Live, eyewitness reporting, typified by Robert Moore’s dramatic coverage during the mob assault on the US Capitol, is vital to counter social media lies.
One year after the storming of the US Capitol, the RTS invited ITV News journalist Robert Moore to reflect on his live report from Washington that day. Moore was the only journalist to gain access to the besieged building, and his coverage brought home the level of threat to politicians, lawmakers and journalists in the home of American democracy. His report has since earned him and his crew several prestigious awards.
Moore described their work on 6 January 2021 as “a brand of eyewitness frontline reporting that helps to deconstruct information and conspiracy theories very effectively”. Adding that ITV, the BBC and Sky News all do this kind of journalism well, he reflected: “My contribution was a small way of saying, British television is really good at eyewitness reporting, and this is more essential than ever before.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter stressed that, by infiltrating the mob, Moore’s account provided images no one else, including Americans, had seen that day. He explained: “Most of the reporters there that day were already inside the Capitol, and they took shelter, for very good reasons, considering the violence and threats against the media.”
In an age of police body-cam video and multiple witnesses to events shooting their own amateur footage, he added: “It’s critical to have objective third-party video of an act of terror, and also to have that global, or outsider, point of view.”
Damian Collins MP agreed, pointing out that, across the world, places where democracy is in trouble have a common theme: a weak independent media. “They have media that has been undermined, and legitimate voices have been pushed to the margins.”
Collins said that many of the insurrectionists joining the mob that day had increasingly eschewed these legitimate voices for “social media channels where they get their version of the truth”. It is these channels that continue to pose the biggest threat – alongside what Stelter termed “democratic backsliding”.
Collins went further: “Social media has a role to play in creating an experience for some people where they predominantly see conspiracy theories, they are led to believe that the mainstream media are liars and can’t be trusted. People don’t really know what to believe any more, so they probably end up believing the thing they see the most.”
Stelter described some of the signs of such erosion – “closed-door meetings, smaller hearing rooms or a council where voting rights are pulled back. That is all erosion that needs to be documented.” He emphasised that, just as an independent media is needed to preserve democracy and to document any assaults on it, a “free press is not possible without a vibrant democracy”.
Stelter described the events at the Capitol last year as “the beginning of something, not the end of something”. He explained: “There are many people in the US who feel left behind for various reasons, and I worry about what they’re consuming, what they’re seeing in their social media feeds.
“A line we have to draw is between news sources trying their best to get it right, versus media outlets that are faking it and don’t care what’s right and wrong. That’s incredibly difficult to distinguish when you’re on the Wild West of the world wide web.
“Political violence is on the rise in the US. We see online radicalisation every day, and it clearly starts in people’s social media feeds and algorithms. How do we get to have a better sense of that without choking, without censoring, and without making people feel even more disillusionment? And even more silenced? It is a massive, massive, profound question.”
The big challenge for journalists in the US and elsewhere, Stelter said, was to stand up to those spreading lies – “it’s an important measuring stick”.
What about when it is a political leader accused of spreading the lies? Collins championed the system of live exchanges between press and government in the UK, saying, “The Prime Minister makes statements and then he’s held to account. It’s right that we have that robust challenge.”
Regarding those hundreds of people surrounding him in the Capitol last year, Robert Moore reminded us: “We don’t protect democracy by ignoring voices, however shrill they might be, even those who want to dismantle democracy, we need to put them on air because the job of journalists is to shine a light on everything that is happening in this incredibly diverse and complicated country.
“With what Brian described as the erosion of democracy, our role is not to call it for one side or the other, but to shine a light on it.”
While he noted the vast range of panel shows and debates on TV news, particularly in the US, Moore instead championed “eyewitness frontline reporting in which we deploy people in the field and listen in real time to the threats to democracy as they organically grow. I think that’s the way that we can best serve our television viewers at home.”
Inevitably, the question of the BBC licence fee arose in the discussion. The day before, culture secretary Nadine Dorries had announced a two-year freeze and had initially said, prior to rowing back, that the licence fee should be abolished when the current Royal Charter expired in 2027.
Damian Collins was quick to emphasise the Government’s focus on protecting the BBC’s resources “to continue its excellent work”, just as Channel 4’s remit would be “cast in iron” were it to be privatised.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell was equally quick to make the point that much British journalism of the investigative, impartial kind being described by Moore and Stelter was made possible by the BBC’s unique funding model and public service ethos – and that it had to be paid for and supported, along with local news. She said that she wasn’t quite sure what the Government’s position was, following Dorries’ apparent change of heart on abolishing the licence fee.
She praised Collins’s “brilliant work on strengthening the online safety bill” and added her voice to his concerns about the role of social media platforms in polarising debate and amplifying hate.
“A broad, supportive, political and regulatory framework”, was Moore’s vision for protecting public service journalism. “But, otherwise, just let us get on with it, finding those stories, telling those stories, [which are] best told by people out in the field, not in newsrooms or studios. Plurality of discussion is going to be at the core of all of it, making sure that consumers of news get a broad range of opinions in front of them.”
“I’m not advocating for regulation, I’m advocating for change,” Stelter said. “Governments have to focus on the supply issue – where’s this supply of crazy content coming from? How are platforms held accountable? And why is there a demand for conspiracy theories and disinformation? Focus on what’s going on on the demand side.”
Collins stressed the need for social media platforms to provide transparent reports on the amount of hate speech they actually remove, and how fair the playing field is for different news providers. He reminded the panel that the online safety bill would be presented to Parliament during this session.
Powell wanted fresh emphasis on local news. “People want to know what’s happening in their communities. They’re much less interested in the sort of lobby-based insider way in which we often cover politics here – and in other countries as well.”
Report by Caroline Frost. ‘In the eye of the storm: Where next for journalism after the Capitol?’ was an RTS even held on 18 January. It was chaired by Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman. The producer was Lisa Campbell, ITN’s director of corporate communications.