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6 January 2017updated 16 Sep 2021 4:22pm

Did the press create post-fact politics?

Charlie Beckett, director of POLIS at the London School of Economics considers the relationship between journalists and politicians

By Charlie Beckett

After everything that happened in politics in 2016 is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t think that journalism matters to democracy? As you watched Britain vote to leave the European Union, or Donald Trump win the US presidency, did you ever use the phrase “I blame the media” or “It’s all Facebook/Twitter’s fault”?

Any student of politics now has to be aware of how the media is shaping our conversations about politicians and policy. They have to understand how it can swing elections and mobilise activists. They also have to examine how it distorts debates, silences voices and ignores issues.

Above all, they should know how media is changing from the Fourth Estate to a complex network of information flows that carry fake, partisan and propaganda journalism as well as some excellent analysis, commentary and fact-checking.

That’s why we teach politics and media together at the LSE. They have always been uneasy bedfellows in the bedroom of democracy. But now there’s a massive digital pillow fight going on and both politicians and journalists are worried about who is going to win. The danger is that it will be the public that lose out.

But before we all join in the moral panic about journalism and politics you should bear one thing in mind. Media is only a pathway. It is made up of people communicating on channels, networks and wires. Those people live in the real world. They make political decisions based on their actual economic, social and cultural lives – not just because they read a tweet. It is voters who vote and politicians who decide, not media. 

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And bear in mind that it is also business, NGOs, lobby groups, public relations companies, pop stars and just about anyone else with an internet connection that help fill up the information sphere. The news industry is just part of a vast, complicated media world that is part of our material lives where we work, play and even talk to each other.

Of course, as a journalist and media professor I still think that my trade matters in this rich and problematic political ecology. Take Donald Trump. 

A product of American celebrity, showbiz media culture. His loud language and performance is that of someone who combines the skills of a commercial salesman and a reality TV host. He turned those skills into a weapon that blew away the US political news media.

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In some ways US journalists did their job with Trump. He was the story. His performances in the primary debates literally put him centre stage. He allowed journalists to quiz him and attack his extreme policy statements.

The more they focused on him, the more his profile grew alongside a tireless campaign of public speaking. The more they denigrated him, the more that Americans saw him as the anti-elite candidate. Hillary Clinton’s biggest mistake might have been to take the side of US liberal mainstream media in targeting Trump’s personality instead of his policies.

So all the fact-checking and all the critical columns, all the Twitter storms raging at his sexism and racism, all the Facebook shares of comedy memes ridiculing his hair and his lies, probably only served to make him look like another victim of the Establishment conspiracy. Main Street America turned on mainstream media and gave Trump the benefit of the fact-free doubt.

His rise was also fueled by a sophisticated explosion of fake news produced by commercially-driven entrepreneurs looking to turn a quick advertising buck by peddling click-happy sensationalism and vicious fantasy stories.

The network of Alt Right websites also exploited the algorithms of search and sharing to peddle their propaganda to provide the ammunition for America’s angry brigade.

The social networks did the rest, amplifying those messages. The result was that many voters ended up not knowing what to believe any more and so perhaps they didn’t bother to try and instead ended up casting an instinctive rather than informed vote.

We were taught a similar lesson with Brexit. Britons voted to get out of the EU because they don’t like Brussels and they felt that the political establishment had stopped listening to their real world worries.

But we also saw how the politicians contributed to one of  the worst political debates the country has ever seen. Both sides misused statistics and talked in hyperbolic terms to stir up fear and loathing. 

Journalists were also at fault. Newspapers took partisan sides as if this was a war. The broadcasters struggled to keep up the appearance of balance and serious reporting instead of ignoring the rhetoric and hammering the lies.

But the information was out there. The facts were checked. The politicians were quizzed. But there was so much disinformation and emotional obfuscation that we ended up taking a momentous decision in a fog of unreason.

But don’t panic. Journalists are learning their lesson. They realise they have to get out of their newsrooms more. They have to burst their own bubble of metropolitan self-regard. They are working hard to come up with the tools to filter the signal from the noise online. They are rediscovering their duty to report fearlessly, independently and with critical, evidence-based analysis.

It makes business sense. The news media is going through an economic crisis. If it wants people to value its work and pay for it, then it has to do its job better. Its task is to help people to connect to the best information that can help them debate and decide on politics.

I hope that politicians learn the same lesson. New forms of media are a wonderful way for them to connect to the public. But will they learn that transparency is the only way to get trust? It’s time for both journalists and politicos to realise that they have poisoned their own well, and now is the time to clean up their act.