Anne Hailes: Are we really facing the facts when it comes to news these days?

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Anne Hailes with senior members of the British Cabinet in the early 70s. Fact or fiction? (Actually, a visit to Madam Tussaud’s wax museum)
Anne Hailes with senior members of the British Cabinet in the early 70s. Fact or fiction? (Actually, a visit to Madam Tussaud’s wax museum)

WHAT can we believe these days? It’s obvious we’re being fed misinformation – sometimes by accident, more often by intent – and Donald Trump, with his accusations of fake news, has brought the subject right into the limelight. Do we just ignore it? Do we challenge it?

Locally there is one organisation that has the answer. Enda Young and his partner Allan Leonard have set up FactCheckNI a Belfast-based company dedicated to passing on information as to how we can investigate news reports and photographs, especially on social media.

Faulty Flags

A good example was the day FactCheckNI received news that there was concern about pictures of flags being flown in Customs House Square but when they researched this the image it turned out to be a mix of flags flown in Dublin and Iran, cropped to cut out the tops of buildings. Dear knows what’s being sent to us online.

Thankfully there are people who are finding out where such fake news and pictures are coming from and exposing such false information.

FactCheckNI is unique in this part of the world but they are very much part of a worldwide movement all signed up to the International Fact Checking Network, an organisation that monitors trends, provides training resources and hosts a yearly conference, to be held in Rome this year, with participants from most countries including Enda and Allen representing the interests of Northern Ireland.

So important is the knowledge of how to recognise false news that FactCheckNI, established in 2016, has been holding workshops, including with youth forums, community groups, the University of Ulster and probably most importantly, in schools. More than 1,000 people have been trained. Full training in schools is free, at least until June – there may have to be a nominal fee thereafter but with funding from Building Change Trust, they hope this will not be necessary.

It amazes me how I might think of having a cup of Cadbury’s hot chocolate and suddenly ads for hot drinks will appear on my computer. Somewhere I must have messaged to someone "It’s a cold day – just right for a hot chocolate" and the inner workings of the internet have picked up on this and started to bombard me.

Same with holidays destinations and a million other things. It’s quite frightening but that’s the way organisations pick your brain and recruit your friends. What’s going on at Cambridge Analytica with its harvesting of personal information doesn’t bear thinking about. Brexit vote manipulated?

Enda cites Brexit and how it was possible for those opposed to source people with a low sense of self-esteem, unemployed, worried about migrants getting all the jobs and bombard them with false information – which could well effect their emotions and how they voted.

This is why research is all important. The Trump election has opened the doors of this insidious practice. Remember the controversy about the crowd numbers at his inauguration? Not much difference between false news and lying. At one time apparently the message went out on social media that the Pope was supporting Trump for president – it wasn’t true but did it sway people?

As Enda points out, fake news and propaganda go hand in hand and it has reached crisis point – fake news is six times more likely to spread than the truth.

“We take so much for granted these days and time is so short, we don’t bother checking facts. The digital age has exacerbated the situation, plus the fact that although there are 150 fact checking organisations in the world there are many more centres spewing out false information, the best known being the Russia Troll factory.”

An insider who worked at the St Petersburg centre has said Putin’s cyber army deployed wave after wave of fake news articles and divisive social media posts. Vitaly Bespalov has revealed many more details in his book War in 140 Characters.

1984 foretold the truth

It all sounds exactly like George Orwell’s forecast in his book 1984, also the terrifying story by Steven King called Night Shift where machinery and electronics take over the world and we are all subservient to their bidding. Sound familiar?

Thank goodness for reputable newspapers, I say. All will have their bias but it’s not a hidden fact – reporting has to stand up to scrutiny, pictures are usually taken by professional photographers, and sources are given and checked.

For all of us it’s important to know where to go to check material. is one invaluable source when it comes to verifying images and is another fact-checking organisation and of course FactCheckNI is always at your service –visit

Begs the question – did Neil Armstrong actually walk on the Moon?


WATCH out next Sunday – the place will be hiving with fake news. I once tried to alert the family that a valuable young horse had strayed through an open gate and was heading for the busy road. Everyone laughed. I was in tears and they told me I was a great actress. Talk about frustration, I couldn’t make them see I was serious. Why? I didn’t realise it was April 1. Thankfully someone gave me the benefit of the doubt and caught the animal just before it hit the highway.


THE Gambling Commission is making a gesture about reducing the stake money for betting machines, as if a £30 limit is going to make any difference to compulsive punters. They’d be better employed banning betting ads during afternoon horse racing and especially rugby matches when young schoolboys are glued to the screen.