Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another sucker punch for newspapers

Great. It's just what we needed five days before Nick Davies rolls into town to persuade everybody - if they needed persuading - that newspapers are full of lies!

The author of Flat Earth News is in Leicester to speak to a meeting of Skeptics in the Pub with the promise that: 'A veteran reporter blows the whistle on his own profession, exposing the scale and origin of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the news.' I've read Nick's book (twice, as you ask,) and he has a list as long as your arm of examples of how papers get it wrong.

So, he doesn't need any help. But that hasn't stopped director Chris Atkins and his documentary film makers from loading Nick's gun with further ammo. I don't suppose there's much chance that he's missed the reports especially as the Guardian, the paper that employs him on a freelance contract, reported what was going on.

Chris Atkins and his team decided to test their theory that tabloid editors sometimes print stories about celebrities without checking them very much first. All right, without checking them at all. They set about ringing the Sun, Mirror, Star et al with completely false tip-offs and then sat back and laughed as the papers ran the stories without even vaguely checking if they were true.

Here's a taste of what happened according to the Guardian:
Their first call, on 18 March, concerned a fictional sighting of the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne asleep at the nightclub Bungalow 8.

The story appeared in the following day's Daily Mirror under the headline: "Avril Lavigne a lightweight at London clubbing". "After knocking back cocktails, the singer was found slumped across her table, snoring," the story noted. "Lightweight!"

Within a fortnight, almost every daily tabloid newspaper in the UK had published one of the Starsuckers team's bogus stories about the likes of Amy Winehouse, Pixie Geldof and Guy Ritchie. At times, the fake stories were reproduced by media outlets across the world, where they were presented to millions of readers as fact.


A story about singer Amy Winehouse's hair catching fire from a faulty fuse spread across the world after it was printed in the Mirror on 21 March under the headline "Amy Winehouse in hair fire drama". The Starsuckers researcher gave the newspaper fictional details of the story, which she said she had "heard" from an unnamed friend who was at the singer's house.

"Fuses blew as Wino jammed with mates at the house in north London – and sparks lit up her beehive," the Mirror reported. "We always knew you were a hothead, Amy."

What can I say? I'd like to say that it's the tabloids, that we wouldn't do it, but I know that's only tempting fate. I think we check more carefully than that ... and we sent out a link to the Guardian's story to all our staff this afternoon as a gentle reminder.

Fair play to Chris Atkins - he set about proving his point and proved it.

But wait a minute. There's a short video on the Guardian site with an interview with him in which he makes completely unsubstantiated claims which go far further than can possibly be stood up by his film ... and the Guardian lets him state these 'truths' without vaguely checking them or challenging him.

For example, Mr Atkins says: 'on no account were any of the stories fact checked.' Is that true? The Guardian gives a number of examples where various tabloids did not run the stories. Mr Atkins says his film shows 'exactly how little truth there is in the tabloid press.' I don't think it does that at all - it shows how easy it is to fool them into printing untruths, but that's not the same thing. And then, finally, he goes on to say that when it comes to celebrity stories in the tabloids 'nothing whatsoever is about the truth.' Again, his film simply does not prove that one way or another.

Which sort of brings me all the way back round to Nick Davies.

Because he's coming to Leicester next week, I thought I'd read his book again. I have to admit, I agree with a certain amount of what he says, but I can't help thinking that he's guilty of what he accuses papers of doing ... and of what Mr Atkins and the Guardian do in that video.

For example, as I drove home tonight, I was listening to a chapter from Nick's book (I bought it from Audible, a life-saver for anyone who has a daily commute) in which he casts a nostalgic eye back to the good old days and tells us about a journalist in the 60s who went off to a small Welsh town to report on a court case. While he was there he met journalists from all the other nationals. Nick's point is that these reporters went to where the story was and he contrasts that with an account of life on a regional daily paper today where a young reporter tells how he is tied to his desk. Nick goes on to say that this is one of the problems - reporters don't get out any more and nobody covers courts. They don't have time to make good contacts or find their own stories.

I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. It's a generalisation.

The Mercury still has two reporters whose only job is to cover courts - it's all they do. We also have two full-time council reporters, two full-time business reporters, a health correspondent, an education correspondent and a social affairs correspondent. None of these is tied to their desk. They all run their own diaries, find their own stories, cultivate their own contacts - they decide whether or not they are at their desks or out and about.

Much the same could be said about our district reporters as they pretty much set their own diaries. It's also true of our feature writers who nearly always suggest their own topics. It's less true of our general reporters, but that's at least in part because the newsdesk has stories that it wants covering - as do I, as Editor - and these are usually given to general reporters. We also have to make sure that various evening and weekend shifts are covered.

What's the point I'm making? I don't know, I guess I'm just hacked off that the tabloids get caught out so easily by people who want to pour scorn on them and it ends up reflecting badly on the whole media industry when you find those same people doing pretty much what they accuse the tabloids of.

But then again, may be I'm just hacked off!