Una Mullally: We face uneasy truths about the media after Hillsborough
Where will the trivialisation of reality and abandonment of sources, facts, and substantiation leave online news outlets?
The Sun’s version of “truth” sowed deep resentment and distrust in readers and consumers of the trashier sectors of the media industry.
Twenty-seven years ago, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, the Sun splashed their front page with “THE TRUTH”, a shameful and false “story” about the supposed behaviour of soccer fans as the tragedy unfolded. It was a landmark moment in tabloid journalism because, as well as being wrong, hurtful and offensive, the Sun’s version of “truth” sowed deep resentment and distrust in consumers of the trashier sectors of the media industry.
Twenty-seven years later, the Sun and other publications in Rupert Murdoch’s stable were criticised again for not prominently running the Hillsborough inquest’s verdict that 96 fans unlawfully killed. That truth was far too uncomfortable. Corrections rarely occupy as large a space as the original wonky or false stories. Newspapers, like the journalists they are made up of, are equal parts sensitive and obstinate. When called out on errors, they tend to react like Kevin the Teenager, throwing strops and only emerging to apologise by mumbling from the corner of their mouths.
People get things wrong, to err is human and all that, but there is a new culture of wrongness and fakery in today’s news industry. It can be divided into a few categories, none of which are about genuine reporting mistakes.
There’s the dissemination and republishing of unsubstantiated stories that celebrity news thrives on. There’s the reporting of micro-controversies that often start on Twitter and inevitably involved public shaming, backlash or celebrity feuds. And there is the worrying trend of fake news.
Fake news was once upon a time a form of esoteric entertainment. It’s 30 years since the infamous “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” headline, again in the Sun, a story invented by Max Clifford to boost Starr’s career. And it’s 15 years since the publication of Bill Sloan’s I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby! a history of American so-called supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer. These made fake news an entertainment genre, specialising in stories so ludicrous that both the reader and publisher engaged in a strange, knowing roleplay. We know it’s fake, you know it’s fake, but you also need something to read in the queue, so let’s make that about Elvis or UFOs, or if possible, Elvis and UFOs together in the same headline.
As we move towards a post-text internet, where pictures and particularly video rule, along with rise of virtual reality, in the not-so-distant future it will be a quaint memory that once upon a time people simply typed messages to each other. That shift has already been accelerated with Snapchat. As publishing a news story that loads of people will click on has become dependant on a visual culture, the traditional internet verification cry of “pics or it didn’t happen” has become meaningless when pictures can be manipulated or staged just as effectively as words can.
Every day, a newsy meme spreads on Facebook about Luas drivers’ salaries, or the number of TDs who turned up to debate mental health services, or junior doctors in the UK, or who may or may not be “Becky with the good hair” as referenced in Beyoncé’s new album. Pics or it didn’t happen. What happens when that’s “pics and it’s still not real”?
The desire for hits and clicks in many sectors has surpassed the desire for truth and editorial standards. Reputable (or perhaps previously reputable) news outlets replicate stories that originate without substantiation in less reputable outlets that aren’t at all concerned with the facts. Items on gossip sites cascade through this new filter and often end up on news outlets that should know better. What starts as tosh or goss on a blog, or amateur-ish website, or Twitter ends up gaining credence as news outlets rush to republish everything that’s everywhere else, abandoning their own USP of actual news. The trend of publishing “how Twitter reacted” is as meaningless as publishing snippets from conversation on buses or barstools.
Perhaps if we don’t have anything real to say, then the best approach is not to say anything at all.