In 1921, Guardian editor CP Scott identified the vital role of newspapers producing accurate news: 'At the peril of its soul, it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.'
Fast forward to the US Presidential election and the UK referendum. Gallup in its 2016 annual poll revealed that trust in the US media has dropped to its lowest level in polling history - 32 per cent - whilst Ipsos Mori results in the UK show that only 25 per cent of the UK public trust journalists to tell the truth.
Distinguished veteran US journalist Bill Moyers argued that the media thoroughly corrupted the presidential debates: 'Remember that it was CBS CEO Leslie Moonves who whooped about the cash to be made from the campaign, telling an investors' conference in February, "The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us... Bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald's place in this election is a good thing."? Oh, yes, good for Moonves's annual bonus, but good for democracy?'
Moyers concluded: 'The giant media... have turned the campaign and the upcoming debates into profit centres that reap a huge return from political trivia and titillation.'
And here in the UK, during the referendum, we saw a bloc of national newspapers, totalling 75 per cent of circulation and owned by wealthy right-wing proprietors (Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay brothers and Richard Desmond), used as an echo chamber to disseminate blatant misinformation and scare stories from the Brexit campaign. The bonus, as one Daily Express journalist said, was: 'Lurid immigration front pages sell papers.' The Economist suggested recently we have moved into an era of 'post-truth politics', when politicians and sections of the media are not bothered whether what they say, broadcast or publish bears any relation to reality, so long as it fires up voters, viewers and readers. Deception and lies by politicians, and a pliant media promoting them, are not new, as Peter Oborne documents in The Rise of Political Lying, but several factors have now made the notion of 'post-truth politics' more robust. Trust in politicians has plummeted. The media, as conduits for disinformation for the Bush-Blair push to war in Iraq, badly damaged people's trust both here and in the US, where The New York Times and The Washington Post apologised for misleading their readers. Here in the UK, one of the big gaps in the Chilcot Inquiry and Report was any consideration of the role of most national newspapers as cheerleaders in the rush to war.
And while powerful media groups and proprietors willing to use media power to promote their own commercial or political interest have been around for well over a century. What has changed is the relentless 24-hour news cycle and, of course, the rise of the internet, which has also been a powerful reinforcing factor for 'post-truth politics'. The companies that flourish in cyberspace are those that command attention by displaying links people want to click on to. Increasingly, it means people have their own beliefs echoed back to them and conspiracy theories circulate unchallenged within self-contained groups.
What can be done?
CPBF wants media to be more accountable and responsive to the public they serve. The media should be organised and regulated in the public interest. We think the following policies would go some way to achieving a more diverse and democratic media:
- Curb media ownership. We need an open debate on the impact of media concentration on our democracy and wider culture. There should be clear limits on media ownership so that powerful proprietors with vested interests are not allowed to dominate the news agenda.
- Independent, trusted and effective press regulation. We want the implementation of the proposals in the Leveson Inquiry, as well as a system to offer an effective right of reply to inaccuracies.
- A well-funded, independent BBC. The BBC has been under political attack for decades from the Conservatives and New Labour. The result is it has become too pro-establishment. That needs to change.
For more information on the CPBF, go to: www.cpbf.org.uk.