Fake news vs free speech: who’s fit to judge?

Ever since Covid-19 hit the headlines, we’ve been glued to our screens. With TV viewership and online news traffic surging by 50%, we can’t seem to get enough of coronavirus stories. Or, escape from them, altogether.

When we see fake news, how much of it is an accident or how much a deliberation?

All the while, a staggering 76% of UK consumers admit they don’t trust TV, and 83% don’t trust newspaper journalists even when it comes to relatively straightforward coronavirus reporting. Does it actually mean, as some suggest, that Covid-19 has managed to attack the freedom of speech itself, with ‘fake news’ running rampant and multiplying at nearly the same rate as the virus itself?

Perhaps it is too early to send the press to the ICU over ‘fake news’ symptoms, as it courageously battles its way thorough falling ad revenues, job cuts, dropping print sales and event cancellations. But the quality of journalism has dropped a little over the course of the past few months. Could, then, a resurgence be likely amid the Darwinian cull that is predicted to follow?

“Same same, but different”

When it comes to trust, not all media sources are created equal. According to another YouGov poll, the BBC is still the most trusted source – somewhat answering the corporation’s existential purpose question and leaving the mid-market press and tabloids massively behind. The same poll also diagnosed the lack of trust in the press as a chronic disease and not merely a Covid-19 side effect.


How much do you trust the following to tell the truth? % who said 'a great deal' or a 'fair amount'

The main issue seems to be that while we don’t trust the media, we still consume it en masse. Like junk food. 

Meaning consumers either do not distinguish between or care about how factual their media stories and sources are – so long as it’s an entertaining read. As a result, we are seeing a number of uncorroborated stories from an ‘insider’ who claims to know someone or something, designed to attract clicks and provide instant gratification.

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Like everyone else, I love a slice of tabloid with my morning coffee. The writing is often brilliant, entertaining and a little addictive… 

However, that’s often where half-truths mix with half-rumours, making it difficult to tell where the freedom of expression ends, and ‘fake news’ begins. 

A good example is the coverage of Meghan Markle’s privacy claim ruling against Associated Newspapers (ie, The Mail on Sunday and The Daily Mail) which appears to have included the highlights and shadows, as opposed to factual story-telling.

“Meghan Markle’s claims against Press branded ’embarrassing, irrelevant and vague’ by judge”, hailed the Sun. “This is a like a train ploughing into a petrol tanker. A complete disaster”, clapped the Daily Mail – the reaction you’d expect given the Associated Newspapers’ affiliation. 

The truth is a bit less ‘exciting’ than a Hollywood blockbuster episode. The term ‘embarrassing’ is nothing but an ancient legalism, meaning a part of Meghan’s claim simply wasn’t clear enough to enable the other side to formally to respond to it. Life goes on, the train has left the station.

Next stop: Markle vs Markle in the same courtroom. In other words, context and interpretation is everything. Not quite fake news, but close.

If the public doesn’t see the difference between factual and ‘fantastic’ reporting, or simply doesn’t care, the question is who’s watching the ‘watchers’ when someone cries ‘fake news’?

In this case, it’s IPSO, the press complaints body, set up, owned, funded and overseen by the big newspaper groups. More on what it could mean when things go a little off-piste, is described here

Could there be a correlation between the higher level of consumer trust in TV sources and the preparedness of the said watchdog to act almost immediately?

Broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to show its teeth, recently issuing swift “guidance" to ITV following Eamonn Holmes' comments about 5G technology and coronavirus on This Morning. Could there be a correlation between the higher level of consumer trust in TV sources and the preparedness of the said watchdog to act almost immediately, when that trust may not have been met? One would think so.

Cock-up or conspiracy?

When we see fake news, how much of it is an accident or how much – a deliberation? I want to believe it’s the lack of funds and resources that’s causing it, most of the time.

Journalists are some of the most driven and hard-working people I know. Yet, the industry seems to be caving in under cost-cutting pressure, showing a nosedive in quality in the last few months. 

There is often no time to pause and think as one deadline is quickly followed by another – with increasingly fewer people available to meet them. Does the headline “Pubs could limit drinkers to three pints a day under lockdown exit plan” even make sense? Who knows, off to the next one! There has been a publish first, correct later if absolutely necessary lifecycle for a while now. And at this rate, it’s only going to get worse.

Every now and again, we see a misspelt client name on the news. We poke fun at it and move on. More recently though, media mistakes seemed to have been creeping in more often. A missed caption on a major news bulletin. A 10% decline reported on another quality TV channel, instead of a 10% increase – as the producer was doing three jobs at once, and possibly not quite succeeding at any of them.

In the longer run, a watchdog with more barking firepower to sniff out and stamp out fake news as it appears – may have to be in order – if we are to rebuild consumer trust in the value of free speech.

Post-Covid, when clickbait no longer brings in the top dollar to fund researches, editors and fact-checker, the vicious circle is bound to continue. Of course, everyone has an opinion they should freely express. That's the basis of democracy. But the freedom of speech comes with an inherent obligation to present well-researched and written up arguments, especially when you are someone paid to deliver the punchline in style.

The good news is that those publications that produce well-researched content, including more trusted and analysis-led publications such as The Economist, Financial Times, and Wired are making hay on subscriptions right now, all while making its most important coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic freely available. The bad news is that it’s still not nearly enough of a reward thanks to ad and conference losses hanging over the journalists’ heads, potentially signalling more editorial staff losses ahead.

If not us – then who?

How do we stop the onset of fake news, and restore trust in the UK press? In the short term, a bigger cash carrot and a heavier financial stick could be just the answer to the threat of fake news. Meaning, the marcomms professionals and ad industries have a role to play in helping counsel brands on their spend strategies. The main fear for many companies at the moment is to appear next to a Covid-19 headline. Whereby, perhaps, it should be the fear of appearing next to a fake news story instead?

By supporting those media organisations with a purpose of safeguarding consumers from fake news, brands have the power to financially ‘punish’ those that don’t quite meet the ‘trust’ mark. In the longer run, a watchdog with more barking firepower to sniff out and stamp out fake news as it appears – may have to be in order – if we are to rebuild consumer trust in the value of free speech.

Written by Anastasia Ivanova, associate director at PR firm LEWIS


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