Labour MP Chris Bryant has said news coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle “knowingly monetises hatred” of the couple.
In a speech on Tuesday night Bryant said the incentives of social media had made this “a profoundly dangerous moment for British journalism”.
He cited coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as a way platforms had encouraged “the marketing of hatred” by the media, and argued for a range of legal changes including enforcing greater transparency around content recommendations.
Bryant, who is MP for Rhondda in South Wales, was speaking at the ninth annual Leveson Lecture put on by press reform campaign group Hacked Off. Bryant’s talk was introduced by actor Hugh Grant, a Hacked Off board member.
The former Anglican priest identified the main problems facing the news industry as “the marketing of hatred”, “the promotion of conspiracy theories” and “concentration of ownership”.
Bryant said: “My real beef is with the effect these algorithms have on journalism and political discourse, as they nudge people to political extremes, they promote division and they pervert the truth by creating an incentive for untruth.
“Far from caring about the harmful effects of algorithms, the social media companies and their allies/competitors in the press rely on them to make money.”
He cited as an example content about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, saying a network of Youtube channels had “notched up 497 million views and $3.48m on the back of hateful and inaccurate material about Meghan”.
He also cited a study by data analysts Bot Sentinel, who looked at 114,000 tweets about the Sussexes between January 2020 and October 2021 and found that Twitter’s recommendation system “urged someone who had viewed one hate account to follow several others” and “83 accounts were responsible for 70% of the negative content targeted at the couple”.
Bryant said: “This is not just ordinary, spontaneous or altruistic hatred. It is deliberate and coordinated. It uses social media recommender systems to amplify hatred. Like all clickbait it uses hatred to entice people to follow a link to an article or another client web page, where money is to be made.”
He argued social media therefore “knowingly monetises hatred” and the same incentives had manifested among UK newspapers, with content about the Sussexes “becoming their richest clickbait seam (apart perhaps from the sidebar of shame on Mail Online). It drives viewing and earns advertising income, which is why so many British opinion writers pen so much drivel about the couple.
“Not because the story matters, not because the writer genuinely cares about it, but because it makes money. That is not journalism, it’s a perversion. And yet again it means that the press see other people’s lives as commodities to be traded.”
Bryant’s Leveson lecture comes on the heels of the Leveson report’s ten-year anniversary. Bryant himself was a victim of the phone-hacking which set the inquiry in motion, winning £30,000 from News Group Newspapers in 2012 over hacks performed by the now-defunct News of the World.
The MP also had a bruising encounter with the media early in his political career when a picture of himself in his underwear, sent on dating site Gaydar, was published by the press.
Bryant went on in his speech to list six policy proposals to address the issues he identified, among them “more online opportunities for consumers to opt for news and stories from outside their echo chamber”, “tighter regulation of broadcasters deliberately disseminating conspiracy theories – and the online platforms that further amplify them” as well as higher journalistic standards “to counteract the inherent tendency in algorithms toward untruth and the marketing of hatred”.
Earlier in the speech Bryant had said: “I find it disturbing that GB News now bills itself as a necessary corrective to the supposedly liberal mainstream media, when it spends much of its time advertising, promoting and amplifying really dangerous hard right conspiracy theories, including about Covid.” (Ofcom is currently investigating two episodes of Mark Steyn’s GB News programme over comments made about Covid-19 vaccines, but the regulator has so far not sanctioned the channel for those or any other complaints.)
Criticising the concentration of media ownership among a few companies and media moguls, Bryant said “It is bizarre that Sky and the BBC contribute to this concentration by running lengthy segments commenting on the daily papers…
“With Murdoch, Rothermere and [Telegraph proprietor Frederick Barclay] not resident in the UK for tax purposes, it is difficult to see how such monopolistic practices are in the interests of consumers, voters or the general public.”
The MP called for “new media ownership rules that are fit for the digital era and enable regulators to decide whether a broadcaster or news service company is owned or run by a fit or proper person who is registered for tax purposes in the UK”.
Email email@example.com to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog