Press and Politics
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993. On this day we celebrate the fundamental principles of press independence and pay tribute to the journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Our experts have offered their answers to some pressing questions about press and politics in the contemporary world.
7 questions
1. What are the biggest threats to press freedom today?2. Do we believe what the media tell us?3. To what extent does news media shape our ethics and morals?4. How successful has Open Journalism been in achieving its democratic goals?5. How can we provide public service journalism if readers just won't pay for it?6. Which non-mainstream news sites can I trust and which are fake?7. The Fakie Awards: What were the biggest cons, untruths and distortions of 2016?

Oppressive governments around the world that wish to suppress free speech are clearly the biggest threat to press freedom, in my view. As President of the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association I received many worrying reports vof journalists being arrested, abducted and tortured for criticism of police or the exposing of government malpractice; of senior editors being dismissed or arrested for refusing to reveal their sources; and, in some countries, of repressive laws being introduced to silence the media.

In countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Uganda, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Gambia, media operate under tight and punitive government control. The Malaysian government has been criticised for using religious laws to stamp out dissent. The travel ban imposed on the cartoonist Zunar, an outspoken critic of the government, being a recent flashpoint.

Over the past decade, human rights organizations have been especially alarmed by the proliferation of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the abduction and suspected enforced disappearance of a 24-year-old journalist, Zeenat Shahzadi, who was abducted by armed gunmen when she was on her way to work in Lahore on 19 August 2015.

In countries like Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines meanwhile, where powerful political and business interests often combine to violently silence the news media, the stakes are simply too high for some journalists to continue reporting.

“In countries like Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines, the stakes are simply too high for some journalists to continue reporting.”

It’s not just repressive governments that the press fear; victimisation and even criminalisation of journalists is sadly becoming all too common in countries inside and outside the Commonwealth. According to the International News Safety Institute a total of 49 media workers died in the first six months of 2016. Journalists and other outspoken people are, more than ever, being threatened, harassed, assaulted and sometimes killed for doing their jobs. This summer’s brutal murder of Nazimuddin Samad, the Bangladeshi blogger hacked to death by extremists, simply for expressing secular views online, being one tragic example.

2/7 Do we believe what the media tell us?

The question of how media influence public opinion began being asked in earnest after World War II, when researchers first tried to model the ways information reaches a mass audience. Since then, a whole gaggle of theoretical frameworks has sprung up, with their roots in such diverse fields as cognitive psychology, political science, linguistics and semiotics.

These theories can be placed on what I call a high influence-low influence spectrum. On the one end we find 'hypodermic syringe'-type models, which predict a more or less direct link between media content and public opinion; what you consume is what you believe.  On the other end of the spectrum theorists assign a great deal of autonomy to audience members themselves; individuals actively seek out what information they want to receive, and media outlets respond to this demand by tailoring their coverage to their audience's preferences.

The outer fringes of the spectrum are somewhat dimly lit and underpopulated nowadays, but the middle is vibrant and full of life. In this middle section, theorists borrow freely from diverse scholarly fields in order to encapsulate the complexities of how media coverage works and how people's opinions are formed and maintained. I'll briefly gloss over the most important ones.

First, agenda-setting theory states that the media cannot tell us what to think, but can tell us what to think about. By choosing which events to cover and in what way, media outlets decide what issues are on the public agenda. A tributary to agenda-setting theory is framing theory, which seeks to establish the different ways in which media coverage leans in a particular direction, for example through the use of certain talking points or phrasing.

Second, gate-keeping theory sees media outlets as, well, gate-keepers who are in control of the flow of information. The media serve as a filter, as it were, for making sense of the unordered blob of events and occurrences that make up our daily life. Gate-keeping theorists come in different stripes. Some emphasise the importance of journalists' personal preferences and biases for deciding what information makes it through the gate (similar to agenda-setting theory). Others see more value in looking at the salience of individual unfolding events, editorial decision-making processes, or market incentives. Gate-keeping theory becomes even more complex when you look at online media, because gated walls become much more porous in a large, interactive network.

Finally, there are theorists who study the political dimension of mass media. A famous example of this is Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model. Herman and Chomsky argue that the very structure of the capitalist system ensures a media coverage bias in favour of the pro-corporate, capitalist status quo. They emphasise the importance of ownership structures and advertiser incentives; a company is unlikely to advertise on a channel with an anti-consumerist slant, which means less ad revenue, which means bankruptcy. This overarching media bias ensures that, although freedom of the press exists, counter-capitalist narratives can never gain enough salience among the public to truly upset the status quo.

Personally, I am somewhat on the low-influence side of the spectrum. I certainly believe that the media, as a collective, have tremendous power over what we think and talk about. However, in this era of unimpeded global flows of information we can no longer speak of the media as a homogeneous entity. The barrier to accessing any media outlet you like has become lower than ever. It's not hard to find a community of people who agree with you in comment sections, forums, and on social media. So instead of the media being the prime mover of public opinion, the ubiquity of information gently pushes us into ideologically self-inforcing bubbles, where we can provide feedback to content creators and freely discuss the news with others. This is not to say that content does not matter; the media do, in my view, still set the agenda and decide what issues become important for us to talk about. Furthermore, the political dimension should not be ignored; overt and covert propaganda are arguably more prevalent in society today than at any point in the last 20 years. However, the news is discussed and challenged more and more in this era of new media. Audiences have an unprecedented say in shaping media content, and whatever risks that may bring (see this question about citizen journalism), it does imply a significant change in how audience members view the role of media in their lives, and how we incorporate the information we receive.

3/7 To what extent does news media shape our ethics and morals?

The short answer to this question is ‘we don’t know exactly’. The longer answer requires a closer examination of the relation between news media and society. This involves concepts such as media power, audience reception and of course morals.

The thing about media power is that researchers don’t agree on how much influence the media have. If we go back to, say, the 1930s it was generally accepted among media researchers (and politicians for that matter) that the media were all powerful. Propaganda machineries had their heyday in totalitarian societies, best exemplified by Fascist and Communist states.

These countries would systematically produce propaganda to influence their populations’ sense of ethics and morals, focusing on topics such as race superiority or the evils of capitalism. For today’s viewer these news products can seem crude, but they did influence thousands if not millions of people at the time.

However, people’s understanding of news media changed and with it the perceptions of media research. As news media proliferated with the advent of TV and online media it became clear that the relation between media content and audience perception isn’t 1:1. People use news media in different ways and while some will accept the messages others will negotiate or perhaps even reject them. Some very recent and very illustrative examples of this are the British EU referendum and the US election.

Some researchers argued for an ‘agenda setting’ model where the media might not determine what we think but they do influence what we think about. In this view, ethical and moral dilemmas can be brought up by the news media but it’s up to the individual consumer to decide their own stance. Other researchers argued for a ‘framing’ model where the news media present things in certain ways to promote certain viewpoints. In this view, news media will suggest ethical and moral stances but it’s still not given that the audience will buy into them.

“The boundaries between right and wrong are constantly moving. What was right 100 years ago might be wrong today, and what was wrong then might be right now.”

What we can with some certainty say, however, is that the boundaries between right and wrong are constantly moving. What was right 100 years ago might be wrong today, and what was wrong then might be right now. Think death penalty and homosexuality. The news media play a role in drawing and redrawing the lines between right and wrong in our society by raising moral issues, identifying wrongdoers and suggesting solutions.

One of the central platforms for this is crime news. Crime plays a very small part in most people’s lives, but it still takes up a very large proportion of the news we consume. Crime news often follow the same pattern: a crime is committed, the police investigates, arrests are made, sentences are given. In that respect, crime news is rarely ‘new’. However, it can be seen as a ‘daily moral exercise’ where we as citizens get to recalibrate our moral compass and make sure we’re in line with what is acceptable and what is not.

Another way the news media can influence our ideas of ethics and morals is through moral panics. This was explored by the sociologist Stan Cohen, who explored how the mods and rockers of 1960s Britain were demonised and labelled as and public threats by the news media. To begin with these two groups weren’t much more than bored teenagers going to the seaside and getting into arguments with other groups. But as the news media picked up on the story (and dramatized it quite heavily) the panic spread and youth culture became a moral matter. It arguably still is, since young people and their habits are often criticised for being immoral.

So the longer answer says that ethics and morals are constantly negotiated and renegotiated and the news media play an important role in this. It’s impossible to put a number on it, and each individual and each social group will probably respond to news in different ways. But it’s undeniable that there is some influence. Finally, since this text is a media text, I’ve also, very subtly, incorporated some ethical and moral stances of my own in the hope that the reader will adapt them. Failing that, though, I will just have to accept that the reader is perfectly capable of making up their own mind. By the end of the day, that’s what we’ve all got to do when it comes to ethics and morality. 

4/7 How successful has Open Journalism been in achieving its democratic goals?

Open Journalism is a way of bringing information to audiences that tries to transcend the traditional method of collecting information and reporting it as a finished product. Instead, Open Journalism tries to involve audiences themselves as much as possible. The concept has been around since 1999. Back then, Andrew Leonard, a writer for Salon.com, wrote an article in which he described how the editor of a website on counterintelligence asked a community of self-described geeks and nerds on Slashdot.org to help him edit an article about cyberterrorism. In the end, the geeks picked apart the article's original version almost completely, and the editor decided to rewrite the article incorporating the Slashdot community's commentary.

This idea of using online communities to improve on a piece of journalistic work has since taken hold within the mainstream press. Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian and one of Open Journalism's leading advocates, puts forward ten principles that define this mode of journalism:

- It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
- It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
- It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as  well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
- It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
- It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
- It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
- It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
- It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
- It recognises that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
- It is transparent and open to challenge, including correction, clarification and addition

The Open Journalism approach has a number of advantages, especially for established media outlets: by being fully integrated with the internet, it allows journalists to harness the power of social media and attract an engaged online audience. In a media environment where audiences' attention is often fleeting, which has lead to drops in advertising revenues and declining subscription numbers, Open Journalism can be a way to build a community of loyal subscribers.

Secondly, trust in the mainstream media is currently at a low. Open Journalism's focus on transparency and appreciation for audience input could help rebuild this trust.  

Thirdly, plummeting advertisement revenues are forcing many media outlets to slash their budgets. This has an effect on journalists' ability to do their work. Therefore, if fewer journalists are working to produce the same amount of content, allowing audiences to participate in or contribute to content production can be a practical, cost-effective way of dealing with this problem.

Open Journalism is not for everybody. For example, many readers quite like the idea of receiving a well-researched, finished product, written by a professional journalist with a clear idea and thesis in mind. Although the process of participatory journalism is still overseen by professionals, there's no guarantee that a collaborative project will have the same clarity and poignancy as a journalist's own work. But then again, many do like the feeling of being engaged in the practice of journalism, and are happy to consume an essentially unfinished product. The problem is monetising it: how can you expect readers to pay for something that may change completely later on?

The largest problem, however, is to do with Open Journalism's democratic mission. The concept has been around for a long time, and throughout its existence only parts of its mission have been a proven success. The most important one is the comment section: websites with thriving communities of commenters often manage to build up a stable reader base, and can use the prevalence of vibrant debate on their site as a way to attract new audiences.

But not all websites with thriving comment sections are sympathetic to Open Journalism. Take, for example, Breitbart and The Huffington Post, two US-based websites with a huge, active reader base. In both cases, the presence of a thriving online community hasn't exactly lead to a more participatory form of journalism. Instead, these communities form an ideological bubble that directs its criticism of the media outward, not inward. The home site is seen as trustworthy (in some cases the only trustworthy outlet out there), and ideological opponents are set aside as biased, propagandistic, or "fake news".

Whether this is true or not is beside the point: exceptions aside, I fear that online communities are prone to an inability to self-reflect, which hampers some of the stated goals of Open Journalism. While it may be good for advertisement revenues in the long run (and let's hope so; we need a vibrant, pluralistic media landscape, and we need media outlets to turn a profit for this to exist), rebuilding trust in the media through Open Journalism has been and remains a daunting task.

5/7 How can we provide public service journalism if readers just won't pay for it?

There’s no easy answer, but I’ll touch on some of the bigger issues.

I’d reject the premise of the question to a certain extent. Readers do pay for journalism and public service journalism – not all readers, admittedly, but people are still buying newspapers, albeit in lesser numbers. There are some models that are working – the FT, The Times and News UK all have very successful paywall models, for example, and they do provide public service journalism. We also pay a license fee to the BBC, and those models are replicated in other countries around the world. So people are still paying for journalism to an extent.

I think the broader thrust of the question is, what happens to everybody else? What happens to local newspapers, what happens to popular presses that are struggling to make a living? There are no easy answers. You can’t force readers to pay for news – that’s the simple bottom line answer. But what you can do is look around the outside, at other models that might fund journalism – such as philanthropy. Or subscriptions like what the Guardian are doing.

“There was a very simple model for 150-odd years, where the reader paid a small amount and all the readers together funded good journalism. That’s gone, and it’s not coming back.” 

We won’t be able to provide public service journalism, in the longer term, on the scale we have been providing it up until now. Local newspapers are dying – they’re in absolute crisis. And they will disappear. There’s various interventions trying to save it. In France, for example, they’ve tried government preventions, and Google have introduced grants to fund local journalism. The BBC are funding 150 places for local public service journalists in local newspapers – all of those things help.

But at the end of the day, there was a very simple model for 150-odd years, where the reader paid a small amount – a penny, a pound, whatever it was – and all the readers together funded good journalism. That’s gone, and it’s not coming back. And we haven’t got a simple solution for how we’re going to do it in the future.

“I think you’ll see tech companies – partly out of a sense of moral responsibility, partly out of them being shamed into it – doing more because they’ll have to.” 

There’s a whole range of things that could happen, and philanthropy’s one of them – things like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I think you’ll see tech companies – partly out of a sense of moral responsibility, partly out of them being shamed into it – doing more because they’ll have to. And I think for some, paywalls will work. And for others, to a certain extent, advertising might work. But it’s very, very limited, because of the fact that advertising digitally doesn’t pay enough money to fund that kind of journalism. Decent journalism is expensive. 

6/7 Which non-mainstream news sites can I trust and which are fake?

In my view, this question is, in its core, about the reliability of online information. There are so many sources of online news available to us at a mere click of the mouse that many people feel at a loss as to what sources can be trusted. But the distinction between reliable and unreliable news sources is not at all clear-cut.

Sure, some websites are completely fake and only publish blatant falsehoods. Most news outlets, however, report on real events most of the time but with a clear bias, mislead their audiences by playing fast and loose with established standards of journalistic decency, or publish an individual piece of content that is more sloppy or unreliable than the rest and is blatantly misleading. The first group is obviously best avoided if you're looking for reliable information, but the second and third group require more scrutiny. For example, a news outlet may be a relatively sincere source of information on some topics, and a propaganda tool on others. Also, it is good to keep in mind that even biased news sites may put forward valuable viewpoints; subjective does not always mean misleading.

“A news outlet may be a relatively sincere source of information on some topics, and a propaganda tool on others.”

With this in mind, it's possible to assess news sites on their level of general reliability. There are  a few organisations that do this; for example, Wikipedia has a list of fake news sites (which I've made use of in this article as well). Real or Satire is a new platform where users can submit news sites to a reliability verdict (real, satire, neither, biased, clickbait, green ink, or undetermined). The Media Bias Fact Check looks at a broad spectrum of media outlets, and assesses their degree of leftward or rightward slant. And there are browser plugins that you can download (here and here) that can tell you whether or not an article or site’s reliability is disputed (these plugins are pretty basic. I wouldn't rely on them too much).

A while ago, The Question asked its readers which news sources they would like to know more about in terms of their reliability. I'll discuss these sites below. The categories I use are the following:

Fake: Fake news sites form the core of the controversy surrounding the much talked about ‘fake news’ issue. The opportunity to make a quick buck through advertising revenue has proven too tantalising for some purveyors of fake information to pass up. This has resulted in the proliferation and (occasional) viral success of completely fabricated news stories. A source is ‘fake’ when a large share of its content has no connection to reality. Sites in this category cannot be trusted to dispense reliable information and should be read with great care, if at all.

Disinformative: Reports on real events, but has been found to display a willingness at the editorial level to publish false or deliberately misleading information on certain topics; this goes especially in the case of unsavoury connections to governments. Sites in this category are mostly unreliable, and should always be read in conjunction with other news sources.

Biased: Displays a clear ideological slant towards one end of the political spectrum. While it is good to keep this slant in mind, biased sources should not be automatically labeled unreliable.

Please bear in mind that this list of sites is by no means exhaustive. Also, I will not directly link to any of these sources’ web page, because I don't want to boost their Google Page Ranks any more than is absolutely necessary.

Fake news sites

– Anything owned by Jestin Coler, including abcnews.com.co, drudgereport.com.co, conservativefrontline.com, denverguardian.com, firebrandleft.com, usatoday.com.co, unitedmediapublishing.com, and washingtonpost.com.co. Some of these sites were responsible for a number of fake viral stories about the US election, particularly Hillary Clinton. NPR looked up the man who owns them, a middle-aged, suburban American dad named Jestin Coler. You can read their fascinating profile of him here

  • Every one of these stories from from ‘abcnews.com.co’ (which has nothing to do with ABC News) is false. The .co suffix and the ‘Fashion Week’ tag are giveaways: 

- Any English-language news site based in Veles, Macedonia, including worldpoliticus.com, trumpvision365.c0m and usconservativetoday.com. A group of young guys from this small town runs a number of sites focusing on Donald Trump's electoral campaign, and makes a killing doing so. BuzzFeed looked them up and wrote a great article about their motivations. You can read it here.

- Infowars.com, by Alex Jones. While the majority of Infowars’ content does at least make passing reference to real events, many of its most high-profile stories are entirely false, including its claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, that the Jade Helm training operation was a trick to declare martial law in Texas, that devil-worshiping paedophiles run the New World Order, and that the Democratic Party in the US ran a paedophile ring from a pizza shop.

  • InfoWars’ founder Alex Jones. The site is a key propagator of fantasy right-wing ‘news’.

- NaturalNews. This site, owned by a man named Mike Adams, regularly publishes material that can only be described as pseudo-scientific. Topics include the non-existent link between vaccines and autism, chemtrails, genetically modified mosquitoes, and homeopathic treatments for Ebola. A brief look at the site's front page reveals a number of articles with a heavy bias towards homeopathy and against what is called the mainstream scientific community. Despite its claim of being the ‘world’s top news source on natural health’, it mostly peddles debunked healthy myths that are best left alone.

Disinformative news sites

- RT (formerly Russia Today). This channel is owned by the Russian government, and in recent years has expanded its market from Russia to the rest of the world. It now broadcasts in Russian, English, Spanish and Arabic. The channel purports to present ‘alternative’ viewpoints to mainstream media narratives. In some respects, this is true; for example, RT was quite early to cover the Occupy demonstrations in the US in 2011 and 2012. However, where issues pertaining to the Russian Federation and its government are concerned, RT is protective of Russia’s interests to the point of disinformation and fabrication. One example is its validation of various conspiracy theories surrounding the downing of flight MH17 in July of 2014. RT’s coverage is therefore largely indistinguishable from a propaganda tool for the Russian government, and it should not be relied on as one's only source of information.

  • “RT’s coverage is largely indistinguishable from a propaganda tool for the Russian government, and it should not be relied on as one’s only source of information.”: 

- Breitbart News. Founded by Andrew Breitbart, this site has become a staple of the far-right US political sphere. Its former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is currently president-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor. While Breitbart is no different from many other ideologically inspired news sites in terms of its level of bias and one-sidedness, it has repeatedly shown to be willing to disregard standards of journalistic decency by publishing false articles and headlines (such as ‘Obama: “I'm the closest to a Jew“ to ever be President’; Obama never said this). Furthermore, its overt support for Donald Trump and its connections to his incoming administration make any presumption of neutrality when it comes to US politics impossible.

Biased news sites

- The Canary. The Canary is a left-leaning political blog that has gained a lot of popularity since its founding in 2015. It regularly takes a stand against the ‘establishment’, and is a supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The majority of its traffic comes from Facebook. In December of 2016 it was reported that The Canary would be targeted by a Labour Party inquiry into fake news websites, prompting a fierce response from its editor-in-chief, Kerry-Anne Mendoza. As far as I can tell, The Canary is not a purveyor of fake news or disinformation, and it is rather up front about its political leanings.

- The Blaze. Founded by well-known media personality Glenn Beck, The Blaze is a conservative multi-media TV, radio and internet platform. While both Beck and The Blaze’s editorial staff are open about their support for conservative policies and ideas, especially Beck openly voiced his opposition to Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle.

  • Glenn Beck’s site The Blaze: hugely biased, but somewhat fact-based:

- The Raw Story. A progressive online news outlet that publishes content with a left-leaning perspective. As far as I can tell, it has an agenda but, much like The Blaze, does not necessarily toe a governmental or party line. It is clearly no fan of Donald Trump, but to say that it publishes overt fabrications is a stretch.

- Addicting Info. Much like The Raw Story, AddictingInfo is a progressive site that puts forward mostly left-leaning narratives. It has satirical articles that may be misconstrued as fake news, but they are clearly labeled, so that would not be their fault. It has been banned from Reddit, but this appears to be because of its being spammed by shill accounts in its comments section.

7/7 The Fakie Awards: What were the biggest cons, untruths and distortions of 2016?

To round off a year defined by fake news, lies becoming truth and fiction masquerading as fact, we present the only awards that truly sum up 2016. What else could we call them but The Fakies? Pass the Golden Envelope, please… 

The Golden Straightened Banana for Brexit Bollocks: Vote Leave’s £350m bus slogan.

If the promises of the Leave campaign were to be believed, the UK – six months after voting to leave the EU – should by now be rounding up the last remaining Latvians and enjoying a dazzling dawn of independent prosperity, as opposed to being regarded as a global village idiot with bulletholes in both feet. The emblematic whopper of the Leave campaign was the bus-borne £350 million per week (see above) which would be suddenly available once the drawbridge was raised. (That’s only about £293 million in “new” money, of course). The ‘pledge’ was quickly erased from the Leave campaign’s website right after the Referendum, and finally quietly abandoned in September.

The “it’s on the internet, it must be true” plaque for stupidest fake story with worst real-world consequences: Pizzagate

It could have been worse. On December 4th, only fixtures and fittings were damaged when a gunman opened fire in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC. He turned out to have been one of many impressionable yokels who bought a bewilderingly persistent online legend that the restaurant was a front for a child sex trafficking operation run either by, or on behalf of, Hillary Clinton. If you wondered who the people were who believed anything Donald Trump told them, here’s your answer.

Flimsiest Incitement to Hatred: Katie Hopkins and The Daily Mail

To criticise a single Daily Mail article for being tendentious and mean-spirited is akin to criticising a single column from Horse & Hound for being principally focused on horses and/or hounds. However, the Mail’s pre-eminent thinker, Katie Hopkins, excelled herself when she falsely accused a British Muslim family, refused entry to the United States while attempting to visit Disneyland, of ties to al-Qa’ida. Hopkins’ vow that she would “never apologise” was overruled by a judge, who also ordered a damages payout of £150,000. When Hopkins no doubt mistakenly tweeted the apology at 2am rather than a busier time of day, helpful internet users ensured that it didn’t go unnoticed. 

The “‘You can’t believe everything on the internet’ – George Washington” award for most-retweeted fake quote on a jpeg: #nevertrump campaigners

Many of the people who criticised the United States’ incoming president for his lack of interest in the verifiable proved happy enough to trade in nonsense themselves. Frequently gleefully forwarded was a jpeg-mounted quote (above) supposedly from a 1998 interview Trump that gave to People magazine. In it, he mused on the potentially electorally profitable gullibility of Fox News viewers. Outrageous, eh? The only problem is that Trump never said it – although, ironically, it may have been the most accurate line attached to his name all year.

The Captain Credulous epaulettes for tweeting first and asking questions later: Louise Mensch

  • Leonard Cohen was Canadian, Louise. Canadian. From Canada. 

The mercilessly prolific Twitter feed of former MP Louise Mensch has long read like the consequence of an experiment in living entirely on white wine and Skittles. Many doubted that she could equal such previous peaks as believing that Charlie Hebdo was an individual, rather than a magazine, and suspecting that Theodor Herzl might have been an anti-semite, as opposed to a Zionist pioneer. She triumphed, however, when inexplicably leveraging the death of Leonard Cohen to insult Russia, declaring that while Russia “has nothing”, Cohen reminds us of “America’s enduring greatness”. Cohen was Canadian.

The Brass Necklace for Audacious Sanctimony: The Canary

  • …and with an entirely different philosophy, policy platform, powerbase and set of advisors. Yep, same thing really. 

The Corbynista clickbait-farm was in many respects the media outlet that best embodied 2016 – which, given 2016, is far from a compliment. It found a ready audience among the kind of people who prefer their headlines to tell them how they’re going to feel about the ensuing story, and who also enjoy the spurious gratification of the conspiracy theory – perhaps, most notably, that a PR firm called Portland was responsible for a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, as opposed to the MPs who actually challenged the hapless throwback. A peak was reached in July, when The Canary ran a deranged hagiography which compared Corbyn to John F. Kennedy. This has been deleted, though they appear to be standing by the one about a dummy transmission by a TV station in Chattanooga leaking results of the US election in advance (Clinton wins, apparently.)

The bronze troll statue for municipal services to idiocy: Veles, Macedonia

  • Er, no he didn’t. Not even close. Thanks for the “clarification”, Macedonia. 

This hitherto little-heralded Balkan burg was revealed, towards the end of the US presidential election campaign, to be hosting a thriving industry of online bullshit factories catering for the appetites of American voters – largely, as these self-starting propagandists cheerfully admitted, Trump voters, who tended to be readier to believe the lurid nonsenses created and/or recycled by Veles’ inventive young folk, some of whom were clearing US$5,000 a month from internet advertising. And people said Trump couldn’t create jobs.

The Golden Sheeple fleece for poisoning public debate: Steve Bannon

It may be the most wretchedly illustrative career arc of our time: from naval officer to Goldman Sachs banker to Hollywood producer to hyper-conservative media mogul to chief strategist for the incoming president of the United States. Under Bannon’s leadership, the cranky right-wing fulmination Breitbart was cannily positioned as a pro-Trump propaganda channel – not entirely unmoored from reality, and able to present its denunciations of establishment media as implicit demonstration of its own righteousness. More than anyone else this year, Bannon was to blame for popularising the idea that reasonableness, thoughtfulness and willingness to consider other perspectives are all character faults.