Fake news

23 April 2017

(Article by Conrad Landin, industrial reporter of the Morning Star, featured in the May 2017 issue of the ASLEF Journal)

 

Fake news Trump

It shocked a nation before a major poll – a sensational tale of Russian interference in Western politics. There was fierce debate over the authenticity of the story, but the damage was done.

No, not last year’s US presidential race. This was the Zinoviev letter, a document purportedly from the Communist International, or Comintern, in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain, in 1924. Published by the Daily Mail, it argued that the Labour government’s recognition of the USSR would bring the British proletariat out onto the streets. An official report in 1999 concluded that it was not written by Grigory Zinoviev – which was always improbable and consistently denied by the Russians – but probably forged by an MI6 source. But the infamous letter had done its job; the Conservative Party romped home to victory in the general election of 1924.

 

AFTER TRUMPAGEDDON

Shortly after Trumpageddon last autumn, Barack Obama raised the alarm about the rise of fake news. He was right: inaccurate claims and sometimes bare-faced falsifications were shared more frequently than ever on social media. One article claimed that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump, and picked up almost a million engagements on Facebook. This year Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top aides, defended the palpable falsehoods of White House press secretary Sean Spicer by describing them not as ‘lies’ but as ‘alternative facts’.

So fake news became big news. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, set up his own fake news inquiry. And other commentators used the hype to point the finger atonline content shared by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.

The spreading of false information is, of course, a menace. But one major factorin its growth has been largely ignored. Fringe outlets that are derided for their partiality and lack of fact-checking have grown, as the journalist Solomon Hughes has argued, ‘precisely because the established media has repeatedly printed fake news itself’.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the media’s depictions of the labour movement – and the Zinoviev letter was just the start.

 

Fake news HoaxMEDIA A MAJOR WEAPON

The media was a major weapon in the bitter miners’ strike of 1984-85. The BBC’s coverage of the Battle of Orgreave, when flying pickets descended on a coking plant in Yorkshire, is the most pertinent example. News programmes showed miners lobbing missiles at police lines before being charged by coppers – even though it had happened the other way round.

Then, in 1990, the Daily Mirror claimed NUM president Arthur Scargill had used money from Libya to pay off his mortgage. Again, the allegations were unsubstantiated, and Scargill was not given the normal right of reply. Roy Greenslade, who edited the Mirror at the time, finally apologised 12 years later.

Even as New Labour was paving its road to power, Fleet Street was as keen as ever to discredit the left. In 1995, a Sunday Times headline screamed: ‘KGB: Michael Foot was our agent’. Foot won a six-figure sum in courtand a written assurance that the paper was not suggestinghe had been a spy.

These are stand-out fake news falsehoods. But the more recent decline of journalistic standards is also worrying.Newsrooms have faced savage cuts over the past two decades. Between 2013 and 2015, more than 6,000 posts were lost in British journalism, while the PR industry has ballooned by 18,000.

So it’s no surprise that journalists often uncritically regurgitate stories they are spoon-fed. In this walk of shame coverage of industrial issues takes the lead once again. Since most newspapers no longer employ industrial correspondents, unions tend to only get a hearing when they can be linked to political intrigue or ‘travel chaos’. The ASLEF Journal has covered both the inaccuracies of the coverage of the Southern rail dispute (February 2017) and the failure of journalists to understand the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn (March 2016). Other highlights include a recent reference in an Evening Standard editorial to ‘tube drivers represented by the RMT and TSSA’. Slapdash.

There’s no denying that new fringe media has published far-fetched coverage of Labour politics, but it’s far from alone here. In January the BBC Trust rebuked political editor Laura Kuenssberg for misrepresenting Corbyn’s comments on ‘shoot to kill’. A recent Newsnight report saw Shami Chakrabarti interviewed in front of a doctored image in which Corbyn was wearing a baseball cap with the slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’. And viral site Buzzfeed says fake news has failed to grow in Britain as it has in the States because traditional papers already ‘stretch the truth to its limits’.

Fake news is a snappy phrase, but it was foolish for anyone to think its coinage could help restore the fearless journalism we need now more than ever. Instead we have ended up with a game of ping pong. Donald Trump is now one of the first to brand his opponents, and media scrutineers, as offering ‘fake news’. It’s a term of abuse picked up by Vladimir Putin.

 

WINNING BACK TRUST

Rather than engaging in this tit-for-tat, journalists should surely focus on winning back the trust of audiences across the globe. This means investing in newsrooms and not cutting editorial processes – like sub-editing and proof-reading – that we once took for granted. But it also means a conscious shift away from trivia and towards serious reporting. There’s little in our papers that isn’t about the Westminster bubble, the City or the world of celebrity. If the established media is to restore its credibility, it could start by giving a bit more coverage to the realities of ordinary people’s lives – including the world of work.

 

 

 

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