Ian Birrell

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

June 29, 2018

Milo Yiannopoulos is a self-aggrandising twerp, who seems to have made it his mission to attract attention to himself and his fellow travellers on the far right. Psychologists might suggest his childish behaviour stems from a succession of personal failures, yet this British provocateur stands as perfect symbol for some of the most corrosive aspects of our emerging digital culture as he bounces from one outrage to the next.

Normally, I would urge that we starve this character of the oxygen of publicity he so obviously desires. Yet we cannot ignore the culpability of such despicable people in fanning flames of extremism as they flirt with fascism, their actions widening fissures in Western societies and coarsening our political debate. Similar figures can be found at both ends of the political spectrum: agitators who fill online forums and fuel social media with fanaticism, hate and intolerance. Their behaviour shuts down debate and drives people – especially women who are often targets of the worst abuse – from public space.

Journalists have rarely been more needed to speak truth to power, protect democratic values and fight back against the forces of darkness
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Many of these inadequates hide their true identity. But not Yiannopoulos. He posed as a proper journalist in the past, starting on The Telegraph before making his name spewing nonsense on the repellent Breitbart News (which also infamously delivered Steve Bannon into the political arena). Now he pretends he was only joking when he said, “I can’t wait for vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight”, just two days before a deranged individual did precisely that, murdering five people at Maryland’s Capital Gazette newspaper.

It seems the suspect held a grudge, having unsuccessfully sued the newspaper group six years ago for defamation. No doubt we will find out more soon about his motivations. Yet who can fail to be moved by the magnificent response of the surviving team in publishing an edition so soon after the slaughter? “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” said reporter Chase Cook a few hours after a colleague had tweeted about the horrors of “hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload”.

Cook’s statement underlines the strange spark that drives the best journalists: that fierce determination to get out a story, regardless of difficulties and hurdles. As a foreign reporter, it is something I have seen often in conflict and disaster zones – or simply in the face of officious jobsworths.

It was something I respected during my two decades as a newspaper executive asking staff to disrupt their holidays, family dinners and social events amid breaking news. Regardless, it is impossible to ignore a disquieting incitement to murder from a well-known figure, especially at a time when journalism is under sustained attack from so many quarters.

It is not just silly people such as Yiannopoulos who threaten journalists and their trade. It starts at the top in the United States, with Donald Trump, an irresponsible president making constant assaults on ‘fake news’ and reporters to blunt criticism. We see it with activists attacking the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media), new media outlets pumping out ceaseless bile and falsehoods, manipulation by foreign nations.

Further reading
Activist journalism is feeding us fake news

By Henry Olsen

We see it with powerful technology giants, so quick to monetise their users but so slow to accept responsibilities. And we see it with the politicians – and yes, some in my own profession – who play short-term games to exploit half-truths and falsehoods, fuelling partisanship and fostering unwarranted fears on issues such as migration that end up undermining national well-being.

This is happening at a time when journalists have rarely been more needed to speak truth to power, protect democratic values and fight back against the forces of darkness. Yet the backdrop is intense economic disruption and social dislocation in media industries – as I know all too well having spent 12 years as deputy editor of a national newspaper that no longer exists in print.

Politicians – and yes, some journalists – play short-term games to exploit half-truths and falsehoods, fuelling partisanship and fostering unwarranted fears
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I am a big fan of some forces unleashed by the internet, such as the ability to challenge shoddy reporting, widen communication and promote new voices. But we cannot ignore the threat it poses to some key societal values and its ability to inflame inadequates while inspiring political passions.

Only this week, a Government review into the state of the media released a barrage of depressing statistics. These included the closure of a quarter of regional and local papers over the past decade, a fall in revenues by more than half over this time and crashing numbers of frontline reporters. Journalism is a great job, the rewards outweighed by the possibilities, but it is hard to advise a teenager it is is a sensible career choice. Yet as Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, said so rightly, “fearless and independent” reporting at all levels plays a crucial role informing citizens and is a central foundation for democracy.

Further reading
Slaying dragons: clubby Lobby journalism

By Marie Le Conte

Hancock’s move to set up the review is welcome. Yes, reporters can be chancers. Mistakes can be made in the rush to reveal news while my industry has been guilty of indefensible behaviour. And the traditional media has displayed a tendency to dumb down rather than stay true to core beliefs when challenged.

Yet for all these faults and many others we need decent journalism more than ever – and we need to find out how to fund quality reporting. I feel privileged to have worked in parts of the planet with brave colleagues whose lives and freedoms are at risk from writing stories and filing reports. Now the amazing strength of those journalists in Maryland fills me again with pride in my profession. It was the perfect antidote to those shameless provocateurs and politicians who scorn the fourth estate.