Fake News and the Assembly Elections

How does the saying go – fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me!    If one positive thing emerged from the 2016 US Presidential Election, it’s the focus on the phenomenon of the influence of Fake News on the electoral process.  It’s difficult to assess the level of impact but we’ve heard that #fakenews is already out scoring real news in terms of attracting clicks and the UK MPs believe that democracy itself is under threat.

Folks, it’s not just happening in America, it’s also happening here, in Northern Ireland/the North during this election. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened in previous polls.    It’s being facilitated here by the mainstream media, particularly the flagship BBC Radio Ulster programmes, the Stephen Nolan Show and Talkback.

On The Stephen Nolan Show, the biggest show in the country as it terms itself, the DUP MLA Nelson McCausland was in full flow as he waxed lyrical about the potential costs of an Irish Language Act based on the experience in Wales.   When Nelson aired his version of the Welsh experience on Talk Back two weeks ago, he based the same £1oom per year fantasy figure in the first place on the experience in Torfaen, a council in a Welsh speaking area in Wales.

We can start with local councils. Torfaen in south Wales is a small council with a population of just 91,000.

In order to meet its obligations, it  employs four Welsh language officers and estimates that the total cost per year is around £868,000.

Readers of Slugger will be aware, as I raised it at the time of the Talkback broadcast,  that the Torfaen figure of £868,000 ‘per year’ was brought to light in a BBC Wales Week In Week Out investigation.   However the broadcast was the subject of complaints as the figure was actually a one off spend and BBC Wales subsequently apologised saying their investigation hadn’t been ‘robust’.

At the time I wrote to BBC Talkback’s production team and to the controller of BBC Northern Ireland, Peter Johnston, to outline my concerns as to the misrepresentation of figures in this way during an election period and the danger of BBC News and Current Affairs programmes being dominated by Fake News.   I had hoped this would result in more assiduous fact checking by BBC NI presenters of political representatives appearing on their programmes, especially during an election period.    It seems this was to no avail as this morning Nelson McCausland cropped up again and Stephen Nolan wasn’t equipped to challenge him on his ‘alternative facts’.    When Daithí McKay pointed out that the figures were the subject of a BBC Wales apology, Nolan referred to the figures as ‘disputed figures’ in the normal BBC cop-out which ends up leaving the issue in ‘no man’s land’.    If BBC NI can’t take on board the BBC Wales apology for a less than robust investigation, then the public service broadcaster has serious questions to answer.   It seems the broadcaster is allowing itself to go down the road of American broadcasters who were gulled into broadcasting fake news and we all saw where that led!

I appreciate fully that BBC NI finds itself between a rock and a hard place, or as we say in Irish, idir dhá thine Bealtaine/between the two fires of May, as it’s being accused by the DUP of biased coverage on the issue of RHI.  Perhaps, like a GAA referee balancing out his penalty decisions,  it’s going easy on the DUP on the issue of the Irish language to ‘compensate’ for earlier misjudgements (or the allegations of earlier misjudgements) on the RHI issue.    However that’s not good enough.  Neither is it good enough for its presenters in current affairs programmes to be so uninformed about an issue they’re broadcasting on that they cannot fact check a guest who uses figures another organ of the BBC has already apologised for!



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