Nothing new about fake news

Media diversity must mean more than more of the same. The media sphere needs to be a public space where debates occur among and between many different groups and classes.

John Blewitt
27 October 2017
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Detail from 'The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor' by Frederick Burr Opper 1894. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Some rights reserved.Of course, fake news, disinformation and dissembling is nothing new. It was the stock-in-trade of the Yellow Journalism in nineteenth century America, or the New Journalism pioneered by W.T. Stead in Britain at the same time. William Randolph Hearst used his New York Journal to pump up support with fake news for a war with Spain, prompting Charles Foster Kane (as played by Orson Welles) to state on celluloid forty years later, ‘Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I'll provide the war.’ And, as Robert Darnton shows in a recent article titled ‘The True History of Fake News’ in the New York Review of Books (13/2/17), fake news reached a peak somewhat earlier in mid- to late-eighteenth century London.

In 1788, London was awash with ephemeral publications – ten daily newspapers, eight tri-weeklies, nine weeklies, and sundry broadsheets and cartoons. Many stories in these publications consisted of only one paragraph, and ‘paragraph men’ would frequent coffee houses to pick up whatever gossip they could before writing a few lines which would then be hastily taken to a printer-publisher. A few of these paragraph men received payment, but many were apparently quite happy to manipulate public opinion for or against a public figure or a recently published book or play. This was a pre-echo of our own twitter sphere, and quite different from the politically charged counter public sphere that emerged during the turmoil of the English Civil War, when the world was genuinely in danger of being turned upside down.

However, the current problem is that the ‘intelligent’ news media is ill equipped to comprehend or interpret the groups attacking the liberal consensus and by extension liberal democracy itself. The self-serving nature of this consensus and the liberal elite which has benefited from it in many ways have been architects of their own failure. What some on the Left, and the Right, seem to have in common is a hatred of democracy and its ‘free press’. Their weapons of choice are varied but importantly focus on some algorithms few people understand or are even aware of. A recent piece of excellent investigative journalism by Carole Cadwalladr for The Observer  (26/2/17), ‘Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media’, shows how big money is combining with state of the art software applications or ‘bots’ to dowse the media sphere with rightwing propaganda, which may take the form initially of long-form investigative journalism (Breitbart), PR cum Psyops operations like Cambridge Analytica, and machine-generated twitter and other social media feeds that demand, demand, demand to give the little guy a fair deal. And it’s working. Public sentiment has changed. When White House aid Kellyanne Conway replied to reports in America’s media that the crowd at President’s Trump’s Inauguration was not as big as the administration claimed, she offered the US media, and by extension the world, some ‘alternative facts’. And why not? Who can people believe when politicians can’t be trusted and journalists are held in such low esteem that even second-hand car salesmen are having a bonanza ... which they are apparently. In January 2017, the UK Parliament launched an inquiry into ‘fake news’.

But the problems with the media and the current mediascape go way beyond what the papers say. Ubiquitous computing has led to ubiquitous surveillance and ubiquitous propaganda, not to mention ubiquitous advertising where every Facebook ‘like’ can conjure up a must-have goodie you cannot do without. Post-truth politics is not simply a topic for academic hand-wringing and blame games but something more sinister. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Netflix has made available series two of its adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s fascist dystopia The Man in the High Castle, or that the BBC has recently screened its own fascist but quite convincing nightmare drama SS-GB. It may be too glib to see parallels between the 2010s with the 1930s, but ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ and the authoritarian populism Stuart Hall saw as integral to Thatcherism has finally revealed itself to be potentially more than a temporary swing of liberal democracy’s electoral pendulum.

For many, this seems to be just fine. For others, it doesn't really matter. When texting and selfies dominate the digital landscape and celebrities like Kim Kardashian and the man and woman on the street produce autobiographies with titles like My Life in Selfies on Tumblr, Instagram or anywhere else, is it any wonder that vox pop interviews broadcast on radio and television often reveal ‘ordinary people’ saying ‘you cant believe what any of them [politicians] say’ or ‘they are all the same’ with a confident but uninformed scepticism masquerading as ‘common sense’ or an ironic savviness?

The creation of an off-world virtual reality is impeding our ability to act as free citizens. Those who value freedom as an essential prerequisite of democracy need to consider how the construction of this reality by those who own, control and use social and news media sites is denying the possibility of critical political engagement. Freedom of the press is meaningless unless it enhances rather than undermines the freedom of the citizen. Freedom of the press is meaningless unless it enhances rather than undermines the freedom of the citizen.

It is perhaps worth taking a moment to consider the term ‘freedom’. Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from,’ but there are other ways of considering what freedom means. Republican theory offers an interesting alternative. The political philosopher Philip Pettit suggests that, ‘domination’ is the antonym of freedom. This means that a dominating power, say the press, has the capacity to interfere (which they clearly have, and which is invariably presented as an absolute right), on an arbitrary basis (which they clearly do, as the manic ravings of the tabloid press over Brexit demonstrate), in certain choices that others may wish to make (voting, political allegiance, etc.). For Pettit, interference is arbitrary if it is subject only to the judgement of the interfering agent (the press, or more specifically its editors and proprietors) without taking due consideration of the interests of those being affected by this interference.

Of course, newspaper editors argue that they operate purely in the public interest, but it is they who decide what the public and its interests are. One argument against this is that newspapers would not sell if the public didn’t like what they read, but it is also well known that readers tend to adopt that newspaper that best confirms their pre-existing values and prejudices. Every nation gets the newspapers it deserves. Consequently, consent to interference is not a sufficient check against domination, which is why Britain needs not just a free and diverse press but a free and diverse mediascape of which the news media (print, online and broadcast) are just constituent elements.

As Orwell noted in his 1946 Tribune column, the concentration of media ownership is only part of the problem; but it is nonetheless still a problem. The group Reporters Without Borders, who produce the annual Press Freedom Index, ranked Britain 40th in 2017, slipping from 38th in 2016. The EU Media Monitor, which examines media plurality in the EU, shows that media pluralism is not actually free from risk in any western European country. Denmark, Germany, France and the UK have low/medium risks to media pluralism: the highest risks in the UK are economic, legal and regulatory.

But then the whole media ecosystem is owned and controlled by relatively few huge corporations. Although, given the wide range of social and independent news media sites on offer, it may be difficult to argue there is a lack of media diversity in the UK, it should be remembered that the dominant search engines like Yahoo and Google are big corporations who willingly serve up user information to governments for security purposes and to businesses for commercial ones. Also, the mainstream media, including public service broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel Four, frequently set the agenda and terms of national political debates (although some critics of BBC News have suggested that news editors get their steer from Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, who even David Cameron wanted to see out of his job). Roy Greenslade (Guardian, 5/12/16) suggested that the Daily Mail called the tune in a furore over the dominance of anti-Brexit judges during the legal action brought by Gina Miller concerning the right of Parliament to approve the triggering of Article 50. Also, the BBC does not always avoid the temptation of crass sensationalism either as the child sexual abuse scandal reached frenzied proportions, a police raid on the home of Cliff Richard was covered live on BBC TV with a camera operating from a helicopter hovering over the star’s property.

2 The_fin_de_siècle_newspaper_proprietor.jpg

The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor by Frederick Burr Opper 1894.

The changing mediascape

Media diversity must therefore mean more than more of the same. The media sphere needs to be a public space where a variety of voices can be heard and listened to, where debates occur among and between many different groups and classes. In the late nineteenth century, the emergent socialist movement in Britain faced a similar problem. William Morris bankrolled Commonweal for five years, as its circulation, rarely exceeding 3000 copies per issue, and a cheap cover price of 1d did not cover production costs. Commonweal became an instrument in an attempt to create a social movement that aimed, as Morris put it, to ‘make socialists’. The paper printed poems, news items, political comment, serialised books (including Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere), sponsored and advertised lectures, and theatrical events.

Robert Blatchford’s Clarion was slightly different because it was more in tune with the non-political likes and preferences of its socially diverse readership. The Clarion published human interest stories, covered sports events, and took commercial advertising, which allowed its circulation to reach 74,000 copies in 1907 when it was associated with the newly formed Labour Party. This success was at the cost of socialist purity; but like many other socialist papers it closed down (in 1931) because it lost circulation and revenue. Interestingly, the unofficial organ of the Labour party and Momentum launched last autumn is also called the Clarion in homage to its illustrious forebear.

The Daily Herald, originally a syndicalist strike sheet appearing for the first time in 1912, and from 1922 the official organ of the TUC, suffered the same fate, becoming The Sun in 1964 after a precipitous decline in circulation and advertising revenue. In 1946, Orwell had ranked the paper 5th in terms of intelligence and 2nd in popularity.

Apart from giving voice to political views, these attempts at creating a socialist press were intended to nurture a critical media presence and counter publics which the established political elites might engage freely with and eventually succumb to. Their failure is not an historical anomaly. Radical publications today, whether socialist or green, rely on a considerable amount of voluntary labour and are continuously in need of financial support. The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines merged in 2012 and are now available as a single quarterly publication with an online only edition. In September 2016, Red Pepper launched an appeal for £10,000 to secure its future as an independent socialist presence in the mediasphere.

Similarly, openDemocracy has launched a campaign for funds stressing the need for a free and open media in an era when ‘the toxic power of a media that only chases clicks and profit margins’ is all too apparent. It posits a Europe-wide investigation into press freedom to be an urgent priority, with supporters including Paul Mason, Caroline Lucas, Brian Eno, Yanis Varoufakis and Peter Oborne. Indeed, virtually every independent news site carries a request for donations and financial support. The media sphere needs to be a public space where a variety of voices can be heard and listened to.

However, as Christian Fuchs has argued, a critical media needs to vigorously challenge dominative society, corporate media power and centralisation of wealth, and for that to happen effectively a media pluralism must go way beyond ensuring that a multiplicity of voices are available to be heard when only a few will actually be heard, and then only by the specific tribes from which they emerge. Thus, media pluralism does not mean media democracy, and neither does it automatically create a free (non-dominating) and cooperative society. As the critical theorist Marcuse suggested, pluralism can easily coexist with a ‘repressive tolerance’ that reproduces the same old illiberal liberalism. For Fuchs, what is needed is relatively few widely accessible and widely consumed critical media outlets rather than a myriad of small and largely fragmented special interest media groups.

Reforming the media

The need for a genuinely diverse news media with a free flow of information, debate and comment is therefore the very stuff of democracy. The existing imbalance, which is so evident, in political power in the established media institutions needs to be both challenged and transcended. Media democracy and freedom is recognised as essential to peace and justice. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 16) states that ‘a free press is closely linked to access to information and the protection of human rights’. So, perhaps a start would be to ensure that our media system, and especially its news outlets, meets the following normative criteria identified by C.G Christians et al Normative Theories of the Media: journalism in democratic societies (University of Illinois Press, 2009):

    1. It must provide a rigorous account of people who are in power and people who wish to be in power, in the government, corporate and nonprofit sectors.


    2. It must regard the information needs of all people as legitimate, perhaps if anything favouring those without property, as those with wealth invariably have the means to secure power and influence.


    3. It must have a plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least to prevent liars from being unaccountable and leading nations into catastrophes.


    4. It must produce a wide range of informed opinions on the most important issues and challenges of our times, and these may not necessarily coincide with those deemed important by the power elites.

Within the UK, a wholesale rethink of public service broadcasting and the future of the BBC is also required, and this must go far beyond the terms of the recent Charter Review. In The BBC: The Myth of Public Service Broadcasting (Verso, 2016), sociologist Tom Mills suggests the BBC is (and historically always has been) constitutionally incapable of being anything other than the voice of the essentially right-wing political establishment. Consequently, I offer further recommendations for media reform:

1.  The creation of a public digital space or commons subsuming that of the BBC and including those produced by libraries, museums and other institutions. This must be, as Tony Ageh, at the time the controller of the BBC’s archive strategy, has argued in openDemocracy (3 March, 2015):

‘equally accessible by everyone, universally equivalent and unconditional. It must be dialogic, open and protective of the rights of all participants and contributors. It must be available at all times and in all locations, it must expect contributions from every member of our society and it must respect privacy. It must operate only in the best interests of the people that it serves; absent of overtly political or commercial interests. And it must endure’.

2.  A system of public commissioning of independent investigative journalism funded from tax revenues, industry levies and a reformed licence fee on established corporate media companies. In The Return of the Public (Verso, 2010) Daniel Hind argues that such a scheme could transform the mediascape by engaging the public directly in the commissioning of investigative journalism as well as supporting forms of ‘citizen journalism’ which can produce some remarkable stories but because of their politically sensitive nature may not get a wide audience.

3.  The encouragement and support of local community media provision to enhance local democracy and media plurality geographically as well as politically. The Media Trust’s and the Community Channel’s Do Something Brilliant campaign has facilitated the development of a range of community voices encouraging diversity and empowerment. Such projects need to be extended and developed further.

4.  Ownership and control of national and local print media should be more tightly regulated by Ofcom, and no company or individual should be allowed to own more than 20% of the commercial media market. Any publisher with more than a 15% market share should be subject to a public interest test which would include a critical approach to the potentially negative democratic impacts of cross-media ownership.

5.   An independent review of the future of public service broadcasting should be undertaken which should also encompass examination of the use of social media in the publication and dissemination of party political advertising and related communications during local and general election campaigns. It will need to establish clear rules governing fairness and transparency.

6.   Algorithms should be audited by an independent and publicly accountable body for their accuracy and fairness in enabling a wide diversity of views to be expressed and made democratically available on the Internet. Algorithms can be audited in a number of ways - using code, employing evaluators, or creating fictitious users as part of a research evaluation exercise.

7.   Following the calls from the Media Reform Coalition, there should be full transparency relating to, and clear restrictions on, the undue influence of the lobbying industry on Westminster and the devolved governments. The Coalition’s Manifesto for Media Reform states:

Clandestine lobbying should then be outlawed and a fund established to allow civil society groups to carry out research in the public interest. There should be restrictions on the ways that politicians, former civil servants and media executives move effortlessly and influentially between different parts of the industry, making a complete mockery of the regulatory process.

It should be self-evident that in a democratic polity the media needs to be varied, free, serious and truthful if it is to exercise its power responsibly and gain public trust. Diversity will contribute positively to making a dynamic public sphere, which may in turn help make socialists or ecologists, but it will not be sufficient to realise the fundament political changes that are required to address climate change, social inequality, corporate power and the rise of authoritarian populism. In 1970, Stuart Hall asked a simple question: can the media help us to understand significant real events in the real world?

In 1970, Stuart Hall asked a simple question: can the media help us to understand significant real events in the real world? Today we may not be able to answer in the affirmative with confidence. For Orwell, this clearly relates to the need for an intelligent news media; and by intelligence Orwell meant ‘a readiness to present news objectively, to give prominence to the things that really matter, to discuss serious questions even when they are dull, and to advocate policies which are at least coherent and intelligible.’ That, I think, is not too much to strive for, although I think he could have added questioning cherished and established assumptions, too. 

This is an exerpted version of John Blewitt's essay, 'Making sure we get what we deserve' from Sinister Interest - Reforming the Media pp. 22 - 35, published earlier this year by the independent think tank, Green House.

A free public event discussing the pamphlet and the wider issues of media reform is being held at Aston University in Birmingham on Monday 27 November between 18.00 and 20.00. Speakers include Molly Scott Cato MEP, Rupert Read, Tom Mills and John Blewitt. Further details and booking arrangements can be found here.

1 Yellow Press.jpg

The Yellow Press by L.M. Glackens 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Some rights reserved.

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