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Hugo Rifkind says papers will swerve difficult subjects to 'avoid enraging parts of their readership' thanks to online 'outrage engine'

Times columnist Hugo Rifkind has criticised the so-called “outrage engine” which he said has seen newspapers move away from subjects which they fear will antagonise parts of their readership.

Fellow Times columnist Janice Turner was last month accused of contributing to a rise in trans suicides by a judge on the Comment Awards, in which Turner was nominated for Commentator of the Year.

Turner said the allegation showed “how toxic this debate has become”, and the Times withdrew all of its nominees from the awards.

Speaking at the Mindshare Huddle event in London last week, Rifkind urged journalists to be “brave and tolerant” and stick up for others in the industry.

He said there are people who write about trans issues in “nasty and incendiary ways” but that Turner is not one of them.

“I find what’s happened to her a really challenging glimpse of how media works when journalists decide to go along with the crowd and don’t stick up for journalists they know are being treated unfairly,” he said.

“Journalists need that kind of boldness, they need to write things they believe in and defend other people who write things they believe in.”

Rifkind added: “We’ve reached the stage where, as a journalist, if you publish something, the most salient response that comes back isn’t whether you’ve been right or wrong, it’s whether you’ve been approved or disapproved of.

“Papers will avoid tackling difficult subjects to avoid enraging parts of their readership they don’t want to enrage.”

Rifkind confessed that, a few months ago, he almost wrote a column against the idea of holding a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union – a subject on which he has since changed his mind.

But he decided not to write it because “I didn’t want to upset my side. I didn’t want to lose allies,” he said.

“That was cowardly but it’s what the systems make you do,” he said.

In terms of Brexit reporting, Rifkind repeated his earlier message to say “we are being brave enough, I’m not sure we are being tolerant enough”.

He also said we are “overdue” regulation about the systems social media companies can use, but warned against regulation of content.

“I have wrestled with this a lot,” he said. “I think platforms themselves need to be responsible for their content. I’m very wary of getting to a place where governments are directing what content they can and can’t publish.”

Rifkind added that he would be a “hypocrite” if he campaigned for state regulation of online content as he had campaigned “very hard” against state regulation of the press following the Leveson Inquiry.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is currently working with the Home Office to develop a white paper on legislation to tackle the misuse of online platforms for legal and illegal harms, from cyberbullying to online child sexual exploitation.

It will consider whether there should be an online code of practice underwritten by legislation.

But already users are becoming more “savvy” and “sensible” about where they get their content from, Rifkind said, adding: “I hope we will look back at the last four or five years and see that as the absolute peak of disinformation and news chaos – but I might be wrong.”

Picture: Mary Turner/The Times

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