism for lies. Guardian writer, Jonathan Freedland believes so: 'We’ve been calling this “post-truth politics” but I now worry that the phrase is far too gentle, suggesting society has simply reached some new phase in its development. It lets off the guilty too lightly. What Trump is doing is not “engaging in post-truth politics”. He’s lying. Worse still, Trump and those like him not only lie: they imply that the truth doesn’t matter, showing a blithe indifference to whether what they say is grounded in reality or evidence.'
Not everyone believes the bullshit - but enough do to stink up the proverbial army blanket. Social psychologists have found that people believe information, however implausible, which confirms their pre-existing world view. Objective evidence, however compelling, which challenges people's existing beliefs tends to be ignored or distrusted. Such confirmation bias distorts all our thinking.
It is hard to change people's minds, once they are made up, especially by appealing to rationality. The key is to tap into emotions. The Vote Remain campaign learned this hard lesson to the cost of the UK economy. Faced with a blizzard of technical analysis warning against Brexit, Michael Gove said: 'I think we've had enough of experts'.
Easier by far is to reinforce existing prejudices and cherished totems, to stir up latent feelings of fear, anger and frustration. This is why 'take back control' was such a potent campaign message during the referendum among those who already felt left behind, belittled and disregarded by a perceived 'elite'. Trump said 'Let's make America great again', understanding clearly that a great white lumpenprotelariat was similarly angry and aggrieved. These weren't just clever slogans; they were appeals to profound ideological values.
Muriel Spark again had it just right: '“For those who like that sort of thing," said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, "That is the sort of thing they like.”'
And so to Ledbury and its weapons grade Remembrance parade. Why am I expounding on this story?
The subtext of the Reporter's news reports and editorials is worth exploring. Are they genuinely bias-free, impartial and objective in their treatment of local political topics as you might expect from a local weekly? Are 'my group', as John Wilson accuses, 'attacking the Ledbury Reporter on baseless of grounds for [our] own purposes'. Is it paranoia? Or is there something more lurking uneasily beneath the surface narrative?
Why did they run this story? The generous explanation would be that there was nothing else splashy enough for the front page.
Protestations from John Wilson belie this view however. 'We were not sensationalist,' he said angrily, 'we were not alarmist, we informed Ledbury people about something they should know about, and I don’t give a jot if you don’t like the way we have worded it.' Ouch.
The point is, it was deliberately crafted. It was something Ledbury should know about - but what exactly?
This armed police story is of a piece with Buntingate, another travesty of politically spun misinformation. It is reaching out to the nationalists and nativists in our community, just like the Daily Mail and Breitbart does. It is carefully calibrated to erode our confidence and create fear of the other. The 'lone wolves' we are talking about are not right-wing fanatics like Anders Breivik or Jo Cox's killer, Thomas Mair, but rather the religious extremists who are poisoning our way of life: the Islamists, Jihadis, Moslems. Perhaps they are refugees as Nigel Farage claims.
Was the real intention to remind everyone that nothing in our society - even honouring our war dead - is sacred anymore? That we abandon our traditional ways and our patriotic, conservative leaders at our peril? That we are under attack from hateful, disruptive forces right here in our midst? I may be wrong, but I catch a whiff of town council politics here.
If this were an isolated blemish on an otherwise peerless record of editorial integrity, I might be more charitable. Unfortunately the pattern is clear.
In this instance the emotive headline, the quotes sought from the rampant thought leaders of Ledbury's patriotic tendency (but not from Cllr Warmington himself), the weasel words and the mashing up of everything red, white and blue, was cynical, mendacious and socially divisive.
This, along with three other propaganda pieces in this week's Reporter (discussion to follow), are dog whistle political stories, oozing with populist venom and surreptitious intent.
There are those like Bob Barnes who might be 'reassured' by - or even thrill to - the idea of a paramilitary police force on the blameless streets of our obscure little town.
Less comfortable would be any visiting or local Moslem families who might venture to show their faces at a future Remembrance ceremony in our town. If I were them, I would not dare.