Journalism and wishful thinking

Today there is much concern about the accuracy of words appearing on the internet. That being the case is it unreasonable to hope journalists make clear when they are offering an opinion about, or an interpretation of, events? If that is too much to expect could they not state what the facts are meant to be before going on to rubbish or rewrite them?

I mention this in the context of what happened last week when most (not all) media outlets reported the UK Government had “dropped” plans to use age verification as a mechanism for keeping children away from commercial pornography sites.

Almost all (“almost” being the key word) media outlets went with that line. There was absolutely zero basis for it when judged solely by what the Government actually said.

Journalists hunt in packs

Journalists often hunt in packs and are under severe time pressures to produce copy so while it may be annoying, or worse,  you know the rules of the game and can take counter measures. However, when an academic who invokes the magnificence of Emmanuel College Cambridge starts repeating opinions and interpretations gleaned from the ephemera of Fleet Street and rebirths them as “fact” you have to pause for thought.

Which brings me to the article in yesterday’s  Observer by Amy Orben.

Orben opened by asserting the Government’s plan to introduce age verification to restrict children’s access to online pornography was not only “dead” but had been for “months, if not years”.  As someone who had been involved with this initiative from Day 1 that came as a revelation.

There was nothing in the Government’s statement of 16th October which supported Orben’s view. On the  contrary the Secretary of State was clear that, in the Government’s new and expanded vision for policy in this area, she “expects age verification to continue to play a key role in protecting children online.”

On 17th October, in response to an Urgent Question tabled by Margot James MP,  in the House of Commons the  Parliamentary Under Secretary at DCMS faced a barrage of hostile questioning  from more than a dozen MPs. At no point did he swerve or even hint at a swerve on the matter of age verification for dealing with online pornography. He said he wanted to locate it within a broader range of measures but that is not the language of abandonment or dilution.

So whatever Orben was expressing in the article in The Observer it had no factual basis.  Moreover I am not the only person who appears to have read the Government’s announcement differently from her.

In a typically alarmist and exaggerated way on 16th October on the ITV web site Myles Jackman of the Open Rights Group is quoted as follows

“Superficially (the Government’s announcement) may seem like a victory for privacy and security, but the lacuna….. that they would be considering extending age verification to social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit without considering the risks to intimate personal sexual information being leaked onto the internet is frightening.” (emphasis added).

I rest my case.




About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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