Media Failure in an Age of Disinformation
In a week in which the President of the United states lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said: “the truth is not the truth” it’s worth reflecting on a recent history of media failure. The examples go way beyond the relentless smears and attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, or the dreary miserablism of Scottish media bias.
This is all in the same summer that five journalists in America were shot and killed, that the press were deemed to be the “Enemy of the People” by the White House and during which the Boston Globe received bomb threats after publishing articles critical of President Trump. These conditions aren’t confined to America.
What we are witnessing is not just a collapse of media standards, mutating by a combination of churnalism, heightened political tribalism, diminishing budgets and advanced tabloidisation, but a cycle of 24 Hour News and ‘new’ social media competition. Outfits like Breitbart are seeing pop-up mirrors in the likes of Spiked and the Spectator. Hate-blogs like Wings Over Scotland and Guido Fawkes feed off the anti-media zeitgeist in a frenzy of partisan zeal. Trump supporters bate the media at live rallies, and Scottish nationalists lobby outside BBC HQ in Glasgow. The politics might be very different but some of the outlook is the same. People’s anger at what they perceive as a political-media elite is real, visceral and very often justified. But it turns into a politics that defines ‘the media’ as the only issue in the universe.
It’s an issue that is seen right across Britain in different manifestations.
On what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday Newsnight facilitated a debate about whether Tommy Robinson’s imprisonment for trying to stop prosecution of child abusers is comparable.
Last week BBC Leeds offered space to a confirmed fascist Katie Hopkins who has been banished from most media spaces on the grounds that she regularly incites racial hatred.
The Sun’s lies about Scotland and Hopkins are well summarised here.
As the Dorset Eye spotted, it’s not just radio.
They reported “The BBC‘s Victoria Derbyshire programme recently hosted a 15 minute slot in which a couple called Mark Lewis and Mandy Blumenthal were brought on to claim that Labour has produced such an atmosphere of threatening antisemitism in Britain that they are forced to leave for Israel.”
But all was not as it seemed.
The Eye reported: “What the BBC forgot to mention is that they are leading members of Likud-Herut UK, a far-right Zionist organisation that idolises the murderous leader of the Zionist Irgun terror gang, Menachem Begin. Indeed, Mandy Blumenthal is the National Director of Likud-Herut UK, but was instead introduced as a ‘property company director‘, while her partner was described merely as a ‘lawyer‘!
While Corbyn was lambasted for possibly having stood near to a grave of someone who knew someone who was involved in the Munich attacks, these people were given a free pass over their adulation of the man who oversaw the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre.”
How did we get here?
“A dozen or so years ago, the public’s striking back at the gatekeepers of news seemed refreshing. It notified journalists that ; the top-down journalism of old was no longer relevant. Audiences were not passive consumers. They had opinions too and, at last, were able to express them.
That initial healthy phase has been transformed into something much more worrying. Having exploded the myth that journalists deal only in facts, aA significant portion of the public, especially the younger generation, have adopted a virulent strain of anti-journalism journalism.
Having accepted that news is ideologically determined, they prefer to trade in views – And they do so without apparently realising that news-as-comment is one step away from fake news.
There is a bleak paradox here. In seeking to combat the hated mainstream media output, which they regard as a form of fake news, they have become ready recipients of fake news themselves.
Once all news is identified as fake, then its fakeness becomes a matter of degree. This is the gateway to a perilous path leading to the triumph of Trumpism. Even facts can be adduced to be fake. This is not far-fetched, as illustrated by the dispute over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration speech. Photographic evidence disproved the claim by the then White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that it was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period”. It made no difference to those who wished otherwise. That is the problem with the fake news/news-as-comment phenomenon. If people only believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts then journalism’s mission to inform is in real peril.”
Where is this going?
This week saw the release of print figures for the UK print press which saw the Telegraph crashing a further 22%. The Times reported with unseemly glee:
“The owners of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph have slashed the value of the titles by £114 million after further falls in print advertising.
The writedown pushed the parent company, Press Acquisitions Limited, into a pre-tax loss of £119.6 million last year. In 2016 the company made a £9.2 million profit, according to accounts posted at Companies House.
The non-cash charge marks a fresh setback for Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the billionaires who have controlled the business for over a decade. In 2004 they bought the newspapers from Hollinger, the company once controlled by Conrad Black, a former newspaper proprietor, for £665 million.”
On the same day Paul Dacre reportedly sold over two hundred thousand pounds worth of shares in the Daily Mail.
People will respond – with some truth – that the massive decline in print sales is often accompanied by a shift to online readership. That is true but it is often a shift that has no sales value attached. For some media outlets online sales means people reading their product for free. This process accelerates the desperate media move for clickbait or the descent into catchy and viral but also fact-free titbits of video morsel thrown out into the digi-sphere like online chum.
The crisis of right-wing newspapers might be a source for celebration, but it is likely to lead to just these same forces re-emerging in new and even less restrained forums. To celebrate the death of newspapers is just to feed-in to a whole narrative about the media which is extremely unhealthy.
Scepticism of the news and of news journalism is healthy.
Cynicism to the extent that all political problems, faults or criticisms of your own party or movement are consigned to media bias alone is a terminal discourse.
Not all journalists are flawed.
The ‘MSM’ has some great journalists. The ‘MSM’ has some terrible journalists.
The indy media has some great journalists. The indy media has some terrible journalists.
What about Scotland?
The mewing of discontent from senior journos about Corbyn’s observations about class and privilege across the British media prove him to be largely spot-on in his modest proposals for reform.
— stewart bremner (@stewartbremner) August 24, 2018
But if ‘the media is the problem’ and it is in need of deep structural reform and restructuring – both in terms of the dismantling of huge anti-democratic power bases – and in terms of the creation of a credible empowered 5th Estate as a matter of course – it is also reflective of wider societal and cultural problems. That is people being incapable of seeing beyond their own narrow interests and views, lacking empathy and understanding, viciously tribalistic and polarised and seemingly unable to communicate.
This is a crisis of citizenship as well as media, it is a crisis of hyper-individualism as well as ownership, it is a crisis of the commons and the collective imagination as well as of moron-celebrity culture and Red Top Rage.
If the toxic influence of the tabloidisation of British culture has led us into the hell hole of Brexitism – the equally toxic culture of social media silos has exacerbated this political crisis.
The Yes movement needs to see the media crisis in its full multi-dimensional depravity, and stop seeing it as a microcosm of our own exceptionalism. This would mean, crucially, seeing institutional misogyny as a key part of the media make-up, see a common-enemy if not common-cause with the Labour movement for the smear campaign being conducted against their leader and find solidarity despite different constitutional visions.