Theresa May’s Putin-style media tactics

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THIS WEEK’S ‘NEW EUROPEAN’ newspaper carries my article on how the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, seems to be borrowing media tactics from President Putin of Russia.

‘Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials,’ she warned a fortnight after calling deciding to go to the country. ‘All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.’

The Prime Minister’s borrowing the policies of those her predecessor derided as ‘fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists’ is one thing – but surely not their admiration for President Putin too?

Consider, though, Mr Putin’s words concerning Russia’s election cycle….

You can read the full article in the June 2nd — June 10th edition of ‘The New European’.

WHY THERE’S SO MUCH FAKE NEWS NOW — AND WHY THAT MAY NOT LAST

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The ‘March for Europe’ London, 25th March 2017. In the UK’s Europe debate, both sides have accused their opponents of misleading voters

Earlier this month, this article was published on The Conversation. You can read it here, and a version follows below.

STORYTELLING IS A KEY part of human culture. Where politics and power are concerned, stories become something not only to be told, but to be shaped and influenced – so that, in many cases, they are used to mislead or deceive. Recent research for a lecture on “fake news” led me to wonder if there was a reason why it seems to spike at certain times. I came to the conclusion that three main factors seem to create the conditions for fake news to surge: a step change in communication or communication technology coupled with political uncertainty and armed conflict.

There’s no doubt that the world is still learning to adapt to the impact of social media. Twitter was a fledgling platform ten years ago, now it’s the way the president of the United States talks to the world. It allows him to feel in control of his message. Political power has always wanted to do that: from the battles of the ancient world right the way through human history. In Britain, one might think of the Tudor dynasty’s attempts to control what was at the time new media – the printing press – to consolidate their initially tenuous hold on the English throne in the late 15th century.

This was a time of both political uncertainty and armed conflict – and the printing press played its major role in creating that conflict and instability.

With the benefit of hindsight, Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Russia is remembered as a military disaster – but it didn’t look like that to begin with, as the Grande Armée advanced on Moscow. The Russian commander, Marshal Kutuzov – facing questions over his tactics – made sure that when the tide started to turn his way, he made the most of it. Battle trophies were shown off to the soldiers. “Whatever his limitations as a tactician, Kutuzov was a master when it came to public relations, and his troops’ morale,” wrote Dominic Lieven in Russia against Napoleon.

Few in the rank and file of Kutuzov’s army would have been able to read or write. The only accounts of the action would have been from official dispatches, or officers’ diaries and letters. The message was fairly easily controlled.

Russia’s war against France, Britain and Turkey, later in the 19th century was a different matter. The Crimea of the 1850s is remembered in journalism history for the debut of the “miserable parent of the luckless tribe”, as William Howard Russell – usually considered the first war correspondent – described himself.

His pioneering reporting had influence long beyond his era. The British government was not just worried about the enemy when World War I broke out. They were worried about the press. Soaring newspaper circulations and literacy rates which had greatly increased as the result of widening education – not to mention the huge ambitions of the press barons of the age – meant that the newspapers were credited with unprecedented influence. Strict legislation was passed to ensure they did not use it in a way likely to contradict the government. Some did try to report freely, but were stopped. At least one, Philip Gibbs, who later toed the government line, was threatened with being shot.

Those who were allowed to report sent uplifting accounts that soldiers did not recognise. There were infamous atrocity stories, too – one of the most shocking being that the Germans were boiling down human corpses for soap. It was fake news of the worst kind.

The next time Europe went to war and dragged in large parts of the rest of the world, radio dominated. Never before had the human voice had the ability to be a simultaneous, mass medium. Its novelty spawned new propaganda opportunities. Among the most infamous exponents was William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw” who broadcast Nazi propaganda in English. The nickname was an attempt to undermine him. He was taken seriously enough, though, to be hanged as a traitor after the war.

The Cold War – a time of massive political tension, and proxy wars – produced fake news that grabbed global attention. Among them: the KGB-inspired canard, Operation INFEKTION, which tried to convince people that the AIDS virus was a product of US biological warfare experiments. There was an uncanny contemporary echo of this when RT seemed to give credence to stories that the US Department of Defense might be to blame for Ebola.

So “fake news” is not new. What arguably is new is its scale, and participatory nature. Today, anyone with access to social media can join in. Political instability and war – such as the world is plagued with today – create the incentive for governments and individuals to do so, and new technology and uses of that technology have made it easier to spread.

If there is good news in the age of fake news, it is this: previous fake news eras have come to and end. Politicians and publics have become familiar with the way new media work and have done so in the eras of journalism from printing to mass circulation newspapers to broadcasting and now social media. Journalism regained trust and credibility after World War 1. It can again.

FACING THE FACTS: REPORTING WITH RESTRICTIONS

Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief’s message to staff, ‘Covering Trump the Reuters Way’, raised  plenty of questions about how journalists should work with the new U.S. administration. I took on some of them for a piece this week on The Conversation

IT WAS HIGH SUMMER ON THE EDGE OF SIBERIA and suddenly there came the hardest question of a tough assignment. I had travelled to Yekaterinburg for a story about the spread of HIV. The city’s location made it a crossroads for the trade in many goods, including heroin. As a result, HIV infection rates were rising frighteningly rapidly among drug users. The trip involved encounters with sources, many of whom were distressed – some of whom who were frankly scary. But it was questions from the journalism students who were with us that really stumped me.

The questions – including the size of my salary – were largely predictable. One was not: “What do you do when the governor does not like a story you have written?”

The obvious answer from a Western reporter might have been something about the noble notion of the fourth estate speaking the truth to power. But I knew that such an answer would not work in the lawless Russia of the post-Soviet era. Journalists – especially those who uncovered incompetence or corruption among the powerful – could find themselves in serious, even mortal, danger. So I offered a reply which blended the ideal with a more realistic point

You can read the rest of the piece here

Drawn swords in the digital age: #Whittingdale

Earlier this week, the UK Culture Secretary,  John Whittingdale, faced allegations about his private life. Specifically, how the newspapers’ decision whether or not to report the story might affect his role as minister with responsibility for the press. I wrote an article for The Conversation trying to place the controversy in its historical context as part of a battle between authority and the news media. You can read that here, and a version follows below.

THE WORDS are those of weapons and power, whether real or metaphorical. Today, political opponents of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, suggest that he has been subject to a ‘sword of Damocles’ over a relationship with a sex worker.

In 2010, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced to undercover reporters that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch. In the 1990s, the Conservative Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, promised to fight with ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play’ to ‘cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism’ – yet it was he who came off second best in the end. Earlier in the last century, Stanley Baldwin – frustrated with the newspaper tycoons of his age – accused them of seeking ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

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A casualty in an earlier battle between press and power? The last edition of the ‘News of the World’, 2011

The common theme in this warlike talk is the battle between political power and the news media — in whatever form. As far back as the 15th century, the Tudors, coming to the throne with a questionable claim to the crown, made sure that they controlled the chroniclers, and the printing press, as closely as possible. These were the new media of their day — and the Tudors understood that they had to make the best possible use of them.

This meant, broadly speaking, two things: accept that the media had their uses, and also, that the successful exercise of power required a degree of control.

Tudor courtiers had far greater sanction at their disposal than modern ministers or their spin doctors. Even the most draconian contemporary advocate of press regulation would not argue for torture or mutilation (although the stocks might still find their supporters).

Our contemporary notions of the role of the press in political life tend to be based on the idea that it is a Fourth Estate — an integral part of a functioning democracy. Its role is to question and hold to account those in power — even to the extent of sometimes causing their downfall. The heroic determination, and ultimate success, of the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are often seen as an inspirational example of this kind of journalism. Watergate gave journalism the “gate” suffix without which no scandal is now complete.

The reality of the relationship between political power and press power is rarely so clear cut. As a former BBC journalist, I tried to imagine the discussions which might have gone on last year at the Corporation when Downing Street refused a one-to-one television debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

BBC guidelines state that “the refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors holding different views, or on the programme itself”. So the BBC could have “empty chaired” the prime minister, as TV current affairs slang has it. This would have been radical — and extreme. It would have been a moment in TV history. It would also have been very unwise from a BBC which already expected few favours from a future Conservative government.

The case of the culture secretary’s relationship with a sex worker raises anew many eternal issues. Has the story remained largely unreported for editorial reasons, or is it the [latest weaponisation of politically sensitive information?

The question will continue to be discussed. Cable, after declaring war on the Murdoch empire, was eventually withdrawn from the battlefield, having his responsibility for the case taken away.

Alongside the continuity from previous ages of battle between power and the press, there is also change. Recent cases concerning the private lives of celebrities have shown that even the most strictly worded injunctions struggle today to keep scandals entirely out of the public domain. Social media have seen to that. That being the case, what is the real power of press regulation? And who, in the age of the MP’s expenses scandal, and the Panama Papers, really trusts the political establishment?

Both the news media and the political establishment are subject to digital disruption — the latest factor in the battle between press and power.