Those who hoped for a settled start to the 2020s, in contrast to the intemperate and near-hysterical tone of the past decade, may be disheartened by the news of the imminent end of the world. The good news is that it’s possible to believe that the Labour leadership contest, the bushfires in Australia, or the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani – while important stories with potentially serious implications – do not necessarily herald the Apocalypse.

On social media, the least reliable and most extreme source of information, #WWIII was trending yesterday morning. Far from dismissing this hyperbole, digital Savonarola piled in to insist that things are even worse than they seem, which the public would know, were they not misled by the mainstream media, the BBC, Fox News, the “right-wing” press, and the usual suspects.

More sensible voices (there are still a few) suggested that the kind of exaggeration, partisan point-scoring, politically weaponised bots, peddling of faked memes, and echo-chamber reinforcement that unfortunately now characterise Twitter and other platforms were more likely to be the problem.

It is hard to say whether the erosion of public trust in news sources and public discourse more generally is a consequence of a more fractured and confrontational politics amplified, if not created, by naturally divisive issues such as Brexit and independence. But a reasoned debate on such subjects, as well as everyday priorities for government, cannot be had in such an atmosphere.

The structures by which reliable information about current events and debates – the “mainstream media” dismissed by conspiracists – used to be delivered has been put under enormous pressure by digital media. Their financial model has been utterly transformed, with inevitable consequences for resources and staffing.

In the face of that change, it is absurd that large tech companies, which are in effect publishers, should be exempt from the responsibilities and constraints under which traditional journalism operates – not least, to correct mistakes and downright falsehoods.

It is equally absurd that the BBC should maintain a dominant media position by dint of what is effectively a tax on the public, while competition from local news sources (as well as all manner of other areas, from exam revision to cookery and gardening tips) is squeezed out.

Even the Corporation’s admirers should recognise that its model is antiquated, and that its attempts to compete with Facebook, Netflix or Sky cannot continue on the current basis. None of this serves customers, or improves the electorate’s access to information that is both trustworthy, and seen to be trustworthy.

Nor, obviously, can that be left to those who shout loudest in the public arena. Honest public discourse requires a genuine free press, not activists posing as news organisations, such as Skwawkbox or Breitbart, nor vast international conglomerates with all the resources local papers and broadcasters lack, but no corresponding responsibilities.

Reasonable debate is being drowned out by the artificial amplification of the digital world, and the bloated dominance of public broadcasters like the BBC and Channel 4. They must be scaled back to their core function if they are to be held to account. The tech companies, too, must take responsibility for what they publish, as traditional media always has.

The availability of more information and more diverse voices ought to be a cause for celebration and a force for good, but that can happen only if sensible and reliable voices are not drowned out by ill-informed or malicious ones who happen to have a larger megaphone, and if the public assesses their relative worth on that basis.

House of hell

Boleskine House, the Loch Ness home of the occultist Aleister Crowley and later of his admirer, the guitarist Jimmy Page, has been bought. Restoring it looks like quite an undertaking, after it was gutted by fire. But they may also have to contend with Lord Lovat’s severed head and a history of suicides, mysterious noises and accidents. To say nothing of the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell summoned there by Crowley.