Do we need to set up a Society for the Protection of Mainstream Media? It might be tempting to think so given that these two words are now seen as a term of abuse in some quarters, while ad revenues are dropping, with influence in apparent decline as the focus switches to the new social media influencers and direct-to-the-public communication. Meanwhile, we might also believe that in the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election victory the truth is no longer sacred; nobody seems to care any more - the liars have won. What has happened to our media? Have we become so blinded by the cacophony of claim and counter-claim that we don't know who to believe any more, so we don't believe anybody? I believe there are real risks to our democracy if this is the case. Indeed, 'post-factual' has been named International Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. There has been scattergun use of blatantly dodgy statistics in recent political debate, with contradictory policy statements, scare stories, personal attacks on opponents in place of policy analysis, and deliberate misrepresentation of their viewpoints. None of this has encouraged us to believe what we read in the papers or see on TV.
Meanwhile 'fake news' websites have become established, encouraged by Facebook algorithms that push made-up stories into the news feeds of individuals at the expense of a balanced and varied news diet. Facebook has belatedly announced it will attempt to stop this practice, by cutting off advertising revenue to these dubious and often politically-motivated operators. If you consider yourself a sensible individual, and assume most others are too, you might find the idea of such websites far-fetched and imagine they are unlikely to gain credibility with anyone. If so, take a moment to look at this article on blatant and cynical make-it-up merchants from the Washington Post. At the same time, more and more people are getting their news through the prism of social media news feeds which only reinforce their own views or play on their fears and prejudices - the so-called 'echo chamber' effect which Facebook and others are now being challenged to resist.
What's particularly worrying is that in some quarters, on both the political right and left, the term 'mainstream media' has now become one of abuse, particularly in the USA but to a lesser extent in the UK too. Christiane Amanpour, the highly-respected CNN correspondent, calls all of this an 'existential threat' to journalism.] The President-elect, Donald Trump, has already tightened his fingers round the throats of the US TV networks, with the strong implication that if they are over-critical of any of his actions, access and information will be cut off, and they will be further marginalised.
It's perfectly possible to argue that newspapers and the TV networks have only themselves to blame. They have struggled to reflect many of their viewers and readers' views, stuck in the bubble of the 'liberal, metropolitan elite'. Indeed, newspapers can and do get it very wrong; on the right in Britain the Mail and Sun have antagonised many by their blatantly biased Brexit coverage, while at the other end of the spectrum the Guardian was caught up in the fake 'traingate' Jeremy Corbyn story, suggesting Britain's trains are so overcrowded that the Labour leader couldn't get a seat on his way to Newcastle, when in fact he walked past rows of empty ones. In decades past, the Sunday Times carried an exclusive claiming to have discovered Hitler's secret diaries, which later turned out to be fake, and there have been plenty of retracted stories since, on all sides. So, no-one can really claim the moral high ground with much conviction.
But I am convinced that the more responsible newspapers and broadcast news, despite their failings, still have a vital role to play. They reach millions of people, and will continue to do so. There remains an enormous demand for 'curated' news and opinion, covering a range of views from which the reader/viewer can draw his or her own conclusions, knowing that the facts will have been checked and will be accurate, at least most of the time. If these outlets are allowed to wither, one of the most important democratic checks and balances will have been lost. Who will be there to seriously scrutinise the government, let alone bring to public attention uncomfortable truths such as the Rotherham child abuse scandal, FIFA corruption, MP's fake expenses claims, a major bank's collusion in its clients' tax evasion, and so on? Also, there is a world of difference between serious news media which try very hard to get it right as much as they can and succeed more often than not, and so-called news sites which are in fact out-and-out propaganda machines. The good news is that most influencers, including politicians and PRs, still recognise the central importance of media relations, despite the widening complexity of the media landscape. More people read about a twitterstorm via Mail Online or The Sun than they do on twitter itself. Without lapping up their every word as the gospel truth, we should buy, watch and cherish the best of the mainstream media. They are far from perfect, but they're the best we've got - and a lot better than the most of the alternatives.