Q: When is a lie not a lie?

A: When your valuable audience, who your advertisers spend millions with you trying to reach, wants to hear it.

By James Evelegh

Q: When is a lie not a lie?
Photograph: Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash.

The widespread acceptance of a monumental lie – that the 2020 US election was stolen – is reshaping the dynamics of US politics and media.

Take the surreal situation recently, where a Fox News host refused to answer the simple question, ‘who won the election?’

He couldn’t because he realised that to do so would be to jeopardise his career.

As reported in the Guardian, Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, said of conservative media commentators and politicians: Either you believe, or pretend to believe, that Trump won the election, or you will be destroyed.

Chris Stirewalt, a politics editor who left Fox News after the election, reportedly faced “murderous rage” from Trump supporters for defending the station’s election night Arizona call, even though it proved to be a correct call.

Should professional journalists, trained in legal matters and journalistic ethics, continue to work for media brands that indulge falsehoods?

For some media brands, news has become a commodity, with the packaging of it dictated by marketing considerations as to what the core audience wants to hear and how much truth they can bear to hear before they jump ship. The choice of news story and how it is reported is dictated by focus groups and audience reaction.

I can imagine that many journalists working for these outlets feel desperately uncomfortable in the predicament they find themselves in.

There is no easy answer. In his latest book, Landslide, Michael Wolff says that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, personally hated Donald Trump, but that this antipathy was outweighed by his love of Fox News revenues.

It’s a commercial decision then, but one which raises awkward questions for the press. The raison d'être of a free press is often held to be the ability and willingness to speak truth to power. The reality now is that some media outlets can’t even speak truth to their own audience.

Some of this is down to deeper societal shifts and the emergence of a new tribalism in politics and it’s not just a problem for Fox News or the US. Take GB News’ recent decision to take Guto Harri off air for taking the knee, an action it initially had no problem with, but which became problematic to say the least in light of the uproar that erupted on social media.

In the UK, hugely divisive and perilous issues like Brexit and the response to covid have raised the stakes. Relations with our largest trading partner are fraught, there are question marks over the future territorial integrity of the UK, Covid and how it has been handled are all major issues that are raising the political temperature.

In these circumstances, unscrupulous politicians here might well be tempted to promulgate their own big lie.

If UK news organisations are to avoid the Fox News conundrum, where a simple truth dare not speak its name, then the only course of action is to call out lies loud and early from wherever they come. Any indulgence of untruths will come back to haunt you.

Lies and how journalists should respond to them is the subject of an excellent article by Sara McConnell.

The reality now is that some media outlets can’t even speak truth to their own audience.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.