Labour MP on free press, Harry & Meghan and RuPaul at the Annual Leveson Lecture

Photo by Anna Kamocsai

Labour MP Chris Bryant held this year’s Leveson lecture, spilling the tea on the current state of British journalism.

After a brief introduction from actor and Hacked Off Board Director, Hugh Grant, the hour-long lecture explored the definition of truth, the Bible, social media algorithms and the latest Harry and Meghan scandal, spiced up with a number of RuPaul references.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Annual Leveson Lecture, organised by Hacked Off, is aimed to raise awareness and funds to support the free press in the UK. Following the explosion of the phone hacking scandal, The Leveson Inquiry was created to reflect the central role of news and journalism in modern society, while Hacked Off was established to work with and protect victims of press abuse.

Bryant talked about the way many people get their daily news, through the biased lens of social media algorithms. According to Ofcom, about 46% of UK adults have been using social media as one of their primary news sources in 2022. However, a great number of bite-sized news are drawn from traditional news organisations. 

Data by Ofcom – Graph by Anna Kamocsai

In Bryant’s view, the press relies on these algorithms to make money, saying: “This is a profoundly dangerous moment of British journalism…The Facebook algorithm seems to know that I am gay, I am 60 (hence the Saga holiday adverts), I prefer Sauvignon blanc to Chardonnay and I enjoy the theatre.” 

“TikTok is the same. I only ever use the home function, but you would be amazed what comes up: a great deal of musical theatre, men working out in gyms, men who seem to have lost their shirts…, Dr Pimple Popper, and endless Graham Norton and RuPaul’s Drag Race clips, mixed in with stories about Ukraine. ”

Reacting to Bryant’s speech, audience member and journalist, Estelle Luck, 25, said: “I can see the benefits of social media and press algorithms, as readers are presented with content they’re interested in. But part of staying up to date with what’s going on in the world involves absorbing different voices and unique perspectives. How are we going to deviate from our current interests and expand our horizons if we’re constantly given content that’s similar to what we’ve read before? I worry that these algorithms may stop us getting a rich and varied view of what’s going on across the globe. ”

Bryant however, is more worried about the effects these algorithms have on traditional journalism, nudging people to political extremes, promoting division and creating an incentive for untruth. He brings up the case of Harry and Meghan, as the best example of marketing and getting rich on hatred.

2021 data research by Bot Sentinel analysed over 114,000 tweets since January 2020 related to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The analysis found 55 primary hate accounts and 28 secondary hate accounts. With the help of their 187,631 followers, they were responsible for 70% of the original and derivative hate content targeting Harry and Meghan on Twitter.

Bryant said: “This is not just ordinary, spontaneous or altruistic hatred, it is deliberate and coordinated. It uses social media recommender systems to amplify hatred. ”

Twitter is not the only one. Some YouTube channels have secured a great load of users and money from the hatred towards Harry and Meghan. A 2022 report by Bot Sentinel, found that hate videos of the couple had 497 million views, earning 3.83 million dollars. Most notably, the trio of Yankee Wally, Murky Meg, and According 2taz created hate-filled and mostly inaccurate videos to promote conspiracy theories of the couple. The three YouTube channels had more than 70 million views combined, and an estimated 494,730 dollars in total of YouTube earnings.

Data by Bot Sentinel – Graph by Anna Kamocsai

When it comes to press coverage, the same problem arises, Bryant says: “So many British opinion writers pen so much drivel about the couple, not because the story matters, it doesn’t; not because the writers genuinely care about it, they don’t, but because it makes money… That is a perversion of journalism.”

During a panel discussion with other experts, Bryant pointed out the connection between press quality and politics. He emphasised that at some point, it was thought that having an entertaining Prime Minister, and having politics as light entertainment was enough: “I just hope that people have woken up to the fact that it doesn’t work. I couldn’t understand how anybody possibly thought that Liz Truss could be the PM.”

When asked whether the Labour Party has a chance now to be the majority in parliament, Bryant said: “I think we in the Labour Party need to earn every single element of trust to be able to form a government, and to quote RuPaul: don’t fuck it up.”

Read our round-up of reactions to Netflix’s Harry & Meghan documentary

Words: Anna Kamocsai | Subbing: Andrea Rezman

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