Tom Watson announces plan to shut down ‘fake news’, by launching a witch hunt to censor his critics [EDITORIAL]

Kerry-anne Mendoza

The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has announced an inquiry into ‘fake news’. And the man Tom Watson has placed in charge of the inquiry is anti-Corbyn MP Michael Dugher, who has written for The Daily Mail and The Sun. This, and other signs, point to this inquiry being no more than a witch hunt against Watson’s political enemies on the left.

Inquiry or witch hunt?

According to Watson, the inquiry is all about robust journalism and separating truth from fiction. He writes:

Fake news challenges our democracy by undermining the very basis on which we make decisions about who to trust and who to vote for. We need to make sure the good, rigorous journalism which all of us rely on isn’t driven out of business by people who make things up for clicks. I want this inquiry to make concrete proposals for how to protect our news media.

This is precisely the reason we established The Canary, as you will read on our values page:

The team at The Canary believe a free, fair and fearless media is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, because for democracy to work, it requires informed consent from its citizens. We intend to help generate that informed consent by providing our readers with high-quality, well-researched and incisive journalism that holds power to account.

In fact, I voted for Tom Watson to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party on the basis that he would work to hold the media to account.

It was therefore somewhat disquieting to discover that Watson’s plans sound more like a witch hunt than an inquiry.

The Daily Mail and double standards

Watson announced his inquiry in an article for The Independent. It was followed up by a Buzzfeed article that revealed that the inquiry would be led by Michael Dugher – an anti-Corbyn Labour MP who has written columns for The Daily Mail and The Sun. Neither of these publications came under any scrutiny in the announcement. Instead, The Canary was named as number one target – an outlet which regularly debunks bigoted and misleading content by both The Daily Mail and The Sun, and has been credited with helping to defeat the anti-Corbyn coup figure-headed by Tom Watson over the summer.

The Buzzfeed piece cites a headline from The Canary as evidence for the urgency of Watson’s inquiry:

They highlighted how The Canary, one fast-growing pro-Corbyn site, recently ran a story on Watson appearing at an event held by the centrist Labour First group under the headline “A launch date for the Corbyn coup 2.0 has just been fixed, and guess who’s leading the charge?”

Buzzfeed and Watson failed to produce any contradictory evidence or counter-argument to the story in question.

By contrast, here are the headlines produced for columns by Michael Dugher – the man Watson has entrusted with protecting the integrity of UK news media:

If Jezza stays, May can win a snap election… if she has the bottle for it – The Daily Mail, 23 July 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s daft ban-the-bomb brigade will blow Labour’s chances – The Sun, 10 January 2016

Dugher, so incensed by ‘fake news’, is apparently fine with writing for two outlets synonymous with it. Here are just a sample of the headlines and front pages pumped out by both.

Dugher was happy to grace the pages of such outlets.

In short, this feels less like an inquiry into fake news and more like a witch hunt against perceived political opponents.

Attack of the Bitterites

The anti-Corbyn wing of the Labour Party are not Blairites, they are Bitterites. Bitter over two resounding general election defeats, and two thumping Labour leadership election defeats.

Following a series of high-profile coordinated resignations after the Brexit vote, 172 Labour MPs voted no confidence in leader Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to topple him undemocratically. They sought to bypass the half-million-strong membership of the party by forcing a resignation.

That plan failed when Corbyn insisted he would remain in his post until or unless he was deposed democratically by the membership. So the Bitterites went to court in an attempt to strike him from the ballot in a second leadership election, again seeking to avoid pesky democracy.

They failed. Again. And their response to this failure was to begin a purge of Labour members, attempting to reduce the Corbyn vote by as much as possible. Alongside this, there was an unprecedented smear campaign – backed by the likes of The Guardian, The Mirror, and even Channel 4’s Dispatches – against Corbyn, Momentum, and those who supported either. They were branded as ‘thugs’, ‘cult members’, and even ‘Nazi Stormtroopers’.

Despite all this, Corbyn won the leadership election with an increased majority. That had to hurt. The Bitterites threw everything and the kitchen sink at that coup, and they lost even worse in 2016 than they had a year before. An aide to the defeated Owen Smith campaign told Buzzfeed in the wake of the defeat:

Immediately before we even appointed anyone to do social media they had tens of thousands of people sharing bullshit from The Canary or some other half-true source…

And so it began.

The bottom line

The fact is that a real inquiry to tackle fake news and media corruption is already in place. It’s called the Leveson Inquiry. The phone-hacking scandal blew the lid off a far deeper and darker story of corruption which linked the media, the police and the political class.

For years, the public has been waiting for the second part of the inquiry to get underway. Just this month, the government kicked it into the long grass once again. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley used the government’s austerity agenda to suggest it wasn’t cost effective to hold the media to account, saying:

Given the extent of these criminal investigations, the implementation of the recommendations from part one of the Leveson Inquiry and the cost to the taxpayer of the investigations in part one, which is £43.7 million and £5.4 million respectively, the Government is considering whether undertaking part two is still in the public interest.

The response was a swathe of anti-regulation editorials from the likes of The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph – all fighting hard to make sure Leveson Part 2 never happens.

If we want to deal with fake news (and we really should), it has to be a universal rule. It cannot be a war on opinions we don’t like, or news which is inconvenient for us.

We are talking about taking action against lies, stories obtained through unacceptable breaches of privacy and ethics, hate speech, scapegoating, and gossip mill churnalism which The Canary and our partners in new media founded themselves to oppose. We are talking about action against a UK media almost entirely owned by a tiny handful of corporations. And a media where former leading Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne resigned in acrimony after writers were allegedly prevented from reporting the HSBC banking scandal, in order to protect advertising revenues from the bank.

Instead, a group of politicians and pundits are hijacking this issue to settle political scores and soothe wounded egos. In doing so, they have once again done a disservice to the people they claim to represent, and proven themselves manifestly insufficient in their roles as public servants.

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