The Truth Shall Make You
AN ANTIDOTE FOR ANTI-JOURNALISM
“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”
Mark Twain (allegedly)
The months of July and August are, by journalistic tradition, the silly season: the time when Parliament goes on its long summer holiday, and newspapers and television focus on whatever nonsense is the year’s version of skateboarding ducks. This year is very different. This past fortnight has, by any standard, been an extraordinary one for news. Unfortunately, it has also been a lousy one for journalism.
Twain’s (alleged) aphorism has been worn as a metaphorical a badge of, er, honour by journalists for as long as I have been in the trade (38 years). It has been used to convey an image of a business which is happy to indulge in gentle self-mockery.
But Twain (or whoever really coined the phrase) was speaking in an age long before 24 hour rolling news, Twitter, Facebook and the obsession that being first with a story is more important than being accurate. Today, more effort is expended on the delivery of “instant news” than on checking the facts. Result: never let the facts get in the way of a rolling story.
A couple of choice examples, from a depressingly crowded field.
Exhibit One: “Brickgate”. On July 12, the day after Angela Eagle announced that she would challenge Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the Labour Party, a brick was thrown through the window of her constituency office.
Within hours, the conclusion being explicitly drawn was that this was an attack by sinister “Corbynistas”, bent on intimidating anyone who dared to oppose the Labour leader.
The Labour MP, Tom Blenkinsop tweeted: “Angela Eagle’s office window bricked. Barriers erected outside Labour HQ in prep for intimidation of NEC by demonstrators. Labour under Corbyn”. While in the Commons, Speaker of the House John Bercow warned: “If people think they are going to get their way by violence, threats and intimidation, they will soon find themselves wrong.”
This line was then taken up by journalists as further evidence for their oft-repeated line that Corbyn’s supporters are out of control, and that he is either unable or unwilling to control them. The Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges (Twitter handle: @DPJHodges) tweeted, for example: “How many bricks were thrown through windows at the start of the Tory leadership contest. How many death and rape threats were issued.”
And yet the facts are that no message – political or otherwise – was attached to the brick by the thrower, no-one has claimed responsibility for chucking it and the police have yet to identify any potential suspect, much less establish a motive. At the moment there is simply absolutely no evidence that this was anything other than petty vandalism.
Exhibit Two: “Tridentgate”. On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted by a substantial majority to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. For anyone who cares about good (for which read: “real”) journalism – let alone about the need for Britain to have nuclear weapons – there were two depressing aspects to the reporting of this.
The first was Theresa May’s pronouncement that more than ever before Britain faced “extreme threats” which made Trident (and its replacement) vital weapons in the country’s armoury.
There was one, simple question which needed to be asked of Ms. May: ‘Could you please identify – by name – any one of these threats which might be deterred by the fear of a nuclear weapons response ?’. Not a single journalist put this question to the Prime Minister (or indeed anyone voting for Trident renewal). The claim was simply reported, unchecked and unexamined. And yet the fact is that none of the threats which Britain genuinely faces can be addressed with nuclear weapons.
How do we know this ? Because that’s what some of the country’s most senior retired generals have explicitly stated. In 2009, the former head of the armed forces, Field Marshall Lord Bramall (backed by several other equally experienced officers) wrote to a letter to The Times explaining that:
“Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism …Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics.”
The second depressing aspect of the reporting of the Trident debate was the description of Labour MPs voting for renewal as a “rebellion” or a “mutiny” against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Since Corbyn had explicitly given Labour MPs a free vote – to follow, as he did, their own consciences rather than obey a party line – it is simply impossible for this to be a rebellion or a mutiny. And yet this is how almost every mainstream news outlet reported it: the facts were not allowed to get in the way of the story.
This is not journalism – or at last, not as I know it. Instead of careful, responsible fact-checking it is the mis-informing – by omission or commission – of the public. How does this happen ? It’s time to talk about “the top line”.
The contents of news broadcasts and newspapers for any given day are decided in regular news conferences within each organisation. Here stories are pitched, discussed and either given the go-ahead or rejected. Talk (privately) to any journalist involved in this process and before long he, or she, will talk about “the top line”. This is, in essence, the existing narrative and how any proposed new story fits into that. So, for example, the “top line” about Corbyn’s supporters is that they are out of control and, at times, abusive. Any new story has to fit within those established parameters: if it doesn’t, it most likely will not get a green light.
But the factual accuracy of the existing narrative itself is never questioned, and the evidence for it is never assessed. In this way it becomes unchallenged and unchallengeable – even when it is simply wrong.
This is not strictly a new phenomenon. It was, for example, the driving factor behind the utterly incorrect public perception of the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis in 1988 [my documentary about this can be viewed on the films pages of this website]. But rolling news ‘reporting’, and the perceived need to be first, has turned what was once an occasional aberration into the most dominant factor in today’s bad journalism. It no longer matters whether a statement or a comment is factually correct. It is enough that it has been made: as such it ‘must’ be reported.
There is a solution to this – an antidote to this anti-journalism. Most obviously it involves closing down the BBC’s rolling news output – television, radio and Twitter. The BBC’s isn’t the only such operation, of course: but it is the most widely consumed and thus the most influential. The money saved could usefully be spent on real journalism.
But just as importantly, all news organisations need to embark on a major re-think of their output. Look at any newspaper and the line between fact and opinion has been almost completely eroded. News stories are light on fact and heavy on comment.
Broadcasters have followed this trend by instituting live ‘chats’ with their specialist editors and correspondents. At Westminster, Laura Kuenssberg for the BBC or Robert Peston for ITV are routinely asked to give their opinions on the top line of a political story, rather than reporting the facts. Outside the Parliamentary bubble, reporters on location are now habitually asked for their “sense” of what “the mood” of those involved in or affected by the story. No facts are ever invoked and, as often as not, this “sense of the mood” has been decided on not by the reporter on the ground but by the news conference in London. The correspondent on location is simply told to tell the viewers what the unseen editors back at base have decided.
(Lest anyone doubt this, I have witnessed it at first hand. While making two independent investigative films for Sky News in 2005 and 2006, I saw the channel’s Washington DC bureau chief repeatedly receive e-mails from London giving him – chapter and verse – the contents of his supposedly first person ‘reports’ on events in the United States. He dutifully ‘reported’ these from the top of the bureau building in what was cheerily known as ‘rooftop journalism’. In truth it was no more than the promulgation of established narratives – the top lines – made to appear as if it was genuine reporting.)
This matters. It matters because journalists have a duty both to present to the public factually accurate information, and to hold up to serious scrutiny the lies which those who rule this country – whether in Parliament or in business – try to get away with. Once both of these duties were the norm. Today they are the exceptions rather than the rule. And the public is being deceived.
As Mark Twain also wrote: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed”.
 Appropriately for this post on accurate reporting, there is no reliable evidence for the popular belief that Twain ever said this.
 In today’s infantilized media landscape, every controversy must be tagged with the suffix “–gate”. Readers of this blog are warned that it may contain heavy irony.