James Mitchinson: Fake news is a deadly virus attacking truth

The future of a free, and independent, press is threatened if politicians like Donald Trump dismiss legitimate questions and scrutiny as 'fake news'.The future of a free, and independent, press is threatened if politicians like Donald Trump dismiss legitimate questions and scrutiny as 'fake news'.
The future of a free, and independent, press is threatened if politicians like Donald Trump dismiss legitimate questions and scrutiny as 'fake news'.
You could be forgiven for thinking that '˜fake news' is a new phenomenon forged at the American Ministry of Truth by Donald J. Trump as the weapon of choice in his crusade to be the gamekeeper to history.

His now infamous debut Press conference saw the President of the United States hurling the insult around the room like confetti as he sought to discredit anyone who might deign to have the temerity to disagree with him or, indeed, any of his ideas.

Of course, it isn’t new. Academics might point you to Thomas of Monmouth; a monk hailing from the Middle Ages widely credited with the origins of the ‘blood libel’, where Jews would be falsely accused of crimes they had not committed, and then executed. Fake news; alternative facts; lies concocted in order to engineer an outcome that the truth would not.

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What is new, though, is the toolset available to miscreants who take it upon themselves to manufacture misrepresentations for their own ends, and the exposure of the unitiated to those fabrications which pervade our lives via a multitude of media, bereft of anything like a hallmark which might inform us as to who actually created the content.

But regardless of the specifics of fake news’ provenance, what President Trump did do during that Press conference was change the rules of the game: he pointed at trusted, trained, experienced journalists from the likes of CNN and the BBC and lumped them in with the anonymous trolls that peddle poison around the world via the internet, often before the truth has had chance to pull on its boots, in order to gain capital – be it political, financial or otherwise.

He is seeking to monopolise truth by planting a seed of doubt in your consciousness which makes your first instinct – as you encounter any content that isn’t his – to be disbelief. If he succeeds, he will then be able to control outcomes.

However, it is not the whole of the internet that is crying wolf, but an awful lot of it is and those tears of fake news deceit are dissolving the trust that people once had with reputable information purveyors such as this one, which are essential to a properly functioning democracy.

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It is for that reason that this week I took the decision to join forces with regional editors around the UK to launch a co-ordinated campaign that – first and foremost – is designed to wholly discredit the creators of so-called fake news, but also to urge the Government to take legislative action.

American journalist, author and three-times Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman sums up the relationship that strong, well-informed communities should have with the journalists and media whom they trust.

He said: “Our democracy can work only if voters know how the world works, so they are able to make intelligent policy choices and are less apt to fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots, or conspiracy buffs who may be confusing them at best or deliberately misleading them at worst.”

So how do we know what is fake news, and what is the genuine article?

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One solution which I offer you is to look to historic news outlets like The Yorkshire Post whose job it is to help as many as people as possible understand often complex issues, some of which are steeped in deliberately obtuse language so as to camouflage unpalatable intentions.

Johnston Press – the parent company which owns this newspaper – employs almost 1,000 journalists. Every single one of them is registered with the company’s award-winning training programme, and every single one of them undertakes the same industry-recognised professional qualification. We make it our business to dig for these complex issues and then present them to our readers in a format that is easily understood, seeking reaction from the very people in our communities that are affected by them.

Not always, but often, the reporters who work on our titles – from the Stornoway Gazette on the Scottish Isle of Lewis to the Eastbourne Herald on the south coast of England – live on the patch in which they work.

That means they care about the people and the places for whom they ply their trade. Truth and justice matter to them in the same way they matter to you, because the consequences of anything but are felt by them and their children as much as they are by the next family in the street.

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Now, before you scoff at this as an advertisement feature to buy this newspaper, stop. It isn’t. There are many other large and small newspaper companies who have the interests of their communities at heart. If you don’t buy a Johnston Press newspaper, all I ask is that you pay a little for the work of any trusted news gatherer. Without your investment and support, quality journalism isn’t possible.

In one sense, Mr Trump is right: fake news is endemic. There are more bloggers, Facebookers, YouTubers, Instagrammers, Snapchatters – the list goes on – than there are papers like The Yorkshire Post, but never has it been more crucial to invest in titles which question those in authority.

Turning to trusted sources like The Yorkshire Post will mean that the programmatic robots which suck millions of pounds of marketing revenue from unwitting corporations, in exchange for unverified or perhaps even stolen content, will die.

Think of it like this: the black market of information is more dangerous than that of weapons or drugs, so by turning to trusted sources like this one, you are helping to fight the fake news pirates.

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By buying your local newspaper, you can take reassurance from the knowledge that those organs can continue to whip up business for advertisers; hold people in power to account; name and shame criminals; campaign for worthy causes; give local people a voice and occasionally make us laugh and smile.

Anything else is risking everything we’ve ever really believed in.

James Mitchinson is Editor of 
The Yorkshire Post.

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