Journalism as a trade is assailed from many sides. In the autocracies of the world it faces a familiar challenge: top-down censorship with the threat of incarceration and even death for going against the ruling party. In the new elected dictatorships such as Venezuela and Russia, the government deploys more sophisticated tools of repression, setting up front organisations to purchase private media and turning those once critical outlets into complaisant party-liners.
Attacks on independent journalism in the West are of a different order. Journalists are not being murdered by the state, but the political climate is increasingly inhospitable toward them.
CNN, one of the most respected American cable news channels, has been repeatedly labelled as “fake news” by President Donald Trump. Meanwhile the MSM (mainstream media) has become the target of widespread online opprobrium, with activists regularly accusing unaffiliated political reporters of bias.
Just this weekend in Britain the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell responded to a question about Brexit from a Politics Home journalist by seeking to delegitimise the website as a “department for the Tory Party”.
This demonstrates that hostility toward the media is as much about hyper-partisan politics as it is about social media and advancing technology. The internet has brought the start-up cost of setting up a ‘news’ website down to zero, spawning a plurality of voices that has allowed consumers to tune in to outlets that align with their pre-existing worldview.
There are no more grand narratives, and in true post-modern fashion technology has allowed us to surround ourselves with our very own version of the truth.
The desire to escape the mainstream has undoubtedly been fed by a wider erosion of trust in institutions. This has its roots in political and economic decisions such as the 2003 Iraq war and the financial crash of 2008. We really have “had enough of experts”, as British politician Michael Gove put it in 2016 – largely because their supposed expertise has often been found to be illusory.
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Running parallel to this has been a popularisation of so-called citizen journalism. Technology has facilitated the widely held belief that anyone with a smartphone is a journalist, and so the border between reporting the news and inventing it has become much more porous.
This has always been the case to some degree – there was never a journalistic golden age in which an army of dedicated, impartial reporters set out with the lofty aim of ‘talking truth to power’. Nor is fake news a new phenomenon, as a recent article in the New York Review of Books highlighted in its description of eighteenth century London:
“‘Paragraph men’ picked up gossip in coffee houses, scribbled a few sentences on a scrap of paper, and turned in the text to printer-publishers, who often set it in the next available space of a column of type on a composing stone. Some paragraph men received payment; some contented themselves with manipulating public opinion for or against a public figure, a play, or a book.”
Much of what passes for citizen journalism today is activist-driven and heavily partisan. Despite portraying themselves as fearlessly independent, websites in Britain such as The Canary and The Skwawkbox are not so much interested in the truth as in pushing stories which make the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn look good.
This invariably includes smearing anyone who dares to question Corbyn. The Canary, for example, has published fake stories claiming that the BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was a speaker at Conservative Party conference.
The Skwawkbox, also hugely popular among Labour activists, last year published a sickening Potemkin-style video purporting to show “full shelves in Venezuela supermarkets”. In reality, almost 90% of Venezuelans are living in poverty due to a devastating economic crisis. Yet because Jeremy Corbyn once praised the Venezuelan government – and because his opponents were attacking him for it – starving Venezuelans became the subject of fake news.
Activism masquerading as journalism is not something confined to the Left. Alt-right websites have repeatedly concocted stories, most notably in recent years about the existence of supposed Muslim “no go zones” in London. Last year alt-right websites were also reporting that Muslims were calling for Londoners to hide their dogs out of respect for Islam.
Fake news like this is proliferating in part because its purveyors have mastered the click bait headline writing. Apocalyptic headlines are sent out onto platforms where they can quickly go viral. A recent study by a team of Italian researchers found that due to filter bubbles, fake news typically spreads faster than objective news stories through ‘likes’ and ‘shares’:
“Selective exposure to content is the primary driver of content diffusion and generates the formation of homogeneous clusters, i.e., ‘echo chambers’.”
Or to paraphrase a famous quote, a fake headline will have gone around the world with tens of thousands of retweets and shares, while the more truthful account is putting on its shoes.
It’s easy to blame technology for the apparent ubiquity of fake news. Indeed, literature declaring that we are living through a ‘post-truth’ moment has blossomed in recent years, largely due to the ease with which technology allows bogus stories to be generated and spread.
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This explanation, however, misses an important way in which the purveyors of fake news justify what they do. And it is a justification that contains an element of truth. The thinking goes something like this: ‘all journalism is propaganda; therefore we need to create our own propaganda.’
The mainstream is also guilty of generating fake news. The left-wing commentator and activist Owen Jones made effectively the same point on Twitter earlier this month, claiming that mainstream commentators were “genuinely deluded” if they believed they were “not ideologically driven” like left-wing activist writers. Put another way, everyone is consciously or unconsciously pursuing an agenda: all journalism is propaganda.
Owen Jones, of course, is an opinion columnist, and doesn’t purport to be writing news. Nor has he ever concealed from his readers the fact that he is a man of the Left. But on alternative websites of the far-right and far-left, an ideological lens is being applied to writing news copy. The new generation of ‘citizen journalists’ view themselves as professional journalists while churning out party-line propaganda.
And this development has been fuelled in part by the mainstream’s own historic flirtation with fake news, which is felt especially keenly on the Left in Britain. During the General Strike of 1926, the BBC refused to broadcast anything on behalf of either the trade unions or the Labour Party.
Six decades later, during the protracted strike of 1984, The Sun used out of context images of the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill to portray him as a fascist; while during the battle of Orgreave in south Yorkshire the BBC gave the misleading impression (using footage that had been edited out of its chronological order) that the police carried out mounted charges only in response to pickets throwing rocks. It was later discovered that the mounted police charges were unprovoked.
According to the journalists David Hencke and Francis Beckett, who have written probably the most balanced account of the miners’ strike, just one in seven national newspapers printed a photograph of a young woman being attacked by a mounted policeman at Orgreave.1
A comparable residual anger persists around the treatment meted out by sections of the press to the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Below the headline ‘The Truth’, The Sun published three subheadings which all turned out to be false:
Some fans picked pockets of victims
Some fans urinated on the brave cops
Some fans beat up PCs giving the kiss of life
Contemporary propaganda-journalism is often rationalised on the basis that, historically, the mainstream has pushed its own ideologically driven fake news, and one ought to concede that critics of the mainstream have a point.
Yet the majority of professional journalists do not, I would argue, think in this way. Unconscious bias – and editorial control – undoubtedly play a part in selecting the stories which receive coverage and the stories which don’t. But this is not the same as consciously telling lies, which is what sections of the activist media appear to be doing.
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There is a fundamental difference between going out in search of the truth (and occasionally falling short) and setting out to knowingly distort the truth to fit a set of pre-existing ideological prescriptions. The hated MSM may be guilty of the latter at times, but much of what passes for activist journalism takes this as its starting point.
Does it matter that a growing number of people consume news generated by what amount to online lie-factories? It is difficult to see how a democratic society can function without some basic consensus over the facts. When nobody believes in anything anymore, confusion ensues.
The danger then is located not in fragmentation itself, but in the opportunity this breakdown offers to those who would impose their own narrative on a populace that is eager for something authentic – and something trustworthy – to follow. The result will not be millions of individual consumers empowered to exercise their individual choice of news outlets. Rather, it will be an overbearing state, led by the sort of demagogic leader that is on the march around the world.