9 July 2003 – Cutting through the acres of newsprint and airtime devoted to the current debacle between Downing Street and the BBC – the message for journalists (and their editors) is simple – get back to basics.
At some time in our careers we have all had THAT call – a well-connected someone with sensational information that could wreck the career of a public official/politician/business tycoon.
The tempting scent of the biggest story ever oozes from the phone…but it is the stench of corruption. It only takes a few short, sharp jabs from the news editor to puncture our initial pride at having picked up a ‘scoop’. What evidence is on offer? No documents? No leads? Don’t you realise that as soon as you try this story out on someone else you have started a rumour running?
Suddenly you appreciate why the journalist’s first line of approach should always be ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ Everyone has a motive. That doesn’t mean what they say to you is necessarily untrue, it’s just that they also have a reason for telling YOU – and ‘the public interest’ often comes second to some personal motive, often vindictive.
The lesson – never rely on a single source, do nothing without hard evidence, and always check the story behind the story – who gains and who loses?
This approach should apply whether you are reporting allegations for The Sun that asylum-seekers, refugees, ‘illegals’ or ‘East European gangs’ are poaching and barbecuing protected birds and fish, or if you work for the BBC and get the whisper that a security briefing has been manipulated by the Government to justify going to war against Iraq. ‘Off diary’ stories generated through personal contacts are often the best, but the same rules apply. Defend your source, but check it first.
The lobby system takes the whispering campaign to new depths since the motives of all concerned are suspect. Lobby journalists want to prove that they are ‘in the know’ and the Government has every reason float rumours to smoke out opposition or bury opponents.
The security services have a long and ignoble record in this regard. Remember the brand of public relations known as Psy-ops employed to devastating effect during the Troubles in Northern Ireland?? And after ‘9/11’ that well-known wheeler-dealer Donald Rumsfeld wanted to set up a department specifically to deceive the public (through the media).
We are all the losers when journalists play along with the ‘secrecy’ game. Lives and livelihoods can be at stake. The root of the Blair/BBC/Campbell debacle is rumour. Facts can usually be stood up – and there are ways of protecting genuine whistle-blowers (Public Concern at Work was set up for precisely that reason).
If an unsubstantiated rumour has the whiff of truth, one of the oldest journalistic tricks is to put it to the accused and publish the denial.
An ‘unattributable source’, whose motive may seem quite honourable, must nonetheless be treated with as much caution and scepticism as the pub bore. Blair and the BBC only have themselves to blame for the current crisis of confidence. But those who died in Iraq, and the asylum-seekers, refugees and other immigrants (and their children) who suffer as a result of the never-ending onslaught of unchecked allegations published with impunity by the tabloids, deserve better of journalism.
As recipients of daily ‘dodgy dossiers’ of news, we should all be eligible to complain about shoddy journalism, but will the media regulators be prepared to step into either of these minefields?
Director, The PressWise Trust
(Bulletin No 88)