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Fake news, mistrust and global media

Written by By Keshini Navaratnam |

It is a vicious circle; fake news inevitably generates mistrust and undermines the efforts of the reputable global media which seek to convey the truth, endorse the rule of law and hold those in power and influence to account.  Fake news is insidious; it permeates the cells of society, latching on imperceptibly to its host then destroying the structure from within.

Free, fair and responsible journalism plays a critical role in informing public opinion, it encourages debate, discussion and challenge and fosters a plurality of views.  In short, it is part of a healthy global society. Journalism exists to challenge and question, and should be empowered to do so, and supported to find the truth.  Journalism primarily focuses on issues that matter to people.  The dissemination of the truth plays a vital role in creating fairer societies, where those who lead may be challenged, their vision revealed and malpractices and corruption are exposed.   The truth is the most powerful way of countering disinformation and misinformation.

In stark contrast, fake news detracts from society; fake news creates an ugly masquerade.  It is a vehicle for propaganda which can manipulate and distort mindsets and create dangerous singular narratives and encourages a blind acceptance of a limited view.  Fake news does not stand up to challenge and close scrutiny. Fake news is anathema to robust journalism.

Whilst a powerful and invaluable tool in the hands of those who use it responsibly, the digital media and its burgeoning world presents a ready platform for those who seek to covey fake news. Because it has a fast and loose relationship with the truth fake news spreads rapidly, an estimated six times as fast as genuine news, undermining those who adhere to responsible values.    Fake news has been nurtured by the hijacking of digital channels and societal discourse by those who do not act in the wider interests of a society or the global community.

With the explosion of sources of information – and the seemingly limitless capacity of every smart phone and computer in the world to provide either or fake news – the truth is often veiled by a cloak of misinformation, resulting in distortion of the facts.  This is perhaps when fake news is at its most destructive; fact and fiction become inextricably intertwined. Genuine images reflecting the truth can be almost instantly replaced by an often indistinguishable edited version where picture can speak a thousand different words to the ones originally captured. 

The principle of gaining two trusted, reliable, verifiable  and objective sources of information to counter fake news is an important one.  The role of the objective journalist, exploring, questioning and pursuing the truth has never been more important.                                

Journalists around the world have come under fire from a variety of directions.  There is an implicit contract of trust between ethical and responsible journalists and the societies in which they live, embodied in the concept of the Fourth Estate.  The very idea of journalism as the fourth pillar of society, supplementing the executive, legislature and judiciary   emphasises its fundamental value potentially to every nation in the world. This is why the role of the media is championed by the major organisations in the international community including the Commonwealth where its charter lays out that  “Government’s transparency and accountability is promoted by an independent and vibrant media which is responsible, objective and impartial and which is protected by law in its freedom to report and comment on public affairs”.    To succeed, journalists need direct access to primary sources where they can clearly link to their original sources and where sources can be seen to be healthily challenged.   Society should not be castigating the principled journalist for doing their job.

In troubling times, people have turned to journalists as a source of reliable and accessible information that enhances their ability to make judgements and debate important issues.  It is worthwhile comparing two maxims “In war, the first casualty is truth” attributed to Aeschylus  is well known.  Less common is acquaintance with Sun Tzu’s philosophy that “All warfare is based on deception”.  Not all warfare is conventional.  Not all deception is confined to a military conflict.

In my view, a fundamental purpose of a responsible global media is to facilitate the pursuit and dissemination of the truth in the interests of every individual and every community, and to counter the opportunities for fake news to replace reality and to generate mistrust through misinformation and disinformation.  Well-founded and properly resourced journalism is a beacon for hope and inspiration, providing reassurance to those who are trapped and isolated. I have experienced this first hand around the globe. I have heard the testimonies of countless  individuals, including the visionary Mikhail Gorbachev, who relied on analogue international broadcasts during the coup against him when he was cut off from the outside world.

Exemplary journalism is fearless and tenacious and often transformational; providing a catalyst for change, as the exposure of the Watergate scandal demonstrated in Nixon era in the US.

The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to two remarkable journalists, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia sends out a powerful message about the fundamental role that journalism plays in society around the world.                                                                     

But journalism is under attack.  Journalists have faced severe retribution, persecution, and given their lives for their activities; many have been made fearful and they are subjected to censorship, harassment and intimidation which have served to mute their voices.  This curtailment of journalistic freedom has created the space for fake news.  But, arguably, even more pernicious is the impact on journalism of the breakdown of trust between governments and their people, something which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic where unchallenged information prevailed. The absence of sustained direct contact to those in power and limited access to objective facts has reduced accountability severely.  

In a vacuum, people seek alternative sources of information and are quick to accept unverified material on social media, where claim and counterclaim wage battle and sensationalism replaces facts.   This febrile atmosphere has induced many politicians to conclude that they can distance themselves from the filter of conventional media outlets in favour of “spin” that they can control, before making it viral via social media.  Thus, journalists’ access to primary sources has become all too frequently blocked, replaced by a proliferation of one sided pronouncements which cannot be challenged at their point of origin.    

And there are other threats. The combination of sensationalism, the cult of celebrity, commercial interests and cost-cutting in global media organisations coupled with the insatiable appetite of the 24 hour news cycle have created a crisis in the world of authoritative journalism, at a time when it is sorely needed. The number of foreign correspondents has fallen as news organisations have changed strategy, choosing to become dependent on in-country journalists, instead of amplifying voices struggling to be heard on issues of importance through channels of additional coverage through the eyes of independent and, critically, external professionals.  Problems of sourcing have arisen with competing news outlets basing their “original material” on a single individual. 

Furthermore, many of even the most credible journalistically-focused media organisations have incrementally reduced their objective coverage of foreign news, slashing airtime and column inches and international news resources including staff, and become  increasingly under pressure to use unverified third party material, including - albeit unwittingly - fake news, on occasion.   Foreign news is no longer in vogue;  introspective national interests trump wider horizons across the globe.  So, while an individual journalist may be steadfastly committed to the pursuit of the truth and airing a subject internationally there simply may not be the bandwidth or editorial appetite to hear their voice in the information jungle that exists today.                  

Freedom of expression, independent media and access to facts and information are the bedrock of democratic  societies which champion the rule of law and good governance. This is recognised by UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.10, which requires country level progress towards universal access to information.       

Commonwealth leaders with their collective declarations on the core values of the grouping should consider leveraging the energy of CHOGM 2022 to underscore their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Joint action by 54 varied nations straddling all the world’s continents would send a powerful message as individual member nations, an influential association on the world stage and the wider global population.    

Commonwealth Heads of Government might also consider how they can proactively support and bolster free, independent and objective media across member states.

The dwindling number of journalists able to report from other countries should be addressed.  A robust, well-funded professional news organisation - which has the remit, resources and resolve to provide objective information and protect professional and committed journalists under Commonwealth auspices and the authority of the Charter.  Such an organisation - free from commercial pressures, bias, propaganda and risk of intimidation or censorship and unashamedly international - which is in a position to serve the global community’s interest - would be a valuable asset for the Commonwealth family.

This will serve the long-term requirements of the people of the Commonwealth and its leaders.  It would counter fake news, mistrust, bolster the global media effort and make for a better world.                 

Keshini Navaratnam is a longtime BBC World TV News Anchor and global media and communications adviser to governments and corporates.