In seeking to combat mainstream media output, which they regard as a form of fake news, readers have become ready recipients of fake news themselves
Who wants the truth? After the shooting massacre in Las Vegas, millions of people clicked to YouTube videos suggesting that the killing of 58 people and the wounding of another 500 was a hoax.
I am sure please let it be so that the overwhelming majority of those viewers realised they were false postings and dismissed them as yet another ridiculous conspiracy theory. But why bother to go there in the first place?
Whether concocted by propagandists or mischief-makers, the fact that their insensitive nonsense attracted large audiences should be a matter of deep concern.
What is it about fake news that draws such widespread attention? Is it, as I increasingly suspect after the EU referendum campaign and the build-up to the Trump presidency, a wilful desire to reject boring reality and choose its exciting opposite?
However much we might want to believe that the fakery did not affect the voting outcomes, it is hard to conclude that it made no difference whatsoever. After all, many voters have continued to regurgitate some of the lies.
I dont think Im going too far out on a limb by declaring, in the British context at least, part of the problem seems traceable to the way news and comment have been conflated in our mainstream media outlets.
Sure, it was always the case with newspapers. No one reading newspapers down the years can have been in any doubt how their political stance has influenced their content. Our press has been proudly partisan. The result has been blatant bias. It is an understatement to call it spin. Heavily angled stories and headlines are the norm.
Comment articles merely underline the prejudice in the so-called news items. They are indistinguishable. Nor is there the slightest embarrassment about omission, about failing to inform readers about news that, for one reason or another, fails to fit the editorial agenda.
Almost everyone involved in producing papers publishers, editors and journalists has been relaxed about this situation. They offer two interlocking arguments as justification.
First, plurality. Given that there are several titles on offer with differing views, people can make a choice about what they read (and dont read).
Second, freedom of the press. Publishers and editors are merely exercising their right to tell readers what they think. If they dont like it they can go elsewhere (back to plurality).
Once the media extended beyond newsprint, the effect of this press freedom on audiences became clearer.
The lack of a distinction between news and comment had imprinted itself on readers. Now they either cannot distinguish the difference or, just as worryingly, even if they can it would appear they no longer care. Time perhaps to coin a neologism for news-as-comment in the style of the one applied to broadcasting integration of information and entertainment: infotainment.
So then, what about TV and radio news? Is that not an objective alternative to the press? Without entering the debate about whether or not such objectivity is possible, consider instead the public response to BBC output.
It should not be overlooked that Politicians of all shades have accused a succession of the corporations political editors of unfairness and/or favouritism. The verbal attacks on the incumbent, Laura Kuenssberg, although more threatening than previous instances, are part of a pattern.
Why? Because these correspondents are required to inform viewers and listeners about what is happening in Westminster through analyses that, by their nature, mix comment with fact.
That elision, despite Kuenssbergs admirable subtlety and desire to avoid partiality when trying to interpret complex and fluid events, is problematic. It redefines what we mean by information. It is the facts plus.
Politicians are not alone in monitoring these pieces to camera in order to spot prejudice. Many thousands of people do so, as evidenced on social media in vituperative postings and below-the-line comments on mainstream media sites.
According to Trinity Mirrors digital editor-in-chief at its regional titles, Alison Gow, many newspaper website readers scan headlines and then go to the comments thread without bothering to read the copy (the facts).
Gow told a Welsh assembly inquiry she was worried about a change in the public attitude towards news. She said: People will actively not read a story because they will have a view.
A dozen or so years ago, the publics 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, a 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 Trumps 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 journalisms mission to inform is in real peril.
Editors should not give copy approval, but
Journalists were swift to decry the practice of giving interviewees advance sight of their copy following claims that Saga magazine granted Clare Balding prior approval. Some details of the story have been disputed, but it was clear the article by the experienced and excellent Ginny Dougary was changed ahead of publication, and for the wrong reasons.
I went down this road in the past, especially when I worked on newspapers where no PR would dare to allow their celebrity clients to appear unless they could see the copy. So deals were done. Check the facts, I recall saying, but not the opinions. Inevitable result: outrage. You cant possibly publish that. But, dear reader, we usually did.
Why did Coogans win get so little coverage?
I know phone-hacking is an old story. I know newspapers where former staff were guilty of intercepting voicemail messages want to move on. Of course they do.
Even so, the muted, and often absent, coverage of Steve Coogans legal victory over Trinity Mirror last week was a disgrace.
He was given a six-figure sum because his privacy had been compromised in some 62 articles in the Daily and Sunday Mirror and Sunday People that emanated from hacking. None of Trinity Mirrors current executives and senior editorial staff are responsible, for what happened. But they, and the papers editorial staff, have taken the hit. How many journalistic jobs could the company have saved if it had not had to put 50m aside to cover the costs of the scandal?
But the main question is aimed at the police. Why has nobody been held to account for the illegal practice of hacking? The perpetrators have got away with it.