The Guardian: Accusers and Purveyors of Fake News
Part Four— Fake News in The Guardian, Improved Journalism in General and What That Could Lead To
This is the fourth and final part of my essay on journalism with particular focus on The Guardian.
Part One looked at
· the dangers of exaggerating the impact of Big Data and Fake News on those recent elections
· how and why The Guardian are exaggerating the influence of Big Data and Fake News
Part Two outlined, examined and explained:
· The Guardian’s complicity in state-corporate propaganda through analysing its output in relation to Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as outlined in the seminal work Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
Part Three focussed on basic principles of journalism, and how The Guardian frequently fails to meet those principles
This fourth and final part of the essay provides firm examples and commentary to support the claim that The Guardian is a frequent purveyor of Fake News (of course, not all the time, but so frequently as to be extremely problematic)
Importantly, however, it ends with some sense of optimism in outlining some realistic steps that can be taken to drastically improve journalism in general, and explains what profoundly improved systems of journalism could lead to.
Evidence of the Guardian’s complicity in Fake News
I have in the earlier three parts of this essay already given many examples of what could be considered The Guardian’s participation in producing Fake News, but I will now take this opportunity to highlight a few more examples here (some perhaps even more overt than the examples I’ve previously used) with additional comments.
Before I give these examples, it is worth me stressing three points:
1. It is not part of the course (e.g. in the majority of articles) that The Guardian publishes lies or extremely misleading articles, but it has happened and continues to happen far more frequently than it should. The Guardian’s generally blasé attitude to misleading or false stories means we can have little confidence that this will not continue unless it is more widely understood and exposed, and there is implementation of the sort of potential changes I’ve already mentioned and that I will conclude this essay with.
2. The examples I’ve used are limited only in so much as it’s too exhaustive and hopefully unnecessary to highlight more, and I believe I have already given plenty of examples of the journalistic deficit at the Guardian within the earlier parts of the essay.
3. The examples were originally compiled around mid-November 2017. For time reasons more than anything else, I won’t be using examples from recent months. However, as there has not been any drastic shift in reporting methods or general structure at The Guardian, there will be countless more examples from between mid-November 2017 to date.
If you feel that you require more evidence to support my arguments then there are, thankfully, many other sources — some of which I have relied on within this four part essay — that regularly highlight journalistic deficit.
For evidence of Fake News in The Guardian, let’s start with this famous example:
The Greatest Intellectual?
The following letter was sent by Chomsky to the editor of The Guardian and published on November 2, 2005: "Emma Brockes…
The original article was absolutely shocking in the lack of editorial control or integrity for it ever to have been published. It likely maliciously influenced a large number of Guardian readers, such was the level of inaccuracies and outright lies contained.
Chomsky rightly replied in some detail about The Guardian’s appalling misrepresentation and their subsequent editorial decision to publish his earlier letter alongside an outraged reader, which still alluded to Brockes’ appalling and untrue portrayal of Chomsky, including falsely implying that he held the view that the Srebrenica Massacre was fictional.
Open Letter to The Guardian
This is an open letter to a few of the people with whom I had discussed the Guardian interview of 31 October, on the…
The Guardian finally pulled the entire article after apologies and clarifications, but not after it had already been available online for several weeks and had been referenced in other newspapers, magazines and online articles. The fact that Emma Brockes is still writing in the Guardian tells you a lot about their so-called journalistic standards.
Corrections and clarifications
The readers' editor has considered a number of complaints from Noam Chomsky concerning an interview with him by Emma…
Media Lens provide some excellent analysis and oversight on the entire affair:
Here’s a more recent example of mistruths/lies/non-fact-checking:
White Helmet to miss Oscars because Syria cancelled passport
A Syrian cameraman and rescue worker whose documentary about the civil defence group known as the White Helmets has…
Any attempt to fact-check this or consider that this might not be the case? Zero. And when this article was published there was evidence suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security may have been the actual reason (e.g. Trump administration and not Assad). Here’s one place where it was reported the day before The Guardian published that story:
Syrian who worked on Oscar-nominated film barred from entering U.S.
A Syrian cinematographer up for an Academy Award Sunday night has been reportedly barred from entering the U.S. over…
I’m not saying that Fox News are now the bastion of truthful journalism, but the report was comprised from info provided by the Associated Press. There was clearly enough evidence for The Guardian not to have reported that story the way they did without even the pretense of considering whether there was more to do with it than what was stated. It still sits there unchanged as a news story. Again, it might be argued this is not ‘fake news’ because they’re just reporting on what was said by someone, but it’s deliberately misleading and is so agenda driven (e.g. overtly anti-Assad) that they play loose on facts to the point of it being very dishonest journalism.
Here’s a huge example of The Guardian/Observer lying or putting out fake news with some excellent analysis from Glenn Greenwald:
Then there’s this:
Donald Trump labels Clinton 'unstable' as he edges away from Putin relationship
Donald Trump made a half-hearted attempt to distance himself from Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, on Friday night…
The Guardian explicitly reported that Trump “defended Putin” in his interview on RT. Except, as an Off-Guardian piece commenting on the Guardian article correctly points out:
“The fact is that, in the interview (which you can watch in its entirety here), neither man mentions Putin’s name once, let alone “defends” him. Nobody who’d seen the brief interview (it’s only 9 minutes long) could possibly make that mistake. So either the Guardian writers/editors are publishing stories about videos they have not even bothered to watch, or they are simply straight lying….
… Either is ethically indefensible for a “proper” news outlet.”
Once again, it seems it’s only Fake News when the newspapers like the Guardian call it Fake News. Incidentally, the claim is still in that Guardian article unchanged.
Here’s another one about Angela Eagle’s constituency office having its window smashed:
Angela Eagle's constituency office vandalised after leadership bid launch
The constituency office of the Labour MP Angela Eagle has been vandalised following the launch of her campaign to…
There is a clear attempt to present a narrative that she was targeted because she had challenged Corbyn. It misleads people into thinking that Corbynites are part of this mass movement of thugs. There are no attempts to even look into the truth of the claims (or what is clearly alluded to) by Eagle and her aides.
The Guardian didn’t even bother to either look into the office building and the fact that the office was part of shared offices within the same building (they did eventually mention this in some reporting but this was after this report and other stories about it had already had their mileage). The Guardian didn’t even bother to say that the window smashed wasn’t even Eagle’s actual office window (again, until way after the story had its mileage).
There is no context provided to point out that the area has problems with criminal damage in general. There is nothing in the report about the fact that Eagles’ office building was pretty discreet to the public and it wasn’t particularly common knowledge that her office was even located there. The report doesn’t mention any link to a problematic pub nearby the offices. So it’s not what it says (which I still have a problem with), but it’s also what it doesn’t say. It’s the lack of fact-checking; it’s the lack of even considering other plausible reasons.
Of course, the poor reporting relating to Eagle’s shared office having a window broken was not just a problem of The Guardian but most mainstream newspapers. Some fine work from the blog Wirral In It Together really demonstrates the appalling nature of the reporting on this topic when you compare the information put forward there to what is contained in nearly all mainstream media reports:
BREAKING NEWS - #Brickgate - Angela Eagle's Office Window was NOT broken...
BREAKING NEWS: Merseyside Police have released an important statement: https://wirralinittogether.wordpress.com/2016/11…
If The Guardian’s report was not Fake News, once again it was extremely misleading news. It was not what journalism should be.
More evidence of some very misleading and dishonest reporting in The Guardian? Here:
Laura Kuenssberg petition taken down over sexist abuse
Campaign group 38 degrees has taken down a petition calling for BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg to be sacked…
Any bothering to check whether the petition had actually been hijacked by sexists, what the alleged hijacking represented, and how many people had actually written sexist abuse? Unfortunately not.
Craig Murray points out that there were approximately 35,000 signatures to the petition against Kuennsberg, and he could only find one sexist tweet to support the claim about the petition being hijacked by people writing misogynistic comments.
Sexist comments are not acceptable, of course, but nor does one comment or even a handful of sexist comments suggest a hijacking of the petition for misogynistic purposes.
Notably, The Guardian didn’t even bother to provide evidence of even one sexist comment directly relating to the allegations in their article. And, to be frank, even if they had chosen one, it would still be shoddy journalism as that wouldn’t necessarily reflect a hijacking, nor would it reflect that misogyny is an inherent or common trait of those who signed the petition.
There was, in my view, a brazen attempt to link the petition signers to Corbyn supporters to try to taint them as having a general problem with sexism. But unless The Guardian could show anything more significant than the fact that some people on the internet are misogynistic and some people who support Corbyn are too, then it’s really not all that useful or meaningful. Without a decent comparator, it’s a fairly meaningless exercise, unless of course the intention was to smear.
Here’s another example of basic fact checking problems from The Guardian. If this is not Fake News, it’s certainly crap journalism:
US-Russia tensions rise as malware found at Vermont electric utility
A day after Barack Obama announced tough new sanctions over what intelligence agencies believe to be Russian attempts…
That above article was discussed and heavily criticised in this excellent opinion article about the Fake News fears, admittedly, in the Guardian:
Democracy is in crisis, but blaming fake news is not the answer | Evgeny Morozov
Democracy is drowning in fake news. This is the latest reassuring conclusion drawn by those on the losing side of 2016…
In the article, Morozov writes:
“Having recklessly described many serious online outlets as Russian propaganda — based in part on a report by the anonymous organisation PropOrNot — it has recently warned about damaging Russian cyberattacks on a power grid in Vermont (in a report followed in other media outlets, including the Observer). It seems that those attacks didn’t happen and that the Washington Post didn’t even bother to check with the grid operator. Apparently, an economy ruled by online advertising has produced its own theory of truth: truth is whatever produces most eyeballs.”
Once again, such lack of fact-checking and consideration of alternative arguments suggest that The Guardian’s agenda driven journalism is getting in the way of reporting truthfully. Their defence could be to say something like, “well, we were just reporting on a report” but it’s lazy, it’s dishonest and it goes back to a point made by Jeremy Scahill covered in Part Three that journalists should not assume truth. And it’s one of the reasons why people are turning their back on traditional mainstream news sources.
Whilst recognising that these examples are by no means exhaustive, it is important to look at some of the scurrilous and repeated articles suggesting Labour, particularly under Corbyn as leader, has a significant problem with anti-Semitism. The reports and articles alluding to or expressly making the allegation are entirely unfounded. With meticulous analysis, Jamie Stern-Weiner tears apart the baseless claims that Corbyn, his supporters, and the left in general have an inherent problem with anti-Semitism. These claims have been made repeatedly in the Guardian, particularly by Jonathan Freedland, but even supported by Owen Jones.
LABOUR CONFERENCE OR NUREMBERG RALLY? ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE
IT WAS DIFFICULT to ascertain on the basis of media reports whether Brighton played host this month to a Labour Party…
Stern-Weiner also highlights further evidence of Freedland’s hypocrisy and outright lies (published in the Guardian) here:
JONATHAN FREEDLAND KEEPS DIGGING-HOW LOW WILL HE GO?
In a recent interview leading Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein recounted a shocking, but revealing…
Unfortunately Freedland is still in a position of significant influence as a Guardian editor, where he has abused his position to take almost every opportunity to zealously attack Corbyn and his supporters with scarce evidence and a deliberate conflation of the plural of anecdote with reliable data.
On a related note, here’s another example of The Guardian publishing without sufficient fact-checking, the results being an incredibly misleading account to its readers. Overwhelming evidence would suggest a retraction or change to their story is necessary, but it remains in its original misleading form, referring to the use of vinegar as being part of an ‘acid attack’. Although technically an acid, it would be absurd to think that this lack of clarity does not make the article incredibly disingenuous.
Finally, here’s a more recent example linked to the irrational and irresponsible Russian focus that I criticised in Part 1 of this essay. In this Off-Guardian article, they highlight yet more egregious reporting and appalling editorial conduct at The Guardian/Observer.
#blamePutin continues to be the media's dominant hashtag
by VT The decline of the falsely self-described "quality" media outlet The Guardian/Observer into a deranged fake news…
“The… falsifications were brought to the attention of the Observer’s so-called Readers Editor — the official at the Guardian/Observer responsible for “independently” defending the outlet’s misdeeds against outraged readers — who did nothing.”
I will leave the examples here at this point, but there are plenty more, and I am grateful for many websites and writers, some of whom I’ve mentioned, regularly highlighting them.
Defending Status Quo
I often find that a defence of mainstream media and newspapers (including The Guardian) goes hand-in-hand with a defence of status quo. In many cases, status quo can be the most sensible, rational and beneficial optional. Status quo can often be the least damaging option. However, there are also many times when status quo is extremely damaging and when defending status quo ludicrously stretches the phrase of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to “if it’s not entirely broken, then why fix it?” and even further to “even though it’s entirely broken, why fix it?”
It’s also common to see status quo being defended without proper examination. When this happens, the result is often doing nothing when the alternative could be to see significant improvements in all sorts of areas of society. In an area like journalism, which, if improved, would result in a society fundamentally better equipped for critical thinking, and power being more consistently held to account, then there is not a good enough reason to justify poor journalism, and there is not a good enough reason not to improve it on the spurious grounds that it’s not entirely broken (because, perhaps, the defender can point out that there is occasionally brilliant investigative and human-interest journalism).
If we had more examined journalism with more room for other voices and debate, I suspect in many areas, people would remain in — or even move to — current status quo positions. However, I suspect in other significant areas, they would have a very different view, so much so that the status quo itself would change drastically (for example, in the cases of military intervention, budgets, economic policies, welfare reform and provision, workers rights, and immigration, to name but a few). Although public polls frequently suggest that the public are generally against military intervention and want to see a fairer tax distribution and stronger workers rights, this does not yet prevent the sorts of military invasions and attacks, restrictions and attacks on workers rights, or increases in inequality from status quo policies; mainly because that status quo is protected by journalism and media which generally provides the establishment just enough of a permissibility to enact such policies (which are not for the public good and which the public are frequently opposed to). Better journalism would do far more to stop this.
It’s important to make clear that I’m not for a second proposing authoritarian style control of media, but journalism is failing the public, and outlets have not been held sufficiently accountable. If we want a better government, we need to not only look at our media’s role in society for forging views and encourage voluntary change, but we need to see some legislative changes so as to broaden debate and hold governments and newspapers accountable through better journalism. Lest we forget, if a government cares to actually do a good job, then they should be open to adversarial journalism and a culture of critical thinking. With more accountability, comes more responsibility.
And if the government doesn’t care, then we should make them care by highlighting the nefarious practices of the press and demanding the press improves enough in the first instance so that power can be held sufficiently to account for the more fundamental actions we need to forge and sustain consistently good journalism to begin. Importantly, with these efforts, we should also show what positive steps can be taken — it’s all very well talking about problems, but it’s also important that we focus on solutions too (some which I highlight within this essay).
It’s clear that without more robust processes and widespread change to overall media models, mainstream newspapers and news media will refuse to sufficiently self-critique and will continue to reject meaningful and significant self-reform. We know this because they have been criticised about these same issues for decades and they have failed to take the opportunity to address the criticisms.
What can and should be done?
In 1989, David Calcutt led an inquiry into the press “to consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from the activities of the press and improve recourse against the press for the individual citizen”. He looked at the regulation of press and found it seriously wanting, so he recommended that the press should be given one last chance to demonstrate “that non-statutory self-regulation can be made to work effectively.”
“This is a stiff test for the press,” he said. “If it fails, we recommend that a statutory system for handling complaints should be introduced.”
In 1991, with the spectre of forced regulation lingering in the air, the press set up the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It turned out to be wholly inadequate at handling and investigating complaints, and was largely toothless in terms of powers over newspapers that it was supposed to regulate. Frankly, in hindsight, this should have been obvious to even the most casual observers from the offset. The very industry who had repeatedly abused its purported principles and ethics was setting up the way they would like to be regulated — e.g. in a way in which meant they weren’t actually regulated.
After the phone hacking scandal, Leveson was tasked with an official inquiry, which was to be carried out in two stages (although the second has been parked for at least the time being and is looking increasingly likely to be permanently parked). The First Inquiry looked into the ‘Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press’, and commenced in 2011. Leveson’s report was published in 2012. In it, Leveson set out recommendations in relation to press regulation that were quite different than what Calcutt had proposed, particularly in relation to being statutorily imposed.
Leveson felt that there was a need to separate regulation of the press from political influence as best possible and recommended that this could be done through a carrot and stick approach, essentially making newspapers potentially responsible for libel costs in legal fees even in cases they won, unless, that is, they agreed to regulation under an approved regulator which could apply to an independent body or panel. Parts of these recommendations were incorporated into a Royal Charter on Press Regulation and an independent body that has the power to grant and investigate Leveson complaint regulators.
This, as Hacked Off report, has the benefit of being a ‘locked in process’ which makes the regulation process less permeable to political influence and the whim of politicians because:
“Article 9 of the Royal Charter provides that the Charter can only be “added to supplemented, varied or omitted” if:
· the proposed change is ratified by a unanimous resolution of all members of the board of the Recognition Panel (so that neither the Government nor Parliament can change the Charter without the approval of the members of the Recognition Panel);
· a draft of the amendment is approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament with at least two thirds of members voting in support.”
The other significant part was covered via Section 40 of the Crimes and Courts Act 2013 which was passed into law but has not been made active. As per one of Leveson’s recommendations, Section 40 would make publishers responsible for libel costs unless they enter into voluntary regulation.
However, the press have fought tooth and nail over any sense of regulation being imposed on them in which they do not get to set the terms. They also get to set [almost] the entire tone of coverage about it. Most of the press, including The Guardian, have complained that if Section 40 was made active, it would have a drastic negative impact on newspaper output and their rights to free speech and press freedom. Many reports and opinion articles have argued that activation of Section 40 would limit the opportunities for courageous investigative journalism. However, Leveson’s proposal, if followed, could actually end up minimising costs to publishers in general and could be a boon to investigative journalism as a result because it would encourage complainants to use a lower cost arbitration service, rather than commencing high cost libel suits against a newspaper. Importantly, it also gives ordinary members of the public more access to justice as they are otherwise restricted from not having the same sorts of money available to them to sue for libel.
What strikes me as particularly odd about the proclamations from newspapers against Section 40 is that if newspapers were so worried about the implications of Section 40 once live, all they need do is set up and be part of a Leveson complaint body that regulates them (whether that body would be sufficiently effective is open to debate, but would — under the criteria set out — have far more weight to tackle unprofessional, misleading, inaccurate or false journalism). The criteria that they would have to adhere to, contrary to widespread misinformation campaigns by mainstream media, does not restrict the press from producing public interest meaningful journalism, nor does it restrict the press from free speech and comment. It asks them to adhere to some sensible principles and gives the regulator appropriate powers to investigate breaches and adjudicate over them.
So far, a number of small publishers, online publishers and regional newspapers have joined the only Leveson compliant regulator awarded Royal Charter. The remainder of the mainstream press, have decided to either self-regulate, have no regulation whatsoever, or are semi-regulated under the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). IPSO admittedly has much stronger powers that the PCC but it is notably not Leveson compliant and not an approved regulator. IPSO has also been frequently criticised for “a lack of bite”, and has some serious shortcomings. The Transparency Project (an organisation which “aims to promote the balanced, accurate and accessible information about the work of family courts”) note:
“IPSO will also refuse to accept a complaint, even if the article in question offends the Code of Practice, where the person making the complaint is not directly affected.”
“…If the publisher has got the facts wrong or deliberately or carelessly skewed the meaning of what [is]… said, shouldn’t it be possible for someone else to point this out and complain to the publisher?”
They point out that IPSO have the power to make newspapers publish its adjudication and a correction of an original story (if a complaint is upheld) in the same prominence and position that it was first published, but that they rarely do, if at all. Adjudications and corrections more often are found on an inside page, frequently in smaller type. And what is the reason given for this? As Transparency Project point out:
“When the chair, Sir Alan Moses, was questioned about this in a recent grilling by the parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee (which is conducting an inquiry into press regulation) he said IPSO had the power to require a correction of equal prominence, but had never done it because: “the judgment of 12 members of the committee has been so far that, provided … there is sufficient publicity to the fact of the ruling and the fact of the condemnation that has been sufficient”.
It is important to consider the proportion of members serving on the complaints committee to understand who IPSO is inadequate at addressing press complaints. Again, as Transparency Project say:
“Half of its Complaints Committee, either work in or have worked in the media, some of them in the very organisations they are supposed to regulate.”
So what can be done about regulation? Well, this will largely be dependent on political priorities and whether the Tories will carry out their 2017 manifesto promise that says:
We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry… we will repeal Section 40 of Crime and Courts Act 2014, which, if enacted, would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win.”
This is a rather bizarre manifesto pledge in that they were the ones who pushed for the law in the first place, there is very limited evidence that the regulatory system is flawed, and the entire set up had to be agreed by privy council, which includes a large number of key and junior Conservative MPs.
However, with the Tories currently in chaos, the question as to what can be done about regulation and activation of Section 40 or something similar, will be most likely for a Labour government in waiting to answer, should they have the appetite to take it on.
Linked to and part of the regulation arguments is the need for setting ownership thresholds. Reform around ownership is arguably more necessary than ever because there is even more concentrated media ownership today in the UK than there ever has been, and this almost certainly further limiting the spectrum of debate.
On this topic, we only have to look to our closest overseas neighbours to see what some forms of sensible changes to our press we can consider so that media owners cannot unduly dictate our government’s actions for their own interests. Media Reform Coalition’s 2014 report states:
“In France, newspapers are supported by government subsidies and their ownership is regulated by the 1986 Press Law. Companies cannot acquire beyond 30%. In Germany, the Commission on Concentration in the Media Industry (KEK) can intervene in the TV or radio markets if a company’s combined media holdings (including newspapers) comprise more than 30 percent of annual viewer share.”
Though putting in place reform to limit concentrated ownership of the media does not affect The Guardian as directly as other newspapers, a less concentrated media ownership would likely lead to a general widening of the acceptable spectrum of debate. This could be a potential and realistic cause for a generally improved coverage within The Guardian.
A concentrated media means that a small number of powerful companies or individuals get to increasingly dictate the news agenda, leaving other newspapers and news media under pressure to prioritise similar stories or topics. But perhaps the most important aspect is a concentrated ownership of media leads politicians to be more likely to offer favours — not in the public interest but in the interest of the newspapers owners — in return for favourable coverage.
As Damian Tambini of London School of Economics writes:
“Anyone doubting the conclusion that media power has directly influenced governments on matters of policy should carefully re-read Tony Blair’s evidence and witness statement [in the Leveson Inquiry]. Tony Blair was asked about a dinner conversation with Murdoch which took place before New Labour received the “Sun endorsement” for the 1997 election:
Robert Jay QC. Then you apparently indicated that media ownership rules would not be onerous under Labour. Is it possible that you said that?
Tony Blair. I think “not onerous” is not the way I would have put it. I can’t specifically remember what was said, but it’s perfectly possible, if that issue came up, I would have said, “That’s not an issue we’re going to be taking on.”
Robert Jay QC. So whatever the position, by the end of that dinner, Mr Murdoch would have had some degree of comfort from you, at least in this particular domain. Are we agreed about that?
Tony Blair. Yeah”
Blair also was quoted as saying in the Leveson Inquiry:
‘[I]f you’re a political leader and you have very powerful media groups and you fall out with one of those groups, the consequence is such that it really means that you then are effectively blocked from getting across your message’.
Former Sunday Times Editor, Andrew Neil, was particularly candid in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry, particularly on Murdoch’s influence on politicians. He claimed:
“New Labour was prepared to pay a high price, in terms of access and influence, for the support of the Murdoch papers”
“…New Labour in power did nothing to undermine or threaten Mr Murdoch’s British media interests, despite a deep desire among many in the Labour party, especially (but not exclusively) on the Left, to “cut him down to size”. Demands for a privacy law (which Mr Murdoch abhors) were kicked into the long grass. Control of 37% of national newspaper circulation was tolerated (indeed supported now most of the 37% was rooting for Labour). BSkyB was allowed to grow unhindered and light-touch media regulation became the consensus of the day. There was a strong body of opinion that wanted tougher cross-ownership rules to stop powerful newspaper groups becoming powerful broadcast groups (and vice versa). New Labour resolutely repelled tougher cross-ownership then went further: the Labour 2003 Communications Act ended the ban on foreign ownership of TV licences, paving the way, in the years to come, for the Murdoch News Corp to attempt to buy the 60% of BskyB it did not own. This was something Mr Murdoch’s people lobbied hard for, with his support, and they had unique and extensive access to the levers of power at the heart of the Blair government to make this lobbying effective.”
“..Proprietors find more of a ready ear from, and access to, government than others and why their potential influence is all the more powerful. It is also why, many will conclude, the relationship should be more transparent and documented.”
So what can be done about concentrated media ownership?
One suggestion is setting public interest obligations at certain thresholds of market share, then moving to structural remedies after hitting another threshold. A public interest obligation could be, as I will outline later on in this essay, around journalists holding more power over editorial boards or editors (which I propose would be a positive general step to improving journalism in general).
Structural remedies might kick in if a publisher held, for example, more than 20% of market share defined by circulation (though there could be other ways to assess this). One such remedy could be for the publisher to create a separate competing product as a company subsidiary and then be forced to sell the subsidiary, or it could involve opening up for share access to employees, making them naturally more accountable to the people they employ. Other actions that could be considered as part of a structural remedy could be for the publisher to have to make direct donations to local independent press, and/or new independent publications through payment of a levy or fine which is guaranteed to go towards journalistic innovations.
Justin Schlosberg in LSE Policy Brief 10 examined some of the proposed structural and public interest remedies to limit effects of concentrated ownership that were submitted and examined within the Leveson Inquiry. He concludes:
“The proposed system of ownership limits, drawn from the most common position of civil society groups (as described above), exhibits three further strengths in the context of on-going deliberation over plurality reform:
1. First, it strikes a balance between those who argue that ownership limits should merely prevent further concentration in media markets, and those who believe it should deal principally with existing bottlenecks.
2. Tackling cross-media concentration alone does not capture inter-media agenda influence. Newspapers might be facing structural decline in revenues, but this does not necessarily translate into declining influence over other media, and the news and policy agenda more broadly.10 Also, one third of the population continues to rely exclusively on one medium for news and information.11 Whether by personal choice, media literacy or access barriers, plurality controls are needed to ensure that this substantive proportion of the population are exposed to a diversity of voices.
3. This policy deals with both the special contribution of news and current affairs to informing citizens in a democracy (within sectors), as well as the wider contribution to culture and plurality offered by other forms of media content (at the cross-media level).”
Journalists holding some power over editors
Media Reform Coalition propose a system by which journalists are part of an independent editorial board and can be able to carry out a vote of no confidence around editors, resulting in a potential change in editor.
This would make editors more accountable and would limit a top-down structure where editors demand unethical or plainly false stories from journalists below them, where those journalists fear repercussions for not producing the work expected of them or which they’ve been ordered to write. We have recently seen from revelations from one of their former writers, Richard Peppiatt, that the Daily Star published stories that were plainly false, irresponsible and misleading. Not only that, he revealed the editor had instructed him to write false stories, and then published the false stories in the knowledge that they were false.
Jim Waterson for BuzzFeed News recently reported how a mistake in a Daily Express report “inadvertently revealed how they are ordered to spin stories”. Waterson writes:
“A Daily Express journalist writing a news story about Britain’s national debt was told to “put the boot into Corbyn” and make it clear “that Labour is NOT the solution”, in what appears to be an instruction from his editor to ensure the report would be sufficiently biased against the Labour leader.
Unfortunately for the reporter, he then forwarded the instructions directly to the Labour party’s press office while asking for a comment.”
Although the editorial standards and accountability are arguably vastly different between different newspapers, it is not in any way inconceivable that journalists at more respected newspapers such as The Guardian would not be expected, ordered or feel pressure to write stories that support the newspaper’s or editor’s view against their own. Increasing editorial accountability would be a positive step for reducing the likelihood of this occurring.
Having editors that are more accountable to the journalists underneath them will better prevent journalistic malpractices. Media Reform Coalition propose these as ‘public interest obligations’ for companies with over 15% ownership. However, I actually think that these sorts of public interest obligations should be more widely undertaken and could be based on newspaper circulation and/or web reader statistics so that any newspapers or news media that receive frequently (on average) upwards of, say, 400,000 article views or have a circulation of over 100,000 print copies would be subject to them or could be based on legal definition for Section 34 and Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013: “a person who, in the course of a business (whether or not carried on with a view to profit), publishes news-related material (a)which is written by different authors, and (b)which is to any extent subject to editorial control.”
An additional caveat of a minimum number of staff would prevent some popular blogs that are not as heavily resourced or cannot realistically implement the structural controls mentioned could also be a proviso so that they would not be under obligations which would, realistically, be more unfair for them to undertake.
In Media Reform Coalition’s comments on Leveson’s recommendations, they set out their reasoning for such a board and how the panel could be set up:
“One of the chief concerns emerging from the hacking scandal is the extent to which both the autonomy and integrity of journalists can be compromised by a chain of command and institutional culture fostered by senior management. One way of addressing this issue is to introduce institutional arrangements that limit the absolute prerogative power of proprietors and senior management. As a minimum requirement, this should ensure that qualifying news organisations set up an editorial panel, including a minimum of five staff journalists, which is empowered to oversee key decisions affecting editorial policy as follows:
· The appointment and dismissal of the editor-in-chief, or equivalent, by management or proprietors must be approved by the editorial panel on the basis of majority vote.
· The panel must be consulted on decisions taken by management or proprietors which affect the definition or direction of editorial policy and content, including editorial codes and guidelines.
· The panel must have the ability to pass a motion of no confidence in an editor-in-chief, or equivalent, by majority vote.
· The panel must have the capacity both to hear and air grievances of staff journalists in relation to particular assignments, and to consult the National Union of Journalists or the new independent regulator.”
If this form of panel was put in place, additional requirements could also be imposed on newspapers, such as a requirement for editors and journalists to be contractually obliged to meet an approved editorial code, and for breaches of the code to be part of potential disciplinary action against them.
This would additionally help to limit journalists and editors publishing irresponsible, fabricated, malicious or grossly misleading articles and it would encourage proper fact-checking whilst better ensuring the people who are subject to significant criticism or allegations in articles are given appropriate opportunities to respond within the same articles, broadening debate in general.
Solution focussed and constructive journalism
One way of improving journalism and providing readers with a sense of optimism and a better understanding of the world is through newspapers and news media consistently practicing solutions focussed and constructive journalism.
Solutions focussed journalism as you might expect is journalism that emphasises what solutions there might be to address or mitigate a particular subject or problem featured in an article. It will often focus on what sort of work to address problems is already being undertaken.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) describe constructive journalism as:
“A solutions-focused approach to news in which reporters don’t just concentrate on problems but also examine solutions. Rather than merely investigating what’s going wrong in the world, they explore what’s going right — and why. Constructive journalism isn’t about ignoring negative news or covering fluffy, feel-good stories. It’s rigorous reporting about responses to social problems showing what people are doing to tackle important issues.”
A more solutions focussed news output would mean journalism would be framed in a more positive way. This is important because the evidence suggests that negative stories make people significantly less inclined to take positive related action. This does not mean journalists should be putting positive ‘spin’ on generally negative stories, but, as Denise Baden (Associate Professor in Business Ethics, University of Southampton) explains:
“It is about exploring ways in which news can stay true to its purpose to inform, without engendering feelings of helpless, anxiety or depression.”
The Constructive Institute say that:
“Constructive journalism is not about the “nice and cute”, nor is it positive or soft news that ignores problems. It is “two-eyed journalism”, balanced reporting on both good and the bad in society.”
“Constructive journalism] is an approach that aims to provide audiences with a fair, accurate and contextualised picture of the world, without overemphasising the negative and what is going wrong. While a healthy dose of negativity in the press is undoubtedly necessary, the chronic overexposure of negative constitutes a hidden media bias that has an erosive effect on the societies we live in.
The aim of constructive journalism is to combat the trivialisation and degradation of journalism by media that often is more interested in entertaining and creating controversies than informing the citizenship. Constructive journalism is calm in tone, being less focused on scandals, conflicts and outrage. It reports on important societal issues, setting them in the bigger picture and in their relevant context.
Constructive journalism takes journalism’s democratic function seriously, building on the idea that journalism is a feedback mechanism that helps society self-correct. It holds, however, that awareness about a problem alone is unlikely to bring about corrective action.”
What this means is that simply pointing out a problem is not sufficient. Journalism needs to focus on a more structural analysis of the problem and effective ways to overcome or mitigate that problem.
An article about solutions focussed journalism featured in the Guardian in April 2016 following UN Director- General, Michael Møller’s plea to report in a more constructive and solutions focussed way to combat “apathy and indifference”. What was particularly interesting and notable to me about The Guardian article is that the very journalism describing the call for solutions focussed journalism was not actually solution focussed. For example, a few aditional paragraphs could have discussed how solution focussed journalism could be undertaken, what systems could be put in place to ensure the journalism in the Guardian is constructive and solutions focussed, and even an explanation that the very article had been written in a solutions focussed way, explaining the difference between a general article and a solutions focussed article to readers.
After the crash in 2008, solutions focussed and constructive journalism was severely lacking. Catherine Happer and Greg Philo of the University of Glashow point out in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology that much of the mainstream media reported on the topic in a way which suggested it was almost inevitable that banks would need bailing out, despite the fact that there were other options and solutions which were largely ignored or dismissed. Solutions focussed and constructive journalism would have provided a more structural analysis and consider more counter arguments that might not normally see the light of day. For example, it would consider how to prevent boom and bust economics in general, or look at alternative models and responses to the crash which saw very little traction in mainstream press (one article discussing an alternate proposal was, to be fair, at least published in the Guardian). As Happer and Philo say:
“Amidst the fury, there are no demands here for alternative solutions, such as taking back the bonuses through a wealth tax, or taking the bulk of the financial sector into public ownership. This exclusion of debate about radical alternatives to cuts, such as taxing the bankers or other wealthy groups, is entirely irrespective of the potential popularity of these policies. As a test we developed a proposal to pay off the British national debt by having a one-off tax on the wealthiest 10% of the population. This group has private wealth of £4 trillion (mainly in property and pensions). A tax of one fifth of this amount would have paid off the national debt which was around £800 billion. This would reduce the deficit because government spending includes interest paid on the debt and because the proposal would avoid the cuts. Without these, there would be less unemployment and therefore more tax revenue.”
They point out:
“In the face of such structures of power, the media acts more as a release for frustration and discontent rather than a forum to explore potential alternatives. No transformation of the economy or the banking system is considered viable and the solution became simply to cut public spending — a key priority of the UK coalition government elected in 2010. The central justification for this was that welfare spending was too high. A receptive popular media highlighted stories of ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’, although the bulk of welfare cuts is in fact directed at the elderly and those in low-paid work.”
Whilst The Guardian and other mainstream sources do publish some constructive, solutions-focussed journalism, these are exceptions to the general rule. Why not make constructive journalism part of the general rule?
A more consistent approach of constructive and solutions focussed journalism could see some quite fundamental changes in arming citizens with knowledge to make policy decisions, and giving them a sense of purpose outside of a coverage that encourages nihilism and apathy as a response to problems, because they are not properly informed about the solutions to those problems or methods to significantly lessen impact.
As UN director general Michael Møller says (as quoted in The Guardian):
“The choices we make are determined by the information we are given. These are fundamental to how we shape a better world together.”
“In a world of 7 billion people, with a cacophony of voices that are often ill-informed and based on narrow agendas, we need responsible media that educate, engage and empower people and serve as a counterpoint to power. We need them to offer constructive alternatives in the current stream of news and we need to see solutions that inspire us to action. Constructive journalism offers a way to do that.”
“It’s vital too that we have data and different points of view.”
Far from being practically impossible or unlikely that we can change journalism for the better, I have put forward just a few ideas that would not be particularly expensive or difficult to implement that would significantly and drastically improve journalism, including at newspapers like The Guardian that hide poor journalistic practice behind a veneer of attributed respect that it is not always merited.
Significant improvements to journalism would ensure a less apathetic public who are more devoted to and supportive of positive causes. Power would be more routinely kept in check. Ultimately, with some small but firm changes to journalism, we’d have a far less unequal society, and nearly all of us would be better off financially, psychologically, physically and spiritually.