Kathy Sheridan: Holding mainstream media to account in era of fake news

Vested interests behind distorted Brexit reporting in British newspapers

A hoarding in St Petersburg advertises Vladimir Putin ahead of the upcoming Russian presidential election. The European Parliament has lambasted a “Kremlin-orchestrated” campaign of “leaks, fake news, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks” targeting among others, the Brexit referendum. Photograph: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

A hoarding in St Petersburg advertises Vladimir Putin ahead of the upcoming Russian presidential election. The European Parliament has lambasted a “Kremlin-orchestrated” campaign of “leaks, fake news, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks” targeting among others, the Brexit referendum. Photograph: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

 

The Guardian is hiring a new media editor and is clearly pleased with itself. Not bothered? What makes it interesting is that 20-something Oxford graduate, Jim Waterson, former UK political editor of online news site BuzzFeed, plans to focus on the traditional side of the industry as much as the digital.

Why would a top digital media journalist want to risk his livelihood and drown his talents in the derided old MSM (mainstream media), perceived by many - gloatingly – as a dead man walking?

Last year the New York Times, queen of MSM, made more than a $1 billion in overall subscription revenue, which makes Donald Trump’s infantile tweets about the “failing New York Times” seem very silly.

Last September, the Washington Post crossed the one million mark for digital subscribers. Call it the “Trump Bump”. While Trump was attacking it as “fake news”, the New York Times was cleverly packaging subscriptions to high-schoolers as an act of resistance. The marketing included a testimonial from “Mary”: “Supporting the Times is my way of fighting back against fake news and alternative facts. I wanted to give till it hurt.”

Last April, the Guardian Media Group in Britain announced it had increased total revenues, more than quadrupled its paying members and planned to break even by next year

Last April, the Guardian Media Group in Britain announced it had increased total revenues, more than quadrupled its paying members and planned to break even by next year.

Public trust

It’s hardly an MSM renaissance, maybe more an indicator of how public trust is turning. People are finally waking up to the impact that major internet companies such as Google and Facebook are having on society and how the news agenda is shaped.

Last week US special counsel Robert Mueller unveiled a lengthy indictment of 13 Russians and three companies with close Kremlin ties. It described a three-year onslaught on Hillary Clinton ( “#Hillary4Prison” was theirs) and powerful #MAGA boosts for their man, Trump, and involved millions of stolen identities, fake bank accounts, rallies organised from another continent, hacking, leaking, social media manipulation and lie upon lie.

The upshot is that Trump can no longer dismiss these Russian election-tampering stories as “fake news”.

Brexit referendum

Over here, the European Parliament has lambasted a “Kremlin-orchestrated” campaign of “leaks, fake news, disinformation campaigns, and cyberattacks” targeting among others, the Brexit referendum.

But the MSM is far from blameless. The subliminal effect of relentless, distorted or false anti-immigrant headlines for example in British newspapers leading up to the referendum has also been raked over but never satisfactorily explained.

“Our efforts continue to drive meaningful results, including a significant shift in this type of activity off of Twitter.”
"In the US, Twitter is working to identify and inform – individually – users who were exposed to lies and propaganda produced by accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency during the election."

British newspapers were overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit, with the rabidly anti-EU Daily Mail, Telegraph, Express and Star accounting for four times as many anti-EU stories as their pro-remain rivals. Sample headlines : “Migrants take all new jobs in Britain” ; “Fury over plot to let 1.5m Turks into Britain”.

A small majority of voters clearly believed the charlatans who assured them that all the warnings about Brexit could be dismissed as “Project Fear”. Then just last week, Daniel Hannan, Tory MEP, chief Brexit pamphleteer and newspaper columnist, posted this extraordinary tweet: “Voters weren’t told the costs of Brexit.” Oh yes they were, day after day by Remain campaigners and by the British government itself. They weighed those costs against the gains and decided, on balance, to vote leave”.

Read that again.

He openly admits the Brexit boys were happy to game the electorate and dismiss their concerns as the fantasies of “Project Fear” when it suited. Now as they become an international joke, the boys need to claim the people were fully aware of the costs and so concede the Remain side spoke the truth.

Hannan is the man who in campaign mode was fond of repeating : “To repeat, absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.”

They act with total impunity. The stakes are enormous. But who benefits? If the lies and propaganda enabled and facilitated by social media are finally being exposed and remedies demanded, shouldn’t the same rigour be applied to MSM?

In the US, Twitter is working to identify and inform – individually – users who were exposed to lies and propaganda produced by accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency during the election.

Last week, the head of a British parliamentary inquiry into Russian interference in the Brexit referendum said social media companies should similarly notify British voters who may have been exposed to lies and propaganda. Why limit that obligation to online, non-national scoundrels?

This is the promise of Waterson. Media is “increasingly politicised”, he notes to the surprise of no-one, so he intends to cover it in the same way as politics. It could be intriguing. What lies behind the lies? Vested interests, corporate agendas, chains of command, bust-ups. If he lives up to half his promise, he can only be an undiluted good thing.

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