Bobby McDonagh / Jan 2021
As the dust settles on the Trump Presidency, it is worth noting a significant development in media reporting since the November election. Every time the outgoing President made false statements about voter fraud or about the election having been “stolen”, many serious media outlets immediately and explicitly systematically qualified his claims as “unfounded”, his allegations as “unsubstantiated” and his assertions as being “without evidence”. What was new and refreshing was that these qualifications by the media were not limited to subsequent news analysis, opinion columns or editorial comment. Rather, in the very reporting of Trump’s statements, his dangerous misrepresentation of reality was challenged directly and systematically.
Mark Twain was credited with the warning that “a lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. This risk has been amplified in recent years by social media which make it possible for lies to travel twice around the world before Mark Zuckerberg’s has even started looking for his shoes. The new media approach in relation to Trump’s electoral fraud claims meant that an explicit health warning was, in many cases, attached to Trump’s lies before they were released into the wild.
This development does not come without two potential downsides. The first is that, in our democracies, it would be preferable if news reporting were not editorialised. Ideally, the comments of public figures should be reported without comment, with any necessary analysis and judgement to follow. A person’s actual words should, except in exceptional circumstances, be decoupled from how they are evaluated. However, just occasionally, the risk of allowing blatant falsehoods to go unchallenged until it is too late to counteract them can outweigh such concerns. Trump’s solid wall of lies that challenged the survival of American democracy, and indeed the very nature of truth, was surely one such occasion. In our increasingly polarised world, in which false narratives are relentlessly spun to deceive and to foment, it is not unreasonable to take the view that some lies are so flagrant and incendiary that they should be called out for what they are before they can gain traction.
The other possible downside is that not allowing the words of public figures to speak for themselves is an approach that is used and manipulated by totalitarian regimes as well as by populist governments in some tenuously democratic countries. Even the slightest unintended encouragement that could be given to such governments should give us cause for some hesitation. However, in the end totalitarian rulers are not significantly shaped by democratic practices. They are likely to be amused that democracies should be more hesitant about asserting the truth than they are about asserting falsehood.
Nevertheless, such concerns should give us some pause for thought. Even if we welcome the media’s new-found approach to labelling Trump’s falsehoods in real time, we must consider this a rare and necessary exception rather than any new norm.
There are very few other contemporary issues on which a similar approach could be considered appropriate. Currently, perhaps the only significant issue on which consideration might reasonably be given to systematically qualifying comments as being “without evidence” or “unsubstantiated” concerns the COVID vaccinations. There are, needless to say, many aspects of the delivery and effectiveness of vaccination programmes that merit full and open discussion. However, some utterly false or exaggerated assertions are made about the dangers of vaccines that could deter some people from taking vaccines that are essential for their own well-being and that of society. It seems reasonable that the reporting of such claims should be accompanied by an explicit qualification, a health warning as it were, embedded in the reporting itself.
Looking back over recent years, it is hard also not to feel some regret that the mainstream British media did not systematically label some of the Brexit arguments, printed and disseminated without the slightest contemporaneous health warning, as “unsubstantiated” or “without evidence”. Different views can, of course, be taken on many aspects of Brexit. The impacts, for example, of Brexit on financial services, workers’ rights, the fishing industry or the economy more generally were reasonable subjects for debate, even that debate - and the people affected by it - would have benefitted from a much clearer distinction between expertise and bluster. However, it was well known at the time that having your cake and eating it - that is leaving the Single Market and retaining its benefits - was a pure fiction. The consequences of people voting for that fiction can now be seen every day in the media. The most powerful Brexit slogan of all, the claim that Brexit would free up £350 million a week for the National Health Service, was a straightforward falsehood that, moreover, masked the enormous costs of Brexit. Where were the words “unsubstantiated” and “unfounded” when the United Kingdom needed them?