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Time to call out ‘fake news’

17 September 2020

By Andrew Adie, Corporate

Fake news is a cry that we have all come used to hearing in the past few years. Criticising the reporting style and stance of the ‘mainstream media’ is a common refrain from politicians under siege. Rather than having our understanding of the world filtered by a politically-motivated media, so one narrative goes, we should rely on the transparency and direct engagement of social media. 

Yet, the media having a political stance and viewpoint is hardly new. Ironically many UK media are actually toning down the partisan political rhetoric (albeit from a platform of maximum noise and fury in some instances). Even the Daily Mail, that bastion of right-of-centre UK, is now edited by a Remainer and has moved its stance more towards the centre ground. That isn’t to say that we should now just uncritically sup up what we’re presented by the media but tarring the entire media industry with the same ‘fake news’ brush is pretty mindless.

Yet we see increasing examples of the media being on the front line in the battle for truth and credibility. Extinction Rebellion recently blockaded News UK’s printing works protesting that the Sun was failing to report on climate change matters. In doing so there was mass disruption for the distribution of many media, including The Times and Daily Telegraph, neither of which could be accused of failing to cover climate issues in their newspapers and online news sites. While XR may not celebrate The Sun’s editorial stance it too reports widely on climate change. Preventing the public accessing news because you don’t like what it says feels like a rather backward step. In fairness many politicians condemned the targeting of media in this protest, in a rare moment of solidarity.

It was also alarming to hear media which reported that the UK’s ‘Shop Thy Neighbour’ Covid ‘6’ policy was akin to Stasi Britain being ridiculed as sensationalist and spreading fake news. The impression in some quarters was that the media were whipping up a storm and creating a story that sensationalised a public health initiative taken to protect the nation. Yet in truth the steps taken are extraordinary and in ‘normal’ times would be greeted with deep concern. The fact we are living through a pandemic doesn’t mean that we should uncritically accept political decisions.

Yet as we listen to the political rhetoric sweeping through Western Democracies: the breaking of international treaties, the non-acceptance of election results if they don’t go the way you want, the ridicule of media for questioning whether draconian Covid rules are anti-democratic, it fills me with dread.

Some of what the media write is ridiculous. But as readers surely we bear responsibility for questioning what is in front of us and seeking a wider viewpoint that informs and goes beyond the headlines in front of our eyes?  Media that present a partisan or overly aggressive take on stories of the day need to be challenged but it doesn’t mean they’re peddling fake news, they’re providing a perspective that needs testing. 

Rather than society becoming obsessed with fake news, I think the greater threat is that we create an environment where the only commercially viable media are those that become so anodyne and so afraid to put forward and explore controversial views and opinions that we all sleep-walk into a word where our uncritical herd-think does allow something truly undemocratic and appalling to happen. I was quite relieved to see the Daily Mail start to step back from some of its more hard-right viewpoints, maybe on reflection I should have been worried.

The media currently find themselves on the front line for criticism from left and right, from all sections of society and under constant attack from group-think Twitter storms. It’s time we stood up in defence of the media. Maddening as they may sometimes be, biased occasionally and often bombastic they are also the irreverent guardians of democracy and it appears that we need that more than ever.