Negative mainstream media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn, pictured at Glastonbury, fuels the opposition of the Canary and Skwawkbox. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA
I speak on the phone to Steve Walker, the self-employed Merseyside businessman who runs Skwawkbox. For someone only recently unmasked and monstered by the
Daily Mail (its a bit of a badge of honour), hes surprisingly amiable towards a journalist hes never met. Embarrassingly, the Mail had to take down its story when it emerged that anonymous leftwing blogger and corporate CEO Walker didnt actually sell private mailing services to the NHS at all, but donated them.
Walker launched Skwawkbox in 2012 to write about the NHS, the welfare system and the state of the left, then found new impetus with the advent of Corbyn. The people were trying to reach are what we call the outer parts of the Venn diagram, he says. Not the real dedicated people on the left, but maybe their auntie or their uncle who reads their Facebook page. With the right story, theyll share it and spread the word.
How could it have been right for Skwawkbox to spread unsubstantiated rumour at a time when riots were considered a genuine possibility? Walkers response is that the story was caveated with multiple sources say and reports have been received, a defence that wouldnt pass muster in elementary journalism school. At no point did I say, This is true, he argues. That would be me spreading fake news if it turned out to be untrue. But thats exactly what Skwawkbox did. No reputable newspaper would correct a false story merely by placing an update at the top of the page, leaving the false story intact below and, by implication, still valid.
Frankly, I dont take any responsibility for people who cant read the qualifications or choose not to, Walker answers. My obligation is more to the people out there rather than what the journalistic establishment considers the usual way of doing things. That story went viral because people said, why is nobody talking about what we are seeing on the ground? Theres already far too much suppression out there. People deserve the chance to make their own mind up.
And, he adds, Im still not convinced by the denials.
Which raises the question: how can you make up your mind when your information sources are so polluted by fiction that even the people who spread them believe them? The response of self-defined insurgent media is: why observe the rules of the mainstream media when the mainstream media have failed us? If the authorities deny a story, well they would, wouldnt they?
For professional journalists, this is a nightmare prospect: news and commentary devolving into a baseless cacophony where anyone can say anything and whatever is shared most will win. The truth will become what the most, or the loudest, people want it to be.
And yet, for all the chaos and uncertainty in the media, its worth remembering that weve been here before, albeit a long time ago. In the 1820s, the written press in Britain had become so elitist, complacent and deferential that dissenting journalists launched papers known as the unstamped because they refused to pay the newspaper tax. My God, they were violently opinionated, says Brock. They made the Canary and Skwawkbox look restrained.
Similarly, in the United States in the 60s, the cultural and political crisis of Vietnam brought on a slump in the credibility of a similarly stuffy and obeisant mass media. The journalism of the 1970s proved to have rather sharper teeth. Just ask Richard Nixon.
What Im saying is, mistrust in journalism is not an unambiguous disaster, Brock continues. It may lead readers and journalists to think more critically. I deplore it when alternative media present themselves as news channels when in fact theyre highly activist blogs with strong but narrow points of view. But they exist, and when youre faced with something you cant uninvent, you have to learn from it.
In the last analysis, says Brock, professional mainstream journalists can always say, weve checked this out and it stands up.
Its an answer I hear from many professional journalists I talk to. The answer to bad journalism can only be good journalism, from the widest pool of professionals. Fund and deliver it in the most innovative ways you can, but let the material be its own advocate. Its all you can do.
The people who want to see journalism fail now have a bigger megaphone than ever, says Bell. But the good news is that the world is getting more complicated, so it needs good journalism.
The mainstream medias job is to remind the audiences of tomorrow of that fact. Trust isnt given. Its earned. And if theres one basic truth that every storyteller understands, its that if you want to be believed, dont tell show.
Andrew Harrison is editor of the Remainiacs Brexit podcast; remainiacs.com On the ground: Grenfell Tower locals on the media
Stacie McCormick, 55 My impression is that we have a speed of news right now that journalists are trying to keep up with and theres a real lack of wisdom on everybodys side. Journalism has a responsibility to society and great journalists have a responsibility to inform people and make news. I filter it the best I can by trying to read many different outlets, trying to find the wisdom when theres a heck of a lot of misinformation. Im a relatively responsible citizen and smart enough to judge when its extreme sensationalism, but there are always people who want to be entertained by media rather than informed. To blame any one outlet is dangerous and to lose trust is dangerous, too. If we forfeit the responsibility of the media to keep us from being abused by the structures of power, then we become victims instead of citizens.
Matt Dolan, 47 I have always been slightly suspicious of the media and over the last couple of years, the idea of responsible reporting, accuracy of news and fact-checking seems to have been pushed aside. For Grenfell, I dont think all the facts have come out yet and I certainly think there are lots of things behind the story that people would like to see kept hidden.
I dont buy newspapers but I read the news online. I fact-check by looking at a range of media sources, trying to piece together what I believe is the truth from various outlets. I tend not to share things on Facebook too much though, partly because I cant trust it. I think theres been a systematic attack on the media, making it so that no one believes anything except what they want to believe. That is the danger, I think, of either having dubious press outlets or of allowing people to make unsubstantiated claims.
Andrea Pucci, 28 I dont read newspapers but I read daily news updates on my phone or find out news from other people. I think that fake news is easy to fall for because they make it so interesting theyre trying to get an audience. I wouldnt say that the media is all lies but people will play with the truth to [further] their own interests. The government always hides stuff, everywhere in the world, and its always to benefit someone.
Steve Williams, 33 People have definitely lost trust in the media because theyhave distorted the truth. I know a few people who lived there [in Grenfell Tower] who actually got out, and we know that there were hundreds of bodies. Clearly, with the way the fire took place, how can you then say there were only 80 people that died? Thats ridiculous. Hiding behind the truth is whats causing the anger. It feels like there has been a major cover-up. When theyre doing the interviews, theyre not sending out the truth it is being edited.
This editing is supporting the council as far as the public is concerned. Thats why a lot of people wont do interviews they wont talk to the media. Theyre biased, absolutely. Its definitely about class, this would not have happened in the rich side of Notting Hill.
Leyla, 21 I dont get my information from mainstream news sources, I get it from Twitter. There is no doubt in my mind that there has been a media cover-up [of the number of Grenfell Tower victims]. Everyone here knows there were 400-500 people living in that block. We know that you cant confirm numbers until youve got identities everyone knows thats how it works. Were not stupid. But thats not what people were asking for. People werent asking for identities, they were asking for numbers.
I think that a lot of news publications stuck with saying they couldnt confirm [numbers] because they didnt have dental records etc. We just wanted a true indication, to be treated like humans. We shouldnt always follow protocol, especially in these situations. Its disrespectful.
Interviews by Jade Cuttle