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The Fourth Estate Needs To Step Up To Prevent Governments Spreading Fake News

04/09/2017 12:58 BST | Updated 04/09/2017 12:58 BST

"Government spokespeople" inevitably say a lot of bland, meaningless words. They're individuals not to be held personally responsible, representing a position that may well not reflect their personal views.

That's one thing. It's another thing when they state blatant untruths.

So it is worth highlighting the following quote: "A government spokesperson said: 'The UK is a recognised world leader in disability rights and equality'."

This was clearly false, given the context in which it was given: this was a UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) two-day hearing in which the chair said the evidence she'd heard from the UK was of "human catastrophe", concluding that the UK government had "totally neglected" disabled people. Those are extraordinarily strong words in the context in which language is usually downplayed and restrained.

You would expect the conclusions drawn by the CRPD to be splashed all over the newspapers, sounding loud on the airwaves. But you'd be wrong.

The strength of the words should have made an impact, and I'd question particularly the BBC, as our "public service broadcaster", has apparently not been covering this hearing and its conclusions.

But it was a tweet from a journalism academic, Ali Haynes from the Leicester Centre for Journalism that made me think about another aspect of this story - the official statement.

She was commenting on the story that got some play, about the government, deliberately repeating statistics on foreign students overstaying visas that helped to justify the whole. She said: "we're increasingly seeing that the source of #FakeNews is Government as much as the media".

The official statement on disability policy was just as false, yet it got, as such statements so often do, a downpage, "we've got to put in the official response" placement.

How have we got to the point where statements, claims, statistics, can be utterly detached from reality but just repeated verbatim, without question?

That's not to criticise any individual journalist or news outlet. This is just the norm - the way journalism works.

I've been contemplating this also with regards to statements over the Sheffield street privatisation fiasco that's led to the wholesale massacre of mature, healthy street trees in the city and a strong, determined campaign by residents to stop the slaughter. Councillor Bryan Lodge, in charge, claimed, including to the Financial Times, that the council could face "catastrophic consequences" as a result of delays, using this to justify court action against the protesters.

Yet clause 19 of the FOIed contract with Amey explicitly states that it should bear the cost of delays caused by protest: as Cllr Lodge made clear this week, in a story that got far less attention.

I don't believe that "fake news" is anything new. Go back to the English Civil War and see some of the scurrilous circulating broadsheets then for just one example.

But I am starting to wonder if we're not now being, certainly in terms of recent decades, being uniquely badly served by our media.

Certainly, disabled people have powerful cause to say they are being astonishingly badly served by a media that occasionally likes to highlight stories of individual tragedy and suffering (although rather less often than it likes to highlight extraordinarily rare cases of abuse of benefits and fraud), but has done almost nothing to explore the way the system is designed to operate.

The media very rarely explains that successive governments have aimed to torment, to spread fear, to discourage or prevent disabled people obtaining help to which they are entitled by our signature on the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People.

Just as it has failed to explain the causes of our economic crisis (not government spending but financial speculation), our desperate environmental state (yes the BBC is still inviting Nigel Lawson to talk nonsense about climate change), and it failed entirely to explore the complexities of Brexit before the referendum.

A collection of unchallenged quotes, even from "each side", is not a story. It doesn't help readers or viewers understand the complex realities of our world today. Following the "hot" story of the day, whether deeply dubious "self-driving lorries" or Tory leadership speculation, doesn't inform them.

This isn't good enough. The Fourth Estate is crucial in a democracy. We need one that works.

It could start by refusing the return to sources that have demonstrably provided fake news. Although that might create a problem in finding government sources.