The momentum gathered by the #MediaWitchHunt following the revelation that senior government advisor and Vote Leave campaign strategist Dominic Cummings broke the COVID-19 lockdown laws reveals an entrenched climate of mistrust in the UK.

A quick scroll through Twitter will tell you neither politicians nor the news media can be trusted. This negative atmosphere damages the publics’ right to information at a time when it is needed most.

Conspiracy theories are born in an information vacuum. It did not take long for the accurate reporting of Mr Cummings’ trip to Durham to become convoluted with the Brexit divide, and allegations that the “leftist” “#MediaScum” were using this to tarnish Britain’s exit from the EU.

It is notable how easy it is to twist the narrative. Both Laura Kuenssberg and Emily Maitlis have been named this week as examples of the BBC’s right and left leaning. A more transparent government agenda, and one where the public could identify the thread of integrity guiding the government’s decisions, would make it harder for these convoluted connections to be made.

The problem is, as damaging as the Fake News slur is to the right to information, it is one of the most powerful political tools to have come out of the 21st century. The news media was one of the first enterprises to be under attack in the anti-elitist rhetoric that has fuelled political campaigns over the past decade. Delegitimizing the media raises doubts whenever there is critical reporting of an administration. The brutalising language of the #MediaWitchHunt and #MediaScum campaigns changes the public perception of the purpose of the free press, and means that even fact-checked news is not believed by many people.

This attack on the legitimacy of the press is so effective because it is one-sided. The news media cannot be perceived as partisan in a political debate or else risk undermining the credibility of the truths they report. They are watchdogs, not attack dogs. As soon as they start overstepping that boundary the public, quite understandably, loose faith that journalists are doing the job they claim to be doing.

The term Fake News is further bolstered by the very real threat of misinformation and disinformation. Across the world we have seen a number of governments launch crackdowns on fake news relating to the pandemic as an excuse to curb freedom expression rights. This positions the administrations as the authority on all COVID-19 related matters. But we have also seen the authorities themselves hold a complete disregard for the truth. The tragic retaliation against Dr Li Wenliang, the initial COVID-19 whistbleblower in Wuhan who was charged with maliciously spreading false rumours, is intricately linked with the fake news climate, and sends the message that society does not want people to speak up. Dr Li was exonerated after his death from coronavirus, but his passing and thousands of others might have been avoided if we had more trust in each other and respect for the truth.

During this pandemic the press play a vital role in informing citizens of the health and economic consequences of their governments’ decision making, and scrutinizing those decisions. Reliable, un-politicised and accurate information is more important than ever. This is an opportunity for news organisations to remind the public why press freedom is so important for democracies to function. We are at a crossroads. The relationship we forge with our media in the coming months will determine whether we can avoid a war between the press and the administration resembling that of our neighbours across the pond.

This opine concludes with some recommendations to both the press and the Johnson administration to improve the triangulated trust deficit between the British public, British media and British politics. The following has been informed by work of Professor Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy of the Health Law Institute, University of Alberta.

  • The UK Government should publically recognise and affirm the role of a free press in a democracy and refrain from discrediting journalists performing their vital function. Vilification of individual journalists and media outlets on social media should be condemned by the Johnson administration.
  • Reporters must be free to ask the questions they choose, and directed at those they want answers from, without political interference.
  • The media should use facts when tackling misinformation. Science-informed facts will fill the gap in understanding, and integrate retractions with alternative explanations. Recent studies have shown that the ‘backfire effect’ and ‘illusionary truth effect’ – common perceptions that providing more information will cause individuals to become more entrenched in their beliefs, or increases the believability of that idea – have been overstated. Not responding has a far more negative effect.
  • The media should consider using a narrative to convey the science. The power of the testimonial or anecdote is well known, but it is rarely deployed when information about critical thinking and the scientific process is conveyed. This could make the esoteric world of scientific research more compelling and memorable.
  • The media should provide clear, straightforward and shareable content. The more accessible the information, the further it will go.
  • Where possible, the media should use trustworthy and independent sources. The further removed from any perceived ‘agenda’ the source of information is, the more persuasive it becomes.
  • The media should, where applicable, emphasize scientific consensus. This does not mean reporting without recognition that science can evolve and consensus change. Nevertheless, the media must recognise that inconsistencies in the scientific message fuel doubt and alternative explanations. Exaggerated discord could prove particularly dangerous in the current climate.
  • Aggressive language styles are often perceived as less credible and trustworthy, and are more likely to marginalise members of the public who are innocently looking for answers. Authenticity of the speaker can enhance the trust, credibility and persuasiveness of the message.
  • Finally, reporters should emphasise the flawed logic and inconsistent application of the #FakeNews, #MediaWitchHunt, #MediaScum slurs. When the Cummings-lockdown-breach story boke, #LauraKuenssberg trended alongside, inter alia, #MediaScum, after she replied directly to Daily Mirror journalist Pippa Crerar in what critics read as a rebuttal on Cummings’ behalf. Just days later it was #EmilyMaitlis’ turn, although this time the #MediaScum were a mouthpiece for the left after her opening monolog on Newsnight captured the Cummings debate. These slurs are used to imply agenda and propaganda, but how can this be when there is no consistency behind the conspiracy?

Colette Allen is the anchor of ‘The Media Law Podcast: Newscast’ and intern on The Media Freedom Project at the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute. Twitter: @medialawpodcast