Saturday, 28 July 2018

The fake news enquiry versus free speech

The DCMS Select Committee that is ostensibly investigating 'fake news' releases its interim report tomorrow. Dominic Cummings has already leaked the embargoed copy. The real agenda of the committee - which they barely bother to conceal - is to delegitimise the 2016 referendum on EU membership. The report quickly veers away from the nebulous concept of fake news to focus on political campaigning or, to be more specific, on the Leave campaign.

The Remain campaign, which used the same advertising techniques on the same websites and was no stranger to dodgy claims, doesn't get a look in. Funny, that.

Leaving the issue of the EU aside, there is a real danger that free speech will be collateral damage in their efforts to overturn Brexit. On the first page of the report, the committee complains about...

'...the relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour.'

Bearing in mind that the committee is made up of MPs who stand for election every few years, what exactly are they complaining about? It cannot be the attempt to 'influence [people's] voting plans' because that is the whole purpose of political campaigning.

So is it the 'relentless targeting' that is the problem? Surely not, because targeting voters is what politicians do. There is a reason why political parties gather focus groups together to find out their concerns and priorities so that they can target their messages. There is a reason why party leaders and cabinet ministers visit marginal constituencies repeatedly ('relentlessly', even) during an election campaign while ignoring safe or unwinnable seats. Leaflets from the same party have different messages on them in different parts of the country and even in different parts of a constituency. Politicians say different things on different doorsteps. This is 'targeting' and they are 'relentless' in doing it.

Perhaps it's the expression of 'hyper-partisan views' that they object to. But how could it be? It would be absurd to expect an election or referendum to be fought between people with loosely held, middle of the road views. Some people are broadly partisan towards the Labour party or Conservative party. Others feel very strongly about these parties. Those people - the hyper-partisans, if you will - join the party, often at a young age, and end up becoming candidates. No one is more biased towards the party and its policies than the candidate. It would be an affront to democracy if people were silenced because they held strong views and biases, and no one would suffer from such censorship than MPs.

But what if those views 'play to the fears and prejudices of people'? Perhaps that is what the committee really wants to stamp out, but how? One man's prejudice is another man's legitimate concern.

Is it prejudiced to call Tories greedy or Labour incompetent? It probably is, but no one has seriously called for this cut-and-thrust rhetoric to be outlawed.

Was the Remain campaign playing on fears when it claimed that a vote to leave the EU would lead to an immediate recession? Of course it was.

Is it fake news to claim that the Tories are going to privatise the NHS? Almost certainly, and yet that is what Labour candidates claim at every election.

Is it prejudiced to call Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathiser or Jacob Rees-Mogg a toff? Was it prejudiced for David Cameron to call UKIP members 'fruitcakes'? Probably, but that's free speech for you. If people consider such adjectives to be libellous, they have recourse to some of the world's toughest libel laws.

It is safe to assume that the MPs on the Select Committee do not want to ban this kind of speech, nor this kind of campaigning. They have only one campaign in mind when they complain about 'targeting' and 'hyper-partisan views' and 'fears and prejudices'. It is the campaign run by Dominic Cummings in 2016. For all the endless griping, his campaign was not significantly different to the Remain campaign or any of the other political campaigns run in the era of social media. Politicians have always delivered different messages to different people and many of these message have been contentious to say the least. The internet has merely allowed this targeting to be done more efficiently (perhaps).

Writing for the IEA back in 1959, Seldon and Harris noted that political advertising was the only form of advertising that was incorrigibly dishonest:

Politicians who preach honesty to business men display no great enthusiasm to tell the ‘whole truth’. In presenting their case they give prominence to some facets and blandly suppress others. The important difference in method between political and commercial advertising is that the politician specialises in disparaging his rival whereas the ban against ‘knocking copy’ drives the advertiser to concentrate on the positive attractions of his product, leaving the customer to draw his own conclusions about the implied criticism of others.

In principle there is much similarity in the techniques employed. The pressure of competition between rival products invites claims no less extreme or exaggerated than those thrown up in the battle between rival policies. Viewed in this light, it may appear remarkable not that advertisers ‘speak well of themselves’ but that, largely through self-imposed restraint, they avoid some of the grosser insults to our intelligence that politicians daily feel driven to perpetrate. Is it more important that the public should select the right detergent than that it should make an informed choice between rival economic and social policies at election time? Yet that seems to be the view of politicians who wish to impose a far higher standard on advertisers than they accept for themselves.

If the committee was serious about stamping out fake news, it would call for an end to parliamentary privilege which allows MPs to lie and defame with impunity. If it was serious about making political campaigns more honest, it would call for an end to the exemption from regulation that political advertising enjoys. The Advertising Standards Authority exists to ensure that advertising is 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'. But not political advertising. It has no power over that. At election time, it can only offer this advice to the public:

The best course of action for anyone with concerns about a political ad is to contact the party responsible and exercise your democratic right to tell them what you think.

The committee doesn't suggest either of these reforms, although it makes lots of recommendations, including proposals to limit what people can say on social media in the name of 'regulating the tech giants'. It is not interested in fake news or misleading claims in political campaigns. It is interested only in fighting Brexit. We can only hope that they don't cut a great road through the law to get at their perceived devil.

No comments: