THE BLOG

How Byline Festival Plans To Fight Back Against Fake News

30/05/2017 16:27 BST | Updated 30/05/2017 16:27 BST
Photo by Bhaskar Dutta via Getty Images

With the hollowing out and decline of traditional news outlets, and weaponised misinformation and fake news causing havoc during the Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump, every citizen will have to step up to fight the post truth authoritarian world in which will to power and propaganda trumps informed debate and evidence. We can't all become citizen journalists, but we're all going to have to become citizen editors and community fact checkers.

I came to journalism late in life, after quarter of a century as a dramatist and screenwriter because, around the phone hacking scandal and Rupert Murdoch's aborted BskyB bid in 2011, I realised I was being consistently lied to by most the media I relied on. One way or another, either by cowardice, collusion or conscription, the British press was becoming censored.

I saw this during the Leveson Inquiry, which I covered for the Daily Beast. I witnessed more during phone hacking trial of Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and others, which I live tweeted for 8 months through crowdfunding. I've dug deeper with Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder, the hit podcast about police corruption and press dark arts, and now a book with Alastair Morgan. The British press, with the lowest trust rankings (minus 51%) of 33 countries in Europe, cannot be relied to tell the truth about itself.

And in the information age, when intelligence, data and knowledge occupy ever larger parts of our economy, democracy is in danger if we cannot access accurate information, and make reasonable choices based on known facts.

Those famous mastheads - The Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun - are now crumbling. Their print readership is elderly and circulations have halved in ten years. Meanwhile Google and Facebook have sucked away billions from their advertising (the element which actually paid for content for 150 years). But rather than adapt and become papers of record again, these papers have sacked journalists and relied on a narrow coterie of partisan highly-paid columnists and op-ed writers to get political leverage.

Distrusted by the public, hollowed out of staff, the 80% of the press owned by a handful of tax-shy billionaires have reverted to campaigning mode. They don't follow the story: they want to frame and hector politicians and change events.

Their ferocious partisanship over Brexit and this current general election is akin to the roar of a Tyrannous Rex, just as the cloud from an asteroid impact comes over the horizon, promising to make him extinct.

Meanwhile, the news that replaces the dinosaurs of print seems even worse. Let's be clear, the Sun has little reputation for truth after its 'The Truth' lie about the Hillsborough dead. Polifact has estimated that 60% of Fox News output is either wholly or partially inaccurate, and another 19% misleading. Rupert Murdoch, through his TV channels in the US, and his tabloid papers in the UK, has always let his business interests and political bias overcome objective reporting. They created the context for fake news. And now they have been overwhelmed by it.

As criminal, electoral and journalistic investigations continue into the Brexit and Trump votes, it will become more apparent that the British and US citizenry were subject to a concerted campaign of weaponised misinformation that could well have swung the marginal 2% needed for electoral victory. Dark money and hidden use of personal data have undoubtedly been a factor. Whether spoken or unspoken, unwitting or planned, there was also a confluence of interests and off shore cash with Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic regime which, particularly following the sanctions after his annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, was intent on weakening the EU, NATO and any US President who would continue an aggressive policy of resistance.

With hired government trolls in Russia, well rewarded fake news writers in Macedonia, powered by automated bots, and with the willing collusion of far right wing groups on 4chan and Reddit, weaponised misinformation has caused the greatest political crises in Britain and the US since World War Two. To some, the willingness to elevate power over truth, political demonization over tolerance, is the beginning of a new form of fascism. Others go further, and say it represents the end of the Enlightenment.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

But the crisis of authority in the media, and lack of trust in the British press, is also an opportunity and that's why I and my co-director Stephen Colegrave plunged into a massive undertaking - three day riot of free speech and festival of honest independent journalist at the Byline Festival, in the beautiful parkland of the Ashdown Forest in the first weekend in June.

At the Byline Festival you can learn all you want to know about populism and hacking, Putin's infowars, the harnessing of big data and dark money, how the current models of journalism and political coverage are broken. We'll be having keynote speeches from Harry Leslie Smith, Jay Rosen, Tom Watson, Lauri Love, Ivan Krastev...

But we'll also be seeing the light side of things: humour and satire from John Cleese, Andy Hamilton, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Salena Godden. Bands like the Blow Monkeys. Workshops on podcasting, fact checking, legal issues, blogging, journalist training, or how to riot or write protest songs.  And most importantly we'll be helping the public to become citizen editors.

The CEO of Wikimedia will be there, to explain the new WikiTribune model of crowd funded journalism and crowd sourced fact checking and editorial support. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins will be demonstrating how open source intelligence and social media verification can actually break new stories - as with his coverage of the Damascus nerve gas attacks and the shooting down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airways flight MH17.

The tools to determine truth, the ability to separate hate filled propaganda from real reports, are all in your hands. And now you will have to be the judges of reliable journalists. You with have to sift through the alternative facts. In the end, though it will be a rocky ride till we get there, journalism will be even more vital, and revitalise our broken democracies. And if you want to be part of that project, the Byline Festival is great place to begin.

Byline Festival runs from 2-4 June at Pippingford Park, an hour away from London by train