Regulators Should Tackle Fake News Before Trying To Bring Papers To Heel

Damian Collins, chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, hit the nail on the head about what is wrong with proposed press regulation. In an interview over the weekend, picked up by The Guardian this morning, he took apart the Government's proposals on regulating the press by not only pointing out the stupidity of planned action but the ineptitude of regulators not to focus on the real problem.

For anyone with even half a brain, the issue is very clear. Section 40, which the Government is currently consulting on, would force newspapers that are not signed up to a Royal Charter-backed regulator to pay both sets of fees in libel cases, whether they win or lose. At the same time, the media is awash with fake news from "publishers" and "authors" who are never tackled. If you think the issue is exaggerated, just take a look at findings at The Independent this morning.

We all know there is a lot of fake news being pumped around by people who see the world through filtered lenses and are happy to pass off diehard opinions as news or facts. Where you may consider the problem is worse is health advice, which could prompt some people to make ill-informed decisions that damage their health or put them off from seeking help from a qualified doctor. To that point, the Independent found that the majority of health-related content on Facebook features claims that have been rejected by experts. 

I have done a fair bit of writing on medical issues and so know just enough about a few conditions to confirm what most people think when they see some of these posts -- they are written by snake oil salespeople and crazy quacks. There tends to be a common thread about doctors not wanting you to know a secret that is so ridiculous there is no point reading on about the findings of some "doctor" who knows a cure that nobody else will accept. However, for some people these unbelievable solutions just might prompt them to ditch conventional medicine and resort to a self-professed medical expert online.

The fact is that these guys are only subject to filters trying to remove their lies from appearing as news. They are not challenged. Rather ironic, then, that the people whose job it is to bring the public real news are not only directly judged but potentially put in an unfair position in court. Section 40 is not law yet because it is still being consulted on, but if passed into law it would surely be the only time in which one party is asked to pay both sides' fees, regardless of whether it wins or loses.

It simply doesn't pass the common sense filter, does it? Take away the risk of taking a paper to court and you're surely ushering in a PPI-style rush for people to be signed to take papers to court, no matter how strong or weak their case may be.

Just about every health charity you can think of is telling The Independent this morning that these fake health stories are a major concern. A good example is HPV vaccines which help prevent cervical cancer yet are the subject of a tirade of fake health stories trying to convince young women to avoid them. The results can be tragic and, of course, for every modern treatment there is a health scare story trying to steer users to their site and away from their GP and local hospital.

So if you were the regulator, where would you place your troops? Making newspapers -- which are by definition already liable for any lies -- pay both sides' fees or the fake news and advice peddlers? The latter is obviously a far bigger and more obscure target, but I really don't think that should stop the authorities -- not when people may be put off life-saving treatment on the basis of a self-proclaimed guru's lies.

Bringing the mainstream press to heel with unreasonable threats over legal costs just seems to be an unnecessary sideshow, all things considered.

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