John Horgan: 'A return to journalism's core values is our best weapon in the fight against fake news'
It is tempting to believe that the problems being addressed by this week's conference on 'Disinformation and Fake News' are new, but in one respect at least they are hundreds of years old. Jonathan Swift, an Irish media critic before his time, wrote in 1710: "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceiv'd, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect."
In another respect, however, the scale and nature of this age-old problem has been changed out of all recognition, not only by technology (in particular the internet), but by the creation of a new Faustian economy. This is an economy in which one product - information about products and services - is offered, supposedly without cost, but in reality in exchange for another, far more valuable, product: information about internet users' identities, locations, preferences and (in some cases) gender and other key personal details, including their attitudes to key political issues.
This personal information is then sorted, focused and fine-tuned by the internet giants for resale at a huge profit to the worlds of commerce and politics, and to the darker worlds of human sexual and criminal exploitation. The advantages to the public are sometimes valuable but too frequently peripheral, and in some cases merely intensify waste and the despoliation of natural resources.
The internet giants reap all the advantages enjoyed by classic middle-men. The end-users, the ultimate purchasers of this information, are in turn free to employ armies of psychologists, media experts and persuaders to attempt to use it to mould public commercial and political attitudes to their own objectives. There are real issues here for anyone who believes that democracy, which is always imperfect, should continue to be strengthened by creative measures, public and private, rather than further weakened by powerful and unaccountable vested interests. Not only commerce has been turned on its head. In a sort of creeping cancer, the idea that public information must be true - or, if unverified, should be qualified or properly attributed - has been modified almost out of all recognition. The first of these modifications has been the sleight-of-hand transfer of the responsibility for assessing the truthfulness of new media entirely to the consumer of the information it contains.
The second is that the disseminators, on some platforms, of material that can be either untrue, socially or personally harmful, or even a breach of common or statute law, are still largely immune from accountability, from consequences, and free from many constraints of the kind normally applied by societies to harmful material. This is generally on the specious grounds that these disseminators are not themselves 'communicators' - a claim increasingly undermined by their more recent, frantic and often peripheral attempts to clean up their acts and to divert criticism by applying weak elements of what are fundamentally editorial controls. There is little point in being Luddite about this. The internet, which is not an unmixed blessing, is here to stay, and will continue to develop in ways difficult to predict. Its benefits will, with luck, remain. The answers to the problems it has created must find an effective middle course between calls for a new system of state censorship which would in all probability be as expensive as it would be ineffective, and a sort of laissez-faire attitude which would be little better than the law of the jungle. Because the problems involved are complex, these answers will also be complex.
In all of this the role of international organisations - particularly of the EU, which is one of the few multi-national organisations with the power to devise and police the internet - will be crucial. And even here the extent of the problems involved has been amply evidenced by the delays associated with getting national regulators up to speed. It is relevant here to note the fact it has taken more than two years for the UK regulators to come to a conclusion about breaches of regulations by some political organisations during the recent EU referendum in that country, and consideration of criminal prosecutions for these or related activities is still hanging fire. The creaking of that stable door can all too quickly echo the sound of galloping hooves in the distance.
State actors, journalistic organisations, media owners, educational institutions and communications specialists all have a valuable role to play in trying to create a media industry that is, at the end of the day, at least as responsive to the needs of the society within which it operates as it is to the priorities of those who own it and work within it, and which is resistant to the powerful and often hidden forces aiming to shape it to hidden and often socially, commercially or politically damaging ends.
What are sometimes patronisingly described as "legacy media" - the press, radio and television - have had, and are continuing to have, a rough time of it.
This is not least because of the fool's welcome that non-state media initially gave to the internet by allowing the new media entrepreneurs to republish so much of their content for nothing, leading to a destruction of value to an extent and at a speed rarely seen in commercial history. Harsh and painful lessons have been learned, but the shake-out in the field of legacy media will, I am sure, leave the best and most adaptable of these better equipped, not only technologically but commercially, for the multi-media future we all face.
But these technological and commercial adaptations will be all but meaningless if they are not accompanied by the defence, strengthening and perhaps in some cases the rediscovery of the purposes and values of dedicated professional journalism, in both the public and the private sectors, as a community service, and by a willingness to pay the price that has to be paid in order to create and supply it. The media are never "free" anywhere, in the sense that they all operate under commercial and legislative constraints that tend to influence their content. But the time has come when their strengths and capacities can with luck be harnessed more effectively, in public and private partnership, to defend and enhance the rights and the future not just of citizens but of our planet itself.
- John Horgan was Ireland's first professor of journalism at Dublin City University, and was Ireland's first press ombudsman.