When is a Picture of a Horse a Picture of an Owl?

Simon Maginn
4 min readAug 3, 2023


In normal times, you could check what someone had said in a video without difficulty. You would watch the video of them speaking and report it. But this is not a normal time, and one of the more disturbingly abnormal features of it is that the checking of facts — that baseline activity upon which all else is founded — has become all but impossible.

The video of Chris Williamson speaking, for instance, which demonstrates beyond any question that he did not say what he was accused of saying (by BBC/Guardian and then everyone else) is exactly the same video that has been used as evidence that he did say it.

It’s this hall-of-mirrors world, this world in which even the most basic facts — such as what someone did or did not say on a video recording — simply cannot be established, in which we now live.

This is about that world.

Let’s put aside the specifics for a moment and take the general case:

1. Someone in public life makes a public statement

2. Their statement is recorded on video

3. The video is universally reported by our media as if the speaker says something they do not say

4. Attempts to correct these false reports are met with furious denunciations

Point 3 here is the most telling: evidence which shows someone did not say what they’re accused of saying is presented in the media as if it’s evidence that they did say it. Because the video is public, anyone can check at any time exactly what was said and what was not said, and yet the false media version of what was said remains the dominant narrative, and those who question it are, in turn, delegitimised with false accusations.

In other words, a video recording anyone can check for themselves no longer functions as the arbiter of what that video shows. ‘What the video shows’ becomes submerged under an avalanche of ‘What media say the video shows’. Reality is no longer a matter of checking what the observable facts are, but becomes instead the preserve of false media reports about what the observable facts should be.

We are required to disregard what our senses are telling us, and instead to affirm that the evidence of our own eyes and ears is to be set aside to accommodate what the media tell us to believe our senses should be telling us.

Reality is brusquely banished, and those who insist upon it labelled ‘cranks’.

It’s not just that we are being lied to — that’s nothing new. We as adults understand our media lie for a variety of reasons, and though we may choose to trust certain media over others, we know much of what we read and see is either false or misleading.

But this goes well beyond that, because the evidence produced to support the lie is exactly the same evidence that disproves it. It’s as if our media are saying, ‘Look at this picture of a horse: it’s a picture of an owl. Isn’t it.’ It demands we accept what we know to be false, what the evidence used to create the accusation itself tells us is false.

Beyond lying, beyond ‘post-truth’, beyond gaslighting: this is denying the very notion of reality itself, the idea that we should believe what we see when we see it. It asserts that reality is whatever our media tell us it is. It asserts that reality does not actually exist at all, and all that does exist is a hall of distorting media mirrors in which what we see becomes something else entirely and we are required to endorse that distortion as real, pretending we are unaware of the mirrors.

It should not need saying that this is almost limitlessly dangerous. If media become the arbiters of reality, reality can no longer be trusted. The evidence of our own eyes and ears no longer has any validity or meaning, and the pseudo-reality of distorted media reports — the hall of distorting mirrors — becomes the only form of ‘reality’ that can be discussed.

The world as an objectively observable phenomenon vanishes, to be replaced with demands we collude with a pseudo-reality and abandon what we know we’re seeing for what they tell us we should be seeing.

‘Look at this picture of a horse: it’s a picture of an owl, and if you say otherwise you’re a “crank”.’

RIP reality.


(For those interested in what Chris Williamson actually did say, link here.)