The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion

OK! TV is the latest addition to the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond’s media empire.

"OK! TV kicked off to a triumphant start," said OK! magazine this week in an interview with the OK! TV host Kate Walsh. The Channel 5 show could be glad of one positive review, at least, even if the more cynical among us might suspect that due to printing deadlines it may have been written before the "triumphant start" had even gone to air.

But then this is the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond's empire right now. OK! TV, Channel 5's new brightly coloured approximation of a couple of vapid office drones chattering about celebrities over a water cooler, promotes OK! magazine. The Daily Star and Daily Express promote OK! TV and OK! magazine, as well as giving remarkably positive reviews to the likes of the Channel 5 host Vanessa Feltz; OK! magazine has a two-page feature telling you what's coming up this week on Channel 5 . . . and so on, and so on.

"We are beyond excited by the launch of OK! TV," said the magazine's editor in a leader this week. Beyond excited!

The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion gets to the point where if you see something in a Desmond publication that isn't anything to do with another of his assets, you wonder why it's there at all. And which one is meant to be the flagship? Is Channel 5 the jewel in the crown, or is it OK!, or the Daily Express? Or are they all fighting for the title of least mediocre? It's hard to tell.

It was my own fault, really. I'd decided to watch OK! TV while reading a copy of OK! magazine. I think I got overloaded by it all. But one thing I did notice was that I was reading more than I was watching. I ended up being fascinated by Josie Gibson's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding photo shoot, leaving Kate Walsh and Matt Johnson babbling away in the background.

Of course, this being a Desmond publication, the photo shoot is to tell you that Gibson is a reporter on . . . yes, you guessed it, OK! TV. But even as someone who isn't the target audience of the mag, who couldn't really care less about celebrity culture and all the trashy awfulness therein, I found her tales of growing up in a traveller family (hence the giant pink dress and caravan) quite intriguing.

OK! TV, in comparison, is pretty shabby. Gibson is, by a bus ride, the best thing about it, chirping merrily away about celebrity tweets in that delightful Bristolian burr ("Shane Warne, he's a blancmange, in't he?"), but her segment was a rare moment that strayed beyond the otiose. The rest just makes you yearn for the understated subtlety and class of the show's predecessor, Live from Studio Five.

Besides, they're missing a trick. If they called it Daily Star Daily Express Sunday Express New! Magazine Star Magazine Daily Star on Sunday OK! TV, they'd be able to promote even more Northern & Shell goodies at one go. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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