Reporting misinformation and journalism in the UK

If the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a key moment in the US for alerting the public to the consequences of disinformation and fake news on democracy, the EU referendum campaign a few months later had similar repercussions in the UK. The now-infamous claim of the Leave campaign that the UK sends the EU £350 million per week has become emblematic of a campaign rife with mis/disinformation. Tabloid newspapers actively participated in the spread of such misinformation (Bennhold 2017), continuing a long-held tradition of hyperbolic and misleading reporting. Other media, however, have taken active steps against misinformation. Having already launched a Reality Check section in 2011, The Guardian, for example, introduced a regular ‘Factcheck’ feature assessing all political claims during the 2019 election campaign. Sky News introduced a similar ‘Campaign Check’ section on its website, which often featured on their television news coverage. The news channel also launched the ‘Under the Radar’ project with the aim of tracking political activity, advertising on social media during the campaign, and identifying possible disinformation (Manthorpe 2019). The broadcaster, as well as other major news media in the UK, such as The Independent and The Telegraph, have also cooperated with Full Fact, an independent fact-checking service, to check the validity of stories and report on misinformation during the election campaign and beyond (Graves & Cherubini 2016). Full Fact, the UK’s largest fact-checker, launched in 2010 and is a registered charity with trustees who include journalists as well as members of the main political parties (Graves & Cherubini 2016, 11).

The most evidently active position against misinformation and disinformation, however, has been taken by the two main public service broadcasters: the BBC and Channel 4, which have established their own fact-checking services. BBC Reality Check started with somewhat limited resources in 2015, only to be reinvigorated during the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016 (Graves & Cherubini 2016, 9). Since then, and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and its preceding campaign, a permanent BBC editorial team was allocated to Reality Check in 2017 (Samuels 2017). Channel 4 launched FactCheck, the first initiative of political fact-checking in Europe, as a blog covering the 2005 general election and turned it into a permanent feature in 2010 (Graves & Cherubini 2016, 6). Both fact-checking initiatives position themselves as watchdogs of political actors and their claims, with BBC Reality Check describing its mission as ‘cut[ting| through the spin and concentrat[ing] on the facts’ (BBC RealityCheck n.d.), whereas FactCheck is ‘testing the claims of people in power’ (FactCheck n.d.). They are, together with Full Fact, the main fact-checkers in the UK and the only ones bound to impartiality due to their public service status.

As their relatively short and rather fragmented history illustrates, Reality Check and FactCheck gain significance during election periods and moments of crisis. Both fact-checkers extensively challenged the Leave campaign’s ‘bus claim’ of the UK saving £350 million per week both before and after the referendum. These fact-checks were further broadcast and discussed in the main news bulletins of the respective channels (Goss & Renwick 2016). During the 2016 election campaign, despite accusations and perceptions of political bias by mainstream media against the Labour leadership (Cammaerts 2016), the evidence suggests fact-checkers paid fairly even-handed attention to both Labour’s and Conservatives’ claims (Birks 2019b, 52) and effectively questioned official claims and reports on crucial campaign issues (Birks 2019b, 77). In the 2019 snap election, Reality Check and FactCheck were given regular slots on flagship news programmes (Birks 2019a). During the COVID-19 pandemic, both Reality Check and Channel 4 focused almost exclusively on the health crisis, regularly updating their content and challenging misinformation (Cushion 2020).

Allocating resources and attention to fact-checking during periods of crisis can be seen as part of the public service mission of BBC and Channel 4 and their commitment to providing citizens with facts, set apart from misinformation and spin (Jackson 2017). Both Reality Check and FactCheck, however, are mostly online operations at present, with dedicated websites and Twitter accounts. When Reality Check was set up as a permanent feature, the then-director of BBC News, James Harding, committed to turning the fact-checking service to ‘more than a public service, we want it to be hugely popular. We will aim to use styles and formats — online, on TV and on radio — that ensure the facts are more fascinating and grabby than the falsehoods’ (Jackson 2017). Despite informing some broadcast news programming, especially during election campaigns, how extensively and effectively television news draw upon their fact-checkers remains open to question. This relationship is not necessarily straightforward, no less because online content does not easily translate into broadcasting, which does not favour contextual information or hyperlinks (Mantzarlis 2016). For fact-checking to reach mass audiences, broadcasting will need to find more creative ways to embed it in its routine conventions and practices. At the same time, fact-checkers have sought to make their presence stronger on social media platforms so that they reach and appeal to younger generations. Channel 4, for example, has a series of YouTube videos titled ‘FactCheck Explains’, while Chris Morris, the main Reality Check presenter, makes occasional appearances on BBC News’s Instagram account with short videos and explainers.

The growth of fact-checking journalism within public service broadcasters represents an important development. Unless reported by the media, independent fact-checking remains significant only for an engaged and, most likely, educated minority. In their mission to influence public discourse and increase their reach and impact, fact-checking organisations depend on their relationship with established news media (Graves & Cherubini 2016, 25). At the same time, fact-checkers try to avoid having their material used by partisan media for political purposes (Graves & Cherubini 2016, 25—26). In this context, public service media and fact-checking are ideal partners, due to their commitment to impartiality. In contrast to many independent fact-checkers, public service broadcasters, such as the BBC and Channel 4, have more resources and a bigger platform to communicate their challenging of misleading claims and disinformation. They are well placed to move fact-checking from the margins to a mainstream source of information, news, and analysis.

Such developments represent a way of enhancing journalistic legitimacy and reinvigorating trust in public service broadcasters. While ostensibly criticising public actors for their misleading or false claims, independent fact-checkers also constitute a thinly veiled, if not explicit, critique of mainstream media and their assumed failure to directly engage with such claims and point out their falsehood. If fact-checking is only referred to as external to mainstream journalists, this can further undermine trust in established media institutions (UNESCO 2018, 11). The adoption of fact-checking services and practices by public service broadcasters can be seen as an indication of legacy media utilising this critique by bringing fact-checking where ‘it has always belonged, at the heart of good journalism’ (Full Fact 2019).

Despite high levels of trust in public service broadcasting in the UK (Nielsen et al. 2020), recent political developments have left a bitter aftertaste about the role of broadcasting in reporting politics in a ‘post-truth’ era. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, in particular, and despite the work of fact-checkers before the referendum (Goss & Renwick 2016; Mantzarlis 2016), debates often focused on mainstream media not doing enough to rigorously challenge disinformation during election campaigns (Sambrook 2016). In strengthening their fact-checking services and placing them centrally in their news reporting, public service broadcasters appear to be taking the countering of misinformation more seriously.

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