Previously I was a History teacher for 10 years. One of the most important skills I learned and taught others was how to critically examine information and evidence that you are presented with. This is not just useful for studying history, it is an essential life skill. We now live in an information age. Television, newspapers online and in print, online blogs, social media, live streams, videos, photos, etc. We hear terms like “fake news.” The highly trustworthy BBC has even launched its own campaign against it. How do we decide what is true, exaggerated or just downright false? We need to examine these information sources as evidence. How do we critically examine evidence and sources of information for usefulness and reliability? We look at its provenance. We ask key questions. Let us first look at some historical examples:
Who has produced it is a vital question. It will immediately clue you in on what their viewpoint is an any bias or reliability issues. One source from the Battle of Hastings said of the night before the battle: “Harold and his men spent the night drinking and gambling. The Normans spent the night in prayer.” Oh dear. Sounds bad right? Harold was on the lash the night before. The Normans were praying. Maybe God assisted them with winning, favouring them due to greater piety? At the very least the Saxons must have had a hangover. Well, not quite. The story was likely started by a Norman bishop who fought with William at Hastings. As a Norman he will likely praise his own side, while trying to make the Saxons look bad. As a clergyman he will be keen to stress a religious view. Does this mean he is lying? Not necessarily. Given his position and prevailing religious views at the time he may genuinely believe God intervened. But because of his close connection with William we need to look a bit deeper. For example, he omits that William had a fully professional and well equipped army, with a mix of armoured cavalry adept at co-ordinated battlefield manoeuvres, infantry equipped with sword, spear and shield and crucially had archers when Harold didn’t. Or that he was an experienced military commander who had never lost a battle. These things may have had a teeny weeny bit to do with why he won. It is also a common slur used against those that lost in battle during this period, and this account has also been attributed to William of Malmesbury who was a half Norman historian writing in the 12th Century. History is written by the victors, as the saying goes (a lesson there). As we will see, context is key.
Let us look at another example, the execution of Charles I by John Weesop. This shows Charles executed in front of the banqueting house of the Palace of Whitehall. The painter sympathised with the king.
Photo by L. J. Hutchinson
How can we tell? First look at the foreground. There is an old man who is visibly upset and looks as if he is being restrained or comforted, maybe both. A woman is fainting indicating some kind of shock. The crowd is shown agitated, someone at the front is pointing and possibly shouting at the platform. This is to try and convey to the viewer that the execution was unpopular. Soldiers are present in the crowd to head off trouble. Blood and gore is shown on the platform for shock value. In the inset picture a person can be seen dipping a handkerchief in blood. The blood of a king was thought to be blessed and able to cure illness. You will be unsurprised to learn that Weesop said he “would never stay in a country where they cut of the King’s head and were not ashamed of the action,” and that his patrons were staunch royalists.
Contrast this with a Protestant leaflet showing the execution.
Here the crowd is calm. There is no blood. Some people are smiling. Apart from that very little emotion is conveyed. It is very matter of fact. It is designed not to stir up feelings amongst a scared or angry populace. It provides a clue as to the worries of those behind the execution. The war may have been won but rebellion could easily be stirred up. There is little colour and the design is simple. This in itself reflects Protestant ideas, of a simple church service without ostentation or mystery.
What type of source is it? Each type has their merits and their drawbacks. A photograph shows a snapshot of a place and time. But does it show the whole scene? Attribution is key here. You need to know reliably who took it, when and where, and what it purports to show. The more modern a photograph is the more you have to worry it could have been doctored using the wonders of modern technology. Paintings can be useful, as they are less likely to have been doctored with modern tech. For example, our pictures of Charles above. The artist may put across their own view, but may also convey feelings and thoughts from the time, giving us more context. The Weesop picture certainly does. We do have to be a bit careful as artistic types do like to exaggerate. Newspapers are usually a mine of useful information, but as we know papers tend to convey a political view. One glance at the Guardian will reveal its left-wing bias. But newspapers will highlight that viewpoint from that time.
The same is true for television news. There will be lots of good basic info, but there is usually an agenda. One just has to look at our own beloved BBC to find wall to wall coverage of immigration issues and Tommy Robinson’s latest speech. More and more blogs are being set up to look like very professionally produced news sites. Indeed, some of them do very good work. Independent journalism is booming and is the future. But there is a tendency to believe things in print and take them as gospel. How much do you really trust sites like Infowars or 4Chan, for example? Some stuff is great, other stuff is the wildest of conspiracy theories (don’t even start me on Qanon). Media reports can also be the subject of injunctions and other legal devices to stop them reporting on certain things. Government sources can also convey a good deal of information. But be aware it is what the government want you to know. And every government wants to look good.
To illustrate this point, look at these WW1 sources. The first is a recruitment poster. It features nice clean trench and crisp, spotless uniforms with lovely peaked caps. Soldiers are stood up with their heads over the top of the trench. There is no barbed wire, there are grassy fields. No dugouts feature in the trench.
Photo by Keljo Knutas
The second is a photo from an official war photographer following Australian troops. Here what we can see comes closer to reality. Deep trenches to avoid snipers, full of mud. Small dugouts to hide from shelling. Sandbags to resist impacts. No vegetation, soldiers resting between action. One is holding a gas mask and they have metal helmets for protection.
Photo from State Library of South Australia
Where a source was produced or purports to be from is important, as is where they got their information. For example, was the person at the event? Were they an eye witness, or did they get their information second hand? What location is a photo showing, or claiming to show? Can you verify it? Where a person was may also determine what access they had or didn’t have to information. A source produced in Elizabethan England would have a very different slant than one produced in the Spain of Phillip II. Where information comes from is vital. For example, when online you are often presented with graphs. Where has the information come from to produce the graph? And how might that alter its reliability? Where is the person showing the graph from and what might that mean?
When was the source produced? Was it before, during or after the event? How might this change the views of the author, or change what information they had access to? The Battle of Jutland illustrates this. The British naval commander Admiral Jellicoe was criticised in the immediate aftermath for not pursuing the German Navy, after breaking off so as not to open the fleet up to torpedo attack. Years later he was praised for not risking the fate of the British Empire. Winston Churchill said Jellicoe “was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon.”
An historian writing years later will have access to a range of sources about an event. As will newspapers reporting on an event months later. For example, take the terror attacks and “gas explosions” that now regularly happen in the UK. Reports at the time are often confused and contradictory. As has been said most information released in the first 48 hours proves to be incorrect. There are some nuggets of truth that come through, but there is a fog of war effect. Contrast this report on the Leicester explosion on 26th February with this one on 3rd March The Grenfell tragedy is another case in point. First estimates said 150 dead. The final total was around 79. Other issues may occur when someone writes something down years after the event. Memories fade, things can be misremembered and there is a temptation to view things with rose tinted spectacles when thinking of your youth.
Why was it produced? What purpose is the source serving? Is it for public consumption? Is it meant to persuade? Is it purely relaying information like a weather forecast? Is it a private letter between individuals active at the time? Is it propaganda? Was it meant to sell, like a painting? The classic example is the Bayeux Tapestry created to legitimise William’s conquest and give the Norman view. In an age without mass media and when few people could read it was made for people to see. Another example is if someone is writing a diary entry that is kept private then it is likely they will convey their true thoughts and feelings. A classified letter between high ranking individuals in government or the military is more likely to contain what is actually going on. Look back at our WW1 sources. The poster is clearly designed to recruit soldiers, so it shows an idealised view of a trench with a heroic action scene. It won’t show any of the downsides because, let’s face it, not as many people would go if they were told it was a hellish life in the rain, cold and mud and incredibly dangerous. The official war photographs are meant as an historical record so they more accurately portray trench life rather than shy away from the conditions.
Films often feature past events. While some depictions can be great, never forget that the main aim of a film is to make money at the cinema. Accuracy comes second (see: U-571). Information released in to the public domain often seeks to persuade. Opinion polls on twitter are a prime example. They are almost meaningless but trumpeted about as indicators of real public opinion. There was a barrage of propaganda during the build up to the EU referendum and afterwards, which continues to this day. Brexit economic forecast meant to see 15 years in to the future promise “terrible things” will happen if we continue. They couldn’t predict 1 year after Brexit, but these ones made by the same people for 15 years hence are definitely true. Somehow.
The Modern Day
Here is a tweet from an Antifa account alleging violent behaviour. So, using everything we’ve looked at, what do you think? Look at the key questions again.
Tommy Robinson supporters beat up and pushed Muslims and any opposing view out of Hyde park, then started chanting "Allah is Peado". That's how fascism works, it claims to be the victim, then destroys it's political opponent. #Islamophobia pic.twitter.com/Bcyd5Y52iN
— Anti-Fascist Intel (@AntifaIntel) March 18, 2018
Who? Antifa, sworn enemies of Tommy Robinson. No names given for the people in the photo so unable to verify.
What? A close up photograph that doesn’t show the surrounding area. Makes claims about what was chanted and violence but no evidence offered.
Where? Not announced. Purports to be from Hyde Park during/after Speakers Corner event. No direct attribution. Unable to determine any other location information as it is a close up.
When? Not dated with any direct attribution. First Speakers Corner event took place in sub-zero temperatures on March 18th, 2018. Are they dressed for the occasion? All other videos show people in coats, hats, gloves and scarves.
Why? Direct message is to persuade the viewer Tommy Robinson and his followers are fascists and violent.
Although we cannot identify the two gentlemen, they do bear a striking resemblance to two men captured in this image from 2013. That’s five years ago. Who knows, maybe they turned up five years later in exactly the same clothes and pulled exactly the same pose? This is a tactic you will see often today and especially from the left. They will release numerous and contradictory accounts of an event and try to muddy the waters and deliberately confuse. It is an attempt to make you doubt what has gone on even if you were actually there and witnessed events. This is where you really need to be alert and take notice and evaluate the information critically to decide if you can trust it.
A prime example was the recent disruption of the Jacob Rees-Mogg debate at UWE. Mogg is right-wing conservative and anti-EU. Claims were made that hard left protestors disrupted the event, allegedly being aggressive and this then led to a physical confrontation. Antifa, the hard left and Pro-EU activists immediately flooded Twitter with contradictions alleging Mogg and his supporters started it and attacked people.
Do you accept that a violent far right thug who dresses as a nazi punched a non violent protester at your event in Bristol? Accepting he is not connected to you.
— oldcornishbloke #PCPEU (@mrkernow) February 5, 2018
Oh! Come on now, credit where credit is due. It has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt the 'violence' at Bristol was by A REES-MOGG SUPPORTER AGAINST A WOMAN ATTEMPTING TO DEBATE. The, left wing, as you call them did not instigate nor join in his violent outburst.
— Harry Virco #PCPEU (@Virco0) February 11, 2018
Russia is also backing international football violence, sending trained bodies to cause trouble between UK 'fans' and European hosts. Rees-Mogg's fan-base is drawn from those same pallid tattooed beer-bellies – who lapped up the staged confrontation in Bristol.
— chrisgray #FBPE #RVE #SecretlyPlotting (@CpmGray) February 13, 2018
Watch the video. Apply the questions. Decide for yourself.
What I have given is not an exhaustive list but it should be a good starting point. Be aware of the information being presented to you via the media. Don’t take everything at face value. Ask yourself the five basic questions. Remember context is key. Think about the bigger picture and what is happening in the wider world and make your own judgement. Not everything you see will be false, or even a deliberate lie. Often fact is confused with opinion, or belief. People sincerely hold different views that they wholeheartedly believe are correct. This will depend on who they are and their own life experiences. But at the same time this doesn’t necessarily make them right.
Not every writer is subjective, and not every photo staged. Also, just because a source is biased it doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it or doesn’t contain anything useful we can learn. A match report written by a football fan will naturally favour his or her team, but it doesn’t mean it’s all untrue. There is a danger of regarding everything with suspicion and immediately disregarding it as false, and buying in to constant conspiracy theories to explain away things you don’t like (e.g. Trump, Brexit, etc). It may seem difficult at first but it becomes easier with practice. After a while you will find you do it subconsciously. It is a useful filter to have in the modern information rich world where we are bombarded daily by the media. The main message is think for yourself. Now, about that Russian spy poisoning…
© Jonathon Davies 2018