The 9th Annual Leveson Lecture: The Truth Algorithm

By Alice Watkins

    • Hacked Off Board Director Hugh Grant celebrates “enormous success” of the Leveson system

    • Chris Bryant MP claims social media has led to “a profoundly dangerous moment for British journalism,”

    • Coverage of Meghan and Harry is encouraged by platforms to monetise hatred 

    • Guardian journalist Haroon Siddique claims POC journalists reportedly felt pressure not to sign industry response to Society of Editors statement on race 

    • Hacked Off’s Nathan Sparkes accuses Government of risking national security to protect press interests, with news publisher exemption in Online Safety Bill

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This month, Chris Bryant MP delivered the 9th annual Leveson lecture to a packed audience at Westminster University. 

Chris was joined by an expert panel of media voices, including The Guardian’s Haroon Siddique and Ellen Judson from think tank Demos. 

At this year’s event, the panel reflected on the case for press reform, ten years on from when Leveson first gave his recommendations for independent press regulation in the wake of revelations of phone hacking. Leveson recommended incentives for newspapers to create and to join a truly independent press regulator. Regrettably, the Government has so far failed to bring these into effect. 

But despite this, an independent regulator was formed – IMPRESS – which now actually has more members than the press controlled alternative complaints handler, IPSO. 

When the sheer scale of press abuse and misconduct became apparent, there were a number of high profile figures who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and Hacked Off Board member Hugh Grant was one of them. Since then he’s continued to speak out frequently and publicly against press mistreatment of ordinary people – who often don’t have the means to do so themselves. 

Opening the lecture, Hugh Grant said, “All the things that were levelled at Leveson’s recommendations by the national press have turned out not to be true. When they said an independent regulated press will have a chilling effect on journalism that is critical of the government. That hasn’t happened. They said independent regulation would destroy investigative journalism. But if you look at the publications in IMPRESS, again and again they’ve scooped the mainstream press, marvellous publications like Bellingcat and Byline Investigates”. 

But with the continued absence of truly independent regulation for national newspapers, who now enjoy an increasingly wider reach (due to circulation online) this year’s host Chris Bryant MP argues that we are in the midst of a ‘profoundly dangerous moment for British journalism.’

Chris said, “The internet has forced newspapers to turn to alternative online models for making money out of their content, nearly half of all UK adults used social media as one of their main sources of news in 2020. 76% used Facebook for news and 37% used Twitter, although more than half the content accessed originated from a traditional news organisation. 

He believes that this has drawn traditional journalism into the world of algorithms and artificial intelligence and placed it alongside ‘content hungry apps like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Tick Tock.’

He then pointed to coverage of the Duchess of Sussex, which he says is a way platforms had encouraged, ‘the marketing of hatred’ by the media. 

Chris said, “To the innocent bystander it looks like the whole world hates Harry and Meghan.

“But 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 click bait it uses hatred to entice people to follow a link to an article on another client web page, where money is to be made.”

Data analysts Bot Sentinel looked at 114,000 Twitter posts about the couple since January 2020 and found 55 accounts had been set up solely to post negative material about the couple and 28 more had been set up to amplify those messages. And due to the Twitter algorithm, which suggests people you might want to follow, these 83 accounts were actually responsible for 70 per cent of the negative content targeted at the couple. One account posted 111,031 messages alone. 

And Chris says the same goes for UK newspapers which choose to fill their online sites with hateful Meghan material. 

Chris said, “It is becoming their richest click bait seam. It drives viewing and earns advertising income. Which is why so many British opinion writers pen drivel about the couple. Not because the story matters. Not because the writer genuinely cares about it, but because it makes money.

He continued, “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”.

Chris is now arguing for a range of legal changes including enforcement of better transparency around content recommendations. 

He said his real beef is with the affect algorithms have on journalism and political discourse. He believes that, “they nudge people to political extremes, they promote division and they pervert the truth by creating an incentive for untruth”.  

In 2021, Guardian correspondent Haroon Siddique co-ordinated an industry response to a statement issued by the Society of Editors, which denied racism in the UK press – a response to claims of racist reporting of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. 

The statement was critical of the Society’s denial of press racism.  Ultimately, the Society’s Chairman stood down.

Speaking from the post-lecture panel, Haroon said there needs to be more people of colour in senior positions across the industry to tackle the spread of harmful content. 

“For someone like me it was easy to stand up because I worked for The Guardian and I think everyone there felt the same way. But when you are looking at other organisations, I had people who I know were initially from the BBC who put their names on [the letter, criticising the Society of Editors] and were told to take them off. At the Independent, which might surprise you as it’s meant to be a liberal perspective. And there are people at the Mail who said please keep me updated but didn’t sign themselves.  

Haroon said, “I’m sure there are journalists of colour who didn’t agree with what we were saying but I think it’s obvious that there were people at other publications who would have liked to sign but were either self-censoring or they were being censored. So I think it took real courage to sign.”  

Strikingly, a new report which analysed the workforce of 76 UK news brands, published last month, found that there are no women of colour occupying the most senior editorial positions in politics, foreign affairs and health news.

Haroon said, “I think the problem is when it comes to journalists of colour, a lot of publications are making efforts to get them in at a junior level and a lot of that is incredibly successful. But they don’t have the power or the voice within a newsroom. Very few people feel comfortable enough, it took me a long time at The Guardian to be able to speak about issues like that. 

And encouraging someone who’s at the bottom to feel comfortable enough to speak up, isn’t realistic. It’s about supporting and nurturing those people so that they are eventually in positions to hold power within a newsroom”. 

He added, “It’s that we have to change if we want to change how newspapers and organisations do respond on race, whether that’s Meghan Markle or Black Lives Matter.”

Haroon also explained some of the barriers which halt progress in the industry. 

He said “There’s young people of colour coming in because they want to make change. They are angry about the way issues affecting them are represented in the press, they want to do journalism to change the narrative and share their experiences and report on stuff that doesn’t get reported on because of the lack of diversity currently. 

“But we also need white people who hold senior positions to think about the impact their stories are having on people of colour and pay attention to that.”

There is new legislation planned to tackle online hate and abuse. The Online Safety Bill promises radical changes which would require social media to regulate their platforms more effectively. The bill would place a duty of care on social media companies to have a process to keep users safe from various harms.

But news publishers will be exempt from the bill. 

And a recent amendment to the bill forces platforms which may want to act on news content, to contact news publishers first and follow a complaints appeal process in place – so companies don’t take down content without good reason. 

Ellen Judson thinktank Demos says the bill is flawed. 

She said, “I think having an appeals procedure for wrongful removal of content is very sensible but actually it fails to grapple with how disinformation spreads in online environments. 

She continued “Timing and speed really matters, so if social media companies are trying to take action to stop something going viral when they think there’s a real risk that it could cause significant harm. But they have to wait before they are allowed to act. That risk mitigation is really damaged and the ability of social media companies to take action and keep people safe is undermined.”

She predicts a worrying outcome for journalists. 

“The way social media business models are set up and the way algorithms are set up promote divisive and harmful content which is often used to target journalists”.

She said, “We’ve done work with women journalists who have been targeted by disinformation or hate and abuse campaigns. And the online safety bill has missed a real opportunity to tackle those underlying systems that increase threats to everyone who uses their platform, including journalists”.

There’s also issues around how news publishers are defined in the bill. Essentially to be qualified under the bill there’s a set of criteria – which is actually not that difficult to meet. 

Previously, Hacked Off has pointed out that agents of Kremlin-backed disinformation could qualify. 

Hacked Off Chief Executive Nathan Sparkes explains the concern around this criteria. 

“What it says for newspapers, is you don’t have to be regulated at all. You’ve got to have staff, you’ve got to have an office, you’ve got to have a complaints process and a standards code. That code could say this newspaper is inaccurate all the time and the complaints process could say, write down your complaint and post it to Lapland. All of that qualifies.” 

Nathan said, “There are openly fascist blogs and Holocaust denier sites – all kinds of horrific content – and these dangerous publishers are going to be able to access this exemption, in the way the government has drafted it.” 

Nathan believes that the government drafting is intentional due to the national newspapers’ refusal to be independently regulated. 

Nathan said, “A competent and un-corrupt government would say, if you want the exemption you have to be regulated. [But instead] they’ve put the interests of the public – and we’re talking about issues here that are touching on national security and we’re talking about hostile state sponsored disinformation – the government has said all of those issues don’t matter because national newspapers don’t want to be regulated.

Hacked Off have put forward a solution to legislators. 

“We would say if you want to exempt news publishers from a bill that wants to regulate social media what you should say is if you’re a newspaper and you’re in an independent Leveson-compliant regulator then you are out of the system and you get your exemption on that basis. And that’s what the bill already says for broadcasters. If you’ve got a broadcast licence then you are exempt because you are covered by OFCOM”. 

Nathan highlighted that the Leveson system of independent regulation is not only best suited for newspapers. 

“A lot of IMPRESS members at the moment are blogs or hyper local outlets, online only. The system is completely neutral as to whether it is print or online or how big or small it is. 

And one of the virtues of the system is it compliments other systems of regulation very well”

One attendee also asked about Leveson Part Two, the inquiry into police, press and political corruption.

Nathan said, “Leveson Part Two is essentially about upholding the rule of law. 

“And I think it’s extraordinary that it’s the Conservative Party, which claims to be the party of law and order, which has said corruption and criminality are OK when they happen in the press. Because that’s essentially what they did when they cancelled the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, against the wishes of many of their own party members and MPs.”

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