Democracy needs informed debate: how do we get it? by GAVIN BARKER

 “A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.”

So said Peter Oborne, the former chief political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, on his resignation from that paper following its fraudulent coverage of the recent HSBC tax dodging scandal. As Oborne, pointed out, the biggest losers were the Telegraph readers:  a leading UK newspaper had abdicated its responsibility to tell the truth about an issue of vital public concern.  He added: If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril”.

Nor has the State been any less successful in cowing a ‘free’ press to do its bidding. The current government has intimidated sections of the media to either downplay or spin the whole issue of mass surveillance by GCHQ.  With the exception of the Guardian, an otherwise spineless British mainstream media has either ignored or even followed a government line that positions the human right to privacy - and human rights in general - as serving only to protect terrorists and criminals. The whistle blower Edward Snowden has rightly called the UK mainstream media’s coverage of the GCHQ story “a disservice to the public.”

The increasing role of corporate PR in the production of news
While these two recent examples stand out as two of the most blatant acts of press failure to publish real news, there is another less dramatic, more insidious shift in news reporting that has been taking place.

A study done by the Cardiff School of Journalism in 2006 exposed the degree to which the quality and independence of British journalism is being compromised by its increasing reliance on ‘pre-packaged news’ provided by PR and wire services: 19% of newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories were verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material, while less than half the stories they looked at appeared to be entirely independent of traceable PR. The main source of PR is the corporate/ business world, which the report states is “more than three times more successful than NGOs, charities and civic groups at getting material into the news”.  Consumer, business and entertainment stories score high on PR content but the greatest volume of PR generated material is health, particularly from health and pharmaceutical industries.

Agency or wire services accounted for 47% of the press stories but here too, corporate PR material was evident in the content provided to newspapers. As journalists are required to do more with less time,‘ready-made’ news comes to replace independent journalism with little effort made to contextualise and verify the main source of information.  The research found that in less than one in five cases was this done meaningfully. Broadcast news does better, with 42% of cases involving thorough contextualisation or verification.

Although this study is dated, it is unlikely that the corporate PR machine is any less effective in its efforts to shape the press and TV media coverage of the news we receive - and we have not even touched on Sky News owned by Rupert Murdoch!

At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, there is a growing public distrust in mainstream media revealed by a YouGov  poll in August 2014. This showed that only 45% of British people trusted upmarket newspapers such as the TimesTelegraph and Guardian, with less than half that (22%) for the Mailand Express and only 13% trusting the red topped tabloid newspapers the Sunand Mirror. BBC journalism scores 61% but it is Wikipedia that topped the list with 64% trusting it to tell the truth “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.  

The internet, social media and ‘an epidemic of ignorance’
Wikipedia’s success notwithstanding, too much credence is placed on the internet and social media as allowing us to circumvent information roadblocks at the click of a mouse. Internet search affords almost instantaneous access to vast amounts of information but separating the wheat from the chaff, myth from fact, balanced information from sheer digital drivel, is onerous work. And what credence can we put on Facebook’s efforts to position itself as a main source of news for the tens  of millions of ‘friends’ who think that Facebook is the internet and who never pick up a paper or listen to radio? 

Our multimedia rich society, far from informing and educating us has, through the commercialisation of the internet and ‘big data’ mining of personal  information,  created new global powers and vastly extended the impact of advertising to create new wants and a new economy of endless distraction.

Whether it is editorial policy, or a Facebook algorithm, increasingly we are being served ‘junk news’ that filters out the real issues of the day, leading to what Dr Jonathan Sachs has called an ‘epidemic of ignorance’, a collapse of the public’s basic knowledge about key issues we confront such as climate change… Read more:

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