An Interview with Lord Michael Dobbs
The Fletcher Forum had the opportunity to speak with Lord Dobbs in October about global politics, leadership, and writing in an age of fake news. Read the excerpt from the interview. The entire interview will be available in our forthcoming Winter 2018 print edition.
The Fletcher Forum (FF): One of the great dangers of untruth—fake news, alternative facts, and alternative reality—is that once it takes root, it’s extremely difficult to eradicate by facts and logic. How, based on your political and authorial experience, do you suggest that we counter or speak against untruth?
LMD: That’s a very good question. It’s one that I have been pondering over a great deal. First of all, I think it’s easy to exaggerate the impact of fake news. The idea that Russia somehow put out so much false news that it persuaded people to vote one way or another in the American elections—I would like to see the evidence on that, rather than just a propaganda threat. I suspect that there a lot of people who make up their minds without rushing to news channels 24 hours of the day, or newspapers, or whatever it happens to be. They make their minds up on a more general or long-term basis. But, I’d like to see the evidence on that.
False news is always difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I am really worried about what happens increasingly on campus where you have safe spaces, which I regard as being the end of education essentially. The only reality is the reality that I wish to insist upon. Don’t let me go too far down that route yet, let me come back to your question.
There is a problem with the new ways that we are communicating—social media essentially. I’m sitting here thinking that I may just pull the plug on my Twitter account. Why? Because I see what Twitter and other social media do. It restricts your intellectual compass to 140 characters. It makes it much easier to scream and shout and be negative and destructive, rather than set out a good coherent argument in favor of something. It’s an echo chamber. It’s self-selecting. You don’t talk to other people. You choose only to listen to those who magnify your own prejudices. I also think there’s a big problem with things like Facebook and the other apps where young people are encouraged to share too much of their lives, something that they will regret later on.
Now, what to do about this? The Chinese have a very clear idea on what to do about this, and so does Russia. They clamp down on this. They want to stop this. They want to control this. I don’t think that should be our way of dealing with this issue. The first thing is to actually recognize and analyze it as an issue. Is it an issue? I think it probably is. But there are many more people who are looking into that in much greater depth. If it is an issue, then what do you do about it? I think education in the earlier stage has a huge role to play in that. When I was a kid I was taught how to write literally—you know that old thing you do with a pen—I was taught how to send messages in a letter. That was part of my education. We should be teaching kids how safely to use these new forms of communication. And that is a much better than it is to try and ban things and to become authoritarian about it. But I have been really impressed and strengthened in my view that there is a problem, as recent research has suggested that young people feel intimidated by social media. They feel that they have to belong on it and they feel pressured into using it in such a way that they don’t actually feel very comfortable with it. There is also evidence that suggests that the way some social media are constructed is as if people are being forced to like chocolate. It is constructed to make you feel almost addicted to it. There are real problems there. Maybe we need to have a grown-up conversation about how far the constructers of these apps should be going in order to gain that sort of market share. I mean, after all we have rules and regulations for lenders, banks and people like that. Is it unreasonable that we should look at the way Twitter works for instance or Facebook? Even I feel the pressure. If I’m on Twitter, I’m supposed to tweet. I don’t want to be reacting all the time to what other people are saying. There is really compelling evidence, although at its very early stages of research, that kids that get off social media actually feel released. They feel liberated because they feel that social media is a pest or put pressure on them in what are already overly pressurized lives. So, I think there is a whole area that we are learning about, which is changing every month and every year, which we have got to explore to see if there’s a problem and come up with solutions. Not simply to let it drift on.
FF: You also said that so much in politics is not a matter of facts nor a matter of record. So, what is it beyond the facts?
LMD: Politics is all about vision. It’s all about the future. It’s all about creating something that hopefully will be better. This is where we come back almost full circle to establishments and elites. They have a worldview that tends to be very cautious, very self-satisfied, and often very arrogant and disconnected with the realities. There are moments of great crisis where great leaders emerge. It often takes a great crisis for a great leader to emerge, but it is very rarely the establishment view. In fact, I can’t think of a single situation in a great crisis where the establishment view prevails. It is the establishment which usually caused the great crisis. Talking about leadership, I take the example of Winston Churchill. A man whose life had so much failure. A man who came to power on the 10th of May 1940 when he was expected to be a catastrophic failure, when almost every single part of the elite and the establishment was saying “We cannot win this war, we must do a deal with Hitler”. Knowing that that deal with Hitler would involve Nazism and Fascism dominating the whole of continental Europe. That was the establishment view. The establishment caused the crisis. The establishment was carrying on to the logical conclusion of its actions. It took a maverick and a very difficult man like Winston Churchill to say “No, there is another way”, and to be forceful enough and fortunate enough—because luck is a huge part of this—to be the right man, in the right time, in the right place to change history and to lead history on to a much better place. It doesn’t make Winston Churchill perfect and he made many, many mistakes. He was incredibly fortunate in many things, but he made his luck too. I believe, and most people would accept, that Winston Churchill was the only man who could have done that at that time because the rest of the establishment, including the Royal family, was against him and against what he wanted to do. Sometimes history hangs from a very, very delicate thread. Yet it is a huge fortune that we had, that somehow the right person emerges at the right time to lead us on from the wreckage left by the established view, which has run out of time. It’s that which actually has made our history and, by and large, not always, but by and large, for the better.
So, are we at that moment right now when the establishment is getting itself so much into the mire that it’s going to be submerged? Possibly. We haven’t done very well over the last twenty years and it’s very difficult to see carrying on as we are where we’re going to make things better. It does require new thinking, new ideas, and new inputs. It requires more than just screaming at each other through social media or the headlines. It actually still does require listening to each other. Winston Churchill knew what the establishment was talking about, knew what they wanted. Disagreed with them, but was able to, in the end, lead them on—even those colleagues that opposed him—to lead them on to new territory.
A wonderful film that is about to come out, called The Darkest Hour, shows Winston just in that moment where Britain was in the hours of defeat and the hours of giving in. It could have all gone so very differently. The film doesn’t quite get the cabinet government right, but it sort of alludes to it in a way that he was able to lead them on. The film makes him seem a little too shouty and perhaps not listening quite as much as he did then, but he was the man who did it, but he didn’t do it by himself. He required to lead others on with them. I suppose that is what leadership is about. It’s getting others to do what you think is right, getting them to accept that that is what is right. I think that we—electorates and systems everywhere in the West—are all looking for people to come up with new solutions that will then lead us forward. Whether we have found that yet is another matter. But certainly, the question is being asked. Everyone. Everywhere. The cry is going up. The establishment must change or be changed.
About the Interviewee
Michael Dobbs, Lord Dobbs of Wylye, is Britain's best-known political novelist and an active member of the House of Lords. He was the UK Conservative Party's Chief-of-Staff and later its Deputy Chairman. He has also been a current affairs presenter for the BBC, a newspaper columnist, and deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi. Somewhere along the way he picked up a doctorate in nuclear defense studies from the Fletcher School. He is the author of House of Cards, the hugely popular political novel that through Netflix has become a global television sensation. He has also written four award-winning novels about Winston Churchill.