This is the first in a series of posts inspired by taking part in York Theatre Royal’s new community play Everything is Possible about the York Suffragette movement (20th June to 2nd July). The human stories of winning the vote reminds me that our engagement in society is both our (hard won) right and our duty.

As we enter election season (both local on 4th May and national on 8th June), I felt it was time to reflect on the debate organised by my friends at Glass Half Full earlier this year on the subject of “fake news” and the social media bubble.

Kate Lock had gathered a panel of journalists and film-makers to discuss whether the onslaught of “fake news” can be understood (and resisted) by those of us who like to know the difference between fact and opinion. The speakers were Julian Cole, freelance journalist and writer; David Dunning, News Editor of Minster FM and Jack Gevertz, O2 2015 Yorkshire Young Journalist of the Year and former editor of student newspaper York Vision. It was chaired by Marcus Romer, director, filmmaker and speaker and introduced by Kate Lock of Glass Half Full.

The panellists offered both reassurance and challenge: while gossip and rumour have been with us since the beginning of human civilisation, we have seen the lines between fact and opinion blurred and an increasing number of news sources (blogs, tweets and opinions spouted on Facebook) combined with diminishing trust in traditional news providers can make it difficult to decide who to trust. How can we have a mature conversation with no shared facts?

There is some encouragement that many people are now turning to sources perceived as trustworthy, with both the New York Times and Private Eye seeing a surge in subscription. (I’m certainly adding to that particular trend: when the world is going mad, cartoons and sceptical comment help keep it real). It does make you laugh to realise that satire (that is, fake news) has become the solution to fake news! The other surge in sales has been for dystopian books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale, which have been flying off the bookshelves as we remind ourselves what happens if we allow good sense and hard-won expert insight to be shouted down or silenced. A historical perspective is instructive: people have always liked to gossip and the rumour mill existed long before the Internet, so we have always needed a healthy dose of  scepticism about what we see and hear. Lord Hawhaw’s broadcasts during World War Two included all sorts of “fake news” mainly as satire eg when he claimed that HMS Burnon had been sunk, most people laughed because they knew that Burnon is a shore base far inland. And don’t forget Jonathan Swift’s “modest suggestion” for reducing poverty in 1788…

A piece of good news which surprised me was David Dunning’s contribution from Minster FM, which is part of a family of commercial radio stations  in North Yorkshire including StrayFM in Harrogate. At a time when some claim that news is dying, one survey after another demonstrates that what listeners value most is local news. Radio company UKRD’s response has been to take on more journalists.

But while real news has not become irrelevant, there are still big challenges ahead, not least the plummeting print newspaper sales and the great mismatch between what the broadcast media and press can report, and what the public know anyway. David Dunning talked of his frustration that on Minster FM, he would never dare to mention the name of the teenager charged with murdering local girl Katie Rough, but her name is all over Facebook. Journalistic ethics still apply to press and media (well, most of them at least!) but are widely ignored by “citizen journalists” eg not releasing names of people killed or injured until their family has been informed, because no-one wants to get that news from Facebook.

The evening concluded with discussion about what responsibility we carry for the growth of misleading “alternative facts” and the like.

  • Firstly, we need to recognise that social media algorithms literally tell us what we want to hear, so we need to actively seek out alternative views. For example, if you’re a committed Guardianista, try reading The Spectator once a month (and vice versa!) This approach was a key theme emerging from Glass Half Full as a movement: whether you voted for or against BREXIT, human connection and the ability to listen to each other is what real diversity is made of.
  • Secondly, we need to be prepared to invest in what we value, whether the BBC license fee or print journalism. If everyone gets a free ride by reading articles online, we end up killing off journalism which takes time to learn and skill to execute.
  • Finally, be ready to think about what you hear and question it. People listen to people, so help each other to apply critical thinking to evaluate what you see (and what is missing).

See also:

  • If you’re based in York, why not join the Glass Half Full community on Facebook or follow the blog? This came out of a group of us longing for opportunities to overcome apathy or despair, share positive stories to inspire change and foster deeper connections between people, especially across polarised divides. As Jo Cox put it, what unites us is stronger than what divides us.
  • On Stage series: Books inspired by York Theatre Royal, bringing together more than 300 people to tell stories from the Mystery Plays to York’s railway history (In Fog and Falling Snow) to how we won the vote (Everything is Possible)!