Friday 18 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: We heard the fake news today - oh boy

The air of superiority that social media wears isn't justified; traditional media can still play a vital role, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

You will not be surprised to hear that in 1968 Fianna Fail tried to pull a fast one. At any given time on the calendar, since 1926, the chances were that FF was trying something on.

The fast one it tried to pull in 1968, though, was the Usain Bolt of all fast ones.

And what was it that very deliberately, very determinedly, ended this Fianna Fail attempt to undermine democracy?

It was journalism. Yes, that battered thing that these days is derided as "the mainstream media".

And it was RTE - now routinely dismissed on social media as #RTEbias - that chopped FF off at the knees.

Was journalism so much better in those days?

Or so much worse?

The answer to both those questions is: Yes.

The fast one FF was pulling involved a pair of referendums that would abolish proportional representation and rejig the electoral system.

An academic called Basil Chubb analysed the data and showed that the change would guarantee a virtually permanent FF majority.

On RTE's current affairs programme 7 Days, Mr Chubb and presenter David Thornley so convincingly explained what was at stake that their work was widely regarded as the main reason the attempted coup was defeated at the ballot box.

They truly did the citizens some service. That couldn't happen today.

There was no comparable media act of skilled, passionate explanation of the huge events of the past ten years: the bank bailout; the ECB/IMF takeover in 2010; Nama; the austerity strategy, which was designed to restore economic normality while maintaining all the structural unfairness that caused the crash.

Most coverage of those issues consisted of balanced stenography, as political parties swapped lies.

And inane repetition of phrases such as "the only game in town", and, "we are where we are", which substituted for analysis.

On the other hand, in what ways is journalism today superior to the journalism of 50 years ago?

Well, if something happened in Paris back then you mightn't know about it until it came up on the TV news bulletin that evening. You had to wait until next day to read something of slightly greater depth in the newspaper.

Today, six minutes after something happens in Paris your phone vibrates - news alert. Five minutes more, you can look at video streaming from the scene, as "citizen journalists" point their phones at the action. In no time, hundreds of people will post reportage/analysis of varying quality.

We know why traditional journalism today is in deep trouble: declining audience, declining advertising.

People who can get "citizen journalism" instantly and free are reluctant to pay for traditional media.

Fifty years ago, most people in Ireland watched RTE's single channel. A programme like 7 Days was hugely influential. Nothing like that today. The TV audience has fragmented into niche markets - huge numbers of channels, a range of platforms.

Also, there has been a smoothing of RTE journalism. The 7 Days programme that stymied FF was made in an RTE already suffering an internal war. Vigorous, committed journalism fought to survive, as those deferential towards the powerful won strategic positions.

From the outside, political parties kept up a barrage of bullying, with threats to nobble the licence fee, without which journalistic resources would all but vanish.

Committed journalism survives in RTE, in pockets. Traditional media as a whole did excellent work unearthing banking scandals and Catholic Church abuse scandals - often in the face of managerial timidity.

But today, Thornley and Chubb would be required to balance their warning with material that would show that a permanent FF regime would in fact be quite a desirable development.

RTE, like most of the media, may critique a Haughey or a Liam Lawlor, but only after they've fallen from power. Until then, the views of the powerful are considered the norm, the society they shape is seen as a product of nature, rather than right-wing politics.

Anything outside this norm is ignored; and if it can't be ignored it's subjected to hypercritical standards not applied to others.

For instance: in traditional media we got exquisitely detailed reportage of the creation and launch of right-wing Renua, though there was no substance to the "party".

At the same time, the growth of a genuine and widespread political backlash against austerity, in the form of the anti-water charge movement, was ignored.

This was not a media conspiracy. It was worse than that - the media just doesn't see such things. There are whole areas of Irish life the media doesn't see - much of it involving the urban working class.

It consists of the heavy lifters who are taken as having nothing to say, and who are believed not to think about what's going on. The nearest most of the media get to the working class is when they attend a Sean O'Casey play at the Abbey.

When the anti-Irish Water uprising could not be ignored, the worst behaviour of a handful of its supporters was chosen to represent the behaviour of all.

Traditional media has to maintain certain standards - it doesn't want to end up in court, the best take a pride in credibility - all put their name to their work.

Social media has undermined the economics of traditional media. Yet, its own limitations are glaring.

It's more often than not anonymous, routinely claiming things it will never stand up. There are brilliant analysts on social media, hilarious commentators and jokesters. Twitter links are invaluable. But within social media there is a persistent whine about traditional media's "fake news" - which usually means something the media got wrong, or something someone disagrees with.

There is fake news in traditional media, usually spun by professionals seeking to promote a party's policies.

Social media, though, particularly when anonymous, is made for fake news. It's vulnerable to made-up stories injected into the conversation, to be recycled without checking - instantly devastating without any real scrutiny.

Social media's air of superiority is unwarranted.

When Denis O'Brien got an injunction covering his banking affairs, traditional media got nervous. Question: wait three days until a court rendered publication risk-free, or publish a speech made by Catherine Murphy and be damned?

Most decided to wait. Social media launched a tsunami of scorn, denouncing the "cowardice" of journalists.

I checked around much of the blogs and social media accounts of those denouncing the cowardice. I found one that published Murphy's speech - it was run by a veteran journalist.

Was it cowardice that stopped social media covering the speech - even in bite-size form on Twitter?

Probably not. Nervousness, perhaps, or indecision. Maybe they just didn't think of publishing it.

Two things need to happen.

Traditional media needs to detach its lips from the buttocks of the powerful, and apply its teeth. That way, it might regain ground it lost to social media.

And social media needs to raise its standards and credibility, to ensure it's not so easily hijacked by the fake news merchants.

Sunday Independent

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