The run-up to and aftermath of the EU Referendum has shown that tabloids can’t be trusted to tell the truth. The government needs to take steps towards regulation and prevent moguls from pushing their agenda.
On 18 October this year, the Daily Mail‘s front page claimed that child refugees entering the country from Calais weren’t children at all, declaring that some were as old as 38. This was presented as fact. Arguably, the outrage was understandable – surely refugees entering the country shouldn’t be able to lie about their age and get away with it.
Yet the Daily Mail didn’t disclose that the “facial recognition program” they were using was Microsoft’s experimental Face API program, a technology that’s very unreliable – Microsoft themselves explained that it shouldn’t be used as an indicator of age. Alternatively, many of the child refugees photographed appeared to be under 16, which means that the Mail may have broken the law if they didn’t ask for prior publishing consent.
Despite the short backlash against the Daily Mail, nothing happened, their lies went unpunished, and they’re back to creating sensationalist headlines.
It is unacceptable that tabloids are able to get away with creating stories and selling papers on the basis of false headlines. The fact that the European Commission has a page dedicated to debunking the myths that UK newspapers have spouted about the EU for 20 years is frankly embarrassing.
It’s fine for papers to support certain political parties, represent different parts of the political spectrum, and have differing opinions – that’s democracy. However, if the same individuals own multiple newspapers – Rupert Murdoch (The Sun and The Times) and Lord Rothermere (Metro and Daily Mail) own 56 per cent of the press between them as of January 2016 – there is ample opportunity for either mogul to push their political agenda.
For example, Rupert Murdoch famously said to the Evening Standard, “When I go to Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice”. How coincidental that The Sun and The Sunday Times both backed Brexit, thereby influencing their readers to do exactly what Murdoch wanted.
Or take the tabloids’ reactions to the High Courts ruling on Brexit needing to be passed through Parliament. The Daily Express – owned by Ukip financial backer Richard Desmond – went for a typically nationalist, proto-fascist response, starting off with “Today this country faces a crisis as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches” It truly wouldn’t be an Express article without a reference to Churchill, would it?
This problem is huge, and it’s obvious that only by introducing a law banning individuals from owning multiple media outlets can it be solved. Not only would this prevent one mogul from holding a monopoly over the newspaper business, but it would also ensure that newspapers present a wide range of political viewpoints.
However, that still won’t solve the problem of newspapers lying and getting off scot-free – pushing an agenda is one thing, but making false claims in order to back it up is another. Once again, we can look back at the aftermath of EU referendum and how the papers reacted. For an example, a Sun article published on 31 August (written by Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, no less) hid huge amounts of lies. The article claims that the EU banned the imperial measurement system – it hasn’t, as it allows imperial measurements to be used alongside the metric system. Maybe you’ve heard the one about the EU forcing jam to have less than 60 per cent sugar content, when – in reality – it’s flexible, and the Sun has protested this flexibility before. Lastly, who could forget the famous “Brussels banning bendy bananas” myth started by The Sun, Mirror, Mail, and Express in 1994.
Is it so unreasonable to ask for well-researched news? Newspapers are often bought solely because of the content on their front page – if that information out to be false or unresearched, then the are newspapers not fulfilling their duty to the people. Speculation and sensationalism should be left for the opinion section – front pages and main stories need to be supported with evidence.
The time has come for regulation, although an attempt was made two years ago. Established in September 2014, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) was set up on the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. This is currently chaired by former judge Sir Alan Moses.
However, Ipso has virtually no power at all in the press world – the Financial Times, Independent, The Guardian, and The Observer all refused to partake in it, and that was that. There’s a reason that you don’t hear much about Ipso today, and that’s because it has no power.
Ipso needs to brought into the state system as a government department (and to be better funded, although remain apolitical) in order for it to have real authority. With this authority, it should employ officials to research the claims that newspapers make on their front pages and ensure that they are true. If not, then they should be forced to correct their falsified story the next morning using the same area of page that the story was dedicated to, or face a financial reprimand.
This may sound like censorship, but opinions shouldn’t be changed or redacted – we just need a return to a time when the truth mattered. We’re in an era of post-truth politics in which emotions seem to be more valued than evidence when it comes to campaigning – “Take Back Control” being an excellent example – which means that newspapers are needed to inform the people with facts.
Instead, the newspapers are wrapped up in the post-truth political era, and the people have nowhere to get their facts from. The price of democracy may be eternal vigilance, but that doesn’t mean that the press should be allowed run wild with lies.
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