A Fundamental Battle Between Truth and Lies

A Fundamental Battle Between Truth and Lies

“The BBC operates today in a society which is uncertain, contradictory, and divided. There has been a series of financial crises. Unemployment and redeployment are painful social phenomena; immigration on our own doorstep has proven the latest development with unwelcome realities. Nationalism, separatism, and factionalism could be added to the list. So could the sharpness of political divisions…

“A country divided and disturbed inevitably has the BBC on the rack… There are no great remedies to the discomforts of the BBC’s role as national scapegoat.”

That’s not a 2019 comment on the BBC – one of the world’s most trusted media brands – caught up in the toxic atmosphere of Brexit and a British election that saw unprecedented levels of misinformation and disinformation flying around digital channels. It’s an extract from an internal memo written for the head of the BBC in 1968.

The idea of politicians and others picking on the media in divisive and unsettled times is nothing new. But today’s climate – across the Western world, and not just for public service broadcasters but for almost anyone trying to bring serious impartial news to the world – still feels both different and ominous.

Already the acute economic pressures brought on by digital change have made it hard to pay for journalism – particularly the serious journalism that holds governments at every level to account. This matters because, like an independent judiciary, accountability journalism is one of the pillars of democracy and a free society.

In a rational world, the West’s public broadcasters would be a secure bastion of this kind of journalism. Unfortunately, they too are now weakened in most countries by a relentless – and in many cases successful – campaign by commercial rivals and their political friends to undermine their legitimacy and squeeze their funding or strategic room for maneuver, or both.

Now this fragile media ecosystem faces attack on a second front: a concerted political campaign by populist insurgents in many Western countries to undermine public confidence in the truthfulness of established media, and to cast doubt on even the possibility of objective, impartial reporting.

This assault has both historical and recent precedents. As Professor Timothy Snyder recently noted in The Guardian, in the early 1930s Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders eagerly seized on the older German tradition of the Lügenpresse – the “lying press”, essentially the same trope as the “fake news media” of which we hear so much. A similar rhetoric is part of the playbook of many authoritarian leaders today, who seek to control or cow as much of the media as they can – and who dismiss any journalism they find disobliging as politically motivated or treasonous.

So how should the media respond to this new onslaught?

First by sticking to our values. It is an article of faith for me and for the three media institutions I have served – the BBC, Channel Four Television and The New York Times – that in the end the truth always wins. In recent years at The New York Times, we have become much more explicit about our mission, which is to follow the truth wherever it leads and to report it independently and impartially. “Without fear or favor” has been a core promise by the Times to its readers for generations.

In early 2017, we launched “The Truth is Hard”, our first brand marketing campaign for many years, to get this simple message out directly to today’s public. And we backed it up by finding new ways of showing the public how we do journalism. Our smash-hit podcast The Daily and new TV show The Weekly are examples – both of them allow listeners and viewers inside the process of reporting a story and are a direct response to the charge made by President Trump and many others that journalists at institutions like the Times don’t do any actual reporting at all, but simply sit in their offices and make everything up.

A battle has begun which is not an ideological struggle between right and left (though some would have it so), but a fundamental battle between truth and lies. At The New York Times, in common with many other news organizations, we find ourselves in the front line of that battle. It’s not a fight we welcome – far from it – but we are ready for it. We have the resources. We have the brilliant journalistic talent. Above all, we have the support of a growing army of thoughtful, loyal readers, listeners and viewers.

Sometimes people in my business talk about “restoring trust” as if they wanted their users to respond to news and other forms of media like docile sheep. We don’t want “trusting” readers in that sense, but rather skeptical and discriminating partners who can hold us to account and tell us when we get things wrong, and with whom we can build an enduring, honest, and mutually respectful relationship.

Few other media organizations are as well placed as The New York Times to meet the twin challenges of digital disruption and populist denigration. But people everywhere need access to honest, independent journalism. I hope that our recent success demonstrates to our colleagues around the world that, with sufficient commitment and the right strategy, long-term sustainability for high-quality journalism is achievable.

Media is unique among the four institutions that Edelman studies in that it is designed and expected to monitor the other three. When it is operating as it should, it inevitably makes enemies. We need to make friends and find more supporters too. Above all, we need to believe in ourselves and remember why we became journalists in the first place

Mark Thompson has been President and CEO of the New York Times Co. since 2012 and was Director-General of the BBC from 2004-2012

Already the acute economic pressures brought on by digital change have made it hard to pay for journalism – particularly the serious journalism that holds governments to account