Siobhan Tolland: Dear mainstream media, let's be honest about 'fake news', shall we?

CommonSpace columnist Siobhan Tolland says there is deep hypocrisy within the ranks of traditional media warning against 'fake news' when the public have been battling bad journalism for years

JUST AS Wikipedia announced plans to drop the Daily Mail as a reliable source earlier this month, Theresa May announced that the Daily Mail’s political editor was set to become her official spokesperson. Theresa May is now represented by a former editor of 'fake news'. I am going to let that sink in.

Fake news is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? It feels like the whole world has suddenly become destabilised and we just can’t get a grasp of anything tangible or real. It feels like trying to have a conversation about Descartes with a group of stoners. Just when you think you’ve grasped a truth, it evaporates into thin air.

It is big news, but I do wonder if the sensationalism of it all is preventing us from looking at the issue of media and truth in more depth. Evgeney Morozov makes the point that the concept of fake news is fake in itself. It is a shallow explanation of a complex, systemic problem.

Fake news is often presented as an internet phenomena, despite the Sunday Sport doing it for years.

A Westminster Conservative-led parliamentary inquiry is set to look into the issue because it is a "threat to democracy", as are many countries now. But it is the inquiry’s focus on social media and the internet which concerns me.

Fake news is often presented as an internet phenomena, despite the Sunday Sport doing it for years: "Freddie Starr ate my hamster," for example. 

The distraction here, I think, is that the sensationalism positions fakery as something that hovers above all other institutions and media when it really is a product of a wider fundamental destabilisation of truth that seems to exist in our society.

The Brexit campaign gave us the term 'post-truth', with both campaigns being accused of outright lying. The Donald Trump administration apparently makes everything up as it goes along and journalists are just trying to keep up. The 'Bowling Green Massacre' claim was a particularly insidious one - repeated not once, not twice but three times.

I just don’t know where the line is between this kind of fake news and all the other news.

The distraction here, I think, is that the sensationalism positions fakery as something that hovers above all other institutions and media when it really is a product of a wider fundamental destabilisation of truth that seems to exist in our society.

Actually, I do. There is no line. It is a continuum of degrees. Sure, 'the Pope supports Trump’ is particularly extreme fake news, but I find that the focus on these types of internet sensations disguises the real relationship between media and 'truth'.

But who decides what fake news is?

Here in Scotland we have witnessed blatant falsehoods peddled through mainstream media, so much so that our trust of institutions like the BBC has been fundamentally shaken. A recent poll suggested that one third of us don’t believe the BBC, with another third being unsure whether it can be trusted or not.

Those who have seen the recent documentary, London Calling, on BBC bias during the independence referendum, might be shocked at the level of fakery it stooped to. Its coverage of the so-called grassroots 'No Borders' campaign being a jaw-dropping example. This organisation was given significant air-time on BBC News 24, looped every half hour for a full 24 hours.

The term which best describes the No Borders organisation is 'astroturf': a fake organisation made to look grassroots. It was clearly the case: there were no members and it was headed up by the head of a UK PR company that promoted the image of governments in various countries, including Israel.

It is a continuum of degrees. Sure, 'the Pope supports Trump’ is particularly extreme fake news, but I find that the focus on these types of internet sensations disguises the real relationship between media and 'truth'.

The BBC was either guilty of either the most appalling incompetence, or direct collusion. Craig Murray’s outlining of this on his blog and in the London Calling documentary noted that a basic Google search showed the falsity of the organisation. So what else can we view this as other than fake news?

Another example is the Telegraph’s fake 'expose' which claimed Nicola Sturgeon secretly wanted the Conservatives to win the 2015 General Election. We know it was fake - Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael was taken to court because of it.

All the subsequent publicity around Carmichael clouded the media’s core responsibility here, and Wings Over Scotland summed this up: The Telegraph published fourth-hand information from a leaked government memo; it basically published what Jim told Susie who told Kev who told Maggie, who wrote it down, and said that it didn’t seem quite right.

Government memo or not, this was the promotion of rumour, pure and simple. Sturgeon wasn’t asked for clarification before the Telegraph published its claims - which is a basic step in the news reporting process - and within hours the story had swept through the country and been repeated in practically every single news source.

What would have happened if the media took Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s assertion of the Bowling Green Massacre as true? What if they just accepted it without checking for verification, like the Telegraph did with the memo?

If Facebook is being urged to take responsibility for ensuring the truth of the information passed around its pages, then surely the mainstream media needs to do the same?

If Facebook is being urged to take responsibility for ensuring the truth of the information passed around its pages, then surely the mainstream media needs to do the same?

As part of the independence movement, we need to find a multi-level approach to this. We need to understand the power of fake news. Fifty-one percent of Trump voters believed the Bowling green Massacre claim, so consider how powerful this problem is. 

We need to ensure we don’t fall for it – and we have all done it.

But we need to have no discerning hierarchy of where falsehoods lie and what they look like. False news can be glaringly obvious or incredibly subtle. It can come from fake internet sites or respected media institutions.

And as campaigners, we need to embrace evidence.

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Wed, 02/15/2017 - 16:27

Was really looking forward to reading this. and was enjoying reading it, until I got to the usual piffle about a biased BBC.

I've voted SNP all my life and voted for Independence, but despite that, I remain wholly unconvinced about unjust coverage on the BBC.

Fake news is a real threat to society and democracy. Conspiracy theories are just a joke which undermine our ability to deal with that very real threat, and are not helpful at all.


Wed, 02/15/2017 - 16:52

First off, I've got to ask: did you continue reading after the BBC was mentioned, or did you just skip ahead to make a comment? Because Siobhan gives a clear example of how Vote No Borders was given entirely uncritical coverage as a grassroots campaign, despite the fact that they were anything but.

Now, that's not *necessarily* bias, but if it's not, then it's absolutely stunning journalistic incompetence. As she points out, a simple Google search showed that the leader of said group was actually the CEO of a political PR company - and frankly, if the BBC are doing their reporting without even the most basic fact-checking, then that's probably *worse* than outright bias.

Also, it's worth noting that there's a distinct difference between bias and conspiracy. Conspiracy implies a certain degree of premeditation, like there's some secret BBC employee going through their news stories and removing pro-indy elements. That's ridiculous.

But equally, most of the time people aren't saying that. Bias is a subtle thing, and generally unconscious. It's not about some malicious editor cackling as they sabotage pro-indy stories, but about a tired, stressed employee having to work to a deadline to decide what gets put at the top of the page, and just going with something they think is most important.

I don't think there's any sort of conspiracy to do with the BBC, but there *is* clear and concrete evidence of either bias or sheer incompetence.


Wed, 02/15/2017 - 17:10

The claims of Bias against the BBC are largely based on the fact that they didn't give equal credence to the case for the union and the case for independence... Yet that's a nonsense measure! time after time on everything from EU legal advice, to the deficit, currency, to where Scotland's nuclear waste would be processed and stored, to the set up costs of an independent Scotland and the selective use of data in the Whitepaper - the case for independence was weaker, less trustworthy and less credible - how on earth could unbiased coverage *not* reflect that reality?


Wed, 02/15/2017 - 18:02

What about Nick Robinson deliberately lying about what Alex Salmond said?

That is just one of the many pieces of evidence of bias.


Thu, 02/16/2017 - 00:19

You make some excellent points Siobhan but you've just completely undermined your entire article by quoting Wings Over Scotland. In a time when Paul Nuttall has been spreading fake news about his involvement in Hillsborough, the equally vile Wings is the very sort who has constantly perpetrated lies surrounding the disaster while constantly defaming the victims families.

To attempt to take the moral high ground on such issues of 'fake news' and then pander to trolls like that undermines everything you've just said. If the independence movement is to be taken seriously, perhaps a little bit of self-awareness wouldn't go amiss by rejecting morally reprehensible characters like Wings.

JohnSharp61's picture


Thu, 02/16/2017 - 01:13

Regarding the Frenchgate saga, I think that Siobhan Tolland’s criticisms of the media are extremely mild. There is a reasonably good timeline of events by Aiden Kerr on, and it’s worth looking at what the media asked – and failed to ask – stage by stage.

On Friday 03 April at 21:39, the Telegraph broke the story, having failed to request any comment from a principal - a lamentable lapse (as I’ve seen assured by many commentators) of journalistic standards. Since Simon Johnson is an experienced journalist, one may infer the omission was not accidental; why risk spoiling the impact by including any comment from the FM; let’s just get the accusation out there without any further investigation or checks. It’s surely ironical that this story was later proposed for a by a group of its peers for a journalistic award, even after its numerous failings had emerged.

Nicola Sturgeon issued an immediate categorical denial - in definitive terms (no politician-speak evasive stuff about context or misinterpretation). Now that in itself might have been expected to give some pause to broadcasting media as they picked up the story. Could she possibly risk a denial if it might be later contradicted or qualified by others involved in the meeting?

Before midnight, other reporters had firm denials from the French Consul General and then the French Ambassador herself. This, I think, was important, and should reasonably have be expected to be seen as important by any journalists now pursuing the story. I noted a Tweet at 01:37 on 04 Apr by Janan Ganesh of FT “The French diplomatic operation in London is meticulous and professional. They wouldn’t deny the Sturgeon story lightly.”

Nonetheless, as reporting proceeded on the Saturday, very little attention and weight was paid to the breadth of denials, especially given that the French denial was from a directly involved, and (one would assume) disinterested party. All the UK party leaders were on hand to do pieces to camera on the basis of the allegations in the memo. No-one that I saw on BBC or Sky thought of putting it to them that if they were calling Nicola Sturgeon a liar, they were also calling the French Ambassador a liar.

On the Saturday afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon was interviewed and broadcast live in turn by James Cook, BBC, then James Matthews, Sky News. Each of these were extensive interviews, and I thought that both of them went beyond “tough questioning” They took the tone that it was not good enough for Nicola Sturgeon to deny that she had expressed the views alleged; unless she could provide an full explanation for how a different version had emerged in a memo written by a UK civil servant, then there would have to be a presumption that she was dissembling. And my recollection is that also the reporting at that stage (a) give virtually no attention to the significant French denials; and (b) gave a platform to the view that, whether she could be pinned down for saying it or not, she could probably have been thinking that a Tory victory would be preferable, so we might as well condemn her for it anyway.

And then there is the aftermath. There seems to have been journalistic contentment, now that the mud had been slung, to let any questions slide until Sir Jeremy Heywood reported, anodynely and inevitably only after the election. I’ll avoid going into press behaviour during the legal process involving Alistair Carmichael (lest it should double the length of this comment).

The alleged trail that emerged from the Heywood report and the Carmichael trial was that Carmichael took the “”full responsibility for the publication” by giving his Special Advisor Euan Roddin permission to leak the document. There seems a remarkable degree of press complacency (other than from Liam O’Hare (@Liam_O_Hare) in resting content with the storyline and the FoI denials that have protected it. I was certainly astounded by the spurious reasons given for suppressing FoI request for the circulation of the memo at the base of this story - which as I understand them are that release of the information might (a) cause diplomatic offence to the French; and (b) might cause stress to civil servant(s) involved. Given that UK political leaders and media piled in behind a story that branded the French Ambassador as a liar, then I can’t see that much additional offence could be caused. And if the idea that a civil servant might be stressed is enough to deny a FoI request, then might FoI not as well be dead. I’ve seen David Mundell being asked if he was aware of the memo before it was leaked, and his response was an exercise in squirming evasiveness. So I’d suggest that there are grounds for speculating that the official version of the memo leak is still a sanitised one, we (press and public) should be concerned about how the techniques used to protect it. Despite there being important FoI issues, might a generally unionist press be influenced by the sentiment that they are not going to worry about it as long as the victim is the SNP.

So, to connect back to the article theme of fake news (if anyone has read this far)
The 04 April weekend saw a media (both private press and regulated broadcasters) happy to take the story and promote it with a tone of authority (judged on the journalistic commentary and balance of airtime given to one side of the argument) even although a perfunctory, objective consideration of the evidence available would have shown it be at best flaky, and most probably false.

The aftermath perhaps does not demonstrate such a sharp focus on “false news” – but I’d argue that because the media are mainly unionist, a storyline that is frankly implausible but plays in favour of union / against independence is quite likely to escape thorough analysis or challenge.

Jams O'Donnell

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 09:38

It seems to me that those above defending the BBC, are in fact peddling their own brand of 'fake news'.

The examples given of BBC bias are incontrovertible, and casting doubt on this, and onto sites such as WoS in turn casts doubt on the good faith of self-proclaimed "Yes" supporters


Thu, 02/16/2017 - 12:20

Yet Wings is known for lying, for being mistaken, for not correcting his site when mistakes are pointed out, for viciously attacking opposing views and, most insidiously, making a deliberate and concerted attempt with the "Wings Block list" to keep his audience in a filter-bubble, to try and prevent them having a balance of views to take into account. Why else would he try and get his followers to block someone who, step by step, unriddles the lies in his Wee Blue Book?


Thu, 02/16/2017 - 18:14

Exactly, either Siobhan is guilty of rank hypocrisy or she has just slurped up every inaccurate fact from the Wee Blue Book. The gall to use him as a credible source is laughable.

Sheer lunacy.

ian gould

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 18:01

sad that commonspace seems to have so many unionist trolls

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