Comment: Reputation becomes a vital weapon in the age of social media

The brief she-did-she-didn't row over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the little-publicised 2010 changes to rules about flying the Union Flag over Government buildings was important in one respect; the Daily Mail's immediate retraction and apology demonstrated a commitment to the self-regulatory system its detractors will no doubt find hard to swallow.
John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper SocietyJohn McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society
John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society

The Mail, plus the Express and Telegraph, ran a story alleging the First Minister had cut the number of days the Union Flag would fly, when the change had actually occurred under her predecessor but official guidance only updated last year.

It’s still a story, just not the one which appeared, and in the current febrile political atmosphere, it is more grist to the mill of Mail-haters who will not be satisfied with anything short of its closure. The papers were accused of lying, even though proof of wilful deception was non-existent.

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The mistake-free newspaper has never been published and in the era of fake news the mark of a reliable title is the speed with which errors are rectified, and the Mail showed just how distant are the days when any admission of fallibility was to be avoided at all costs.

It is in the interests of the whole newspaper industry for problems to be resolved quickly and the Mail went further and apologised. If it’s good enough for the Mail in this instance, it should be for the Telegraph and Express too.

It’s only one small incident, but reputation is becoming the most important weapon in the fight against the onward march of Google and Facebook, who are not only unregulated but fiercely opposed to the basic principle of being responsible for the content they distribute.

Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg attempted to win some respectability by asking users to rate news sites by trustworthiness.

“I’ve asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local,” he said in a blog. “There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today. Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don’t specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them.”

The survey was an open invitation for campaigners, such as the politically-driven Stop Funding Hate effort to force advertisers to abandon The Sun , Mail and Express, to target sites they don’t like.

But without a campaign, Facebook is already sucking advertisers away from established news companies while using their content without paying a penny, rejecting regulation and paying minimal taxes. The survey threatens to make things worse while associating Zuckerberg with those who seek to close down the voices of those with whom they disagree.

Rupert Murdoch demanded that Facebook and Google pay a “carriage fee” for the news feeds they use, while a discussion amongst senior media figures in London last week agreed the so-called FANG of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google is sinking its teeth deep into all aspects of British media and the implications are barely understood. Inadvertently perhaps, Zuckerberg has given us a clue.

- John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society