Getty
Show Hide image

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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era