Sunday 17 February 2019

Why journalism and journalists matter more now than ever before

In an era of 'fake news' and manipulation, reliable sources of information are crucial

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Cormac Bourke

On Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, the Sunday Independent carried a front page news item that both shaped the course of history and signalled the first tremors of what would become the Easter Rising.

With intelligence suggesting the Irish Volunteers were about to be suppressed, the organisation's chief of staff Eoin MacNeill had reluctantly agreed to a national military insurrection, under the cover of marches that had been organised for Easter Sunday.

But when MacNeill learned that the information he had been given about the suppression of the Volunteers may not have been accurate, he rushed to the offices of the Sunday Independent to cancel the exercises.

Under the headline ''No Parades'', the newspaper reported what has famously become known as the countermanding order, in which MacNeill cancelled the marches across the country -meaning no national rebellion - and leading the main movers behind the plan, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and Thomas Clarke, to press on with a smaller scale rising in Dublin.

As the historian Patrick Geoghegan has written: "We will never know what might have been the results if the countermanding order had never been issued… It is indisputable that the course of Irish history was changed forever."

Beside that news item was a report of a "man of unknown nationality" being arrested after landing on the shore of Tralee Bay on Good Friday. That was Roger Casement.

Beside that again was a short report on three men drowning when their car went off a pier in Kerry. Though not reported in this context that day, the men in the car were Volunteers on their way to try to make radio contact with the Aud, a vessel bringing arms from Germany for the rebellion.

I am not a historian. I am familiar with that newspaper front page because I decided to republish it with the Sunday Independent in March 2016 to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. It was the newspaper front page that changed history.

Newspapers and news organisations have a rich heritage, much of it told in headlines. On the wall in the office of the Sunday Independent some of those headlines mark the newspaper's role in history, including, for example, the rather understated headline: ''External Relations Act to go'' - that was the news in 1948 of Ireland's move to become a Republic.

Elsewhere on the wall is a picture and a quote from Veronica Guerin. No words of mine will do justice to her bravery and sacrifice.

There have, of course, been low points, including the shocking episode of this newspaper's coverage of the tragic death of Liam Lawlor in Moscow.

For the most part, however, this title has been to the forefront in campaigning journalism such as the reporting of what would eventually become known as the Kerry Babies scandal.

Independent News & Media (INM), which is the corporate entity that owns this title amongst others, will be in the headlines again tomorrow when the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement takes a High Court action to have inspectors appointed to investigate a suspected data breach - which the ODCE fears has included the data of some of our journalists.

Details of that High Court action and subsequent claims arising out of court documents filed as part of it were published on these pages on April 1 and April 8, written by Dearbhail McDonald, Shane Phelan and our business editor Samantha McCaughren. That story has been widely covered in the pages of our sister title, the Irish Independent, and on independent.ie.

That is exactly how it should be. The journalists make up editorial teams working across online and print titles - independent.ie, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Independent, the Sunday World, and The Herald.

INM is a corporate entity. The journalists have no role in how it functions or what it does, other than reporting on it when it does something that makes news.

To further emphasise that point, a number of initiatives to safeguard against unauthorised access to the data of our journalists have been announced.

A "triple-lock" mechanism was last week introduced where approval will be needed from three senior executives if any editorial employee's data is to be accessed by the company. There are rare circumstances where this may be necessary, such as in the defence of litigation or complying with court orders.

External experts will also be appointed to examine governance of editorial data.

This all comes at a time when journalism has never mattered more.

Consider, if you will, for a moment, the world in which we now live. We know we live in the era of fake news, a phenomenon of the past 18 months.

And what is that exactly?

Last November, it was announced the term ''fake news'' - defined as "false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting" - was to be added to the next print edition of Collins Dictionary.

It was, by the way, named Word of the Year 2017 by Collins (although I would have thought it was two words, but that is another matter).

Facebook has taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers - including this one last week - with suggestions on ''how to spot fake news''.

It was interesting to note that Facebook had to turn to the printed medium to get across its message. The irony.

In any event, false information dressed up as news is not just out there. It can be weaponised and tailored to target specific people.

That's why, last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had to give evidence to two US Congressional committees to explain how Facebook works and what it does.

Facebook has been accused of allowing democracy to be undermined after millions of users' data was harvested without consent by a company called Cambridge Analytica. That firm has led the way in "behavioural microtargeting" - building up psychological profiles of voters so they can be individually targeted.

In March, a former Cambridge Analytica contractor, Christopher Wylie, told The Observer: "We… built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on."

As Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan - one of Ireland's greatest journalists - so aptly put it on these pages last month, now Facebook "is not a social media business, it is a surveillance business".

"Online services feed off the old media and simultaneously weaken it economically, draining off its advertising income. There's no point crying about that. The technology won't be disinvented, and it offers terrific speed and wider access to countless millions," Kerrigan wrote.

"But the current scandal is far bigger than the cliche of a decrepit old media and a brash, swashbuckling new way of doing things. It's also about how governments are elected, how the truth is buried and how citizens are manipulated."

We have indeed seen growing evidence of the manipulation of public opinion on social media platforms in key electoral areas during the last US presidential election in what we are told is the greatest democracy in the world.

The extent of that manipulation has yet to be fully established. But here's the rub: Either Donald Trump captured a populist mood and successfully sold his message to blue collar workers angry at failures to protect their jobs in the globalised economy - or fake news was used to prey on the hopes and fears of those same workers and democracy was simply undone.

That depends on who you believe. Or, more importantly, it depends on who - or what - you listen to, watch or read.

And that is why journalism is important.

It is also why it is important that, when it comes to comment and opinion, you hear views with which you may not agree.

Otherwise, you are fed a diet of information fitting what you already believe, selected by an algorithm.

What would an algorithm have done with the news of a countermanding order, provided to it at 10.20pm on a Saturday night?

No matter what emerges in court tomorrow or the eventual outcome of the ODCE case, the Sunday Independent and our sister titles online and in print will continue to do our journalism - and keep doing the job that has been done for more than 100 years.

Sunday Independent

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