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Society of Editors voices fear of state-ran control of the media in battle to combat fake-news

Posted on: December 3, 2019 by Ellen Bramley

The Society of Editors has expressed concerns for press freedom and freedom of speech following the announcement by Labour it would seek ways to curb fake news if it wins the general election.

Calling on all political parties to commit to a strong, independent and plural free press and media in the UK, the Society said there were real dangers in creating a body to decide who can say what, especially on an internet that may soon be effectively taken into state control.

“None of the parties have covered themselves in glory on the subject of media freedom during this current political debate, but it is the future we should be concerned about. We are in real danger of walking into an Orwellian nightmare where the state decides who has the right to have an opinion if we are not truly careful” commented the Society’s Executive Director, Ian Murray who stressed the body had no political affiliations.

“In this election we have seen the Lib Dems and other parties produce political freesheets in the guise of local newspapers, the Tories have banned journalists from their battle bus and were caught changing a twitter account name to ‘FactcheckUK’ during an election debate. And while the parties have expressed some support for a free media – including a Conservative pledge to finally scrap Section 40 – more commitment should be shown for this vital part of our free society.

Plans to take over the distribution of the internet by nationalising the nation’s Wi-Fi services, as proposed by Labour, can be seen as generous, but also as the taking of the means of distribution of information into state hands. As all totalitarian states understand: whoever controls the means of distribution controls the message.

We only have to look at the report released yesterday by several international bodies, including Reporters Without Borders, into the take-over and removal of the free media in Hungary in a very short space of time to see how easily voices can be silenced.”

Murray’s comments follow the release by Labour of plans for a crackdown on disinformation by creating an independent body to look into the threats and challenges of fake news and how it can be tackled.

Murray stated “The Society of Editors naturally welcomes any initiative that recognises the very real harm that fake news does to society and a vibrant democracy.

However, there should always be a note of caution with regard to any steps proposed by any party to attempt to curtail what amounts to free speech and freedom of expression.

While the aspirations of the Labour Party’s proposed crackdown on fake news appear well motivated, the inevitable result of any enquiry and measures set in place to contain fake news raise questions over who will decide what is true and what is false? This is the same for the recent Cairncross Report under the Conservative government that has proposed an academy to promote news of ‘public interest’. Indeed, we must question, who will decide what that is?

The fear will be that a committee will be established to decide who has the right to an opinion and who does not.  

We should be very wary of plans to create a body that decides what can and cannot be said on an internet that has been taken into the control of the state, as Labour plans. That will place us fairly and squarely in the realm of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

The best approach, in fact the only real counter to fake news and disinformation, is a robust, self-regulating, plural media that enables the public to make up their own mind on what is truth and what is fiction by delivering fact-based journalism and clearly identified opinion.

While the digital giants can and should do more to combat disinformation and act when it is called out, support for a strong free press and media in the UK should be at the heart of any measures to defeat fake news.”

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