Opinion: Would you believe it?
Freedom of the press is a civil liberty threatened by the rise of fake news. Professor Ivor Gaber looks at where it all went wrong, and considers the future of political journalism.
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be was the title of a London musical that ran in the 1950s; it was all cheeky Cockney dialogue – a real period piece. The same might well be said for how political communication was practised back then compared with our present times. There were no spin doctors, television was ‘a new-fangled device’ and a political party leader – in this case Labour’s Clement Attlee – could reply to an interviewer asking him if he had anything to say about the coming general election with, “No, I don’t think so.”
Those were the days – or were they? Although we are now swimming in a sea of spin, fake news and downright lies, at least we have no shortage of information about what our politicians would like us to believe. But here I am rather jumping the gun on 70 years of political spinning.
I worked as a journalist around Westminster between 1980 and 2010. In that time, the biggest single change was the gargantuan increase in the appetite of the media and the need for politicians to keep feeding the beast. When I began reporting from Westminster there were only newspapers, radio and TV news bulletins. Then came the launch of 24-hour radio and hourly television news cycles, which politicians were forced to respond to.
Freedom of the press is a civil liberty threatened by the rise of fake news. Professor Ivor Gaber looks at where it all went wrong, and considers the future of political journalism. Today, reporters still fill newspaper columns and broadcasting schedules, but they must also feed websites and post on social media. It’s in journalists’ DNA to want to be first to break a story, but it’s not always a risk-free venture. If there is jeopardy inherent in gathering news for 24-hour channels, it’s more so on social media for it allows anyone to join in on the national political conversation. In theory that sounds great – more voices means more democracy – but more voices also means more noise, and more noise means less civility.
Between 1980 and 2010, the biggest single change was the gargantuan increase in the appetite of the media and the need for politicians to keep feeding the beast.”
Perhaps most serious of all is how the digital space has permitted the growth of fake news. Social media has encouraged and enabled this trend and we now appear to give politicians permission to lie. In the not-so-distant past a politician caught lying was forced to resign (one thinks of John Profumo or Lord Carrington). Now, it appears that there is no cost.
“We send £350 million to Brussels every week. Let’s fund the NHS instead’’ – was once written on the side of a bus. It wasn’t true; but it didn’t matter. It dominated the news agenda during the Brexit campaign and people voted accordingly. Now, as that particular endeavour appears to be unravelling, too few journalists can be heard asking any genuinely probing questions.
Why? Not because journalists are egregious but because the claim is cursed with that badge of journalistic dishonour – ‘old news’. So, where do we go from here? Perhaps not back to the days of Mr Attlee, but hopefully to a time when politicians said something, or were quoted as having said something, that we could at least take at their word – without feeling the need to immediately fact-check.
Professor Ivor Gaber
Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at Sussex and a former political journalist with BBC TV and Radio, ITV, Channel Four and Sky News. He currently represents the UK at UNESCO’s Media and Communications Sector.