As the General Election approaches, questions are being asked about the reliability of media reporting and the possible impact of fake news on public opinion. But, argues Katie Roberts, such controversies have been around for a long time.
The term fake news is being thrown around as if it were, well, news. Since its inception, journalism has had the potential to be used as propaganda. In sixteenth century Britain, printed news was controlled by the monarch, restricting the dissemination of information not approved by the Privy Council. Post English Civil War, political pamphleteering took place in coffeehouses while the absence of a strong government gave rise to the production of newsbooks with unrestricted content. By the mid 1600s, fake news was in full circulation.
Today it’s tabloid journalism that’s often associated with unethical practices, following various hacking scandals and subsequent inquiries. The tabloid press, though not entirely guilty of fully-fledged fabrication, certainly has a history of creating stories rather than finding them.
Mazher Mahmood, a News of the World and later Sun on Sunday reporter, infamous for dressing up as the “Fake Sheikh”, was shown in a 2014 BBC Panorama investigation using entrapment to create stories about celebrities and politicians. In 1989, The Sun ran the headline ‘The Truth’ after hundreds of football fans were crushed in the Hillsborough Disaster. The article falsely alleged that Liverpool fans had urinated on and pickpocketed dead bodies. In 2008, Express Newspapers paid £550,000 in damages to the parents of Madeleine McCann for publishing countless spurious and defamatory stories suggesting the couple were involved in the disappearance of their daughter. Strangely, these and many other examples haven’t been marked with the same big, red, disapproving stamp of fake news.
It’s not just right-wing tabloid journalism that warps the truth. As Noam Chomsky points out in his pocket-sized guide to US propaganda and bias, Media Control, the famed liberal American journalist Walter Lippmann said that a ‘revolution in the art of democracy’ could be used to ‘manufacture consent.’ Lippmann claimed that the ‘bewildered herd’ of normal people should function as ‘spectators not participants in action.’ Chomsky likens this ideology to that of the former Soviet Union’s elite of ‘revolutionary intellectuals’ who exercised ‘state power’ over the general public.
The very founders of “yellow journalism” (the old-fashioned term for fake news), Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, were not on the political right, they were members of the US Democrat party. In the 1890s, their respective newspapers, the New York World and the New York Journal , published sensationalised, often inaccurate articles in a bid to attract each others’ readerships. Some things don’t change that much in a hundred years: today we see the competition for “clicks” and “likes” on social media feeding the production of what Guardian journalist Nick Davies calls ‘churnalism’: recycled and often trivial news stories.
“Quality” broadsheet newspapers can be just as guilty of churnalism and biased reporting as the most dubious blog, website or tabloid rag. Analysis carried out by The Independent in 2016 found that between 15 and 20 per cent of The Telegraph’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn linked him unfairly to the IRA, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and/or terrorism. In 2015, Corbyn’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott accused traditionally left-wing newspaper The Guardian of producing 20 anti-Corbyn articles on Twitter. Some of the headlines she listed included: ‘Daily Telegraph urges readers to ‘doom’ Labour by backing Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Labour party members, please think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘Without the soft left, Labour is doomed to splinter.’
Fake news, as it’s understood today, is inextricably tied to the US President Donald Trump. This is not just because the President used the term himself to dismiss various media outlets (both CNN and the BBC earned his ire), but also because fake news played a big part in his election.
A November 2016 Buzzfeed News analysis found that in the last three months of the presidential campaign, fake news stories generated more engagement on Facebook than election stories from major news organisations such as The Washington Post, New York Times and Huffington Post.
Stories claiming Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and that the Pope supported Trump were among the counterfeit articles. Even the now-President’s National Security Adviser repeated a fictitious claim that Democratic senators voted to impose Sharia Law in Florida. Some of these bogus stories have had deadly consequences.
On December 4th 2016, Edgar Welch opened fire at Washington, DC pizzeria Comet Ping Pong because he believed the restaurant was the headquarters of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. The conspiracy that prompted the attack, known as ‘Pizzagate’, stemmed from the false belief that Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta used a code to refer to child sex trafficking in emails released by Wikileaks. Online message boards and social media allowed for the proliferation of this theory and ultimately led Welch to ‘self investigate’.
This calls to mind UK investigative journalism website Exaro, which shut down in 2016 after publishing allegations of a paedophile ring operating in Dolphin Square in London which prompted a fruitless police investigation.
To get a journalist’s perspective on all this, I interviewed David Rivers of Trinity Mirror. I asked if he thought misinformation in journalism could be compared to fake news. ‘My definition of “fake news” is a story not actually based on any facts, claims or events. Instead it is made up simply using the imagination of its author,’ he said. ‘Publications are ethically obliged by IPSO, and legally to anyone mentioned in the article, to ensure they’re reporting is backed up by a credible source and/or proved facts.’
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is the UK’s independent regulator for the press which holds newspapers and magazines to account for any libellous or inaccurate reporting. David differentiates between so-called “citizen journalism” and press practices: ‘A teenage blogger writing in his bedroom isn’t held to ethical or legal standards, yet he has access to the same audience I do. As a journalist, I strictly adhere to the Editors’ Code of Practice and legal guidelines set out in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. Failure to do this would result in me losing my job and my company paying out huge legal costs”. It is reassuring to know that there are structures in place to ensure journalistic accuracy, but arguments of democracy and freedom of speech can easily be used to defend biased news.
The expression fake news pops up more often than a whack-a-mole as of late, but rarely in association with historic instances of propaganda and fallacious journalism. Backed by a coterie of powerful individuals, the press always has been, and probably always will be, a hotbed for fake news.
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