Channel 4 News editor urges media to build alternative platform to 'toxic' Facebook

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The head of Channel 4 News is calling for the news industry to unite to create a new alternative platform to Facebook, which he says has become “too toxic” following a succession of scandals involving the loss of personal data and the dissemination of fake news.

Ben de Pear complains that Facebook has a “cult”-like sense of its own infallibility and that dealing with the social media giant is “a bit like speaking to the Moonies”. He says news publishers need a new global online destination where diverse but credible outlets can provide content to the public in a trustworthy environment and be fairly rewarded for it.

“The question we have had over the past year is: is Facebook too toxic a platform to actually appear on as news?” he says. “All the news organisations need to talk to each other and maybe we can come up with a separate platform – I don’t know, call it Newsbook? – where we can be funded.”

His comments come as Channel 4 News has created headlines around the world with its undercover exposé of how the British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica exploited a massive breach of Facebook data to influence elections around the world, backing Donald Trump’s election to the White House and the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

Speaking to The Drum, De Pear sets out a long list of grievances over the social media giant’s relationship with the news outlet.

– He says Facebook is not currently providing Channel 4 News with any advertising revenues despite the considerable traffic generated by content on a page with more than 4 million subscribers.

He says that police were called in after Channel 4 News’s Facebook page was recently “inundated” with paedophile imagery but the programme received no apology or compensation for the trauma suffered by its staff.

He says that Facebook refused to grant an interview to Channel 4 News over its Cambridge Analytica investigation but instead issued a press release to the programme’s media rivals.

Last Sunday, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg took out full-page advertisements in British and American newspapers to issue a public apology over the data loss. “This was a breach of trust and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time,” it said.

But de Pear expresses a lack of faith in Zuckerberg’s ability to “fix” the platform’s problems, as the Facebook founder has pledged. “You can’t live on the promise of one slightly strange individual who is running a massive multi-billion organisation that they are going to protect your data and fund you properly when they haven’t – they have done the opposite.”

Proposing a bespoke online platform for news, he says: “It’s probably unrealistic but should all news be in one place? (A place) where you see a multitude of opinions but where it is verified news and not just made up, like so much of it was on Facebook, and it’s run by organisations which care about news and care about the truth, which Facebook has not yet proven they do.”

Calling for the social media giant to be regulated, he claims the company (valued at $440bn) has grown too big and powerful. “Facebook’s plan, which was to be the internet all in one place, where you had your friends and personal stuff alongside everything to do with news and entertainment, we can see now it was just too ambitious, too dangerous,” he says. “Maybe you need to know that where you are reading a news article is not the website or app of a particular news organisation, it’s on a platform that is designed for and values news and not just somewhere where Uncle Bertie’s 80th is mixed up with Cheryl’s hen party and, oh look, there’s been a terror attack in Mogadishu.”

The Cambridge Analytica sting

Ironically, Facebook has been a crucial platform in enabling Channel 4 News to raise its status from a national news bulletin to a world-renowned presence in online news. But de Pear, who has been editor of Channel 4 News for nearly six years, says that the programme's strategy for promoting its Cambridge Analytica scoop internationally was based not around its Facebook page but on driving traffic to its own website and to its YouTube channel, where the main 19-minute film has been viewed more than 2m times.

The Cambridge Analytica sting was a triumph for the Channel 4 News investigations team led by Job Rabkin and an unidentified undercover reporter who posed as a Sri Lankan political fixer. The investigation was dependent on the testimony of whistleblower Christopher Wylie and the journalism of The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, which was crucial to the programme obtaining approval to do secret filming from the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

De Pear is clearly still stung by the way he says Facebook responded to the programme’s revelations. “For three days, Wednesday to Friday, they refused to accept that this breach of data had happened and that this was a story,” he says. “We were on the phone to them until late at night on Friday and at three o’clock on Saturday morning they put out their press release, thereby giving the story to the Washington Post, the BBC and all the rivals to the Observer, Channel 4 News and the New York Times who were working on this together, in a deliberate ploy to get ahead of the story and try to dampen it down.”

Facebook claimed the breach only involved 270,000 profiles, not recognising the 50 million friends of those users whose data had also been harvested through a personality app devised by academic Aleksandr Kogan, and then subsequently obtained by Cambridge Analytica for political profiling.

Despite Channel 4 News’s raised profile in America, de Pear claims that Facebook has “never ever taken us seriously”, and refused to speak to lead presenter Jon Snow even after the programme’s “tireless investigation”.

Inside Facebook things are seen differently. Rather than seeking to undermine the Channel 4 News exclusive, Facebook wished to quickly notify all media of its decision to suspend Cambridge Analytica, via a post in its global Newsroom page. Similarly, interviews given by Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives to titles ranging from the New York Times and CNN International to BBC Radio’s Today programme, were part of a strategy of reaching as wide an audience as possible. Although Channel 4 News was not given an on-camera interview, Facebook did communicate with its journalists via phone and email.

'Strained relations' with Facebook

As de Pear details Channel 4 News’s “strained relations” with Zuckerberg’s platform, observing that “we have supped with a longer and longer spoon with Facebook”, he also concedes that there were better times.

The show’s tactical decision to use clips of its content on Facebook, a strategy led by former Channel 4 News digital head Jon Laurence, saw it generate a staggering 2 billion views in 2016. But de Pear complains that he was never entirely satisfied with either the traffic stats or the consequent advertising revenue which the programme received from Facebook. “I started talking to Facebook to say ‘Can you give us more transparency on the money?’ and they said ‘No’.”

Nonetheless, the income from video advertisements that ran in-between Channel 4 News films did fund the expansion of the programme’s digital team.

But de Pear said the money dried up last year when Facebook switched to a new system which would have required Channel 4 News to make its money by including “mid-roll” ads part way through a film. “I said we couldn’t do that, we couldn’t have a news report about Aleppo and then have an ad in the middle for Persil Automatic,” he says. “We now get no money from Facebook for our content.”

As well as seeking to involve Channel 4 News in its testing of ad breaks in shows, Facebook and its partnership team has worked on improving the distribution of the programme’s content as its page has tripled in two years to 4 million subscribers.

Apart from the lack of financial return for the use of expensive journalism, de Pear had other concerns about Facebook, over its apparent inability to prevent films (including those by the award-winning Syrian filmmaker Wa’ad al-Kateab) being taken without consent and repurposed, and over the profits being made by purveyors of fake news on the platform (including Macedonian students tracked down by Channel 4 News reporters).

He says he raised his concerns publicly and at private events which Facebook organised for media executives. “They take you for expensive dinners but they weren’t really listening,” he says. “When you spoke to the company it was a bit like speaking to the Moonies. It was well Mark wants to do this, Mark wants to do that and we are all doing good. They just didn’t have any concept really of what the outside world thought of them, or that they could possibly be doing bad.”

His concerns took on a different dimension recently when Channel 4 News’s Facebook page was targeted with paedophile pictures in dozens of messages that arrived in its inbox from American addresses. “It was inundated with images,” he says.

De Pear contacted Facebook and called the police. He claims that Facebook asked him to forward the material for its examination. “I said ‘No, because that would be illegal’,” De Pear recalls.

When a Facebook employee came to the newsroom in London’s Gray’s Inn Road to investigate last month, the editor was surprised to find that he was also busy dealing with the fallout from a terror incident in Italy, where a far-right politician shot and wounded six African migrants. Police wanted access to the suspect’s Facebook page. “I thought, this company is making billions in revenue and it has one person in Europe dealing with police forces,” says de Pear, who is unhappy that staff who saw the imagery did not receive apologies or compensation from the social media giant.

In a statement to The Drum regarding the child exploitation images, a Facebook spokesperson says: “We reported the video to the appropriate authorities, and we used PhotoDNA technology to automatically prevent future uploads and shares. Sharing any kind of child exploitative imagery using Facebook or Messenger is not acceptable – even to express outrage. We are and will continue to be aggressive in preventing and removing such content from our community.”

'Facebook needs to be regulated or broken up'

Facebook is only 14 years old and has 2 billion users worldwide. It’s hardly surprising that such a phenomenal growth story, unrivalled in media history, should include problems along the way.

In a personal statement last week on its handling of the latest data loss, Zuckerberg said: “We’re limiting the data apps get when you sign in using Facebook. We’re also investigating every single app that had access to large amounts of data before we fixed this.”

In an earlier statement in January, the Facebook chief acknowledged criticisms of the platform’s powers and the damage it was accused of causing. He promised “to focus on fixing these important issues” as his mission for 2018.

“Facebook has a lot of work to do – whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page. “We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools.”

For all de Pear’s criticisms, he admits that “we are not immediately about to come off Facebook”, retaining hope that “at some point they may engage with us”.

But having once seen the platform as a way for the programme to reach the young viewers who have largely abandoned linear television news bulletins, he now doubts whether it has the same powers. “Is Facebook really the future? As far as I can work out lots of young people don’t even use it now anyway,” he says, again expressing doubt that the company has the right corporate culture to address its manifold problems. “I don’t think they can reform themselves. There are lots of very nice people working there who think they are doing the right thing but they do not understand that they are in a cult that doesn’t see value in anything that is outside of Facebook.”

De Pear’s own solution is a radical one, especially for a platform that was once regarded – including by itself – as the best means of connecting news companies with a mass digital audience. “Essentially Facebook needs to be regulated or broken up – it’s a classic monopoly,” he says. “At least the (old) monopolies were steel and railways. They weren’t everybody’s information, everybody’s attention and everybody’s lives.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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