Martin Bell OBE: In the age of 'fake news' don't take quality newspapers for granted

Martin Bell
Martin Bell

Martin Bell OBE, a foreign affairs correspondent with the BBC for more than 30 years, reflects on the impact of and the threat from the internet, and the rise of fake news.

When I began as a journalist, in the BBC’s Norwich newsroom in 1962, we were operating in a stable environment.

Newspapers were prospering and their futures seemed assured. None of that applies today. With the new technology there goes a whole landscape of uncertainty. That your valued newspaper – whether national, regional or local – has been with you in the past is no guarantee that it will still be with you in the future.

The sky is darkening all across the horizon. The internet has blown a hole through the business plans of many great news organisations. It has diverted advertising revenues to other enterprises and websites. Most of them are legitimate, but some of them traffic in outrageous falsehoods. This is a phenomenon unique to the age of fake news and ‘alternative facts’. The wilder the falsehood, it seems, the greater the profit.

Trumpery has much to answer for. The election of Donald Trump has not only given encouragement to demagogues everywhere, it has blurred the commonsense distinction between truth and untruth.

His very first statement, as the newly sworn-in President, was a demonstrable falsehood about the size of the crowds at his inauguration. Then he added a further one about his opponent’s totals being boosted by fraudulent voting.

His strategy is to demonise and discredit the mainstream media, not only the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and the BBC (‘another beauty!’) but fact-based journalism everywhere, which I am sure would include this newspaper if it crossed his desk: which is highly unlikely, since he reads very little and when he looks in the mirror he thinks that he sees the smartest man he knows. The strategy is to get his retaliation in first, and to undermine the media as being themselves the purveyors of ‘fake news’.

Goebbels would have understood. He had only the press, the cinema and radio to manipulate. Imagine what he could have achieved in the age of ‘clickbait’, alternative news and the wide-open sluice gates of the internet.

Even newspapers which are not themselves directly under attack are feeling the edge of the cold wind blowing in from the west. I never thought I would live to see the day where facts are whatever you say they are and truth is a variable commodity.

Of course there were conmen and performance artists in the glory days of Fleet Street – one of them famously fabricated an entire report about the crash of a Turkish Airlines DC10 in northern France.

But we knew who they were and they were only a small minority.

In my own field the picture is even bleaker. War reporting as we have known it as a more-or-less honourable profession has died and been laid to rest: and I have actually written its obituary. The principal war zone danger that we used to face was to be caught in the cross-fire. Now it is to be targeted, kidnapped, ransomed, shackled and executed.

So journalists retreat first to green zones and fortified compounds, then even further to distant vantage points where they peer across borders with the help of unverified videos. There is still ‘embedding’, which means being folded into an army’s operations. But independent and free-ranging reporting has lost its foothold.

This is not special pleading by a disgruntled old newspaperman. I never ventured into print except occasionally, in some cause or another, like UNICEF. I was a broadcaster. Newspaper reporters were my rivals and competitors. When TV news began in the mid-1950s and the first film cameras turned up at news conferences, the old Fleet Street hacks saw themselves as instant celebrities and started demanding appearance fees for asking their questions!

No, it is just that as a journalist – once a journalist always a journalist – I believe that our newspapers are worth fighting for against the trend of the times. They are the mainstream press. Their reports are fact-based. They provide real news, not fake news. They offer shared experiences. And at the regional and local level they bind our communities together.

My own belief is that the present storm will pass. This newspaper is not only a business but a public service. It has a proud tradition. It has a loyal readership. It belongs to its readers in a way that no fly-by-night website can ever hope to achieve.

The relationship is a special one. We must not only read our newspapers but support them. Nor should we take them for granted: for if we take them for granted we can easily lose them.

War and the Death of News: Reflections of a Grade B Reporter by Martin Bell is published by Oneworld on June 1.