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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  • the keep

    If the Irish Language Act is so cheap then why do we have to spend any money on it at all?

  • Nordie Northsider

    The great irony of the DUP’s party line under Foster is how corrosive, how subversive even, it is of State institutions. Their allegations of disproportionate focus on State killings pit them against the PSNI and the DPP. Their scatter-gun hatred of the Irish language contrasts with the PSNI initiatives such as this one: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-38892192
    More rebel than loyalist, methinks.

  • Roy Fisher

    I’ve met BBC NI management a few times about the misuse of religious background statistics, by BBC journalists and presenters, as well as politicians on-air. After yesterday’s repetitive reporting of “more people speak Polish than speak Irish” I emailed a BBC manager last night. This morning’s Nolan played the clip again without comment or question.

    Section of email:

    “BBC radio and TV have today reported Arlene Foster’s claim “more people speak Polish than speak Irish” without adding appropriate detail.

    Mrs Foster’s most likely source to make this claim is the 2011 census data on “Main language”. This reports 17,731 people identified Polish as their main language and 4,130 people ticked Irish.

    However Mrs Foster’s claim was about numbers speaking the language. The census doesn’t question the number of Polish speakers (beyond main language) but it does ask about ability in Irish and reports 104,943 people speak Irish. Over 100,000 more than the main language statistic.

    On one hand it is distractionary, divisive politics by the DUP and would be best ignored. However, if it is to be discussed or reported further, I think it would be helpful to the electorate if BBC could confirm what data was being referred to.”

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    The Irish Language Act would be cheaper than, for instance, one more year of a DUP education minister…..http://www.irishnews.com/news/2017/02/07/news/integrated-education-at-risk-of-losing-450-million-warns-alliance-922288/

  • Teddybear

    How can we stop fake news any more than we can stop people lying ?

    It’s like asking people to stop fancying their neighbours husbands/wives. A Godly ideal but it’s never going to happen.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Public service broadcasters should be more careful about allowing their programmes to be used to facilitate #fakenews

  • Reader

    Concubhar: that the Torfaen figure of £868,000 ‘per year’ was brought to light in a BBC Wales Week In Week Out investigation.
    This is all very reminiscent of the “£350m per week” that featured in the Brexit referendum. I had wondered why the remain side didn’t rush to put out the correct figures, until I realised that the correct figures don’t look so good either.
    In the Torfaen case, what is the correct cost ‘per year’?

  • Roger

    Yea you always hear Irish around Belfast these days…much more so than Polish…

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I hear a lot of Irish around Belfast – I also hear Polish. What I don’t see is the DUP rushing to the defence of the Poles from some areas when people of influence find out they’re Catholic!

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    It’s a tiny fraction of Nelson’s figure.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Fake News is all the rage now. All the cool kids want a piece and everyone is having fun with their shiny new toys. Its totes amazeballs peeps. Totes. Along with Nelson McCausland and Arlene Foster’s claims in the past day or two, let’s not forget James Brokenshire’s blatant lies about there being too much concentration of investigations into killings by the British Army. Fake News has been part and parcel of the set-up here for decades, it’s nothing new (just ask the NIO); the reason why the topic is trending now is because of the focus put on it during the recent presidential elections in the USA. Certain politicians nowadays truly believe that blatant lying is a feather in your cap to be proud of – remember the big bright red buses driving around England in the run up to the Brexit referendum? “Let’s put our billion squillion jazillion into the NHS every week instead of Europe”. One female caller into Nolan last week pretty much summed up the dangerous impact that Fake News can have on people – a woman frightened to death of all things muslim because, she said, the Daily Mail and Daily Express had told her all the stories and she had “watched all the programs”. The call ended with her saying that rathar than be treated by a muslim doctor, she would much prefer to go home and die instead. Fake News (WMD’s in Iraq) directly led to the murder of over one million people in the middle east in recent years. The INM Group’s unashamed approach to covering a certain all-Ireland political party is in many respects, the epitome of fake news. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Ruth Dudley Edwards has written deliberate lies in her columns. Just a few weeks ago she wrote that SF were up to their necks in the RHI debacle and everyone would find this out in a few days. We need an objective, fair and balanced media more than ever now, otherwise politics all over the western world will suffer in the long run

  • Teddybear

    Perhaps you see anything that criticizes Sinn Fein as a lie.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Not necessarily – but the DUP claims re the cost of Acht na Gaeilge are lies. Party is living up to its DUPlicitous nature. Can you tell me anything truthful they’ve said recently?

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    I personally think Sinn Fein deserve a lot of criticism as it happens however it’s a well known fact that INM had to issue a public apology on the back of their own fake news story that Gerry Adams advocated putting a gun to their editor’s head.


    As for Ruth, have you read any of her columns?

    One of the best Fake News stories of all time during the conflict was that of Vincent McKenna and his heroic battle against republicans. The martial arts expert with a black belt in Walter Mitty. Anyone remember him during the “Save the RUC” days?

  • johnny lately

    Oh yeah I remember the pervert that Ruth and Co promoted.


  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Not just her but a certain sitting DUP MP was his best mate as well for a while. I’ve always wondered why not a single journalist has ever confronted this MP about his dealings with McKenna

  • Granni Trixie

    For various reasons I remember him and his story well. I do not think he is a good example of “fake news” or at least what fake news means to me, I say this because McKenna took up a legitimate cause, that of “punishment beatings” and he fooled all of us who worked on that campaign.
    He was a very strange bloke but you cannot blame media outlets for that.

  • file

    Hurrah! At last, something we can agree on with no qualifications. The problem is, and will remain, the low calibre of journalist locally rather than politicians lying (which we sort of expect). When Radio (two thirds of) Ulster journalists allow people to say things on air like this: “The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland would object to sport being played on the Sabbath,” without challenge and without mentioning that the Sabbath is the preferred day for the sport in Northern Ireland which has the most participants, it gives you some idea of the paucity of journalistic standards here. The BBC find great recourse in the ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ lie and seem to think that if they go out and ask the public what they think of an issue that that entails balanced coverage. ‘Just the facts, Ma’am,’ should be tattooed to the inside of their eyelids before they are let loose on air. And experienced presenters should learn how to challenge illogical opinions as well. And without resorting to whatever convoluted, tortuous tone it was Seamus McKee was advised to adopt when asking questions.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    I get where you’re coming from Granni to a certain degree but he was indulged by sections of the media here, especially the BBC who made at least one Spotlight special on him. In his “dojo” I remember clips of him punching a punch bag and doing the Bruce Lee moves. The deliberate attempt of those scenes was to portray him as a calm, yet focused individual with tremendous self-discipline. A quick trip to Monaghan and a bit of basic investigative journalism in court papers would have painted a different and more truthful picture though

  • the keep

    Here is a novel idea if people want to learn Irish they can pay for it themselves simples

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    How tiresome can you be? People already do pay for it themselves. It’s not a question of learning Irish – it’s a question of the DUP living up to the Agreements they signed up to be it implicitly or explicitly and not to be cherry picking as they seem to be. It’s a question also of the DUP showing respect to ‘others’ in the community, not just looking after their own followers. I’m not speaking about Irish speakers only here – also the gay community, immigrants, people who may not be ‘Christian’. But mostly, in this post, it’s a question about BBC NI not facilitating Fake News from whatever source.

  • Croiteir

    This may or may not be fake news, personally I do not care. So what if more people speak Polish? Polish was not part of the agreement between the two govts in the GFA. Irish was. They need to keep their word. That is all – over and out

  • lizmcneill

    So they can spend money on paying people to heat empty barns, but not on educating children?


  • file

    DO not confuse an Irish Language Act with learning Irish. They are two separate issues, and an Act will have no bearing on whether or not people learn Irish. And learning Irish can be completely free: just re-locate to a Gaeltacht area, same method for learning French, Italian, Spanish etc.

  • file

    Loyal to the half-crown. or, as rumplestiltskin said in Shre: “Nobody’s smart but me!”

  • file

    Would you know the difference between Polish, Romanian and Lithuanian if you heard them on the street?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa
  • hotdogx

    DUP resorting to fake news, not surprised! Got to keep them wagons circled and find a way to blame themuns!
    That’s why Gerry was laughing at Arlene because she’s desperate, everyone now sees the emperor has no clothes, I just hope this will be reflected in the election

  • Kevin Breslin

    We have Eoin Butler vs. Caoimhín De Barra debate which is far more interesting.

    An Bhfuil Cead Agam? – YouTube


  • Roger

    I’d know Polish.
    I think I’d know Lithuanian wasn’t Polish but would not know what it was.
    Romanian sounds more Italian and I would probably have a fair chance of spotting it but could get it wrong.
    There’s so much of these languages on the streets….Whatever people say, you don’t hear Irish.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Roger, I do! As Concubhar says, one does hear quite a bit of Irish in the streets of Belfast nowadays.

  • wild turkey

    Staying with the theme of fake news, but broadening the horizon a bit. i was recently asked this question.

    “Aside from providing protection for President Trump, does the Secret Service also provide protection for White House staff. For example, KellyAnne Conway?”

    if anyone knows the answer or may know how to discern the answer, i’d be much obliged

  • mac tire

    “Whatever people say, you don’t hear Irish.”

    So, tell us why you have branded those who have contradicted you as liars. And if you argue they are not liars, then you must be maintaining they don’t know what Irish sounds like. Which is it?

    I am also adding my voice that you are completely wrong on this. Perhaps you will make up something about me in a feeble attempt to counter this.

  • Mister_Joe
  • Get every media report of a false statement labelled with a pair of pants on fire. Get Facebook to set up an algorithm that discovers shares of repeated lies, then adds LIAR to the name of the account until those posts are deleted.

  • You don’t just need to relocate to a Gaeltacht area because people are so helpful they will speak English to you. You need an Irish-speaking girl/boyfriend, or (as happened to me in Mozambique) soldiers everywhere asking you what you are doing.

  • file

    You don’t go to the right places. Try Kelly’s Cellars.

  • The Irishman

    I hear Irish being spoken every day of my life in the Gaeltacht community that is in the estate beside where I live.

  • Katyusha

    Maybe you don’t go to the right areas. You doubted before about the Gaeltacht area in Belfast existing as well. I don’t think anyone would claim there’s universal distribution of Irish speakers in Belfast, which might be why you never hear it.

  • file

    Et que faisiez-vous la-bas quand meme?