Fair warning: An address to the University of Auckland’s Golden Graduates

The topic I’ve been given is a big one: The impact media have on the world and how democracy could be in danger if the fourth estate is consigned to history. I need to move fast.

I started in journalism while the Class of ’68 was being introduced to its first cups of disgusting Student Union coffee in the Cloisters. The men and women with whom I worked were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, or as close to it as they were able to get. There was a clear view that we were there to satisfy the public’s need to know about their city, their country and the world. So, the claim that we live in a post-truth age is bad news for journalists. Post-truth means truth becomes what we want it to be, rather than the reasoned and empirical truths that objectively we strove for in the past.

In a post-truth age, reasoned and empirically based facts can be dismissed as ‘fake news’ if they don’t fit your worldview. And fake news – lies­ – gains the mantle of truth if it suits your purpose.

The Post-Truth Age is a dangerous age and I will address those dangers shortly. The blame for it shouldn’t be laid at the feet of the media, or even at the door of the highly-culpable providers of social media services. These are manifestationsof the Post-Truth Age but its causeslie in socio-economic and political factors that are much too complex to canvass in the short time we have here today.

However, there is no doubt that both news media and social media fuel the engine.

Our news media have been sorely affected by social and technological change that has shaken their finances and structures to the core. So much so that they are in danger of losing sight of their democratic purpose. Some might say they have already lost sight of it. Certainly, sections of the media seem to be sub-sets of entertainment.

I want to take two minutes to show you, first, how that entertainment focus manifests itself and, second, to run you through the various manifestations of fake news so you can see what faces society. Let me start, though, by disabusing you of any notion that fake news is something new. Donald Trump’s claim he invented the phrase is, well, fake news. The term was current in the 1890s as we can see from an 1894 illustration from Puck, a magazine that was the United States equivalent of Britain’sPunch.

But let’s come back to entertainment. There is clickbait, and there is news. Entertainment, of course, need not be amusing. I put in the same category front page stories about yet another fatal car crash or terminal cancer patient seeking expensive treatment overseas. It is the equivalent of a horror movie. I also include ‘news’stories whose sole reason for existence is the celebrity of their subjects – people famous for being famous and precious little else. Entertainment diminishes the civic functions of the media. I’m not saying there should be none but it should not overwhelm nor should it be at the expense of significant information. This imbalance erodes trust in the media.

But more corrosive still is fake news. It falls into a number of categories, each of which entails a different motivation even though the outcomes may be similar.

The first motivation is the undermining of an institution or an individual, usually for political purposes. An example is a story planted by Russian interests – for that you can read the Kremlin – to turn the Lithuanian population against NATO troops stationed in the country by claiming they had raped a minor. During the presidential campaign, the National Enquirer ran stories suggesting Bill Clinton was not Chelsea’s father and that his presidential candidate wife had brain cancer. They were most likely local in origin given that this is the newspaper that paid money to buy stories about trump’s affairs and suppressed them.

Fake news is also designed to make money from social media’s programmatic advertising which seeks out items with high hit rates. A story suggesting the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy did not really fly because most people knew the Poe didn’t hand out political endorsements but Pizzagate (claiming the Democrats ran a Washington paedophile ring) went viral. These stories made money for Macedonian youths every time they were clicked on.

Satire has been around since ancient times. Now it can be picked up by social media and shared a few times until the satirical genesis is lost and it becomes ‘fact’ – it can even fool newspapers (or perhaps they want to be fooled). Fake news can also be the result of plain bad journalism. The so-called Russia dossier on Trump’s antics in Moscow is a compelling example. It should not have been published without verification.

And, finally, we have real news that we don’t wantto be true – the president’s own weapon of mass destruction that makes media “the enemy of the American people”.

Whatever the motivation, the effect of such material is to reinforce prejudices and to undermine faith in the news media. Why the latter? Because if people can’t differentiate truth from fake news, they no longer trust the source. They shoot the messenger. And the messenger is the news media. Who can blame ordinary members of the public for such loss of faith when fake news has now reached a high level of sophistication?

Artificial intelligence allows the creation of what are called Deep Fakes, in which video and audio is manipulated to such an extent that my words can be put into Barack Obama’s voice and his lips and facial expressions altered accordingly. This capacity has become so concerning thatthe Advanced Research Projects Agency within the US Defense Department is developing tools to combat it.

However, it doesn’t require large amounts of computer power to create fake news. It can be as simple as misrepresenting facts or images. Was Prince William giving the finger to a London crowd as one photograph on social media suggested? No, an image from a different angle indicated he was showing how many children he and his wife now have – three.

Is it any wonder that the 2018 Edelman trust barometer indicated that almost two-thirds of New Zealanders admit they can’t separate fact from falsehood? Part of that is a result of fake news but is also caused by the conflating of reportage and opinion.

Is it any wonder that almost an equal number have lost trust in the country’s media? But equally concerning the role of media in the loss of trust in government and business. The barometer found 42% believed the media was undermining trust in government and 38% felt business was being undermined. It mirrors an international trend.

Last November London School of Economics professor Carlota Perez addressed the Drucker Forum. She is an economics historian who has developed a theory of pattern repetition from one technological paradigm shift to the next: From the Industrial Revolution, through the ages of steam, steel and mass production to the current Age of IT there has been a pattern of. She gives us a hint of why this loss of trust has occurred. She told the forum:

“We have structural unemployment, low investment, growing inequality, a sense of hopelessness, risk-averse finance with trillions of dollars sitting on the side-lines, feeble growth, social unrest, recessions, and talk of secular economic stagnation. Populist leaders find massive following precisely because of these issues. They exploit the rampant xenophobia against various sub-groups. It could be the Jews or the Muslims. Somebody must be at fault. And large-scale economic migrations further aggravate the xenophobia.”

All of this is bad enough but Perez prefaced that paragraph with five short words. Those words were “Now, as in the 1930s…”. In other words, we are repeating a pattern that led to the rise of fascism and, ultimately, to the Second World War.

Of course, a weakened news media…one that has lost some of its sense of direction – and in which the public no longer resides its trust – is ill-equipped to counter such trends.

If you think I’m being alarmist, read former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s new book Fascism: A Warning.

Or heed the words of one of Ireland’s foremost commentators writing in the Irish Times. Fintan O’Toole believes we are currently in a state of pre-fascism. But he also believes we can pull back from the Post-Truth state that is part of the pre-conditioning for fascism. And I agree with him.

Central to that must be a pulling back from polarised communities to a society where the moderate middle ground determines the future. Mass audience media plays an undeniable part in that process, exposing large numbers of people to the same information on which they can make their own judgements and, one hopes, form a public consensus. Silo-based social media is inherently incapable of achieving this. It achieves the opposite: it creates safe havens for extremism and its fellow travellers – bigotry and hate – and shields followers from inconvenient truths.

But, in order to play its part, our news media needs to return to their roots – roots that, I admit, took with varying degrees of success – and do the following:

  • Do its job in holding power – in its various guises – to account.
  • Concentrate on news that we need to know rather than what real-time analytics tell them we might like to know – news that I describe as ‘democratically significant’.
  • Engage in rigorous fact-checking and processes of verification to counter falsehoods.
  • Practice high standards of professionalism and transparency – explain the processes of journalism to the audience.
  • Earn back the public’s trust.

None of that will happen without public expectation of change. We need a broadly-based national conversation to compensate for the magnetic variation that has increasingly skewed media direction finding.

We may need structural change. Certainty I see the need to start thinking of news media as self-sustaining rather than shareholder profit centres because the rivers of gold are no more. The private sector MUST continue to play a part in the news media but it may be as trustees – as is the case with the Scott Trust which owns the Guardian – or as not-for profits. I like the American Low-profit Limited Liability Company or L3C model which provides tax benefits to public interest organisations run commercially but ploughing most of its surpluses back into the service.

Somehow, we mustreinvigorate our journalistic structures as a bulwark against extremism.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do notbelieve that this country is in danger of becoming a fascist state. Nor, in spite of its shameful attitude toward refugees and New Zealanders, do I believe Australia is in danger. But there are dangers in the Americas and in Europe that could have profound effects on us.

We need a society that is robust enough – in an intellectual and civic sense – to recognise the dangers, to protect itself against the corrosive effects that fascism elsewhere could have here, and to play a part in bringing others back from the brink.

Western societies need an urgent, massive rethink about where they are heading. Journalism has an obvious role to play but it needs its own massive rethink first.

In an essay written in 1940, George Orwell was reflecting on a book written by Malcolm Muggeridge about The Thirties. Orwell recalled a cruel trick he had played on a wasp eating jam from his plate. He cut it in half but it kept on eating and only when it tried to fly away did it realise its fate.

“It is the same with modern man,” Orwell said. “The thing that has been cut away is his soul and there was a period – twenty years perhaps – during which he did not notice it.”

Fair warning?






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