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Truth and the media: a modest proposal

A decade ago I became interested in the question of how truth could be better supported both in the traditional media, and in the increasingly important social media. The claim made two centuries ago by James Madison that truth would tend to drive out lies was clearly not happening in traditional media, and there were few signs it would be any truer on the internet.

One of the places I wrote about this was in a pamphlet co-authored with Tom Steinberg. As we wrote: "The competitiveness of the modern news media economy has led to some well-documented distortions to news values: poor ethics, inaccuracy, abuse of power. One result is that print journalists command even lower levels of trust than politicians. Another is that the public have systematically distorted views of many important facts and issues."

At the time (2004) there seemed like an ideal opportunity to fix the problem. The BBC was having its charter renewed – which would determine how several billion pounds of the public’s money would be funnelled into the media. Why not use a tiny fraction of this to shift the needle on truth right across the media, from broadcast and print to the internet?

The idea was written up in the form of an Open Commission for Accuracy in the Media (OCAM). The idea was to mobilise public energies to police lies and distortions – just as Wikipedia was mobilising thousands of people to generate reasonably accurate entries. The Commission would be funded out of a very small slice of the licence fee – we proposed 0.5% - and its brief would be to promote accuracy "across all mass media that are depended on by British citizens (not just BBC outputs)".

One of its major tools would be a web-based open system listing journalists, publications, news channels and other websites. Its main role would then be to run a system for allowing the public to complain about factual inaccuracies and a structured way for each side to present evidence, ahead of independent adjudication. Journalists and media outlets that were repeat offenders would be named and shamed.

I thought the BBC might jump on the idea. By encouraging part of the licence fee to go to OCAM they would show that they weren’t just concerned with their own growth (as their critics always argued). They would show a broader commitment to truth, and the move would put them ahead of the curve on an issue that was bound to become more important.

Instead, they politely said no. In private they wondered why anyone thought they would support funding anything that wasn’t under their direct control. Meanwhile, none of the print newspapers, other broadcasters or internet companies had much interest in the idea either.

So nothing happened. A decade was lost, or at least partly. Google and others made various abortive attempts to embed truth into search engines, but without appreciating the gravity of the issue. The Leveson inquiry proposed some modest moves towards greater accountability, mainly in print media, but was largely blocked.

There have been some moves to promote new outlets dedicated to accuracy. Early this decade the Conversation was launched, first in Australia, and now in the UK, US, France, India, South Africa and the Netherlands, providing academic commentary on what’s happening in the world (I’m a fan, and Nesta provided some early support). With some tens of millions of users it’s achieved impressive reach. But it’s still marginal compared to the scale of the problem, and like the many other sites that try to promote factual accuracy the Conversation remains insecurely funded, while the big media giants and internet search engines have budgets in the billions.  

That’s why I think that a decade later, the idea of a more serious institutional response is worth reviving, ahead of a new BBC charter to come into force next year. OCAM’s brief would, as originally proposed, be to promote accuracy across all mass media that are depended on by British citizens. One of its major tools would be a web-based open system listing journalists, publications, news channels and other websites, which would keep track of:

  • complaints by members of the public who believe that a newspaper or broadcast report has been inaccurate.

  • a clearly structured way for journalists to defend themselves, and show evidence supporting their claims (my suggestion would be a series of three columns, one for the initial complainant, a second for the journalist or news organisation to defend themselves, and a third column for others to comment, with a requirement that comments address evidence and fact).

  • a process for either resolving disputes or escalating them to adjudication panels, best organised as volunteer juries.

  • some resources for in-depth investigation of the most serious cases.

The result would be an easily accessible source to find out which journalists were repeat offenders. Aggregate rankings would show which media outlets repeatedly turned out to be distorters of the truth (with these adjusted to the volume of their output). These could in turn support kitemarks. A system of this kind would support, and complement, the moves being proposed by Facebook and others to better police truthfulness.

The BBC licence fee now generates a lot of money; £3.735 billion in 2014/15. We get a great deal of value from that. But a tiny proportion - eg the 0.5% proposed before, or around £18m - could have a disproportionate impact if used to promote truth across the system as a whole. It would certainly be a better response than vague hand-wringing.

We all depend on our media environment to give us a roughly accurate view of the world around us. Again and again, the proliferation of new sources has failed in this basic task – leaving people with systematically distorted views of the world, which in turn lead them to make bad decisions.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved in a stroke. But nor should we be fatalistic. There are options which would not be hard to implement if there were the will to do so.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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