In the age of cyber-hacking and fake news, main stream media must fight back against the post truth dark side
As 2016 saw post-truth declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, no less, then 2017 should be the year the mainstream media declares war on the forces that put it there.
Post-truth gained pre-eminence by virtue (or vice) of Brexit and the US presidential election campaign victory of Donald Trump and is defined as ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals or personal beliefs’.
Oxford Dictionaries Casper Grathwohl predicts it’s destined to become ‘one of the defining words of our time, fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has found a linguistic footing’.
It’s a clear signpost that 2017 is shaping up to be the year of living dangerously for the mainstream media in the UK, the US and across Europe.
And it certainly shouldn’t be lost on the ‘MSM’ that a close runner-up to post-truth in the Oxford Dictionaries shortlist was another compound word, Alt-Right (Definition: An ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content).
Missing from the compound buzzword shortlist was cyber-hacking, but that was doubtless down to the fact the Oxford lexicographers compiled their list before the full-scale war of words between Barack Obama, his Twitter-addicted successor and Vladimir Putin, over Russia’s alleged activities in support of Donald Trump erupted.
With Obama demanding a full-report on Russian cyber-hacking from US intelligence chiefs before he leaves office next month, Trump rashly and instantly pooh-poohing the evidence gathered by the CIA and the US National Security Agency and Theresa May set to chair a UK National Security Council session in the new year on reported Russian efforts to ‘undermine’ Britain via ‘espionage, misinformation, cyber-attacks and fake news disseminated through social media’, I’d hazard a wager cyber-hacking could top the Oxford list for 2017.
All of this, in normal times, should empower mainstream media organisations – not least British and American newspapers – to confidently flex their investigative muscles, find their thundering leader column voices and fully confront those sinister forces and the threat they represent.
But these, alas, aren’t normal times. With falling circulations, dwindling advertising revenues, editorial job culls, and confronted by the challenge of the wilder west ranges of cyberspace, too many US and British newspapers aren’t as well-equipped as they once were to combat the post-truth world’s dark side.
In the US much of the mainstream media is still reeling from Donald Trump’s successful rabble-rousing strategy of branding the MSM a ‘lying, corrupt’ arm of the despised establishment. A strategy that saw journalists on the campaign trail booed, hissed at, spat at and threatened on and offline. A strategy that inspired CNN’s multi-award winning chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour to publicly confess ‘I never in a million years thought I would be up here on stage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home’.
But Amanpour’s speech (to the Committee to Protest Journalists a week after Trump’s victory) hit on another very important hard truth of 2016, when she admitted: ‘We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us by the very same social media that we’ve so slavishly been devoted to. The winning candidate did a savvy end run around us and used it to go straight to the people.
‘Combined with the most incredible development ever — the tsunami of false news sites (aka lies) — that somehow people could not, would not, recognise, fact check or disregard. We need to ask whether technology has finally outpaced our human ability to keep up. Facebook needs to step up. Advertisers need to boycott the lying sites.’
Post Trump’s vitriolic victory, some braver advertisers have stepped up to the plate, including boycotting Trump’s beloved Breitbart News, whose former eminence grise Steve Bannon is credited with masterminding The Donald’s populist campaign, including the full-frontal assault strategy against the ‘liberal elite media’ and the ‘lock-her-up’ mantra against Hillary Clinton.
But Bannon, uber-hero of the Alt-Right, steps into the powerful role of chief White House strategist when Trump takes office and, according to my sources, has been the lead voice in drowning out those in the Trump team who wanted to build bridges to the MSM.
A longtime confidant of Nigel Farage, Bannon — a former navy man turned Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood movie producer – was, it’s whispered, fully involved in Trump’s mischievous tweet championing Farage as Britain’s US ambassador. And few doubt that he generally shares the view of the prominent American trend forecaster Gerald Celente (one of the few to forecast a Trump triumph) that ‘the mainstream media is joining the trash heap of history’.
Those pundits (me included) who cautiously anticipated Trump would soften his attitude to the mainstream media post-victory are so far being proved wrong by his continuing social media outpourings. Twitter? Ah, for those who underestimated The Donald’s capacity for capriciousness, witness his treatment a few days ago of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Dorsey, it appears, wasn’t invited to the president elect’s summit of the biggest names in the tech world as a payback for personally blocking a Trump campaign emoji showing bags of money being given away or stolen alongside a #CrookedHillary hashtag.
No matter that Twitter — and Trump’s 17.3 million followers — were a key weapon in The Donald’s campaign, with his stream of day and night posts. And particularly humiliating for Dorsey when the roll call of invited Silicon Valley’s moguls included Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Tesla’s Elon Musk.
While the majority of Silicon Valley’s finest aren’t natural Trump supporters, the Guardian’s award-winning technology writer John Naughton was probably right to observe that the impressive turnout flagged up that they’re also not immune to ‘the aphrodisiac of power’.
They’re also only too aware that ‘Trumplethinskin’, as some tecchies have dubbed him, made Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone for the FBI, and the tech world’s appetite for manufacturing its products in cheaper, lower tax bases outside the US, targets of his ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign for the presidency.
As one senior US mainstream media executive contact confided recently: ‘Somehow, between us, we’ve helped put a narcissist, megalomaniac bully and pathological liar in the White House. For too long, we figured that while Trump was good for television ratings and even boosted newspaper sales and massive social media activity, the majority of the American electorate would ultimately shy away from making him president.
‘Now the onus is on the mainstream media in 2017 to compensate by challenging him at every opportunity, and to continue to probe his questionable business history, the serious conflict of interest issues his presidency poses and so much more. All the things we were too slow to do during the campaign, without realising by the time we did start to do it, the pro-Trump wagon train was rolling and fooling us and the pollsters.’
That ‘so much more’, he suggests, includes backing Obama’s investigation initiative into Russian cyber-hacking and ‘challenging Trump all the way if, as feared, he acts to close it down once he’s in office’.
He added: ‘It could be the first big backlash among Trump voters for the media to seize on. Many of those who went for him on the basis of Make America Great Again are highly-suspicious of Putin’s Russia and proof of cyber-hacking won’t play well with that audience.
‘The mainstream US media must also focus hard on the hypocrisy now emerging among Trump’s proposed administration team — three billionaire Goldman Sachs bankers and the Putin-pal chief executive of the world’s biggest oil company in key roles certainly isn’t what those voters who bought into the ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘bash the bankers’ rhetoric thought they’d be getting.’
Among some senior US media executives there are even fears that Trump’s hostility to the MSM could undermine the First Amendment. But, in truth, that is surely sacrosanct enough to thwart even The Donald’s presidency?
Less secure on the press freedom front as 2017 looms is the UK, sans a First Amendment, and faced by the Section 40 threat in the Crime and Courts Act that would render newspapers and magazines who refuse to sign up with a state-approved regulator (the Max Mosley-funded Impress) liable to pay both sides costs in libel and privacy cases even when the press win.
Contrary to the arguments of Hacked Off and too many politicians, this legally-dubious post-Leveson legacy via an archaic Royal Charter political concoction does represent the most serious threat of modern times to a free press, investigative journalism, the public’s right to know and newspapers’ ability to hold power to account.
In some cases, especially among local titles, it could hold the difference between survival and extinction. It’s a danger compounded by the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ (aka Investigatory Powers Bill) and its inevitably negative impact on journalism and whistleblower contacts.
On January 10 the government’s public consultation on the Section 40 costs issue closes. But if ministers press ahead with the legislation, it is certain the vast majority of Britain’s print media will refuse to sign up and, in all probability, challenge it through the UK courts and, if necessary, the European courts too (ironic as that might be for the more vociferous pro-Brexit titles).
Clearly 2017 is set to be hugely significant for the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic. The fight for survival in the digital age will become tougher still. But in tandem comes the challenge of fighting the cause of real truth over post-truth in the age of Putin, Trump, Le Pen, Farage, cyber-hacking and algorithm-driven fake news.
No one can deny it’ll be a helluva tough fight. But, in the name of democracy, it’s the most important New Year resolution we can make.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and one of the authors of a new book, ‘Lost for Words: Will Journalism Survive the Slow Decline of Print?’, being published by Abramis in January. A former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and US Bureau Chief for the Mirror Group, he met and interviewed Donald Trump twice in his pre-The Apprentice days