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Media manipulation and issues of trust

Editor's Viewpoint

It is difficult to resist a smirk at the Alliance Party being caught out trying to manipulate a BBC current affairs programme. The sight of a party that often accuses others of low standards falling off its own sanctimonious perch into the same moral morass is funny.

But when we have had our fun at Alliance's expense we must then examine the implications of this story exposed by this newspaper.

Alliance said it was able to pack a current affairs phone-in programme last year with fake callers, and hoped to do the same during this election campaign.

Of course, we know that all political parties are in the business of news management. That is why they employ so many spin doctors. However, perhaps naively, we don't expect them to go to the lengths of getting party supporters to ring up broadcasters on the pretence that they are merely concerned citizens.

That results in the programme content being skewed. The callers are expected to give their own party representatives an easy time with soft questions while really laying into opposition politicians.

One immediate effect of this disclosure will be further cynicism on the part of the electorate. While the public may not hold many politicians in high esteem, they expect them to adhere to some standards of behaviour.

We have heard much in recent times - mostly from President Trump - about fake news. Alliance has been caught trying to create its own agenda by dubious means.

The controversy also undermines faith in one of the cornerstones of the media, the BBC, which for many decades was viewed as among one of the finest news outlets.

While it has to be admitted that it can be difficult to ensure every caller to live phone-in shows is who they say they are, there is certainly merit in the calls for the BBC to examine past broadcasts to ascertain if they were manipulated in a similar way.

It cannot simply put its head in the sand and hope that the issue is overtaken by something else. The broadcaster should be answerable to its licence payers, who regard it as an impartial news outlet. That is what it built its reputation on. Once tarnished, even if it is by the actions of others, reputation is difficult to restore.

In its simplest form, if the public cannot trust what they read or hear in the media, then we are all in trouble.

This may have all the ingredients of an old Ealing farce, but with serious implications.

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