Fake News Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

And now for some pedantry. Today I read two articles that both made the same definitional error.

First: In his new (and by all accounts, important) book Breaking News, Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes:

The germ of the idea had come from the Iraq war and the press’s role in aiding and abetting a conflict based on what now we would call fake news.

Second: In a powerful memoir of his time surviving and fighting in the Warsaw ghetto during the second world war, Stanisław Aronson writes:

The city was full of refugees, and rumours were swirling about mass deportations to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. To calm the situation, a Soviet official gave a speech declaring that the rumours were false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be arrested. Two days later, the deportations to the gulags began, with thousands sent to their deaths.

Both writers take the term ‘fake news’ to mean ‘government misinformation’ but that is most certainly not what the term means. ‘Fake news’ is a very particular type of falsehood—that perpetrated by the media.

We don’t need a neologism for government misinformation. We already have a perfectly good word for that: Lying.

Geoffrey Robertson QC and Alan Rusbridger

Now then: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has resigned from the PCC code committee.  Last week he said that the PCC report into the allegations that the News of the World had been hacking people’s phones was “dangerous to the press” and that it was behaving “uselessly” as a self-regulator.

That was last Monday, 9th November.  But I wonder if Rusbridger’s mind was finally nudged in favour of resignation the following day, by the Human Rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC?  Robertson was speaking at the launch of English PEN and Index on Censorship’s Campaign for Libel Reform, at the Free Word Centre.  He had this to say on the subject of the media and the PCC:

The media … have for years committed a fraud on the public and on their readers by presenting this confidence trick of the Press Complaints Commission, as though it were a real court, as though it were significant.  The Press Complaints Commission has been funded by the press, in order firstly to provide a poor person’s libel court (which has now gone by the board because now everyone who sues uses CFAs); it has been funded secondly to prevent the encroachment of the law of privacy – and its too late now, because we have a law of privacy: ill-designed, vaugely worded, European Gobbledegook for the most part, which is being implemented in a ham-fisted way by the judiciary.

So, there’s no point in the PCC.  If the editors of Fleet Street had any real integrity they would withdraw.  As Ian Hislop said, as the editor of the only organ that refuses to accept PCC judgements, he wouldn’t want to live up to the ethics of the newspaper editors who are on the PCC’s ethics committee!

Alan Rusbridger, crouched in the aisles and listening with a wry smile, duly reported some this criticism via Twitter.

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Geoffrey Robertson QC