This article is by LSE MSc student Emma McKay, and covers a recent talk by Mary Hockaday (pictured right), Controller BBC World Service English.

Mary Hockaday discussed ‘Public service media in an age of distrust and disinformation’, as part of Polis’ Media and Communication in Action series.

What does it mean to be a journalist today?

Telling the truth and sharing stories at the local, national and international level is important work, and the value of having the freedom to do so cannot be understated. Yet, in 2017, according to Mary Hockaday, the Controller of the BBC’ World Service English Service, the tide of media freedom is heading in the wrong direction around the world. Journalism is a more dangerous profession than ever, and there are many countries around the world where dissent and investigation have severe consequences.

The statistics supporting this shared during Hockaday’s talk at Polis, LSE were striking. In 2016, 48 journalists were killed, 18 journalists were murdered, and 259 were jailed worldwide (Source: Committee to Protect Journalists). The top five deadliest countries for journalists in 2016 were: Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. In addition, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index shows an increase in the number of countries where the media freedom situation is “very grave” (Reporters Without Borders).

Journalists killed since 1992. Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

Then there is the Trump phenomenon. The words and actions of President Trump and his relationship with the press often contest the media’s ability to be free and democratic. Whether he is ignoring the major news networks in press conferences, or referring to CNN as the #FNN (Fraud News Network), it is worth critically analyzing the way this president treats the press and talks about the press.  Protection of, and respect for, the media is declining.

Where does fake news fit in?

It is important to recognize that much ‘fake news’ is deliberate. It is an intentional action whereby various actors make up news, whether for money, political gain, or to exert power or influence over people. We must understand the deliberate nature of fake news in order to conversely appreciate the critical importance of good, accurate information and the news media’s obligation to provide this. We must be able to differentiate between the two.

It is equally important for us to recognize the implications fake news has for us as we go about our daily digital lives. As Mary Hockaday explained, through digital platforms and the various accounts, profiles, etc. we have on each, we have all become publishers. What does this mean, and what responsibilities does this bring? For us, it means we should think about the nature and substance of content before we share, tweet, ‘like’, etc.

Building trust

In general, populations today are less trusting, especially of traditional institutions. According to the UK findings of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the media industry is also suffering from this, with trust in media amongst Informed Publics at only 28 per cent. In general, trust in media (43 percent) fell considerably in 2016, and is reported to be at an all-time low in 17 countries.

Part of the root cause lies within the ubiquitous nature of news today, as well as a greater democratization of speech and thought. There are more platforms for people to engage on, allowing people to voice their criticisms, skepticism and questions more openly. It is important to create and sustain safe, robust spaces for discussion between competing views, but at the same time we must acknowledge the importance of accurate, fact-based reporting.

As we learned from Mary Hockaday, there are many challenges facing the media industry today. In many places journalism is life threatening and dangerous, free speech is inhibited, and trust in the work journalists do is declining. At the same time, there are many opportunities for the media industry to reinvigorate their values in this period of flux, and most are working incredibly hard in order to do so. Public Service media such as the BBC carries a special responsibility to maintain high standards in a global information system creaking under political and other pressures.


This article by LSE MSc student Emma McKay.

For more information about the Polis Media and Communications in Action talks, please visit our website.