The Ken Livingstone ‘anti-Semitism’ row would have been buried before it had a chance to gain traction; the myth of the £350 million-a-week payment to the EU would have killed the ‘Leave’ campaign in the EU referendum, and Iain Duncan Smith’s career at the DWP would have been over before it got started.
But that’s not how it works in the UK’s mass media. All the news operations are run by very rich people with vested interests – including the BBC, which has a high number of Tories at the top.
But it’s important to remember there is another way that we are prevented from trying.
The Poynter Institute can find only three TV-led fact-checking operations worldwide: and the one that makes the clearest impact – in the teeth of another Spanish general election – is the Pruebas (testing) section of Channel Six’s El Objetivo programme run by the redoubtable Ana Pastor.
This is relentless checking, tailored for television. You watch videos of ministers or their opponents reciting a fib, cross-cutting back and forth: then you find the true figuring laid out clear as day. No ducking or weaving. It’s a regular, biting reproach to the phoney £350m challenge, one the BBC could provide in a trice (if rigorous public service and hard facts really go together, that is).
But see, then, how one pristine thing gets in the way of another. Sarah Wollaston MP, the health committee chair who was a Leaver till the rubbish about that £350m turned her stomach, made the point openly on the Today show. She’d long protested to Leave campaigners that the figure was a dud, but they’d told her that was fine by them: peddling calculated garbage got you an extra BBC slot for rebuttal under fairness and balance rules.
And lo! the calculated ploy worked yet again. There was Wollaston, leaving in disgust on the 7am news. And there was John Redwood, under F and B guidelines, instantly on tap to explain why the lie was really a sort of truth. Repetition is the name of the game. The first two Leavers up in the ITV debate solemnly recited the £350m mantra for obvious purposes: tell a porky and the next sausage comes free.
Rebuttal isn’t fact-checking. Rebuttal is also another opportunity to refurbish a deliberate untruth: which is why, so far, BBC sifting of facts from fibs has been rather spotty and feeble. So let the TV checking be upfront, on screen and definitive. Let one resounding correction end the debate. Stop slime in its tracks. Take moral control and make truth sovereign again.
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