THIRTY YEARS ago, in 1986, the British tabloid The Sun ran a front-page story with the headline Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster.
Starr is a British comedian, singer, impressionist and actor who had employed the London publicist Max Clifford to promote his career. Clifford was approached by The Sun, which had a story about Starr eating a former friend’s pet hamster. Clifford quickly worked out that the story was fabricated (he says it was an act of vengeance) – but allowed The Sun to run it because Starr was about to begin a new tour, and he figured the story would give the comic’s show a boost*, which it did.
Twenty years on, in 2006, the BBC nominated Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster as one of the most familiar newspaper headlines of the last century. And that’s quite a success, if you think about it – especially since the story was untrue.
Fake news is nothing new. Propaganda is, after all, only government-sponsored fake news, and propaganda has been around since the dawn of politics. Leading (or fooling) the electorate through propaganda has long been an assumed prerogative of power. The usual justification is that it is in the common good (especially when it is used to mislead the enemy.)
At the heart of the current debate over fake news and its impact on the US presidential election is the fact that the Internet has ‘democratised’ the ability to disseminate inaccurate and misleading information.
In other words, it is no longer the preserve of politicians and civil servants, but something that students in poorer countries can do to raise a bit of cash, and which major social media corporations like Facebook find themselves tangled up in, willingly or otherwise.
The opposite to fake news must, of course, be real news, but finding real news in the tsunami of fake news journalists face daily requires effort.
Fake news ranges from more-or-less harmless fabrications like Freddie Starr’s hamster diet to the more sinister ‘black’ PR designed to discredit a client’s competitors and rivals, and now interference in democratic process by competitor countries. And there is an awful lot of anodyne stuff in between, which journalists good and bad have to deal with. Social media, by itself, generates many misleading ‘leads’ daily.
Thirty years ago, journalists had to go out and look for stories. Now the stories often come to them – but they have to sift them from the silt of fake news as if they were panning for gold.
(There used to be an idea, incidentally, that news is “something somebody somewhere wants to suppress; everything else is advertising”. Variations of the quote have been attributed to the novelist George Orwell and the newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe. But whoever said it, it is clearly an outmoded point of view.)
The problem with investigative journalism is that it is difficult. To do it properly, you have to at least try to be objective. At the outset, you have to listen to opposing views without judgement and you have to have a Socratic interest in the pursuit of truth, however elusive. Fact checking is essential; so too is intelligent scepticism. The quality of investigation depends to a large degree on the quality of training and experience the investigator has. The integrity of the investigation depends upon the motivation and the purpose of the investigating journalist, and of his employer. You have to understand your own tendency to cognitive bias: in Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s terms, you have to ‘think slow’ while moving fast.
All of this – the training, the fact checking, the investigation and the very real danger of subsequent litigation – is frighteningly expensive even for the most supportive owner. And so good journalism is often compromised, and sometimes dispensed with altogether.
With 83,000 people employed in the PR industry in the UK, and only 64,000 “journalists, newspaper and periodical editors”, a lot of print journalism, especially consumer and ‘lifestyle’ journalism, has slipped into the mechanical recycling of press releases; palatable, low risk, easily-accessible information refurbished and re-presented as editorial by media owners more interested in advertising revenue than readers.
It’s why motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson was entirely justified when he described the suspension of a car recently as “softer than the journalism in an in-flight magazine”.
Don’t get me wrong, the UK still has pockets of excellent journalism, often in unexpected places – like trade magazines and some local newspapers, for instance. But the plethora of ‘free’ editorial supplied by PRs and the Internet has encouraged amateur publishers to launch journalism-lite periodicals that place graphic design and print quality above editorial content. London, in particular, is awash with them.
Don't get me wrong, I’m not really carping about any of this. All media – including social media – operate in a free market economy, and owners will make their choices accordingly. We are where we are, and the print media is struggling to survive in a hyper-active digital world.
Even so, I think I might be tempted to slip recycled press releases into the broader ‘fake news’ category since press releases must necessarily put the interests of the PRs’ fee-paying clients before those of the reader (even if they do sometimes coincide). In effect, it’s a kind of ‘corporate propaganda’.
And the truth is that many of those releases still include fabrications, even if they are not quite so creative as Starr’s hamster saga. It’s why we have a national day for everything from spaghetti to house plants – somebody in an office made them up to promote their clients’ products and services, and compliant publications found it useful to give them publicity.
Against this background of softening news, the Internet looms vast and incomprehensible. Not only has it carelessly democratised the dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information, it has given it a casual currency.
The British comic Dave Gorman recently discovered that his Wikipedia entry inaccurately stated he had hitchhiked around the Pacific rim countries, a claim that had been repeated in at least one provincial newspaper. He deleted the Wikipedia entry, only to find it subsequently reinstated by somebody citing the erroneous newspaper article as a reference (it’s in the paper, and so it must be true). In this way, the Internet feeds its own lies back into itself. Gorman incorporated the story into a routine for his TV show Modern Life is Goodish highlighting both the inaccuracy and the difficulty he had in correcting it.
Competent researchers – especially those who research for a living – understand that Internet ‘facts’ are of variable quality: some are true, others are not. There are good sites, and bad.
But a lot of people accept what they read on the Internet at face value, and publish inaccuracies by sharing them with friends without checking the facts first. It’s a kind of digital gossip that can feed prejudice: the so-called echo effect.
What is even more worrying is that these days politicians who have been shown to have got their facts wrong seem disinclined to apologise or even make excuses. They just shrug it off. Perhaps the Internet has taught us that truth is not all it’s cracked up to be, and so voters are more willing to forgive politicians their serial gaffes.
Even so, I wonder who is going to hold these post-truth politicians to account.
Years ago, in the glory days of regional newspapers in the UK, a local council leader complained haughtily about the quality and accuracy of a daily newspaper’s reports on council meetings.
The editor responded by sending court reporters – who had unbelievable shorthand speeds – to the next meeting. He then devoted several pages of his broadsheet newspaper to a verbatim record of proceedings, including all of the ums and ahs, the false starts, the muttered swear words, ungrammatical sentences, childish outbursts and illogical constructs of the councillors.
The council leader quickly apologised, and begged the editor to return to the previous system. Pricking pomposity used to be part of the journalist’s role.
It’s something that probably couldn’t happen today. Local newspapers do not, as a rule, pick fights with the pompous or powerful any more.
Even so, there are some bright spots in the gloom. There is evidence of a return to hyper-local news publications that sit firmly in the communities they serve, and which must prize accuracy if only because they can never escape their readers.
And I very much like the intent of the journalists at storyful.com who set out with a technical armoury to sort out fact from fiction on social media sites like YouTube – a hard news project that proved so successful, Murdoch bought the company for a reported £15 million (that's a fact I haven't been able to check, incidentally).
I’m no apologist for journalists – the community is now too chaotically varied for that – and nor am I especially critical of PRs, who are just doing what they’re paid to do. Many do it so well that, in terms of creativity, they leave the journos standing.
But I am interested in the real meaning of the current debate over fake news. I suspect it has more to do with the political classes’ slow realisation that the control of information – accurate or manipulated – is draining away from them and into the Internet, than it has to do with any abiding interest in the preservation of truth.
The debate will continue, I’m sure.
In the meantime, don’t believe everything you read in the papers.
* You can see Max Clifford talking about the fabricated hamster story at the recent Leveson inquiry here: Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster
** Max Clifford died on December 10, 2017, after collapsing in his prison cell. He had been serving an eight year sentence for historical sex offences.