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Was BuzzFeed right to publish the Donald Trump “golden showers” dossier?

The news site released documents containing unverified claims about the President-Elect’s behaviour in Russia.

The US news site BuzzFeed has published an entire dossier of unverified claims about Donald Trump. The leaked intelligence report is full of unsubstantiated stories about the President Elect’s behaviour in Russia. Detailing a graphic sex act, the scandal has swiftly and gleefully been labelled “watersportsgate”.

And just as Trump has become the focus of internet jokes, BuzzFeed is now at the centre of a scandal of its own – albeit a drier one. A media ethics crisis.

The president-elect himself has accused BuzzFeed of propagating “fake news” – a media phenomenon which was much-discussed during and after the US election campaign, when false stories circulated about Trump’s rivals. And the US-based news organisation doesn’t even know whether the news it has reported is fake or not.

The story, headlined “These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties To Russia”, links to the full, unredacted dossier, so that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government”.

Its story admits that its journalists have not “verified or falsified” the claims, and warns, “the allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors”.

Criticism was quick to appear. “By publishing the full document without proof of its veracity, journalists risk undermining public faith in the media,” writes Rupert Myers, GQ’s political correspondent. “You can’t complain about the deluge of fake news shared by all of Trump’s supporters if you’re encouraging people to believe in this latest piece of unverified scandal.”

“How, exactly, are Americans supposed to make up their own minds about allegations presented without verification or evidence?” tweeted Brad Heath, a USA Today investigative journalist.

Trump dismissed the story as “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCHUNT!” on Twitter, and his lawyer Michael Cohen has issued a blanket denial to Mic, claiming, “the person who created this [document] did so from their imagination”.

So how is running this story different from the bogus exposés invented about Hillary Clinton? Surely a journalist’s job is to stand up a story, rather than simply leaving it up to the reader’s interpretation?

I contacted both BuzzFeed’s UK and US teams to ask why they published the document – and if they had “fake news” concerns. Neither would comment. But a memo sent to staff by BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith says the decision behind publishing was to enlighten readers:

“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers . . . In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media.

“It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the president and president-elect . . . publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

The rationale is that news of this document's existence was already public. It had been reported on (in general terms, without the specific allegations being mentioned) by both Mother Jones and CNN. So BuzzFeed was just moving the story forward by giving readers the opportunity to see its contents.

This dilemma perfectly encapsulates how digital news is changing journalism. A tension between transparency and accuracy has been growing over the past few years, according to former BBC journalist Nic Newman, research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of the Digital News Project 2017.

“You used to basically not do anything unless you had two sources on it,” he recalls. “Twenty-four-hour news came around, and then people said, increasingly: ‘You’re hiding something; you need to be more transparent’.”

He believes BuzzFeed’s story reflects this modern urge for transparency: “On the one hand, it’s good to be transparent, let people know what you’ve got,” he says. “On the other, there’s a real danger of putting stuff out there if you can’t verify it . . . it’s not good for our democracy if people can’t tell truth from lies.”

Giving readers the entire document is “putting a lot of weight on individuals to try and make those judgements and sort these things for themselves”, Newman says. He ran focus groups on transparency in journalism last year, and found, “consumers are stressed by this; they feel overloaded with information and they don’t know what to trust and what not to trust”.

He says this ties into the “fake news” phenomenon; people believe what they want to, because they don’t know which sources to trust. In trying to inform its readers as thoroughly as possible, BuzzFeed may have done the opposite.

In this case, the dossier’s claims have neither been corroborated nor redacted. There is also no proof of the source’s identity (a “British former intelligence agent”), and what their motivation was for leaking this information. Without this context, how useful is this document really to the reader? Is there a danger that repeating unverified rumours is exactly the kind of “fake news” which journalists are supposed to counteract?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder