3 Jul 2016

Brexit media: from A to ZZ Top

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 3 July 2016

In the wake of the Brexit vote, there have been plenty of pundits and an oversupply of overwrought opinions. But critics claim the media ran too much false information during the campaign - and something must be done.

Investment boss Anne Richards on Bloomberg TV while UK Sterling slumps

Investment boss Anne Richards on Bloomberg TV while UK Sterling slumps Photo: screenshot

The opinions of pundits all over the world have been aired after the UK's referendum on EU membership.

Last weekend, the BBC's national news network 5 Live called me for a view on New Zealand's response. I was followed by Billy Givens of veteran US rock band ZZ Top, heading for the Glastonbury festival. 

He told 5 Live there was still an active independence movement in their native Texas. Who knew the first post-Brexit domino could fall with a 'Texit' in the US?

This wasn’t the only revelation from the unlikely source of Glastonbury. While members of the UK’s opposition Labour Party were quitting or being sacked by its leader last weekend, deputy leader Tom Watson was posting pictures of himself from the festival.

In one he’s standing alone in a muddy field clutching a can of cider (with the unfortunate brand name “Thatchers”).

The media had a field day with that, naturally, but calling the referendum in the first place was already a more chronic political blunder.

Prophets of doom

British Prime Minister David Cameron took the fall for that when he announced his resignation the following morning while the UK's currency and stock market slumped.

It was TV prime time here, and guest panelist Trish Sherson - a PR consultant - didn't hold back live on TV3.

"They've unleashed a political and economic tsunami," she said.

"The waves will hit the US and the impact on the presidential campaign could be massive. The US economy is the most sensitive to an economic shock than it's been since World War Two. Clinton and Obama will get blamed by Trump for the economic downturn and that is a big fillip to Trump's campaign".  

The result was “catastrophic for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world,” agreed TV3 journalist Amanda Gilles.

But anyone watching the international TV news channels at the same time got a far less dramatic scenario from experts in business and economics in the UK.

No panic yet, says business

"I suspect we've had the worst of the kneejerk reaction," investment fund chief executive Anne Richards told Bloomberg TV.

But surely Sterling and UK stocks plunging at that very moment constituted a crisis? Not necessarily, she said.

"Weakened Sterling makes incoming foreign capital more attractive," she explained. "There's a trade off between those two things".  Brexit would take years to "unwind" leaving time for orderly adjustments, she said.

Across the table, investment boss John Studzinski said only the media were connecting Brexit with a possible Trump presidency.

In a comment piece for the RNZ website, former UK Labour Party staffer David Townsend said the EU in Britain has been under "sustained attack for decades" in the anti-EU media, which also failed to scrutinise key claims from the 'Leave' campaign.

Immigration to Britain would be halted when Britain left the EU, they had said. Huge sums handed over to Brussels would be available for spending in the UK, they had said (most notably on the side of their much-photographed big red battlebus).

But within three days of the vote, he said, they admitted that neither promise could be kept.

Politicians steeped in the media

It’s no coincidence that two politicians leading the campaign were once journalists themselves, and they had done as much as any politician to darken the reputation of the EU.

Boris Johnson started working at local papers In the late 1980s. He became a senior writer at The Times and its Brussels correspondent in 1994. 

“Boris Johnson seized every chance to mock or denigrate the EU, filing stories that were undoubtedly colourful but also grotesquely exaggerated or completely untrue,” his successor Martin Fletcher said in an article for the New York Times

Other news editors started pressing their own correspondents to match those stories, he said.

Boris Johnson’s key ally Michael Gove, now a candidate for Conservative Party leader - made a similar transition from media to politics.

His political leanings were obvious once he became a key opinion writer for The Times. When I worked at BBC’s 5 Live in the late 1990’s, he was a willing and regular guest on its news programmes.

After winning a seat in Parliament, he enjoyed the public support of his former employer Rupert Murdoch.

His wife is a journalist at the UK’s most staunchly anti-EU paper The Daily Mail, publisher of some of the most strident and inaccurate EU stories in recent years - and still today.

A steady diet of slanted stories

The New Zealand Herald's website carried this piece straight from The Daily Mail last weekend :  

Bonfire of the EU laws: From crooked cucumbers to powerful vacuum cleaners, the barmy Brussels regulations the UK can now get rid of.

What followed was a 'greatest hits' of supposedly heavy-handed EU rules imposed on the British, and headlined by the British press over the years.

Number one was the famous 'ban' on bendy bananas which first surfaced 22 years ago - and which Boris Johnson revived in speeches for the 'Leave' campaign 

But there were only ever EU rules for the minimum size of green, unripe bananas for sale, and these expired in 2008.

The European Commission in the UK tried to set the record straight with a website called Euromyths, which debunks hundreds of stories from UK press about supposed restrictions on everything from acrobats to zips.

Fighting back with facts

Some publications tried to combat misinformation online during the referendum campaign. The Economist magazine for example put out 'mythbusting' images on social media

The Conversation, an outlet combining reporting with expert commentary from academics, used WhatsApp to give users updates with fact-checking, explainers or graphs.

But these initiatives had nothing like the reach of top-selling titles in the British media.

Can false facts be stopped before the media spread them?

Social media verification tools are now being developed.

Pheme, named after the greek goddess of fame and renown, is an open-source online tool to help newsrooms detect, track and verify facts and claims the moment they start spreading on Twitter.

It grew out of a British project called Reading the Riots, which examined false reports in the media during riots in London five years ago. Most famously, several media outlets reported the London Eye was on fire, simply because a lot of people were saying so on social media.

Pheme's developers explains how the online verification tool works.

Pheme's monitoring, used alongside lists of individual users curated by journalists could eventually include indicators of trustworthy social media accounts. 

The international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation has been trying out a prototype, and its makers hope to make it available to other media next year.

Ironically, its the EU which initiated and backed the project. It's pity it wasn’t up and running to filter some of the fact-free claims made during the UK's referendum campaign.