Reporting or distorting?

Press attachés visit a new exhibition exploring the relationship between the British media and the public it informs

Diplomats in London often describe their encounters with the mercurial British media as ‘challenging’ questioning whether it reports or distorts the news. So DPAAL’s recent tour of the British Library’s thought-provoking exhibition Breaking The News was an opportunity for attachés to gain deeper insights into the role of the British media in shaping British public opinion.

Broadsheets to blogs
The exhibition draws on the British Library’s vast national collection of news spanning five centuries across the full spectrum of media – from the earliest fragment of printed news in Britain dating back to 1513, to newsreels, radio, television, the internet and social media.

Historical sources are displayed next to contemporary coverage, such as pamphlets reporting on the English Civil War with memes about Brexit, highlighting how the themes that interested the British public 500 years ago – power, conflict, celebrity and scandal – continue to engage audiences today. But the way news is gathered and disseminated has changed, from the Town Square to Twitter.

Truth, bias and propaganda
Juxtaposing headlines and coverage of the same news story in the left and right wing press – such as the clashes that broke out in the East End during a march of the British Union of Fascists in 1936 – raised questions for diplomats about truth and bias in the British media and the tipping point when news becomes propaganda.

The exhibition also raised questions of ethics, public interest and censorship and the lengths to which journalists have gone to get their story out – from a pamphlet printed on a handkerchief to avoid prohibitive paper tax to the smashed hard-drives The Guardian used to store classified information leaked by Edward Snowden or the News Of The World phone hacking scandal that led to the erosion of trust in the media and the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.

A section dedicated to ‘Newsbreakers’ reminded diplomats of the power of the media in shaping discourse, and how campaigners throughout history have used headlines (and hashtags) to shift the dial in public opinion, whether it’s the searing 18th century portrayal of slavery by freed slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or Greta Thunberg’s social media campaigns on climate change.

DPAAL President Federico Bianchi (second right), chairs a panel discussion with experts in the media Luca Eszter Kadar (EEAS), Katie Razzall (BBC), Adam Roberts (The Economist)


Fighting fake news
After the tour, DPAAL members considered the issues raised by the exhibition in a panel discussion chaired by DPAAL President Federico Bianchi, Head of Press at the EU Delegation, with Luca Eszter Kadar, the Deputy Head of Division, Communications Policy and Public Diplomacy of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Katie Razzall, BBC News Culture Editor, and Adam Roberts, the Digital Editor of The Economist.

Diplomats raised concerns about the destabilising impact of disinformation and fake news on democracies and the weaponization of information in conflict situations. The discussion also examined strategies to rebuild trust in information through better media literacy, raising standards and improved regulation, particularly in the social media sphere.

The future of public broadcasting was discussed as well as the need to find alternative viable business models for funding reputable journalism, especially at the local level where the shift to digital had eroded advertising revenue.

Main Image: The British Library’s Breaking The News exhibition looks at the media’s role in shaping British society

Photo Credit: Justine Trickett/British Library