On fake news, honey traps, and brutal cuts

দেশ

JON ALLSOP

(১ মাস আগে) ১৬ এপ্রিল ২০২৪, মঙ্গলবার, ৮:৪৬ অপরাহ্ন

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Last week, Joe Lycett, a comedian in the UK, posted a trailer for the new season of his late-night show. “The world’s been turned upside down by fake news, and I hate it,” he said—“unless I’m the one faking it.” Lycett revealed that he and his team had recently planted silly fake stories in a range of major British news outlets, from tabloid papers like the Daily Mail to the BBC, in the hope, he said, of “taking up space that more hateful or polarizing fake stories might otherwise have used.” He invited viewers to keep their eyes peeled for ridiculous-sounding news stories and to guess which were his doing.

On Friday night, Lycett took to the air and revealed his handiwork. After teasing his studio audience with absurd stories—a rescued baby hedgehog turning out to be part of a furry hat; North Korean state TV censoring jeans worn by the anchor of a BBC gardening show—that turned out to be true, Lycett listed off the fakes that his team successfully planted, including stories about an amateur soccer player finding a Prince Harry–shaped bruise on his thigh, men from Birmingham (Lycett’s hometown) having the longest penises in the UK, and the star of a nineties pop group being honored with a statue. Lycett’s team also mocked up a mural of Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, and claimed it was a Banksy. “Can you slap any old shit on a wall and have the papers think it’s a Banksy?” Lycett asked on air. “Yes, you can—and we did.”

Lycett is a known prankster: in recent years, he has legally changed his name to “Hugo Boss” in protest of the namesake fashion company’s aggressive enforcement of its branding rights, shredded banknotes in protest of the soccer star David Beckham’s role as an ambassador for the Qatar World Cup (the notes turned out to be fake), and dabbled again in fake news, producing a parody of a forthcoming report on COVID-era government soirees. A year and a half ago, I wrote about him in this newsletter after he was invited to appear as a panelist on a (deadly serious) BBC political show and took the opportunity to heckle Liz Truss, who was sitting for for an interview the day before she was confirmed as Britain’s new prime minister. As the interview concluded, Lycett yelled “Smashed it, Liz!” from behind the camera; later, he appeared on air and claimed, with deadpan delivery, to be a committed right-winger. Critics might say that the governing Conservative Party “are sort of at the dregs of what they’ve got available, and that Liz Truss is sort of like the backwash of the available MPs,” Lycett said. “But I wouldn’t say that, because I’m incredibly right-wing.”

My newsletter on Lycett and Truss was one of several that I wrote in quick succession at the intersection of British politics and media: a bizarro world where the very silly and the depressingly serious often collide. Back then, absurdities like Lycett’s heckling of Truss—and Truss’s ultimately brief spell as prime minister, famously outlasted by a decaying lettuce livestreamed by a tabloid newspaper—punctuated a dire economic crisis (one made much worse by Truss’s government) that, among other victims, was taking a sharp toll on the news business and on journalists, some of whom had resorted to using food banks or taking on second jobs to survive. One widely watched morning show offered to pay viewers’ soaring energy bills as a prize for winning an on-air game—a scene that struck many viewers as dystopian and was ultimately rebroadcast on Russian state TV as a sign of Western collapse.

The juxtaposition of the silly and the serious is arguably a permanent condition of British politics and media, but it felt particularly on the nose in the late summer and early fall of 2022. The same has been true in recent weeks; indeed, the current climate in some ways feels like a rerun of that tumultuous period. King Charles even died yesterday. (Just kidding; not that one.)

Lycett’s fake-news stunt sat snugly at the intersection of the silly and the serious. So, too, did a scandal that hit British politics ten days ago after William Wragg, a Conservative lawmaker, admitted handing the phone numbers of several colleagues to someone he had met on a dating app because that person had “compromising things on me.” It soon emerged that while Wragg had been particularly careless, at least two dozen other political actors had been targeted in the same apparent “honey trap” scheme—including several journalists. Henry Zeffman, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, revealed that he had received suggestive WhatsApp messages from people who claimed to be called “Charlie” and “Abi,” and that they had met Zeffman before. (One of his interlocutors “was trying, I think, to flirt,” Zeffman explained, “but I don’t think it was very effective because I just kept replying ‘WHO ARE YOU? And what do you want?’”) Fears abounded that a hostile state might be trying to compromise Britain’s political elite. But officials increasingly suspect that a lone actor was messing with people for fun.
Truss is back, too, at least as a media character. Since leaving office, she has occasionally made headlines while going off the deep end (or should that be “deep state” end?) politically, claiming darkly that “the establishment,” including various mainstream media organs, undermined her policies during her stint as prime minister. Recently, she took that argument to CPAC, the Trump-drenched American political conference, and parleyed with Steve Bannon on a right-wing network. This week, she is touring British media outlets (including some affiliated, doubtless, with the deep state) to tout her new book: Ten Years to Save the West: Lessons from the Only Conservative in the Room. (Or, if you’re an American reader: Ten Years to Save the West: Leading the Revolution Against Globalism, Socialism, and the Liberal Establishment.) In these interviews, Truss has endorsed Donald Trump and defended her record. And she has pushed back on the lettuce stunt, telling the BBC that it was a “pathetic” obsession of the “London elite.”

Truss at least sat for an interview with the BBC this week, which is more than can be said of her campaign to be prime minister back in 2022 (at least, not until voting had closed, when she did the interview that was heckled by Lycett). As I noted in a couple of my dispatches from that period, Truss bashed the BBC (alongside the mainstream media as a whole) during her campaign. She also appeared to be a threat to the broadcaster’s funding model, which relies on a public “license fee” paid by households that watch television, given her stated free-market politics.

In the end, Truss wasn’t in power long enough to execute a cogent policy on the BBC. But even before she came in, prior Conservative governments had taken action to freeze the license fee and suggested that they might do away with the arrangement altogether in the future. And since Truss left office, the broadcaster has continued to grapple with future uncertainty and with the sharp financial challenges of the present. Late last year, bosses announced that they were slashing the staff of Newsnight, a flagship current affairs show, provoking dismay both inside and outside the building. Last month, Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, gave an important speech and hinted at further cuts, saying that the broadcaster needs to make deep savings and that it will lean further into commercial partnerships. Between 2010, when the Conservatives first took office, and 2020, the BBC saw a real-terms budget cut of 30 percent, Davie said.

I also wrote in 2022 about the financial challenges faced by private media actors in the UK: not least Reach, a major publisher of national and local newspapers whose staff were then weighing a strike over their pay and working conditions. There, too, the dire straits haven’t let up since. Early last year, the company cut two hundred jobs; then, in November, it outlined plans to cut nearly five hundred more, many of them in editorial roles. (One staffer told The Guardian that it felt like the “end of days” for the company—and, perhaps, for British local journalism as a whole.) More recently, other outlets have made cuts, too. Last week, Press Gazette reported that openDemocracy, a nonprofit-owned news site that has done impressive investigative and accountability journalism, was laying off around ten employees, or as much as a third of its staff. Nieman Lab reported yesterday, meanwhile, that Press Pad, an organization that has aimed to find free housing for interns at British media outlets, is shutting down, at least for now—a further blow to representation in an industry that is disproportionately middle- and upper-class.

If all these stories at the nexus of British politics and media appear profoundly stuck, that mirrors many Brits’ feelings about the country as a whole right now: its political scene, its economy, and its media industry—themselves closely interconnected—are united, too, in a broader sense of stasis, even decline, cut up with lashings of the absurd. At least politically, change appears to be coming: the government must organize elections by the start of next year, and the opposition Labour Party is currently poised to sweep into power. The party’s leaders have emphasized their competence and professionalism; they are, at least, unlikely to gripe about the “deep state” and lettuce. But their agenda for the country—and its media sector—remains unclear. Back in the brief Truss era, the party pledged to protect the BBC, but it doesn’t appear to have said much since about the broadcaster’s future, which, in a world of rapidly evolving media consumption, ultimately faces structural challenges deeper than those posed by the government of the day. And local news outlets seem likely to stay in decline, as they are in the US and elsewhere.

Lycett’s recent fake-news prank was played for laughs and sold with a hopeful message: if the news is going to be fake, it should at least be fun. But his comedy has sometimes hidden a sharper edge below its surface, and his latest bit at least implied a serious warning about the ease with which the silly can be taken seriously. Intentionally or not, it also highlighted the dire state of the news business, with various journalists pointing out that the people Lycett had duped into publishing his fakes were likely exhausted and poorly paid early-career journalists with a daily story quota to hit. “No journalist wants to rewrite a press release,” Hannah Fearn wrote on X. But “readers demand [the] impossible; media bosses promise it. Hell follows.”