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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Finding news has never been easier. Finding information we can trust is much more difficult

After 20 years of 24-hour news on the BBC, there is much to celebrate, and much to beware, writes Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler and Maxine Mawhinney presenting on the BBC's 24-hour news channel. Jeff Overs / BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images
Gavin Esler and Maxine Mawhinney presenting on the BBC's 24-hour news channel. Jeff Overs / BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

Twenty years ago this week I was sitting in a TV studio in west London waiting to be the first voice on the BBC’s first 24-hours-a-day news channel. Nowadays along with BBC World, the BBC News channel is the spine of much of the BBC’s journalism.

The United States got there first, pioneering 24-hour news channels several years earlier, and all were greeted with derision. CNN was known as the “Chicken Noodle Network”, but gained huge respect in the 1991 Gulf War. Nowadays the triumph of 24-hour news everywhere round the world is taken for granted. At the launch of our BBC station, I was hopeful that TV news would become like electricity or running water, something that was always available, but at the same time something that would transform the way we receive and process information. Legions of naysayers complained at the launch about “too much news”. There are many arguments that can be made against 24-hour news: it can be repetitive, speed may mean accuracy is compromised, it takes money away from other projects, but the idea of “too much” news was always plain stupid. Nobody complains that a library has “too many books”. Nobody expects to read them all. And anyone who watches all news all the time is deserving of pity.

But what has changed in the 21st century, with so many TV channels, is that viewers recognise only two things really need to be live and immediate: sport and news. Nobody is interested in last night’s football match if the team is playing again tonight. News is the same. When something important happens, people first want to know “what’s the latest?” and hear any background information later.

But in those 20 years since we started, something else has changed. In some countries TV news is considered a public service, in which broadcasters have a duty to be fair, balanced and accurate. In other countries, the United States is an obvious example, anything goes. Fox News has enthusiastic viewers, but it is also widely ridiculed as not being news at all. It isn’t. It is the Republican Party talking to itself and its voters. Other stations, Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today or RT, provide a similar service, though service is not the correct word. These two are essentially propaganda outlets for the Iranian and Russian governments. But there are also hugely impressive networks that celebrate their country's culture in a way unimaginable in the last century, including impressive TV channels from the US, Germany, France, China, across the Arab world and elsewhere.

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The big question TV executives often ask themselves is whether all these news stations can survive. Most will, I suspect. But the far bigger question is how as viewers we can process all this information. Google was founded in September 1998, a year after the BBC launched its news channel. Then along came Wikipedia and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram plus all the other millennial creations that have changed our information world.

When I started in journalism in Belfast, Northern Ireland, information was rationed. Every few hours a TV channel, radio station or newspaper would publish something that its editors thought fit for us to see, hear or read. But since 24-hour news, Google and all the other internet-based creations, we have all become our own editors. Information rationing has ended, and ended forever. Almost all of us can access almost anything almost all the time. Yet this new world of information super-abundance produces new problems. We have so much choice, but what can we really trust? And how do we know we can trust it? A recent study found that many of us have begun to trust social media much less than a few years ago. That’s good. We should be more sceptical of the information deluge which surrounds us.

Finding news has never been easier. Finding news, facts and information we can wholeheartedly trust is much more difficult. I trust this newspaper, obviously, and many other newspapers around the world, including the New York Times and The Times of London. I trust the BBC, and many other broadcasters, some state-owned, some owned by shareholders or rich proprietors. But I do not trust Fox News, Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV and many other supposed “news” sources. Anyone who wholeheartedly trusts these networks lacks scepticism or common sense.

Fox News, for example, interviewed a supposed “expert” who claimed a major British city, Birmingham, was essentially a no-go area to anyone except Muslims. Despicable nonsense. Fox also claimed the British National Health Service has “death panels”, groups of bureaucrats who decide whether patients lived or died. This propagandist twaddle was directed at undermining Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms. So after more than 20 years of 24-hour news, there is much to celebrate, and much to beware. Facts exist. So do lies. The secret is to know the difference. Remember that now you choose your news. It’s wise to choose carefully.