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Rocked by fake news, infighting and smears, UK media reflect on election coverage

Rocked by fake news, infighting and smears, UK media reflects on election coverage / Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev

The general election has laid bare major issues facing a beleaguered UK media. The nation’s biggest public service broadcasters have been accused of bias from all sides while print titles have been embroiled in party spin and the spread of fake news on social media.

Analytics firm Social Bakers has recorded a worrying trend these last two weeks. Social media sentiment towards the UK's two most trusted broadcasters according to its research, the BBC and Channel 4, has become overwhelmingly negative.

Of more than 27,000 social media general election mentions of BBC News in the last two weeks, 81% were negative and 2% positive. Looking only at this week, this deteriorates further to 86% negativity, with keywords such as 'fake punch', 'crucial election' and 'rules on impartiality'. Meanwhile, 53% of Channel 4 sentiment was negative.

These figures support research indicating that since 2015, the proportion of the UK public that trusts news ‘most of the time’ has fallen from 51% to just 40% in 2019. Poor returns for the top two trusted broadcasters in the UK.

“We’ve certainly seen numerous events that might have had a negative effect on some people’s trust in the news media as a whole,” said Dr Richard Fletcher, a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism - which is conducting ongoing research on the topic. “However, they [BBC and Channel 4] remain two of the most trusted news outlets in the UK.”

Perhaps contributing to the growing negative perception of each broadcaster were instances like the BBC editing out Question Time audience laughter at Boris Johnson’s expense, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s tweet accusing a Labour activist of punching a Conservative aide (didn’t happen) and Channel 4’s decision to replace the prime minister with a melting ice sculpture when he dodged a leadership climate change debate. "We don’t yet know for sure whether fleeting stories like this have any kind of lasting effect on trust,” Fletcher said.

It’s not just TV news broadcasters that have faced criticism. The eagle-eyed former night editor of The Times Liz Gerard has been keeping a track of the tabloids. She believes these titles have “overwhelmingly” relied upon negative campaigning rather than an impartial critique of key policy issues.

“Generally, there’s been very little policy talk. Little on education, nothing on defence, and amazingly, given that it's the issue that matters most to most young voters, almost nothing on the environment,” Gerard said. A majority of Daily Mail and The Sun election stories attacked Labour, rather than praising the Conservatives; on the other side of the spectrum, The Mirror has regularly raised the sitting government’s record, especially around the NHS.

Stuart Millar, editor of BuzzFeed UK, likened modern political support to that of celebrity or football fandoms. “Supporters of one party refuse to believe negative coverage of their own side. They willingly believe and share anything negative about their rivals," he said.

Millar expressed concern that the media was under attack, “usually from highly partisan critics who are pushing their own agendas”.

Perhaps no story better exposes vulnerabilities in the press than the image of a sick four-year-old laid out on a hospital floor. The story of how Jack Williment-Barr’s wait for a hospital bed blew up was led by Alison Phillips, editor of The Daily Mirror, which published the ‘picture that shames Tories’.

However, a Facebook post from a supposed nurse attempting to discredit the story as 'fake news' went on to be shared 27,000 times, reaching further into private groups and channels as a screenshot. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson also promised a feature exposing the staged photo.

Then the holder of the account behind the post later claimed she had been hacked. The ‘fake news’ accusation was itself fake news. This incident dealt a real blow to trust.

Phillips said: “Decent Mirror readers who have trusted us all their lives had their heads turned by absolute bollocks that was created to discredit the story, the family and destroy our readers’ democratic decision-making.” The newsdesk fielded calls from concerned readers, leaving reporters wondering why their copy was trusted less than a random social media post.

The news industry must collectively “pulverise” misinformation like this, Phillips said. “The chaos isn't helpful to anybody, apart from some mad Russians and some far-right loonies.”

Phillips suggested this episode clearly demonstrates the bigger issue: that people are now more likely to believe information posted by a friend on Facebook than the front page of a newspaper.

In the face of this bleak view of the national media, James Mitchinson, editor of the Yorkshire Post (the regional title that also reported the Jack Williment-Barr story and suffered the same fallout), has urged the public to trust in the media in an open letter published this week. In the piece titled 'Do not believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night', he said “that account has now disappeared. Our accounts are still here and you can hold me and my journalists to account”.

The debate debate

Adding to a decline in the public’s trust in media is arguably the fragmented coverage of party leaders in the way of formal, televised debates and interviews.

The prime minister received stern criticism for being the only leader to dodge an Andrew Neil grilling. Instead, the BBC reluctantly granted him a questioning from Andrew Marr following the London Bridge terror attacks on 11 December.

Elsewhere, ITV hosted a Johnson/Corbyn showdown which Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was excluded from while Channel 4's climate debate promised seven party leaders but delivered five, Johnson and Nigel Farage being replaced with melting ice blocks. Meanwhile, cabinet member Michael Gove tried to enter the debate, filmed his rejection and then attacked the broadcaster as biased.

Greater collaboration between broadcasters could have neutralised the politicians' ability to pick and choose who they are interviewed by. Jonathan Levy, the director of news gathering and operations for Sky News, helped import the presidential-style leadership election debates to the UK in 2010. He said collaboration between the media this time around “has been a complete mess”.

“We used to agree a format and set the rules of how a proper debate should work. That all broke down in 2015," Levy told The Drum. "[Broadcasters] want to have their name on the debates, we are competitors and value our editorial independence but if there ever was a time to put that to one side it is now.”

Levy has argued for an independent Leaders Debate Commission, claiming the public is tired with the debates and the squabbling and grandstanding around them. “No one should be compelled to do an interview, but there has been a set of norms that have governed norms.”

This election has afforded less access to the candidates than any he remembers. Instead of proper scrutiny, shallow staged photo ops like the PM smashing a tractor through a wall are now de rigueur.

“The reputation of broadcasters has taken a battering during this election," Levy continued. "But there remains a hell of a lot of trust regardless. We can repair the damage by collaborating around election debates in the future.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, argued “polarising views, populist posturing by politicians, and multiplying of media” were also making the job of reporters more difficult.

“[From politicians] we’re seeing tactics of distortion, dissembling and downright lying becoming normalised and this election highlights the challenges this poses for public interest journalism,” Stanistreet said. "If politicians showed more respect to the press and made a greater attempt to answer questions, the news industry would be in a better place."

The social problem

As the press pushes for greater restrictions on misinformation from tech giants, they must take better care not to share bad information themselves.

BuzzFeed's Millar said: “There’s a broader issue there with journalists not applying the same rigour to their social media output as they do to the stories they run.” Researcher Fletcher agreed. “Individual journalists have found themselves in the firing line for tweeting unverified information from political sources which may not go under the same scrutiny as that in the report.”

Underlining this, earlier this week reports emerged that a Labour activist had assaulted Matt Hancock’s aide outside the Leeds hospital now infamous for its incapability to provide a bed for young Jack Williment-Barr.

BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg (who has just received a tacit slap on the wrist from the Electoral Commission) and her ITV equivalent Robert Peston, shared reports of the attack on Twitter, both citing unnamed sources.

The quickfire tweet from the broadcast journalist has since been deleted - but not before it helped contribute to the masses of negativity aimed at the Beeb.

Regardless of who, if anyone, takes a majority this election, it is clear across all platforms that members of the press have work to do to rebuild trust in the news, and the utility of the organisations delivering it.

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