If there is one thing this election cycle has shown us other than how broken our political system is, it is how broken our news coverage system is. This is perhaps something we have imported from America- under any previous President, any one of the thousands of lies that Trump has told would have been an international scandal, but today we rush breathlessly from yesterday’s lies to today’s whoppers without pausing for a moment. As a strategy it appears to work by simply drowning the press in lies to the point where they can’t cope with correcting them. The volume of untruth has also had an effect on the population- they’ve realised the world keeps turning and precious little changes when their President makes up stuff, so they don’t pay attention. The issue comes when Trump tells lies about important things rather than making up figures for who attended his inauguration or whatever. The ability to discern which lies matter and which don’t is difficult because it means each lie has to be taken on it’s merit and judged, and who (aside from Daniel Dale) is going to do that?
Alongside this impairment in the stature of truth, we have an increasing focus on the rapidity of breaking a story, which in the context of the amount of untruth circulating makes the whole thing more complex.
This has been highlighted by a number of issues this week, ranging from Peston and Kuenssberg reporting a Tory spad had been punched when he hadn’t, to C4 circulating a video of Boris which they claimed contained some racism (it didn’t). In both these instances, it is likely that the initial “scoop” was seen by far more people than the correction was- in circumstances like this the damage is done and the repair will only ever be token.
Political TV presenters “breaking” false news on Twitter is simply an extension of the deterioration that 24 hour news brought us. Breaking the news first is now the only important issue; verifying the source, getting confirmation from other parties, fact checking, none of these are “important” now because the cycle begins anew after 5 minutes hand-wringing from a mistake caused by haste.
If these political TV presenters are tweeting in the capacity of their job (which they must be doing if they’re on the trail etc), they should be held up to the same standards as they would if what they were repeating/reporting/speculating on was broadcast on the TV. The phrase “fast moving story” does far more carrying now then it ever used to and covers a multitude of sins.
It’s worse than that though: those accused of propagating “fake news”, like the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, no longer have to provide a reasoned rebuttal or explanation, they simply have to cast enough doubt on the veracity of the original story that a false equivalence of warring versions of truth is the lingering narrative.
Again, TV news is specifically to blame for this, in the most part it is the BBC and their misguided quest for “balance” that is to blame.
This supposed “balance”, giving two sides of a story is often a false equivalence. If the claim X is investigated, the same level of scrutiny should be given to the claims about Y. But for the BBC the simple fact of having two parties disagree with each other apparently more often than not fulfils their remit of “balance”. The BBC would say that they are presenting the facts for the viewer to make a judgement on but the viewer is often not best suited to making that judgement call in the same way that a trained journalist is. Holding our politicians accountable isn’t partisan, it is essential to a functioning democracy.
As David Allen Green wrote today,
The ultimate problem is that many voters want to be lied to. These voters may pretend otherwise, claiming that they want “honest politicians”. In reality, such voters just want politicians to say what the voters want to hear.
If that sounds crazy, the post mortem to any bad choice on the behalf of voters almost always carries a blame game to assuage the guilt of those who were gulled. This time round, it’s going to be all Corbyn’s fault. Yes, it’s inconvenient that the Tories have lied but a hard Marxist government would have destroyed the country. What? Brexit has destroyed the country? No that’s the right choice, because Boris said so, it’s those of you not believing in Brexit enough that have caused the problem. If that abrogation of responsibility sounds implausible, consider for a moment the abrogation of responsibility from our politicians to tell the truth, no matter how hard it may be to accept or our media to challenge what they know is a false narrative. If we’re exposed to such abrogations on a daily basis, it’s a small step to collaborating ourselves isn’t it?