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16 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:12pm

The abuse of Nick Watt is no isolated incident – the UK media is under attack

Unregulated social media has fuelled a culture of conspiracy theories and harassment.

By Dominic Ponsford

The jostling and intimidation of the BBC Newsnight political editor Nick Watt is sadly only a small part of a much larger problem.

Watt was aggressively confronted by anti-lockdown protesters outside Downing Street on Tuesday (15 June), with footage showing people shouting “scum” and “traitor” at him. He ran behind the security barrier outside No 10, clearly in fear for his safety.

The mob could hardly have picked a more benign example of the fourth estate on which to vent their ire. You would struggle to find a more professional, sober and balanced journalist than Watt.

But the strengths that good journalists value – reliance on evidence, fairness, honest reporting – are the very things this particular mob appeared to despise.

There is now a significant minority of Britons who never pick up a newspaper, read a bona fide news website or watch a TV news bulletin. The proliferation of self-published online information sources is leading some into a new dark age where the advances of the Enlightenment are rolled back, and where they can instead choose whatever crackpot theory they wish to from an endless menu of deceit spread on social media and closed networks such as WhatsApp.

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As Press Gazette found when we investigated David Icke and others, there is cash to be made in conspiracies.

The anti-evidence party believes fairy tales that are sometimes easier to digest than uncomfortable truths. Such theories include: coronavirus has been confected by drug companies and governments to repress the population; man-made global warming is not real; and Donald Trump won the last US presidential election.

It is often these anti-truthers who are the most vehement critics of journalists. Perhaps not surprisingly they find it intensely irritating to be told that everything they believe is wrong.

Journalism has traditionally been considered a pseudo-profession and has always attracted chancers and rogues. But when I began in this job more than 20 years ago, while there may have been a pantomime dislike of journalists, bred by the exaggerated portrayal of gutter hacks in TV and film, there was also a respect for the important work we did – particularly at a local level.

Today, even local newspaper journalists – those saintly individuals who squeeze nuggets of news out of council agendas for a pittance of pay – are subject to the sort of abuse that Watt faced yesterday.

Since February 2020, attacks on journalists in the UK have included two men jailed for threatening local newspaper reporter Amy Fenton on Facebook, rape-related insults and threats against local radio reporter Natalie Higgins, and online threats against Belfast journalists Patricia Devlin and Allison Morris.

In May this year, a report by the Journal of the Association for Journalism Education found abuse of journalists has become “more commonplace, more vile and more serious”. And a survey last year found most local media journalists had experienced abuse on social media, with many feeling depressed as a result.

The public perception of journalism was undoubtedly harmed by the small minority who engaged in criminal hacking of mobile phones at the News of the World and Mirror titles in the 2000s. But something else is at play here: a nasty side to human nature, which has been given an outlet by unregulated social media.

The long-term answer is probably greater regulation of tech companies, to make them responsible for the bile published on their platforms by anonymous trolls. In the meantime, we must continue clamping down on the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories on open and closed digital networks that fuel the delusional hatred that was on display against Watt in Whitehall.

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