Jon Snow is remarkably upbeat for someone who fears the epidemic of fake news could create “panic, hatred and despair”. The 69-year-old broadcasting legend, who has been a reporter for more than 40 years, believes this is “the golden age” of his trade.
“Journalism is blossoming,” he beams, as he marvels about the possibilities of technology, which is allowing the fake news industry to thrive but also letting journalists publish their material and access information faster than ever.
“It’s making us better. I genuinely think we’re having to work harder and more thoroughly,” he says. “This is the most beautiful and brilliant thing that’s ever happened. It’s got its evils. Almost nothing has ever been created that changed life for the better that didn’t have a terrible underbelly.”
That “terrible underbelly” of fake news has exploded in recent months. Stories that are entirely fabricated have spread online and planted seeds of anger and mistrust before they could be debunked. Pope Francis never endorsed Donald Trump but many may have gone to the polls thinking he had, thanks to fake news.
The problem is so rife that a parliamentary committee is investigating. As the media struggle to learn how to challenge lies that spread so quickly, Trump has weaponised the trend, telling lie upon and lie, while branding media he hates, as well as every poll showing he is unpopular, fake news.
“Almost nothing has ever been created that changed life for the better that didn’t have a terrible underbelly.”
So Snow’s enthusiasm about the state of journalism isn’t what I expected, nor is his confession that he didn’t think much about fake news until Trump’s victory and Brexit.
He isn’t convinced, as some are, that fake news put Trump in the White House, although he admits it’s “entirely possible”. He thinks the same about Brexit, whose supporters made the infamously dubious claim that leaving the EU would mean re-investing £350 million extra weekly in the NHS.
“The idea Pope Francis might’ve backed Trump is quite a disturbing thing, which might make people think ‘Trump may not be as bad as he looks. And as a Catholic, I think we should give him a chance’. You might never lose that feeling despite it being proven it’s phony. That’s worrying,” Snow says.
“Populism is a very dangerous force, as has been proved in history. If it’s facilitated by untruths or fake information, there are tremendous dangers. We have to try and call that out as much as we can.”
Since 1989, Snow has fronted Channel 4 News, which this week dedicated a chunk of every nightly one-hour broadcast to reporting on fake news. Much of the show’s work has focussed on the extremes: lies that are written to be circulated around hyper-partisan communities on sites like Facebook and earn their authors money. In November Channel 4 News uncovered a cottage industry in a Macedonian town of people circulating stories of pure fiction.
These claimed, among other things, that Hillary Clinton was a paedophile and had sold weapons to Islamic State. The programme’s editor Ben De Pear believes Facebook “makes it too easy” to earn money from the advertising around these hoax stories. He has called out the social media site for also profiting from them while not doing enough to stop them.
On the day we meet, Snow has been to parliament for a breakfast with MPs to discuss the programme’s focus on fake news. They were interested but also keen to defend free speech, which Snow acknowledges is “difficult as always”. “I’m only saying [fake news] needs challenging to the point of informing people of the source of what they’re getting and their veracity,” he tells me, somewhat defensively.
But part of the reason Snow is so sanguine about the state of journalism is fake news isn’t new. Freddie Starr never ate anyone’s hamster, regardless of what The Sun’s 1986 headline said. “There’s always been fake news. It’s almost as old as journalism but it didn’t used to go very far,” Snow says as we sit in his editor’s office at Channel 4 News’ Grays Inn Road headquarters.
“There are some people who think Freddie Starr really did eat a hamster. As far as I know he didn’t. That was just a newspaper. We used to crow: ‘Six million people have read that story’. But now we’re talking about half the world. If we get two billion hits [on Facebook] over the year - and we’re a tiny organisation - just think how much stuff there is out there.”
Channel 4 News commissioned research that found just 4% of people could look at six headlines and identify which three were real. Snow says: “The capacity of the reader to detect fake news is almost zero.... Quite intelligent people are duped by it, unaware that there really are people who specialise in chucking stuff out.”
Stories described as fake news span a wide spectrum of dishonesty and truth. They include reports by the mainstream press that are presented in a way that promote certain agendas, as well as honest mistakes that are read more widely than subsequent corrections.
Even Snow has fallen for fake news. In 2011, he tweeted to say Piers Morgan, the former tabloid editor turned unrelenting self-publicist, was about to be sacked from CNN. He apologised after realising the Twitter account reporting this was fake.
The day after I met Snow, Trump tweeted an article about “16 Fake News Stories The Media Published Since Trump Was Elected.” The piece details examples of journalists making or repeating errors and exaggerations in their reporting, most of which were later retracted.
Journalists Are ‘Softening’ The Trump Message
Snow says that, while the president “really hates journalists,” Trump himself isn’t yet a direct threat to journalism. He has already proven himself so “haphazard” and disorganised in his first two weeks in The White House that he can’t mount much of a threat, Snow says, although “left to his own devices, Trump would undoubtedly do something to restrict our freedom.”
But Snow fears journalists could be “softening down” the things the president says. He recalls a BBC headline that reported Trump had said people should blame “the courts” if America suffered a terror attack, after a judge stayed his ban on travel to the US from seven Muslim countries.
“That’s not what he said,” Snow says. “What he actually said was ‘blame the judge and his court’. This is a federal judge... [Trump] was much more ferocious than the BBC felt it worth reporting... I’m not criticising the BBC.... It illustrates that, to some extent, the media’s in danger of hosing Trump down, actually making it not quite as menacing and dangerous as he might appear.”
I ask if he sees a lot of headlines like that. “I’m going to start looking,” he answers. “If you report it all, you almost feel you might be accused of editorial bias because it sounds so crazy. There’s a temptation to do that.”
I ask what journalists should do with Trump. “Report exactly what he says,” Snow exclaims in an uncharacteristically raised voice. “The worry is, if you do, you whip up a fervour... but it’s the truth. He does say seriously crazy things.”
Snow reported on Trump rallies before the election, where berating journalists became part of his ritual for stirring up the crowd. As we sit side by side, Snow does his impression of how Trump behaved. “Bad people!” Snow says jabbing his finger at me. “’The worst people in the world. Lock ‘em up!’
“He gets the crowd going... It veers between pantomime and something very dark... He does mean it. He really hates us. That’s a bad situation. To have one of the theoretically most powerful men in the world hating journalists is a bad place to be.”
Snow says the best way for journalists to fight fake news is to “get the internet”. “We have to change our game in terms of how we circulate our news,” he says. When Snow started as a journalist, film would take three hours to process in a lab before it was ready to be cut. “If news happened after about two o’clock in the afternoon, forget it. It’s just not going to get on. Now we’re talking nanoseconds.”
“To have one of the theoretically most powerful men in the world hating journalists is a bad place to be”
He points to Channel 4 News’ efforts to get its videos and stories as widely shared online as possible. They produce shorter videos aimed at 16 to 24 year olds and longer versions aimed at more patient audiences. All of them have captions, because no one watches videos with audio on their mobiles. This may sound like Snow doing his programme’s PR but the results are impressive. The Facebook page has 3.2 million likes, more than twice as many as its ITN stablemate, ITV News. The page has had two billion visits in a year, Snow says, 10% of them from California.
He is encouraged Facebook is working to try and identify fake news sites, and authenticating legitimate news sites. But this makes me think back to November, when a HuffPost UK colleague analysed news pages authenticated by Facebook that were publishing flagrantly fake news under the social network’s stamp of approval. When I mention this, Snow concedes such measures are merely “a start”.
Snow is careful about being drawn into arguments about whether the mainstream media’s excesses have fuelled fake news. A long-time critic of parts of Britain’s press, he calls the tabloids “very clever”. “They will keep actual serious news woven into the paper, often not very prominently. The very prominent stuff is the stuff that sells papers. Beckham and anything you care to mention. Tits, the lot... They are used to that sort of extreme. Whether that makes them more susceptible to fake news...” He pauses, thinking. “Possibly.”
He calls The Daily Mail an “extremely sophisticated organ designed to achieve certain political ends”. I point out that is a good description of fake news. “I don’t want to compare the Daily Mail to fake news, otherwise I’ll be in it,” he laughs. Later that week, Wikipedia, the often inaccurate online encyclopedia, bans Daily Mail articles being used as a source for its entries for supposedly being unreliable.
Despite his criticism, Snow thinks British journalism could actually shield the country from the worst of fake news more commonly seen in America. Public service, regulated broadcasters provide a lot of the content that goes online and a “bedrock of really dependable journalism”, he says, that filters into the rest of the press.
“This country has very high media standards, even though I happen to think some of them are crap,” he says. Snow adds isolated parts of America have such a local diet of news that fake news, which is invariably about national or international topics, can seep in much easier. “It’s very hard to get any information of any reliability [in those parts of America]. That’s very disabling and makes it easy for fake news operatives,” he says.
As Channel 4 promoted Fake News Week, Piers Morgan couldn’t resist bringing up Snow’s old mistake, prompting Snow to tweet back to remind Morgan he’d been sacked as Daily Mirror editor for publishing fake photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqis.
Does Morgan’s tweet suggest British journalists, who love to squabble among themselves, aren’t ready for a concerted effort to expose fake news? Snow sighs. “I don’t know what it says to be honest... Whatever he was thinking, he put something out there that just seemed the most ludicrous self-immolation request I’ve ever seen.”
I ask what he’s learned about fake news since he inadvertently circulated it with his Piers Morgan tweet. “Think three times before you tweet anything.”
At one point about half way through the interview, the press officer leaves the room and Snow says: “Now that she’s out of the room I can say this. I would regard my soul as politically motivated. I want to change the world. I want to make it a better place. I think a lot of journalists do. Therefore, I want to tell the truth. I want to reveal things that are wrong and maybe push things that appear to be right.
“There are some value judgements involved in that - what is right and what is wrong. I happen to think fake news is a mistake.”
I ask Snow how he feels about being a journalist now. “More excited than at any time,” he says. “You have no idea how bad it was to be a journalist. And you ask me whether this is a bad time for journalism? It’s the best in the world. It is the golden age of journalism without any doubt.”
His excitement rising, he suddenly sounds as if the reality of what he’s saying has dawned on him. “Now that I’ve talked to you, I’ve persuaded myself even further that it is.”