Dispelling the truth with a tempest of words

First things first. It is most remiss of me not to have acknowledged James Higham’s laudatory remarks in the latest of his regular Saturday blogfocus commentaries:

One year this blog has been going and how many blogs have we seen falling by the wayside in that time, coming back with a flourish and then fading away again? What’s it take to keep at it, to be consistent and never give way to the blues? These eight bloggers could tell you…

7. Unity is the scourge of the right but one thing undeniable is that he does his homework:

Scourge of the right? Who? Me..?

Still, this does provide a good excuse for correcting another omission by adding James’ blog, ‘Nourishing Obscurity‘, to the blogroll.

Meanwhile the venerable Britblog review keeps on rolling, all the way to issue #131, hosted by Matt Wardman, who poses something of a challenge to regular readers:

And one to prime you for next week – a very important story that has received very little coverage. The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that it will regulate the online versions of printed publications (i.e., newspaper websites). This has implications for bloggers – as it effectively splits the online commentary marketplace into regulated and unregulated sections. That raises a lot of questions, which I hope will get picked up this week. The full story – which all bloggers should study – is in the Independent.

The story may well raise some interesting questions, the Indy’s coverage doesn’t. In fact it amounts to little more than the usual journalistic sneering about the rapidly burgeoning medium of ‘citizen journalism’, even though the ‘citizen’ element of the story is largely a superficial one as the complaint at the centre of the story related to the inappropriate use of a bit of amateur video by the MSM, specifically the Hamilton Advertiser, Scottish Sun and Scottish Daily Mirror:

Old-style Fleet Street watchdog the Press Complaints Commission(PCC) has bared its teeth in the brave new world of citizen journalism. Every major news event from the London bombings in 2005 to the recent Mississippi bridge disaster has been recorded by amateurs using mobile phone video cameras, with newspapers and magazines standing in line to upload the best and bloodiest footage on to their websites.

By upholding a complaint against the Hamilton Advertiser, the PCC has made its first ruling on audio-visual content and sparked an industry-wide debate on the best way to police the largely untamed frontiers of the internet.

A 16-year-old pupil at John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton, near Glasgow, used her mobile phone to take a video of her fellow pupils misbehaving in class. The Hamilton Advertiser, a local paper, not only ran the story in print but also uploaded the video on to its website.

Two other papers, The Scottish Sun and the Scottish Daily Mirror, also used images from the video to illustrate stories concerning lax school discipline.

The president of the school’s parents’ and teachers’ association, Laura Gaddis, lodged a complaint against all three publications on the grounds the newspapers had not obtained permission to use the images.

But the PCC only upheld the complaint against the Hamilton Advertiser. It judged that the other two publications had made sufficient efforts to hide the identities of the pupils shown in the video.

Despite taking the plunge into the digital arena there remains something rather quaint and out of touch reality about the PCC’s own view of its actions:

A PCC spokesman told The Independent on Sunday that it is already facing criticism on this front. But he added that the PCC believes that, far from diminishing the effectiveness of print brands online, it gives them a distinct advantage.

“The PCC offers newspapers and magazines what is effectively a quality Kitemark. It assures readers that the material they are viewing can be checked for accuracy as well as for unwarranted intrusion.

“Most of the complaints we investigate relate to accuracy. Many publications run our logo online to differentiate themselves from unregulated news services,” said the spokesman.

I beg your pardon?

The MSM may have its ‘kitemark’, its voluntary regulatory code and its complaints procedures but – and its very big ‘but’ as far as I’m concerned – if one thing has become plainly apparent in the two and a half years or so that I’ve been blogging its that when it comes to comparing the ethical standards of the MSM with those of the vast majority of established Brit-bloggers, then its us bloggers who are routinely winning the ‘argument’ hands down.

Where does one begin to catalogue the ethical shortcomings of the MSM?

Copyright theft is, fortunately for certain media organisations, outside the purview of the PCC, but from the Daily Mail’s two-page ‘lift’ of material from the blog of PC Coppperfield: –

With 46% of the vote, Peter Wright, as Editor, takes the rap for the most outrageous and blatant piece of plagiarism of the year. Across two pages he cut ‘n pasted the writings of “PC Copperfield” of the Policeman’s blog. In the blogging Copper’s own words, “The Mail on Sunday never even asked… bastards“.

…to the plundering of Beau Bo D’or and other members of B3TA by the likes of Emap and IPC, the MSM has shown a flagrant disregard for the basic intellectual property rights of bloggers when it suits them, which means pretty much any time they’re short of a bit of content and too lazy/time-pressured to come up with something of their own.
Accuracy and misrepresentation most certainly do fall within the remit of the PCC and yet where was their much vaunted code of practice when Owen Barder was subjected to an outrageous and wholly unwarranted hatchet job by Simon ‘lying scumbag‘ Walters of the Daily Mail?

Nowhere.

And then there was The Sun’s tawdry tale of Muslim vandals picking on ‘Our Boys’ in Windsor…

MUSLIM yobs who wrecked a house to stop four brave soldiers moving in after returning from Afghanistan sparked outrage last night.

The house in a village near riot-torn Windsor had BRICKS thrown through windows and was DAUBED with messages of hate.

Four young Household Cavalry officers who had planned to rent it were also the target of phone THREATS.

They were yesterday forced to look elsewhere to live — after top brass warned them against inflaming racial violence near the Queen’s Windsor Castle home.

All complete rubbish, of course, as The Sun eventually admitted… some three months later:-

Following our report ‘Hounded out’ about a soldier’s home in Datchet, Berks, being vandalised by Muslims, we have been asked to point out no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or religious group was responsible for the incident.

…on a completely different (and unconnected) page to the original story, which still appears on The Sun’s website in an entirely uncorrected form and without any reference to the later retraction of the ‘Muslim yobs’ allegation.

Until it was overtaken by ‘feral youth’ stories, this silly season’s hot moral panic looked set to be ‘reefer madness’ following the publication of a meta-analysis in the Lancet that was woefully misrepresented, from the outset, in the broadsheets…

Smoking cannabis increases the risk of schizophrenia by at least 40% according to research which indicates that there are at least 800 people suffering serious psychosis in the UK after smoking the drug.

Increases the risk of schizophrenia by 40% from what?

What is the risk of developing schizophrenia if you don’t smoke cannabis, and does that risk apply evenly across the whole population or is contingent on other causal or contributory factors that modify the level of base risk according to individual circumstances? Is this 40% figure a measure of the increase in annual risk or lifetime risk?

Without any of that additional information, the assertion that smoking cannabis increases the risk of developing schizophrenia by 40% is entirely meaningless, even if the quoted figure is true. You simply cannot make an informed evaluation of personal risk from such a statement unless you can assess the percentage increase in risk against a known baseline figure.

Still the Guardian article was a paragon of journalistic virtue by comparison to the line taken by both The Sun and The Daily Mail, who both pronounced that smoking just one spliff raised the risk of mental illness by 40% – the research published in the Lancet said nothing of the sort, nor could such a conclusion be reasonably arrived at on the basis of the analytical techniques used in its compilation (even if these had been correctly reported, which they weren’t), not that the little matter of accuracy was going to be permitted to intrude on a good scare story, so good, in fact, that the tabloid fiction of ‘one spliff = 40% increased risk of mental illness’ has since been repeated as fact in the broadsheets.

It’s worth noting what the PCC’s code of conduct states on the subject of accuracy:

Accuracy

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, mis-leading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

One wonders, sometimes, whether parts of the press are even capable of distinguishing clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Cast around most of the established bloggers – check the sidebar for links to some of (in my opinion) the best – and you’ll find example after example of occasions when the MSM have been pulled up short for making basic errors of fact or misrepresenting stories to suit their preferred political agenda and yet when challenged by their own regulator over their ethical shortcomings they persist with the fiction of their own superiority over bloggers:-

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, agrees that newspapers and magazines should do all they can to maintain the quality of their brand on the internet.

“Publications just cannot operate on the basis that the internet offers open access to any kind of material with no control. This may be true of certain parts of the internet but not for newspapers and magazines,” said Mr Satchwell, who edited the Cambridge Evening News for 15 years.

He said that the internet age is entering a new era which will favour the websites of more traditional publications.

“The internet has been flooded with a huge amount of material of varying quality. But things are beginning to settle down as people come to realise the value of information that comes from a reliable source. The newspapers’ big online advantage is their brand,” said Mr Satchwell.

He added that, although the Society of Editors is generally opposed to the over-policing of internet content, the PCC’s Code of Practice performs a valuable function.

“I believe that the code is setting a benchmark that can only enhance the brands of newspapers and magazines online. The biggest issue online is creating credibility. You cannot develop a significant audience online until you establish credibility. Organisations signed up to the PCC do have credibility since the information they publish is open to scrutiny,” Mr Satchwell said.

Well yes. Quite. Credibility and reputation do matter – in fact as a blogger that (and posting material that some find interesting) is all that I’ve got to sustain interest in the things I write – my budget simply doesn’t run to TV adverts, online bingo and CD give-aways, in fact it doesn’t even run to covering me for publishing bullshit and hiding behind a lawyer in order to cover my arse. Like other bloggers I stand or fall on my reputation, and my reputation alone.

To suggest, as the PCC does, that the choice facing consumers is between a regulated (and credible) MSM and unregulated (and much less credible) bloggers is to put forward a false dichotomy that suits only their own interest. As bloggers we may not have a written code of practice, or a regulatory body to enforce one, but blogging is far from being ‘unregulated’. The combination of the immediacy and interactivity of the medium – get something factually wrong and it’ll generally be pointed out in comments in a matter of minutes – and the overriding importance of reputation and personal credibility ensures that blogging operates within a framework of self-regulation in which the expected ethical standards of behaviour are often considerably higher than those in use by much of the MSM.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in regards to handling of interaction with readers.

Like many bloggers I make of point of not censoring comments posted to this blog, beyond the routine removal of spam, no matter how bizarre or abusive they might get from time to time. Moreover I would never dream of removing or censoring a comment simply because it demonstrated that I’d made a mistake or posted something that was factually inaccurate – depending on whether the matter at hand is one of a difference of opinion or a verifiable fact, I’ll either defend my position, acknowledge the point of dispute or, if necessary, make an appropriate correction. I’m under no express obligation to do any of those things. I do them because, in the first instance, I consider them to constitute fair and honest dealing with the people who read my work and, secondly, because such an approach, I feel, serves to enhance and sustain my personal reputation as a blogger and I’ve found, from experience, that even amongst bloggers who might vehemently disagree with some of my views, that little bit of honesty applied to my dealings with readers is sufficient to ensure that I enjoy a fairly good reputation and a measure of respect, much as there are any of bloggers of whom I take a reciprocal view.

Now consider, by way of contrast, The Sun’s actions in regards the ‘Muslim vandals’ story I cited earlier.

The information that debunked their claim of Muslim involvement in the vandalism of the property in question was published in a local newspaper within a week of the appearance of the original story, this being the primary source I used to debunk the Sun’s overheated claims.

On the same day as I posted my article on this story, I also e-mailed Julie Moult, the reporter whose byline and e-mail address appeared on the story, pointing out the factual errors in The Sun’s coverage and requesting that it should be corrected to reflect this new information – I got no reply.

The Sun finally took action only after a complaint to the PCC by a Mr Imran Ahmed of Huddersfield:-

Publication: The Sun

Complaint:
Mr Imran Ahmed of Huddersfield complained that an article in the newspaper was inaccurate when it claimed that Muslim yobs had wrecked a house intended for soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

Resolution:

The complaint was resolved when the newspaper published the following correction setting out the true position:

BARRACK ATTACK
Following our report ‘ Hounded out’ about a soldiers’ home in Datchet, Berks, being vandalised by Muslims, we have been asked to point out no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or religious group was responsible for the incident. We are happy to make this clear.

It’s interest to note that the PCC considers the complaint ‘resolved’ even though the article that spawned this complaint still appears on The Sun’s website without any amendments having been made to reflect the paper’s retraction of the allegations of Muslim involvement and without anything appearing on that page to indicate that a retraction had been made – that’s the power of regulation for you.

A blogger who tried to pull the same kind of stunt to cover their arse on such a mistake would be roundly slaughtered by their peers (other bloggers) for failing to deal honestly with their error – and yet we’re the one’s supposedly lacking credibility.

Similarly, in the case of the Mail’s hatchet job on Owen Barder, the article that appeared (and still appears) online included the facility to post comments, which several bloggers did, all pointing out that the article was factually inaccurate and seriously misrepresented the content of Owen’s blog (now closed), not least in attributing comments posted by readers to Owen himself. As can be seen, if you follow the link, none of these comments made it through the Mail’s moderation system – in fact at one point shortly after the story started the spread amongst bloggers, the Mail removed the comments facility from the article entirely, only to reinstate it later when it was pointed out (by bloggers) that this, itself, amounted to blatant dishonesty.

This is by no means an isolated occurrence – there are several recorded examples where critical comments from bloggers, especially comments that directly challenge the accuracy of stories published by the MSM, have disappeared into the moderation system never to see the light of day, and this in an industry whose code of practice states:-

2. Opportunity to reply

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.

For bloggers, a ‘fair opportunity to reply’ means an open-access comments system and the publication of comments (at least) under the original article and without censorship or alteration. In much of the MSM, a fair opportunity to reply means that you can file a complaint with the PCC, wait a minimum of two to three months for the complaint to be investigated and then, perhaps, get a three-to-four line retraction printed well out of the way at the bottom of page sixteen under a couple of uninteresting stories pulled from the file marked ‘Filler – for use on slow news days’.

I could go on to catalogue several other obvious shortcomings one finds within the MSM pretty much as a matter of routine – Heather Yaxley, whose own commentary on this issue is cited by Matt in the Britblog review, correctly notes the propensity of the MSM for uncritical parroting of material supplied by press agents:-

In the case of newspapers, there is a lot to be questioned in respect of the accuracy of many of their more sensationalist stories – which have often been “crafted” by press agents, such as Max Clifford (famously ““).

This kind of ‘cut and paste’ journalism is by no means confined only to ‘celebrity’ stories in the tabloids – take the Indy’s recent coverage of a new ‘miracle’ hay fever cure, which I extensively fisked here. Looking back over the original article published by the Indy it seems perfectly apparent to me that the entirely piece amounts to nothing more than a near verbatim repetition of the content of a press release put out by the pharmaceutical company responsible for this new drug. As such, the question here is not just one of accuracy but of the blurring of the lines between news reporting and advertising – for several days after posting this article I was getting search engine hits on my blog all of which posed the same question, ‘where can I get ….’, which to me suggests that at the very least one could reasonably consider the article in question an ‘advertorial’ even if it wasn’t marked as such by the Indy.

Such practices, which seem increasingly common in health journalism, appear to fall largely (and maybe entirely) outside the brief of the PCC – I would assume that any concerns about the blurring of the lines between advertising and news reporting could be referred to the Advertising Standards Authority, although its unclear if (and how) the ASA might approach such an issue if it were raised.

For all the both the Press Complaints Commission and the Society of Editors would have us believe that the presence of voluntary regulation marks out a genuine dividing line between bloggers and the MSM and, moreover, enhances the credibility of professional journalism, in practice it seems that not only are the self-regulatory practices of bloggers vastly superior to anything that the newspaper industry’s existing regulatory code has to offer but that, at its best, blogging is substantially more effective in calling the MSM to account when it standards and practices fall short of those set out in the code of practice. What the mainstream media’s voluntary code of practice and reliance on regulation lacks is the simplicity and immediacy of response that blogging offers, not to mention the visibility of response. Even with such facilities well within the grasp of most news websites – it requires only a comments system and a little basic honesty on the part of comment moderators, after all – the MSM routinely falls short of the standards of ethical behaviour found as a matter of near routine amongst established bloggers (and, it must be said, amongst those new entrants to blogging who take the time and trouble to acquaint themselves with the prevailing social mores of the medium).

When bloggers are routinely exposing factual inaccuracies and misreporting in the MSM’s news output within hours -and sometimes within minutes – of articles being published, to lay claim to credibility on the strength of a three month plus turnaround on even a basic complaint is little short of a joke, even if one excludes from consideration the manifest failings of system that routinely permits demonstrably inaccurate articles to go uncorrected provided that the offending newspaper published are carefully buried retraction somewhere on its website, even if that somewhere is in no way linked to related to the location of the original article.

Far from talking up its code of practice, the PCC should be actively talking to bloggers about its intentions in moving on to the electronic frontier and, in particular, about how its regulatory practices need to change to meet the requirements and demands of the medium.

If nothing else, the PCC needs to ensure that when it comes the publication of retractions and corrections, and in permitting a right to reply, both are carried out by means of appending such content to the original article rather than, as at present, permitting news websites to bury such content as far away from the article that spawned the complaint as possible. That, in terms of online publishing, is the minimum acceptable standard that should be accepted.

In addition, the PCC needs to take a view on the question of transparency, both in terms of operating comment systems and the making of stealth edits to cover up errors. On the former, the code of practice should include scope for complaints where, as happened in the case of the Daily Mail and Owen Barder, the newspaper deliberately concealed comments that directly challenged the factual accuracy of the article in question, while on the latter it should be made clear that the use of stealth edits is in no way a means of avoiding the requirement to publish a retraction should an article have been published, originally, containing errors of fact or misrepresentations.

Instead of drawing a line in the sand between the ‘regulated’ MSM and ‘unregulated’ (but actually self-regulated) blogosphere, the PCC would do rather better by engaging in dialogue with bloggers so as to better understand the demands it faces in seeking to extend its regulatory framework onto the internet – after all, in this, its us bloggers who’re the experts.

*Footnote – the title of this article comes from Ambrose Bierce’s definition of ‘Reporter’ in The Devil’s Dictionary: Reporter (n) – A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.

  • Thanks for the link – loved the post. I think you make the point excellently regarding reputation and how responsible blogs are building trust through good practices. Unlike much mainstream media.

  • epsilon

    The Press Complaints Commission is more hype than substance. It is a self-regulating body that replaced the Press Council- a body virtually derailed by Kelvin MacKenzie ignoring it and undermining it.

    Post-Diana, the meejah world is a very different place. The Press know that one false move and regulation will be put in place by Parliament. Hence it is out of self-interest and not statute that the Commission has clout.

    They will have no power to regulate blogs unless bloggers wish to be regulated by them. Which poses a question- will the Commission seek a blogging representative on its membership? A watching brief I think- to have Dale and Dizzy installed by Lords Copper etc. is something that comes ever nearer.

  • You might push the boat out and give me a reciprocal link sometime too, please pretty please. Even if I am building reputation by bad practice etc etc LOL – according to Dale. Anyway, I have just fisked Dale on Chindamo. Intelligent comments very welcome.

  • Not that I’m vindictive … Dale-wise you understand.

  • Excellent piece – just what I was hoping for. There are some good points to be made – both partisan and non-partisan.

    I took a bit of a potshot at the MSM in my Britblog podcast on Radio 5 (link on name), but the comment about “no difference to the reputation of MSM websites as the print publications are often inaccurate” got snipped and didn’t make the air.

    As did the point about the “no smoking talking machines” in the flower beds being a wheeze by the Trick-Cyclists to get more trade.

    Matt