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Alec Shelbrooke interview: ‘BBC has a duty to tackle the spread of fake news’

Alec Shelbrooke MP Elmet and Rothwell⬦pictured in Garforth   21st aril 2018
Alec Shelbrooke MP Elmet and Rothwell⬦pictured in Garforth 21st aril 2018
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It is now a ubiquitous term that can be heard in debates on Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn, social media to Russia, but for Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke the impact of ‘fake news’ was personal. Arj Singh reports.

“Fake news” may have been one leading dictionary’s word of the year for 2017, but Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke experienced his first brush with the phenomenon nearly two years ago in an incident which left him “exceptionally angry”.

They say the camera never lies, but an image of him leaning back in the Commons apparently with his eyes closed was not all it seemed.

The partially deaf Elmet and Rothwell MP was in 2015 wrongly accused of “resting his eyes” in a heated debate on trade union reforms, when in fact he was leaning back to put his ear to one of the speakers which line the famous green benches so he could hear a colleague’s contribution.

That the BBC Newsbeat “mindlessly” spread the false allegation online left him even more irate, and for the 42 year-old it is symptomatic of a new and troubling era in politics and the media.

And while Donald Trump accuses news outlets he does not like of “fake news” to attack reporting he does not agree with, it is difficult to argue with Mr Shelbrooke.

Alec Shelbrooke MP Elmet and Rothwell⬦pictured in Garforth   21st aril 2018

Alec Shelbrooke MP Elmet and Rothwell⬦pictured in Garforth 21st aril 2018

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In a Kent accent he retains despite two decades in Yorkshire, the MP says: “What the BBC did was not follow their own editorial guidelines of getting two sources of proof, and they lazily tweeted a lie and fake news.

“And the fake news agenda is undermining our politics in a very big way.

“It was an image manufactured by the left to try and undermine me, it’s been used in several ways, it was used again recently, it was put out there from the left, and it’s only got the credibility because the BBC tweeted it.

“Organisations like the BBC have a deep responsibility to tackle the fake news agenda, and just mindlessly tweeting blatant fake news undermines journalism as a whole.

“It worries me immensely.”

BBC Newsbeat apologised and corrected their error.

But the damage was done.

The meme even reappeared six weeks ago, posted by “the left” as Mr Shelbrooke puts it, during a row over free school meals.

“The left just put it into a meme and they put it out there, it was all about the free school meals stuff.

“So you know ‘he’s cutting free school meals to a million children whilst he’s asleep in the Commons’ - neither of those things are true.”

He adds: “It always will have the repercussions, they’ve done it, they’ve put it out there, they’ve given it credence.”

The BBC, Mr Shelbrooke says, has the power to tackle fake news online, amid growing concern at the content put out by online blogs from the left and right such as The Canary and Westmonster.

“They’ve got platforms in terms of BBC Three, which is online, they’ve got Twitter accounts, it was a BBC Twitter account which did this through Newsbeat,” he says.

“They have a responsibility as a public service broadcaster to actually put faith in news and what news you can have faith in.

“Jumping on the bandwagon is not going to do anybody any favours in the long run.”

How to spot fake news – an expert’s guide for young people

Unlike some MPs, Mr Shelbrooke has no truck with attacks on the “mainstream media”.

As a Tory, he says he was “terrified” by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s message that “change is coming” to the press, describing it as “one of the most sinister things I’ve ever seen”.

And he has one piece of advice for young people struggling to know what to believe online - read the newspapers, not only because they meet the acid test of being suable, but because the standards are higher.

“Online not only do you need to find different sources, you need to find totally different sources not within the echo chamber,” he says.

“My advice would be if you really want to know what’s going on, go and buy the printed press.”

The fake news incident coming during a debate on trade unions must have been particularly galling for an MP who describes himself as a “blue collar” Tory and a “Conservative trade unionist”.

“I was a sole trader, I fitted kitchens and bathrooms for a while, so when I say blue collar I mean it,” Mr Shelbrooke says.

“I was down there and did that, I’ve swept factory floors and I’ve been a naval officer, there’s a range of stuff I’d done, I went to comprehensive school, that’s my background.”

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He has used his position to campaign over four years for a clampdown on unpaid internships, and is effusive in his praise of Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to help workers, although he wants her to go further by forcing companies who employ work experience for more than 28 days to pay them the minimum wage.

But following criticism of Mrs May for scrapping plans to put workers on company boards, he admits Brexit is all consuming.

“I don’t think it’s about backing away, I think it’s about the fact that we are in the process right now of going through the biggest constitutional and economic change this country has ever been through,” he says.

“And until that is done, other things need to just be put on the backburner.”

But he insists the PM “gets it, she totally and utterly gets” the blue collar agenda.

“When I’ve had conversations with her about what I would call the blue collar agenda and the meritocracy, I know that I’m just preaching to the choir,” he says.

‘Treat all immigrants equally’

Britain must treat European Union nationals exactly the same as migrants from the rest of the world after Brexit, Conservative former Remainer Alec Shelbrooke says.

His comments came amid rumblings that Theresa May could give EU citizens favourable immigration status after the post-Brexit transition period to win concessions on trade.

The Elmet and Rothwell MP stresses: “Everybody should be treated the same way, if you’re getting a work visa it’s about making sure everybody is treated equally.

“Within and without the Commonwealth, within and without the EU, it’s about making sure that people who want to come to Britain are all treated equally.”