Yo Zushi, fact-checking the New Statesman. Photo: New Statesman
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Please check your facts: a New Statesman sub-editor speaks out

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, but in the digital age, errors spread fast - and are harder to debunk.

On a single day in May this year, ten people were shot in the US city of Baltimore. Non-fatal shootings had climbed year on year by almost 50 per cent and the homicide rate was up by a fifth. “Charm City” – as the metropolis’s marketing team once named it – had become the bloodstained “Bodymore” made familiar by the HBO series The Wire.

It was in such a climate, with nerves on edge after the death of the 25-year-old Freddie Gray while under arrest in the city a few weeks earlier, that Fox News reported news of the latest shooting of a “black man” by armed police.

The channel claimed that the incident, on 4 May, had been witnessed by the news company’s own broadcast crew. It quickly transpired, however, that the story was baloney – and had likely been based on a misinterpretation of tweets sent out by the Baltimore Police Department. No one at the scene was dead. The local police hadn’t fired a single bullet.

As a sub-editor for this magazine, I spend much of my time checking facts. My colleagues and I attempt to corroborate every name, every date and every assertion before publication. Slips occur, but the New Statesman does its best to minimise errors by devoting considerable time and effort to its editorial processes. Each piece in the issue you are holding has been read by at least four people. Reliable content is one reason why readers trust magazines such as the NS. Here, a misread tweet would not have been deemed sufficient evidence to anchor a leading story. And, we would hope, an error of such magnitude would have been weeded out before being allowed to contaminate the public discourse.

And yet the culture of fact-checking has long been under threat. All too often it is deemed incompatible with today’s rapid-fire (and increasingly web-based), 24-hour journalism. “Sub-editors worst hit in London Evening Standard cuts”, said one headline back in 2009 as the newspaper began culling production staff. Variations have since become commonplace in the press.

When Peter Oborne announced his resignation from the Telegraph in February, the paper’s former chief political commentator bemoaned – among other grievous ethical breaches – the constriction of “subs”, without whom, “as all reporters are aware, no newspaper can operate”. Slipping standards, he wrote, “coincided with the arrival of click culture”.

The internet undoubtedly has democratised information, as its heavy use by protesters under repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Iran attests. But was MIT’s David Thorburn right to wonder in 2007 whether old-style journalism’s “successors in cyberspace” would come to their profession with the same “sense of mission” as the old guard?

Craig Silverman, founder of the “rumour-tracking” website emergent.info, has warned of online businesses posing as legitimate news outlets that “pump out hoax content with the goal of generating shares and links”. In an article for the news aggregator Digg, he took as an example a viral story of a “priest who met a female god in his near-death experience”. That yarn, published by the online World News Daily Report, was bogus but it spread quickly across social media and, after being taken at face value by Uganda’s Daily Monitor, eventually made it into the mainstream western media when a CBS radio station in Dallas blogged about it and the Metro reported it for the benefit of gullible Londoners.

From the “Twitter Thanksgiving airplane feud” to the allegation that US Democrats increased federal income-tax rates last year under Obamacare, much of what passes as true online is later shown to be merely “truthy”: it sounds credible but isn’t credible at all.

That such stories can infiltrate the supposedly authoritative media is alarming. In December 2013, Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, told the New York Times: “If you throw something up without fact-checking it and you’re the first one to put it up and you get millions and millions of views and later it’s proved false, you still got those views.” He conceded that this was “a problem” and that “the incentives are all wrong” – yet his Pulitzer-winning website has posted several made-up viral stories, including the dumb “airplane feud” of November 2013.

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, as Dominic Ponsford, the editor of Press Gazette, reminds me. “It’s always been an issue. Even before digital, stories with false information used to get into the media and be endlessly repeated.” In the past, errors preserved in cuttings libraries would be searched out and held up as corroboration.

“What has changed is the speed,” Ponsford notes. “False stories spread faster, but they’re corrected much faster.” Still, it’s hard to beat click culture’s thirst for sensation. Silverman pointed out that while debunkings of the female God story had attracted “roughly 2,000 shares and interactions . . . the articles that treat it as true now top 160,000”.

Where a blog, relied on to be immediately responsive and subjective, may be forgiven for running on a combustible mix of social media and skim-read information, such laxness is unacceptable in mainstream news, as Fox’s Baltimore blunder demonstrates. Facts matter, even in the era of 24-hour news. We should keep checking them.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor with the New Statesman

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories