Can you trust the mainstream media?

Andrew Harrison writes: If any piece of video can stand for the spirit of the times, then this fevered, resentful summer of 2017 could well be summed up in a clip of west London activist Ishmahil Blagrove, a film-maker and member of Justice4Grenfell, dispensing a furious dressing-down to a Sky reporter sent to cover the aftermath of London’s most catastrophic fire in generations.

Blagrove seethes with righteous anger. “Fuck the media, fuck the mainstream,” he tells the TV journalist to cheers from passers-by, all the rage and frustration of the Grenfell disaster directed for a moment not at the borough council that enabled it but at those who covered it. Then he makes a connection familiar to old footsoldiers of the left and increasingly popular with its new recruits. Everything is connected. “For two years, you’ve hounded and demonised Jeremy Corbyn,” Blagrove shouts. “You said he was unelectable. You created that narrative and people believed your bullshit for a while. But what this election has done is shown that people are immune. They’re wearing bulletproof vests to you and the other billionaires of the media owners and Rupert Murdoch and all the motherfuckers.”

In years gone by, this might have been ignored as a standard everything-is-wrong jeremiad against the iniquities of the system. Blagrove is, after all, a veteran of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. But the clip went viral and clearly spoke to a wider audience. This summer, what was once a fringe analysis – that the media are not a complex collection of independent agencies holding the system to account but an elite-directed component of that system – finally moved into the popular consciousness.

After the bitter referendums over Scottish independence and Britain’s EU membership, after newspapers and TV failed to predict the successes of Donald Trump, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, and finally with the nightmarish failure of policy and oversight that led to Grenfell, confidence in the media has taken a battering. And alternative voices are keen to undermine it further. From new, conspiracy-minded outlets such as the Canary and Evolve Politics to the “alt-right”, libertarian and hard Brexit conversations that cluster on Twitter, the loudest and most strident voices push a relentless line: you can’t trust the mainstream media.

It is not just the politically motivated who hold these beliefs. Judged on hard metrics, confidence in UK media has fallen noticeably in recent years. According to communications agency Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer survey of 1,500 Britons, the number of people who said they trusted British news outlets at all fell from an already low 36% in 2015 to a mere 24% by the beginning of 2017. The 2017 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, published in June, found that just 41% of British people agreed that the news media did a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction. The figure for social media was even lower: 18%.

“It’s a serious problem for the profession,” says Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute. “The political legitimacy of institutions like the BBC and also the business models of newspapers depend on the idea that they offer something trustworthy. Healthy distrust can be a good thing but hardened cynicism is paralysing.”

He is worried that people are tending to judge the entire industry by its worst practitioners. “The danger is that the influential and the upper classes see journalism as too tabloid and populist, while working-class people think it pays little attention to people like themselves and their lives – and no one is happy.”

“It is beginning to feel like a culture war,” says Ian Katz, editor of BBC2’s Newsnight and formerly deputy editor of the Guardian. The “attritional decline” in trust that he has witnessed during his 25 years in journalism has accelerated sharply over the past few years, he says. Now, when Newsnight sends reporters and producers to cover the Grenfell protests or June’s van attack near Finsbury Park mosque, they are met with “extraordinary levels of hostility and suspicion”.

“At Grenfell, a lot of the reaction crystallised around the idea of an establishment plot to minimise the extent of the catastrophe,” Katz explains. “There was an elision of a whole series of things into the Grenfell disaster, including the perception that the media had failed to give Corbyn a fair crack. That hostility has become a proxy for wider, inchoate anger with the establishment in general and the press in particular.”

He’s talking about a new article of faith on the political left: that, in its attitudes to Corbyn, the media inadvertently revealed the truth about themselves. Instead of supporting Labour’s new leader, goes the narrative, liberal newspapers such as the Guardian and Observer, along with “state broadcaster” the BBC, set out to destroy him. When Corbyn did better than expected in the 2017 general election, this proved that the media were unequivocally wrong and the Corbynites were right. Questions of a journalistic duty to examine, or the separation of news and comment, or even basing your coverage reasonably on the past performance of platforms similar to Corbyn’s, were by the by. So was the point that Corbyn did not actually win the election. No matter – the liberal press had betrayed its readers and the MSM (mainstream media) had got it wrong. [Continue reading…]

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