Friday, 3 March 2017

Politicians can't just play a 'fake news' card when things get tough - my Catholic Universe column

Last week, in a quite corner of Cumbria, a seismic political event happened. The Conservative Party, the party of Government, won a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Copeland from their official opposition, depending on how you measure these things the first time that such a victory had taken place in almost 140 years.

A seat that Labour had held since 1935 had become vacant by virtue of the fact that the sitting MP, the extremely likeable Jamie Reed, had found himself a new job. The ensuing by-election campaign, from a Labour perspective at least, was one of the most distastefully fought in modern times.

Amidst the leaflets from Labour implying that babies would die if you were to vote Conservative there was great discussion as to whether the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and by extension his party supported the nuclear power industry which so many jobs in the constituency rely upon.

It was a perfectly reasonable question to ask especially considering that there was indeed quite clear evidence to support that in the past, at least, Mr Corbyn had been very much against the industry.

When Mr Corbyn first campaigned to become Labour leader he issued a manifesto document called ‘Protecting our Planet’. The document clearly states “I am opposed to fracking and to new nuclear on the basis of the dangers posed to our ecosystems” before going on to say “New nuclear power will mean the continued production of dangerous nuclear waste and an increased risk from nuclear accident and nuclear proliferation”.

As many readers are aware I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn but it seems to me that he is known for his principled positions and his policy document seems to honour a stance which, whilst I am not in agreement, is equally clear and unambiguous.

I certainly don’t intend on writing a dissection of Labour’s shocking electoral loss here. Those critical of Mr Corbyn will see him as a key reason for the defeat, his supporters will not be swayed no matter the evidence. But I do want to focus on one particular element of the post mortem.

On the Friday morning after the Thursday night before one of Mr Corbyn’s principle supporters, Emily Thornberry MP, was sent out to the waiting media to defend him.

Appearing on Sky News Ms Thornberry said “Word had got out the Jeremy wasn’t in favour of nuclear power. That isn’t true. That’s what you call fake news.”

And it is that term ‘Fake News’ that I want us to consider today.

Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn it was undoubtedly reasonable, given his previous statements on the nuclear power industry, to question whether he was supportive of the main industry and source of employment in that part of Cumbria.

When Mr Corbyn was subsequently interviewed by ITV News in late January he was asked specifically on five occasions whether he supported a new nuclear power plant at Moorside in the constituency. Each time he deflected the question and refused to answer directly.

With both his previous statements and his evasiveness in response to direct questioning it cannot therefore be possibly true that Mr Corbyn’s positioning on nuclear power was ‘fake news’.

In saying it was Ms Thornberry was unequivocally doing something we are sadly seeing more and more of. Trying to claim that undeniable facts are in some way false, trying to blame the media for reporting inconvenient truths.

Of course the spectre of fake news isn’t something that started necessarily on this side of the Atlantic and in many ways the Labour propaganda machine are something of novices.

For real mastery of the term ‘fake news’ we must look to the new President of the United States, Donald Trump.

It is almost impossible to quantify the role that this new term played in the election and subsequent administration of Mr Trump. A quick search on Google for the term ‘Donald Trump Fake News’ will result in over 55 million hits.

Every time the media challenge the Trump administration, often in the face of demonstrable facts, look no further than the question of how many people attended President Trump’s inauguration, spokesmen or the President himself will fire back that the news outlets themselves are being driven by a ‘fake news’ agenda. That they are the enemies of the people.

And, simply put, things are getting far, far worse. Last weekend an off-camera press briefing from the White House press secretary Sean Spicer saw news organisations, largely those most seen to be most critical of the President, excluded from the event.

Respected news outlets as diverse as CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, Daily Mail and BBC amongst others were shut out whilst those seen as more supportive of the administration notably including Fox News and the new media organisation Breitbart, whom President Trump’s closest advisor Steve Bannon is an ex-Chairman, were very much on the list to get in.

There is a hugely important point here. The job of a news organisations is never to acquiesce to politicians but to investigate and challenge.

Clearly all too often politicians would very much like to ignore and deflect the questions that journalists ask of them. It does not however mean that those questions are invalid or that the news that arises from them is fake.

It’s undoubtedly true that news organisations have political stances whether that is the left leaning Guardian through to the more conservative Daily Mail. We can broadly agree with those editorial positions or choose to seek our news from an outlet more in tune with our own beliefs.

What is indisputable however is that each one of those bodies excluded by the Trump administration follow a journalistic code of ethics of properly sourcing and researching stories that has been passed down over the generations.

Each of those shut out organisations has ethical standards far higher than many of the new news media sources that we see proliferating our social media pages and as consumers of news we have duty to give those organisations the regard that they warrant.

It is an extremely dangerous precedent to accept the shutting out of mainstream media from important press-conferences just as it is an inconvenient truth that more and more politicians are decrying stories they happen not like as being ‘fake’.

The Catholic Universe is a publication which has been published for well over 150 years. Every one of us who writes for this esteemed newspaper is conscious of the need for research, for accurate reporting and for balanced commentary. Because of that, I am sure it goes without saying, we are proud of the reputation that we have built for decency and relevance.

Every time that I put pen to paper, or these days start typing, I know that what we are doing is more than ‘fake news’ created to fit in with our editorial leanings.

There is undoubtedly an, at times, awkward relationship between politics and the media. As someone with a foot in both camps I know only too well that sometimes I would like the press to report things I say on different ways just as I would like politicians to give straight answers.

But ultimately I understand that it is far better for us all to have a media who can challenge rather than one in the pockets of our leaders.

‘Fake News’ is, far too fast, becoming the get out of jail card for politicians who seek to deflect their own failings. We cannot  accept that narrative or be fooled by it.


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