Facing down Facebook: how the old media humbled the new

In this age of algorithms, it’s heartening to see that there’s no substitute for intelligent and persistent journalistic endeavour. Some classic old-school digging from the likes of the Observer, Guardian and Times has exposed a dark underside to the tech giants’ operations. Jon Slattery reports.

By Jon Slattery

Facing down Facebook: how the old media humbled the new

When an apologetic Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, the journalist who broke the story put up a telling tweet. Carole Cadwalladr, of The Observer, posted: “Remember this. #Zuckerberg only here because: #journalism. But #journalism broken because: @facebook."

The old media had humbled one of the new digital giants frequently accused of destroying its business model by capturing much of the advertising that sustains journalism.

It wasn’t just any old media. The Observer, launched in 1791, is the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world with a fine tradition of investigative journalism. Cadwalladr had already picked up a couple of press awards after her Observer stories last year about US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, uncovering his financial links to the political consultants Cambridge Analytica and the Trump and Leave campaigns. The articles prompted investigations by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The inside track

What blew the lid off the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal was Cadwalladr’s story published in March this year based on information provided by ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie.

It revealed how the data of tens of millions of Facebook users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica to build voter profiles for political targeting in attempts to influence the US presidential election and the UK’s vote to leave the EU, in violation of the social media giant’s own rules.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted the Cambridge Analytica affair was “a major breach of trust” and that Facebook has not done enough to safeguard users’ personal information. Billions of dollars were wiped off Facebook’s stock market value. The company published full-page apology ads, signed by Zuckerberg, stating: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.”

Cadwalladr may have picked up awards for her investigations but she was also subjected to online abuse by Leave campaigners, who described her as “Carole Codswallop” and claimed the Guardian and Observer were sore losers over the Brexit vote and Trump victory.

Observer commissioning editor Kathryn Bromwich defended Cadwalladr against the attacks on Twitter, saying she “has been ridiculed, threatened with lawsuits, threatened with violence, had her face photoshopped into a variety of insulting scenarios, been given a stupid nickname by Julian Assange, and made a lot of very powerful people very angry."

The Cambridge Analytica story reflects a growing trend in investigative journalism – sharing an investigation across different media. The Guardian and Observer gave its scoop to Channel 4 News and the New York Times. Undercover filming by Channel 4 News of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix boasting about dirty tricks that could be used to influence elections led to his suspension and the company going into administration, blaming “the siege of media coverage” for driving away clients. The New York Times gave the story a US dimension and helped circumvent the UK’s strict libel laws.

Legal peril

The Observer published despite Facebook sending a pre-action letter threatening to sue the newspaper for defamation. What must have been a sweet moment for Cadwalladr was when Facebook's CTO Mike Schroepfer, appearing before the Culture and Media Committee, was asked to apologise for the company threatening to sue the Guardian and Observer for defamation. His jaw dropping reply was: “We thought this was accepted cultural practice in the UK… I am sorry that journalists feel that we are trying to prevent them from getting the truth out.”

Commentators and leader writers have piled into the digital giants. Olly Duff, editor of the i paper, claimed: “The two most powerful publishers on Earth, Google and Facebook, have created a socially destructive news ecosystem in the UK that imperils thousands of titles. This includes small publishers vital to the communities they serve, as well as national newsrooms needed to scrutinise the most powerful interests… Without lasting change here, Britain’s brilliant investigative journalism will become an anachronism, harming us all.”

The Times argued: “It is no longer enough for technology companies to smirk behind algorithms and claim that there is nothing they can do. Where their inventions are ravaging the norms of law, culture and society, they must come up with solutions. If they will not, they must expect governments to tame them with the full force of the law. If that hits their vast profits, that, too, is their problem.”

Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who put the Facebook headquarters in London into lockdown by turning up unannounced and demanding an interview, commented in The Guardian: “Facebook has enabled us to secure literally billions of viewings of the news clips we post on our site. But in doing so, we provide material around which it can sell advertising. Channel 4 News gets no revenue for this… We have been arguing fiercely with Facebook, and Google, that they owe us a fairer share… Unless the tech giants start to take notice, there is a real danger that next time, there might be no ‘old media’ left to call them out.”

Ad placement

The Times has also taken on the digital giants revealing how YouTube placed adverts for mainstream brands on videos showing horrific content, including terrorist and Nazi propaganda. In 2017, the paper revealed how YouTube and Facebook had failed to tackle child pornography on their platforms.

The Observer’s Cambridge Analytica scoop was followed by another powerful investigation by The Guardian into the Windrush generation scandal led by Amelia Gentleman, who spent six months exposing the treatment of the immigrants who were encouraged to come to Britain from the Caribbean after World War Two. In a series of stories, she revealed how some who had lived in Britain for decades, faced detention, deportation, denial of NHS treatment and destitution if they could not prove they were British.

The revelations led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary in April, after The Guardian published a memo and letter contradicting claims there were no deportation targets, and an apology from the prime minister.

Guardian editor-in-chief Kath Viner told readers Rudd’s resignation “marks an important moment for independent, investigative journalism, demonstrating how it can hold power to account in order unequivocally to change people’s lives for the better.”

Both stories show investigative journalism in the UK is alive and kicking despite the financial difficulties facing the old media and that Cadwalladr and Gentleman used tried and tested techniques. John Mair, co-editor of a new book Investigative Journalism Today: Speaking Truth to Power, published by Bite Sized Books in May, said: “Both journalists significantly used traditional investigative methods: case studies, digging and whistleblowers to achieve their aims. It could have been 1978 not 2018.”

Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a chapter in the book writes: “The brilliant, dogged reporting by Carole Cadwalladr clearly demonstrated the importance of investigative journalism. Yet over the past decade, this type of expensive, risky and immensely time-consuming work has been under intense pressure to prove its worth in depleted news rooms.”

New models

Despite all the gloom about editorial cost-cutting, there is evidence of the development of new ‘not for profit’ business models emerging to support investigative journalism backed by philanthropists, foundations and donations. The new models include the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which masterminded the Panama Papers story, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK.

The internet rather than being a threat to investigative journalism can be seen as an asset: opening up more sources, data and new platforms on which to publish. Tim Gopsill, editor of Freepress, the paper for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, says: “Twenty years ago, everybody said investigative journalism was dead because corporate media could not finance it anymore but the internet has brought it back to life.”

Despite talk of a return to a ‘golden age’ of investigative journalism, no-one can be really sure about how it will be financed in the future. The Guardian, however, now gets more revenue from readers, via print and digital subscriptions, donations and its membership schemes than from traditional advertisers.

In April, The Guardian reported reader revenues were a core part of its plans to diversify revenue streams and reduce reliance on traditional income from advertising and newsstand sales. It said more than 800,000 people now financially support the Guardian, up 200,000 from a year ago. Of these, about 200,000 are print or digital subscribers, more than 300,000 are members or regular contributors, and more than 300,000 gave one-off contributions.

The Sun “welcomed” the Guardian and Observer’s switch to tabloid format in January with a typically barbed leader: "THE Sun warmly welcomes the Guardian to the tabloid club. As of today, the cash-strapped newspaper has shrunk to save on costs after making a £38 million loss in 2016/17. So, from one tabloid to another, here is our suggestion for them to turn around their failing fortunes: actually report some exclusive, rip-roaring stories… We know that is an alien concept to them but it might help them flog a copy, or two."

The Guardian and The Observer’s exclusive, rip-roaring data harvesting scandal and Windrush stories may have done more than flog a few copies. They’ve shown the “old media” still has the power to take on one of the biggest companies in the world; stand up to libel lawyers; highlight the cruel treatment of immigrants; force the resignation of a home secretary; and win an abject apology from a prime minister. Journalism that takes months not minutes.

They also sent an important message to publishers. Distinctive, dogged, campaigning investigative journalism can bring in new reader revenues at a time when conventional advertising and print sales are disappearing.

It would be ironic if journalism, rather than being “broken” by Facebook, has been shown a way to build for the future, thanks to the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper holding the power of the digital giant to account.