Since the election of Donald Trump there has been much angst about ‘fake news’. The concern comes mostly from politicians and journalists. This is both surprising and hypocritical.
Firstly, over the past few decades, politicians themselves have been the principal source of ‘spun’, distorted or downright inaccurate news. In all democracies, armies of journalists, paid for by the public purse, are employed by the political party in government as ‘special advisers’. Their function is to ensure positive coverage for the ruling party. Plainly, the facts will often be against them. In such circumstances, they just lie.
Secondly, non-government journalists cannot claim to have clean hands. Although we are fortunate in this country to have some of the most hard-working, responsible and accurate journalists on the planet, we also have some tabloid newspapers which regularly peddle, at best, distorted versions of the truth.
Of course, newspaper journalists and internet journalists do not operate under the strict legally enforceable regulatory regime of political impartiality, accuracy and fairness which binds broadcast news. Maybe we should not expect the truth from print. But newspaper journalists subscribe to a press code which includes fairness and accuracy, and claim to adhere to it.
The background to the concern on fake news from politicians and journalists is crucial to understand what is happening. Politicians are appalled at Donald Trump’s success over a life-long professional party politician in America. Many claim that part of the reason for his success was fake news on social media and the internet. Many accuse Russia of creating fake news to support Trump. Meanwhile President Trump claims that much of the American media are producing fake news.
In 2016, journalists made themselves look foolish with hopelessly wrong predictions of the outcomes of the UK general Election, the EU referendum and the US presidential election. It is in their interests to blame ‘fake news’ for their huge errors.
Scotland has its own share of this mess in the demented ‘CyberNats’ – sad sacks who classify news outlets failing to accord slavish adulation to nationalism as fake news.
Due to modern technology we will never stop the evil, the mad and politically inimical regimes from producing and disseminating fake news. There is nothing new in this. The correct approach is to look to a mature legal system which, unlike Scotland, values free speech – namely America. The wise words of Justice Billings Learned Hand in a First Amendment (free speech) case in 1943 say it all: “The First Amendment… presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be folly; but we have staked upon it our all.”
In democracies that’s where we are today, have been in the past, and always will be.
Alistair Bonnington is former in-house Counsel to BBC Scotland.