Cheap at the price

18 July 2008 – What could be more damaging than to be accused of paedophilia, child abduction and lying?  To have those untrue allegations bruited about to some 50 million people with no chance of repudiation, perhaps.

During the media scramble for stories (for ‘stories’ read ‘sales’) about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal last year, eleven British newspapers – the Daily Mail, Evening Standard and Metro; the Daily & Sunday Express and Daily Star; the Sun and News of the World and the Daily and Sunday Mirror – published over 100 stories based around these charges. Now those falsely accused – Robert Murat, Sergey Malinka, and Michaela Walczuch – are to share some £800,000 in damages. They deserve far more.

Such is the global nature of news today that within no time the stories were all over the internet, making Robert Murat the most reviled man in Europe. Would British newspapers, that pride themselves on being world leaders in journalism, dare to print such allegations without having thoroughly checked them? Of course. There are no holds barred when competition is fierce.

How ironic that the competitive instincts that fuelled their collective “reckless disregard for the truth” were quickly forgotten when faced with the likelihood of massive legal costs. The board rooms at Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, News International, and MGN will be full of glee at the savings they made by combining forces for a climb-down in the courts.

But we all know it will happen again. The lure of the loot is just too great. Another sensational story, another intense investment in wall-to-wall coverage – and truth will fall by the wayside.

Under the pressure to perform, fast and furiously, it is easier to supply the copy the newsroom wants than to acknowledge your responsibilities to their readers. Ethics go out the window at the very sniff of a scoop or an angle no-one else has tried.

To err is human, but to correct errors quickly and apologise is also evidence of the humanity that readers should expect of the journalists who are supposed to act as their eyes and ears.

It wouldn’t hurt the newsrooms of the nationals to devote an hour of two to hearing about the human consequences of inaccurate and unfair stories. It might wake them up to the cynicism members of the public often express about the trustworthiness of journalists.

It would be good for business too. Not only might it help to keep damages down, it might also save people from the damage cased by cheap and nasty journalism.

Mike Jempson

(Bulletin No 149)

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