Sky News political reporter Beth Rigby warned last night that voters made decisions on Brexit and the US election based on “a pack of lies” spread on social media.
She was speaking at a panel discussion on reporting Brexit at City University in London which also featured BBC deputy political editor John Pienaar and political columnist and broadcaster Steve Richards.
Talking about the impact of social media on political debate, Rigby said: “On Facebook people can just write whatever they want that’s not true and then it gets consumed in a massive way.
“Whether you like the Daily Mail or you hate it, whether you find the Guardian irritating or you love it, there are editorial checks and balances that go into that copy. The idea that people are not consuming newspapers, not watching television and they are actually consuming news through places like Facebook – where there is no editorial control over what is put out – that is very frightening.
“People are really getting incorrect information and making massively important judgments on whether we should leave the EU or who should be president of the US on a pack of lies.”
Both Rigby and Pienaar questioned whether broadcasters got it right in terms of balance around their EU referendum coverage.
Rigby said: “I remember going in to see the CBI quite early on in the campaign…They were really unhappy about the way broadcasters had covered the EU Referendum because there was equal weighting to pro Remain and pro Leave business lobbies when all the stats show that big business was overwhelmingly pro Remain. Yet what would happen is that when there was a discussion about that you would equally weight the two sides…
“You try and be as balanced as you can and try to report the facts. And even when you do the best job you can you still get complaints from both sides. I think if you get equally trolled from both sides you are doing OK but what a state to get to.”
Pienaar said: “I am not entirely happy looking back at how we did it, but not sure what it would have looked like for me to be happy about it.
“To a certain extent we may have confused balance with equivalence. We did our best to say here’s an argument you may want to look twice at this argument.”
But Steve Richards said: “The answer to this is not to hold referendums. Once you decide to hold a referendum broadcasters have to be balanced.
“With some of the lies on the NHS that’s for us [the viewers] to decide not for broadcasters.
“If you hold a referendum the broadcasters are obliged to have this balanced coverage, that’s the end of it.”
Rigby also had some advice for the current Government on how to better control the news agenda.
“If the people in power won’t give you information you just have to go and find it somewhere else. How do you cover Brexit, who do cover what Theresa May’s plans are vis a vis the single market, customs union, hard brexit, soft brexit, freedom of movement?
“If you can’t get information from Number 10, and I would say she runs it like she ran the Home Office – which is like a fiefdom where everything is just sealed off. She tries to funnel everything that comes out of Whitehall through Number Ten.
“If you can’t find out information you will get it from somewhere else, so what will happen is reporters will go to Nissan, they will go to big companies, they will go to thinktanks, they will go to backbenchers who used to work for the Teasury who might have ins…It makes it harder.
“I think if I was a PR adviser I would tell my client the thing to do is to give journalists enough information to feed the beast because if you give them enough, if we’ve got enough to keep us busy, we don’t go chasing the really hard stuff you don’t want.
“But they haven’t learned that so we are now chasing the stuff you don’t want. That’s why they are having lots of leaks and uncontrolled coverage, which is great.”
Asked what he thought about the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the people” front page condemning judges for saying Parliament should have a bigger say on Brexit, Pienaar said: “I don’t have a problem with that. A newspaper in a free liberal society has every right to slag off a judge.
“The job of a newspaper is to comment. It’s not the job of the government to defend the judiciary against the press, it is the job of the government to defend the independence of the judiciary as a pillar of our unwritten constitution.”
Richards said that, despite the fact newspapers have been hugely Eurosceptic for 30 years, they were not the deciding factor on the success of the Leave campaign
“I think Brexit would have happened if you took the Mail and Sun out of the equation, Something bigger was going on. The rise of Trump and the rise of the SNP are all part of a pattern that is not dependent on The Sun being printed each day.”