In February 2020, the Society of Editors launched a new initiative, calling on editors and those in the news industry to help it expose attempts to restrict and impinge on media freedom in the battle against fake news.
The Society’s Campaign for Real News, intends to turn a spotlight on attacks on press freedom, particularly through the use of fake newspapers and news sites and the rise of unbalanced, partisan non-media operations.
The raison d’être of the campaign is to support both the mainstream media and emerging new media that also recognise high standards of editorial excellence, in the battle to combat fake news.
The Society’s campaign follows ongoing issues around fake news, journalistic access to central and local government and fake newspapers that ape mainstream, trusted platforms. All of these issues, the Society says, restricts the ability of legitimate news platforms to report, and be heard, by the public.
Writing to editors across the UK, the Society’s executive director Ian Murray has asked for their help in calling-out attempts to restrict the ability of their reporters to do their jobs and to highlight any misleading publications and so-called news operations on their patch.
Murray wrote: “As you will be aware, during 2019 and, in the first few weeks of 2020, we have witnessed a number of attempts to restrict the public’s right to know.
“From well-documented issues around access to central government, ongoing difficulties in some regions with police and media relations and a proliferation of so-called party-political ‘fake newspapers’ and false news websites, all of these factors work together to impinge on the ability of legitimate news platforms to keep the public informed.”
On the issue of party-political newspapers, the Society said that the increased prominence of political parties and public bodies choosing to circumnavigate the mainstream media in favour of acting as their own publisher meant that the public was at risk of being misled.
He said: “While we recognise that the traditional means of news reporting have changed dramatically in recent years, we are increasingly alarmed by reports of taxpayer-funded money being spent on attempts by public bodies and others to ape the work of mainstream media in acting as their own unbalanced and unchecked publishers.”
In many cases, the ‘news’ published by such platforms – party political newspapers, local councils, police press offices and fake fact-checking sites – are unbalanced and have not been scrutinised by trained journalists before publication, the Society said.
“It is not the job of official communications departments to circumvent the media in favour of pushing out their own often one-sided ‘news’ via fake newspapers and social media channels,” Murray said.
He added: “The Society strongly believes that political parties, local councils and police press offices should not be in competition with the mainstream media. It is the job of trained journalists to scrutinise those in power on behalf of the public and, increasingly, we are hearing reports that the public is at risk of being denied information of legitimate public interest by officials who wish to control what is reported and by whom. Such actions, alongside often being a massive waste of public money and resources, grossly undermines the role of a free press in holding power to account.”
The issue of local authorities and public bodies producing papers, magazines and websites that appear to ape independent news organisations is not restricted to during election time nor is it a new phenomenon, the Society said. It is, however, an issue that needs tackling.
“Many of these publications passing themselves off in the guise of local newspapers or trusted news and fact-checking sites are politically motivated. It was due to the diligence of local editors and journalists that these publications were exposed,” he went on.
“This issue does not just apply to political free sheets. Local authorities that produce their own magazines where no balance is provided continue to deny communities a true voice as well as starving independent papers and news sites of both information and advertising revenue,” he warned.
The aims of the campaign are to promote genuine news gathering while at the same time helping to expose attempts to restrict or control the public’s right to know and to remove misleading news publications, the Society said.
“The Society would welcome the assistance of anyone who values the role of an independent and trusted media in turning a spotlight on issues where they arise so that we can collectively act. For our part, the Society intends to expose attempts to control what is reported and by whom and we will highlight these fake publications and platforms. Where identified, we will call on government – both local and national – to act.
“At a time when the public is concerned over fake news, the provision and reputation of true, fact-based, balanced news and information provision by the mainstream media and qualified journalists has never been so important.”