Post Fact Journalism


Prior to the UK referendum on EU membership the liberal media in England were dominated with understanding how Donald Trump could have turned political incorrectness into political success. So they readily adopted the US media's coinage of the term post truth. Once attention turned to a referendum that they knew was not going well they applied to term to the political campaigns for the leave and remain camps. Since the referendum result turned out (in the liberal media's eyes) to be as bad as they feared they have embraced the worldview of post truth for themselves, although given that it largely involves never checking the facts in another journalist's article it might be described as post fact journalism. For years the quality liberal media have accused right wing and especially tabloid media of simply making things up. Now the liberal media are getting in on the act by refusing to check anything up.

This is seen mostly clearly, and most ironically, in the many media articles that accuse the referendum of being won because Vote Leave lied that they would spend an extra 350 million per week on the NHS. This was usually accompanied by a photograph of the Vote Leave campaign bus that was emblazoned with the two lines:

We send the EU 350 million per week
Let's fund the NHS instead

The photograph makes quite clear that there was no such promise to spend 350 million per week on the NHS, yet journalists months after the referendum result continued to use the photograph to prove that Vote Leave lied about giving that money to the NHS. Although on one occasion a Vote Leave press conference took place in front of a poster that did promise the 350 million to the NHS.

To take just one example of many from the post-Brexit media mayhem this can be seen clearly in Jacqueline Rose's Guardian article The Twin Curse of Masculinity and Male-Dominated Politics Helped Create Brexit. The title well represents the purpose of the article, which is to lament the male bonding and male on male arguments that dominate English politics. Yet the argument is made by reciting the list of tropes from the post-Brexit media inquest: Jo Cox's murder, the Brexit flyover of a Jo Cox memorial, the Breaking Point poster, and the supposed near certainty of Scottish independence.

These are items that have already entered the media lexicon so Rose feels entitled to not bother checking the facts on any of them. Or more cynically she refuses to check them because they are clickbait and The Guardian's income and therefore her fee is dependent on internet advertising. That is why the problem is post-fact journalism and not post-fact-checking journalism. The new economic model for the traditional media discourages fact checking unless it is fact checking that will inspire their target readership to click in order to read the facts of the other side taken apart. Whatever the reason for Rose not fact checking we know that she listed a series of tropes that the pro-remain liberal media take as fact because they are repeated unquestionably in most other pro-remain liberal media articles.

The murder of Jo Cox was disturbing and Rose laments that her story has been dropped from the narrative since the referendum result. She cites this as allowing the family space to grieve, which is important as her body was released to the family the day after the referendum took place. Part of that silence is a lack of attention to the failure of her death to impact on the vote in her constituency, despite the carpet of flowers that were laid outside the polling station. Kirklees voted by almost a 10% margin in favour of leaving the EU. So the fears of the leave side that the murder would swing the vote against them was not borne out. This despite Stephen Kinnock's callous attempt to insert referendum politics into the otherwise respectful parliamentary debate about Cox.

Kinnock had claimed that Cox would have shared the revulsion at the Breaking Point poster revealed just hours before Cox was shot. Pro-remain politicians and pundits continue to jump to accusations of racism over that poster, despite Nigel Farage explaining what it is about: Angela Merkel's open offer of a welcome to refugees, which failed the EU by splitting the countries through which the refugees were inspired to march in the hope of reaching Germany. The equation of the poster with racism has probably now reached the trope saturation point at which the truth will never be acknowledged, because the convenient untruth has been given far too wide a currency.

Rose follows another trope of the pro-remain media by writing of how the political fallout since has failed to honour the unity for which Cox stood. That claim of unity is a product of the eulogising of her life in the immediate aftermath of her death. This is a long-standing tendency of British politics, which was sent up by the satirical Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch show in a scene in which politicians in a TV studio are damning each other, but when one collapses and dies the person who had been damning their very existence suddenly launches into a speech of how they were one of the greatest parliamentarians of their time.

That sketch came to my mind as soon as I began hearing all the attestations to Cox's apparent existence as a living saint. Cox was a fiery politician who took no prisoners and whose murder may have been inspired by an act of political disunity the day before she was shot. On 15 June the UKIP leader Nigel Farage had led a Flotilla for Leave protest on the Thames about the impact of the EU on the fishing industry. The celebrity Bob Geldof lead a counter protest flotilla that included speed boats weaving in and out of the flotilla at speeds that looked looked in excess of the twelve knots limit in Central London. Geldof is famous as the rock star behind Band Aid and Live Aid and it would be as if protesters had blasted out traditional African music at Live Aid in protest against the Western paternalism of Band Aid's hit single Do They Know It's Christmas. Jo Cox was in one of the hopefully better behaved speed boats, piloted by her husband (who had organised the speedboat aspect of the counter-protest) and with their two young children on board. A photograph of the familial protest is one of the many to appear online in the wake of her murder. Disrupting someone else's protest is not the sign of a politician who stood for unity. The next day she was stabbed and shot to death in a murder that was almost certainly a pre-planned act of terrorism, but if there was a connection between campaign anger and her death it is as likely to be the anger of the counter-protest she participated in as much as any anger espoused by the leave campaign.

Not finished with the Cox references Rose then damns the apparently shameless flying of a pro-Brexit banner by a helicopter above the Jo Cox memorial held on what would have been her birthday in Trafalgar Square. Common sense never mind fact checking should have told Rose that it is a safety hazard to pull a banner using a helicopter, especially one that is turning round for repeated targeting of a memorial. Had Rose checked up she would have discovered that it was a plane and that the plane owners' apologised for any offence as this was a long planned flight and the pilots were unaware of the memorial as they flew a pre-registered route around Central London.

Rose is not on any surer ground when she confidently writes of the likelihood of Scotland leaving the UK. Nicola Sturgeon may have been quick off the mark to ingratiate herself with the EU establishment, but there was never much likelihood of another independence referendum while the majority of Scots opposed holding one.

Clickbait pays for journalism and manufactured offence has therefore become the stock in trade of both liberal and conservative media. It is sad to see the depths of inadequacy to which British journalism has plunged, but it is a fact of life, in a world where most journalists no longer appear to check facts. A world where journalism has become post-fact.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved