Parliament's fake news inquiry has a problem: Campaigners against British tabloid journalism are urging their followers to flood the inquiry with concerns about inaccurate reporting in mainstream newspapers, even though the politicians involved insist they will only be considering outright fabrication by upstart online-only outlets.
Members of several groups involved in putting pressure on publications such as The Sun and the Daily Mail told BuzzFeed News they want the parliamentary inquiry to broaden its scope to include any inaccurate reporting by those outlets.
But Damian Collins MP, who made the decision to set up the investigation after reading about how Macedonian teenagers produced incredibly viral fake headlines for profit during the US presidential election, insisted his committee will not be considering such concerns.
"They should send all those to [press regulator] IPSO, that is the body that's been set up by the newspaper industry," said Collins. "They should direct their complaints about accuracy in news reporting to them.
"The issue at the moment is if you've got concerns about accuracy there is no one to complain to about a fake online story. We're going to be responding separately to the government on press regulation – as a committee we've done quite a lot on press standards in the past, that is an important issue to be addressed separately."
The dispute highlights the extent to which the term "fake news", which was only popularised a few months ago, has drifted from meaning a 100% fabricated material hosted by fly-by-night sites to a shouted term of insult deployed to attack almost any part of the media, not least by the American president Donald Trump.
In the process, some British campaigners have become angry at established UK media groups for seizing on the panic around fake news to boost the standing of newspapers that the campaigners claim can be equally guilty of fakery – albeit usually of the partially or inadvertently fabricated variety.
The end result is a moral, ethical, and verbal quagmire about what counts as "fake news" in an age when the media industry is in turmoil and political opinions are increasingly being portrayed by populist politicians as objective truths.
"The UN High Commission for Human Rights has accused elements of the UK press of 'decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion'," said Richard Wilson, co-founder of the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which is attempting to cut advertising revenue to some British newspapers.
"When a respected international body is warning of 'misinformation', 'fabrications', and 'fiction' within the UK press, this would clearly suggest that fake news isn't just something that happens on fringe websites, but is also a significant problem within the established UK media."
Wilson said his group will be submitting evidence to MPs on the connection between reporting critical of Muslims and immigrants and an uptick in hate crimes: "We saw nothing in the published terms of reference to indicate that [right-wing newspapers] are excluded from the scope of the inquiry.
"Based on evidence of the impact on the public of misinformation and ‘outright fabrications’ by elements of the traditional media – as identified by the UN – we would expect such an inquiry to include all forms of news."
Earlier analysis by BuzzFeed News of external Facebook links on terms relating to British politics suggested there is no major UK fake news industry, with the gap in the market for sensationalist news well filled by existing British outlets that are mainly regulated by IPSO and can be required to publish corrections if they are found to have been inaccurate.
One of the options set to be considered by MPs is whether Facebook should add clearer signposting as to what has been reported as potentially fake news by using fact-checking services run by more established media outlets – a solution that could benefit the same newspapers that campaigners are opposing.
Johnston Press, which owns newspapers such as the Yorkshire Post and the i, has said it is pinning some hope on consumers returning to "brands you can trust" in an era of fake news.
Meanwhile, other media groups have highlighted the relative lawlessness of the web. The Sun's own coverage of fake news has warned that while "established media outlets are signed up to codes of practice as well as being subject to checks and measures", fake news sites are "largely unaccountable".
Campaigners fear the panic could be used to shore up institutional support for existing outlets.
“The term fake news is a slightly nebulous idea," agreed John Madden, who runs the Sun Apologies Twitter account and has been urging his followers to submit material to the inquiry relating to the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.
He suggested that some of the newspaper's stories about Brexit and coverage of minorities and Muslims "are, if not entirely fake, distorting the truth or highlighting issues that don’t need highlighting".
Madden insisted his crusade for accuracy is not merely about criticising right-wing outlets – "sites like The Canary are not exactly judicious with the truth either" – but that he's concerned the fake news debate is being framed only in terms of online publications.
"I don’t actually believe that people at The Sun and the Daily Mail are as bad as the sites in Macedonia created to pump out absolutely fake news, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as people like Breitbart," he said. "But I do think they’re on a spectrum and they’re closer to that side of things than we should be comfortable with. To exclude what they do is a bit of an oversight."
A spokesperson for The Sun declined to comment.
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at email@example.com.
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