In the days before the Brexit vote, the electorate faced an unprecedented barrage of misinformation. At the heart of that was the official Vote Leave campaign, which spent more than £2.7m on targeted Facebook ads and intentionally splurged the majority of its budget in the final week.
Thanks to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, we now know just how unhinged much of that messaging was, with dark ads claiming “The EU wants to Kill Our Cuppa” and that Brussels diktat stopped Britain protecting polar bears.
Yet rather than being at odds with how the UK media operates – some one-off aberration – this spectacle of deceit was business-as-usual taken to its extreme.
And I’m not even referring to the likes of the Sun or the Mail, the former so ludicrous that even in the age of Trump it remains supremely farcical. No, enabling fake news is now the norm for publications and people who view themselves as paragons of reason.
What else would you call it when the Times prefers to publish an article by Jane Merrick about why she left the Labour Party – having only joined two years earlier to oust the Labour leader – than offer considered analysis of how Jeremy Corbyn continues to defy political gravity?
Or in making sense of the witterings of Andrew Lilico – a regular at the Telegraph – who tries to parse speculation about a Corbynite KGB arresting him as political analysis?
What does it tell you when the Independent publishes an article intentionally misrepresenting Labour’s industrial policy for an anti-immigrant diatribe eulogising Brexit? Or for this to then be bolstered by influential voices across the political spectrum before a word of the speech has even been uttered?
In that final instance I’m referring, of course, to the speech given by Jeremy Corbyn last Tuesday at the launch of the ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign. Before Corbyn could deliver it, Ben Kentish, a political correspondent at the Independent, had already gleefully confused a set-piece on renewing British industry for an anti-immigration argument. It turns out he gave some high-ranking readers just what they wanted.
Recognising Britain’s failures in regard to industrial policy has long been a hallmark of progressive thinking. And yet, because of a single misleading tweet and a poorly written article, a coalition of journalists, influencers and politicians spread fake news faster than the crowd at a #freetommy protest resembles fried bacon on a hot summers day.
Michael Deacon tweeted the article with typical humour – ‘doing it for the retweets’ rather than actually enlightening anyone. “Can’t believe UKIP have got yet another new leader” he wrote; more a pub wit than a journalist.
Elsewhere the ever-judicious Nick Cohen intervened, writing: “here’s your periodic reminder that Corbyn always has been and always will be anti-EU and will use any garbage to justify his prejudice”.
Again, Corbyn had merely asserted what has long been political common sense for anyone but the most hard-core Thatcherite. And what’s more, Cohen himself wrote about the importance of a weaker pound for UK manufacturers in the Observer in 1997. Perhaps he’s changed his mind.
Elsewhere, the same Independent article was re-tweeted by the usual suspects normally so keen to call out ‘fake news’, with Al Murray, Eddie Marsan, James O’Brien and Jolyon Maugham condemning the leader of the opposition for a speech yet to happen and misrepresented by a little known journalist. In their defence, as the economist Simon Wren-Lewis put it, “the Independent are normally better than this.”
Perhaps of greater concern was how Nicola Sturgeon and Caroline Lucas got involved. “Peddling falsehoods about migrants is what we expect from the Tories and UKIP. Profoundly depressing for the Labour leader to be at it too” the former opined while re-tweeting FT journalist Jim Pickard. His tweet included that same erroneous article while quoting a response from an unnamed Labour MP (likely from the party’s right).
Sturgeon subsequently re-tweeted Pickard’s next tweet – a correction – writing, “only fair that I also tweet this. Still think that it’s often hard to tell difference between Corbyn’s Brexit views and those of the Tories.” Only it wasn’t “fair” – this wasn’t a case of two sides to a story – it was inaccurate. Political opportunism meant Sturgeon happily shared something which wasn’t true. Remind me who’s peddling falsehoods again?
Elsewhere Caroline Lucas tweeted the same article receiving almost 3,000 retweets in the process. “Disappointing to see @jeremycorbyn talk up mythical benefits of #Brexit. Brexit will hurt the poorest hardest.” Except what he had said – or rather would shortly say – was that the only economic benefit of Brexit, in a speech otherwise entirely about industrial strategy, was that a weaker currency should be an advantage to the country’s exporters and manufacturers. This isn’t a “myth”, it’s as close to truth as you’ll find in the economics discipline. Until recently, re-balancing Britain’s economy by encouraging green industries had been a priority for the Greens. Maybe they, like Nick Cohen, have changed their mind.
When I raised the issue of his misreporting with the article’s author, Ben Kentish, I was blocked within seconds. I had not been rude or abusive in any way. Here was a journalist whose garbled words had been widely shared to discredit a person who may be the next Prime Minister. Yet he was unable to face even the most basic scrutiny.
Elsewhere, I’ve seen no contrition or apologies for the industrial scale mendacity enabled by people whose literal jobs are to inform the public. Increasingly, I suspect they don’t take that role particularly seriously. At least, not when it doesn’t suit them.