I’m rather in two minds about the current right-wing feeding frenzy over the Indy’s obvious lifting of material from a Foreign Office press release for an article on ’10 myths about the EU [reform] treaty’.
You see, on the one hand, its not as if the Indy doesn’t have a bit of previous form for slavishly and uncritically lifting material wholesale from press releases and presenting it to its readers as matters of fact – albeit, on previous occasions, without the accompaniment of much waling and gnashing of teeth from right-wing bloggers.
On the other hand, I might have rather more time for the views of [collectively] Guido, Iain Dale, Daniel Hannan, Melanie Phillips, James Forsyth and Roy Greenslade had any one of them actually put forward any single substantive point by way of rebuttal of the content of the Indy’s article [and/or Foreign Office briefing] instead of bleating incessantly about ‘journalistic ethics’ and the failure of the Indy to clearly identify its source material as if to suggest that that, alone, serves as a conclusive rebuttal of the article in question.
Call me picky, if you must, but if you’re going to claim that the Indy’s article (and the FO’s briefing from which it was sourced) is “variously tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false”, as Melanie Phillips claims, then you might at least take the time and trouble to back up your comments with something more substantial than ‘its from a government briefing so it must be a lie’.
This isn’t – for once – the BBC we’re talking about here. Its a national newspaper, and as with all other national newspapers its under no express obligation to be impartial when publishing what amounts to an editorial article nor, like other newspapers, are the political inclinations of the Independent an unknown quantity, even if it does appear to have vacillated somewhat on the question of whether it does or does not support a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty.
What’s most striking about this whole farrago is not the conduct of the Indy – because, quite frankly, I suspect that if one looks closely enough and carefully enough, one will find no great shortage of examples, in other daily newspapers, of articles that are no more than press releases by special interest groups dressed up as ‘original’ content.
If anyone can stomach doing the research then I’d suggest you start by searching the Daily Mail for articles on immigration and cross-referencing them with press releases by Migration Watch to see what emerges… and I’d also suspect that whatever turns up will already – most likely – have been picked up and covered in detail by Obsolete, Big Daddy Merk, and others.
No the most striking element in all this is the errant hypocrisy of a number of those who have been most vocal in their denunciation of the Indy’s conduct.
Iain Dale, for example, opines that “The Independent is no longer a serious newspaper. It’s not even a “Viewspaper”. It’s a comic.”
Does that mean that Iain, himself, should not be considered a serious political commentator – let alone blogger – on those occasions when its patently obvious that he’s being spoon-fed stories by the “spinmeisters” at Conservative Central Office – as was clearly apparent during the Ealing Southall by-election campaign (much good that it did the Tories) – and where exactly does his castigation of the Indy’s apparent lack of independent thought fit in with his recent comments on one or two [allegedly] internal goings on at the Daily Mail:
There is a growing sense of concern among some Daily Mail writers and editorial executives about their newspaper’s devotion to Gordon Brown. “Some of us are starting to feel we’re writing for a Labour paper like the Mirror,” says one. “The Mail’s coverage of David Cameron’s trip to Rwanda was mad. There was no attempt to give him any benefit of the doubt. The attacks were amazingly skewed.”
…With Mail editor Paul Dacre currently away sick, how much longer can Brown rely on such a free ride from this supposedly conservative paper?
Or how about this, rather more open-ended critique of the ‘independence’ of the press:
This morning’s Press websites are also instructive. The front page of the Daily Telegraph’s site gives only the tiniest mention of the Commons mauling – a small-print steer to Andrew Gimson’s political sketch. The Daily Mail is also distinctly muted in its website coverage. Indeed, I hear there are continuing ructions at the Mail about editor Paul Dacre’s love-in with Brown. A mole who was at yesterday’s editorial meeting at the Mail says that Dacre became extremely angry about criticisms of Brown. How long until the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, decides he’d like David Cameron to get fairer treatment from his paper?
For fairer treatment read ‘why isn’t the Daily Mail on our side and laying into Brown ?’ and more pointedly, ‘why isn’t the Mail’s owner, Lord Rothermere, directing the paper’s editorial stance and policy after the fashion of the newspaper barons of old’.
Stuff any notions of ‘journalistic ethics’ – not that these are generally a big feature of the Mail’s editorialising anyway – Iain’s beef with the Mail is that he disagrees with its current editorial stance and would prefer to see it swing back towards its traditional open support for the Tories (and open hostility towards Labour).
Now, as I see it, you either accept that newspapers are perfectly entitled to their open political biases – as they pretty much always have been but for in times of war – and tackle them on the factual accuracy of their content, or you take the view that the same rules of political impartiality that apply to the BBC and other public service broadcasters, like Channel 4, should become universal across the print media as well, in which case you start laying into national press in its entirety. What you don’t get to do – at least not if you want to retain some semblance of credibility – is pick an choose which newspapers are, and are not, entitled to editorialise according to the preferred political leanings, which is, in essence, what Iain and the others are up to on this occasion.
Much the same goes for ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips who asserts conclusively that the Indy’s article is – as mentioned previously – ‘tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false’. In fact the precise quotation is, as follows:
Well, these ‘facts’ are nothing of the kind; they are actually assertions which are variously tendentious, disingenuous, misleading and false. The Indie never can grasp the difference. But the real point is that this government briefing note hasn’t been used as just a ‘source’, implying that the newspaper used it as a basis for its own evaluation and work, but has merely been reproduced — a practice associated with the unfree press in totalitarian societies.
A good example of Phillips’ regard for (and understanding) of facts – as opposed to her own opinions, which is all she’s actually expressing here – is readily evident in her exchange with Ben Goldacre over her support for the now – thankfully – discredited work of Andrew Wakefield on the supposed ‘connection’ between the MMR vaccine and Autism, which you can follow in sequence from these links:
Phillips: MMR: The Unanswered Questions
And then Goldacre’s final rebuttal from the letters pages of the Guardian:
It is a microcosm of the difficulties in dealing with health scares that I can write 850 words on an anti-MMR diatribe by Melanie Phillips, generate 900 words of letters in return as well as an article by Phillips – all reinforcing her original misconceptions, and raising some new ones. For every unit of energy you put in, you get twice as much back, and so you can never win.
She is still amazed that a critical review of the scientific literature on MMR is critical of some of the literature it reviewed and she still thinks this is evidence of guilt or cover-up in the conclusions of the report. I criticised her for claiming that: “Wakefield’s discovery of autistic enterocolitis as a completely new syndrome has now been replicated in studies around the world as a new and so far unexplained disease in patients with autism.” Her response is to provide references to various speculative research findings on the bowels of people with autism. Such studies exist but few would claim that such early work constitutes wide replication of the discovery of a “new disease”.
I also encourage any readers who are interested in what Phillips considers to be an appropriate source for ground-breaking, peer-reviewed scientific research to look up the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons on Google and read about this strange esoteric political organisation for themselves.
Having said all that, Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has misrepresented and attacked me personally: and so whatever the future may bring, I can die a rounded and happy human being.
For the record, Wikipedia provides the following as examples of some of the articles that have appeared in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which Phillips cites as a credible source:
Articles published in the journal have argued that the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are unconstitutional, that “humanists” have conspired to replace the “creation religion of Jehovah” with evolution, that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not caused global warming, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the “gay male lifestyle” shortens life expectancy by 20 years. A series of articles by pro-life authors also claimed a link between abortion and breast cancer; such a link has been rejected by the National Cancer Institute.
Goldacre’s academic background in science is, I should point out, from his biography:
…studied Medicine at Magdalen College Oxford where he also edited Isis, the Oxford University Magazine. He left in 1995 with a First: before going on to clinical medicine at UCL, he was a visiting researcher in cognitive neurosciences at the University of Milan, working on fMRI brain scans of language and executive function, worked at Liberty the human rights organisation, and was also funded by the British Academy to do a Masters degree in Philosophy at King’s.
Phillips, on the other hand, has a degree in English from St Anne’s, Oxford, and is career journalist whose nearest ‘qualification’ for commenting on scientific issues amounts to a stint as the Guardian’s social services correspondent and social policy leader writer and yet she still has the gall the claim that
“Goldacre’s case boils down to evasiveness, ignorance, misrepresentation and smear. Are these really the attributes of a scientific vocabulary? Is this really “evidence-based medicine”?
Before going on to state – tinfoil hats at the ready…
The government and the medical establishment deny the evidence of any such effect. They claim that science has shown there is no case to answer. But it depends on which type of science, and whether it is being used appropriately….
…The connection between this relationship and the MMR vaccine is far from proven. But legitimate scrutiny of the real questions that have been raised are being stifled by the government and a medical establishment that have behaved recklessly and spinelessly, and are busy suppressing all attempts to hold this up to the light.
In short, what she’s peddling amounts to nothing more than a barely concealed conspiracy theory, much as she tries to pull off much the same trick in her comments on the Indy with this line:
But the real point is that this government briefing note hasn’t been used as just a ‘source’, implying that the newspaper used it as a basis for its own evaluation and work, but has merely been reproduced — a practice associated with the unfree press in totalitarian societies.
Actually, the practice that’s associated with an ‘unfree press in totalitarian societies’ is that of the media being either controlled by appointed party apparatchiks or otherwise compelled to report the government line verbatim under threat of closure/imprisonment, not the practice of seeing a government briefing as a bit of no effort copy and being a bit too lazy to rewrite it sufficiently as to make the source rather less obvious.
Skip past the histrionics of these particular group of right-wing commentators over the Indy’s apparent faux pas and the simple and inescapable fact remains that the Foreign Office has put forward what it claims to be ten ‘myths’ about the EU Reform Treaty together with commentaries that purport to ‘set the record straight’ and, as yet, we’ve had not one single word of substantive rebuttal from any of those ‘commentators’ linked in this article, merely a torrent of bitching about the Indy and, in Phillips’ case, a thinly veiled allusion to a conspiracy that doesn’t exist.
And Phillips has the nerve to refer to this overheated, childish nonsense as the blogosphere showing ‘its power to hold the mainstream media sharply to account and inflict real damage to its reputation’.
What a complete and utter load of self-serving, self-aggrandising bollocks.
Actually, as I’ve put this piece together I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no longer in two minds about this issue.
Yes, the Indy deserves a bit of a public kicking for indulging in a bit of lazy journalism, but it deserve to get that kicking from the kind of bloggers who can put up substantive arguments in rebuttal of the ‘myths’ that the Indy sourced from the Foreign Office’s briefing and not from the MSM’s premier conspiracy theorist and a rag-bag of Tories and Tory supporters who, like their leader, cling desperately to the hope that latching on to the referendum issue – which was only ever a way of Blair avoiding having to lay out a policy on Europe, anyway – will enable them to pull off the same trick and avoid opening up a divisive and painful debate on their side.
Whether you agree or not with the Government’s decision to move ahead with the EU Reform Treaty or trust that its much-trailed red lines will hold up, the simple fact has to be acknowledged that at least – after much delay – the government has take a line on the treated and adopted a clear policy position, unlike Cameron, Hague and the rest of the Tory Party who continue to cling cravenly to the ‘we want a referendum’ line in the hope that that alone will enable them to avoid addressing the issue of Europe by putting forward an actual substantive policy.
Its not the government who’re behaving like cowards here – they’ve taken the decision to rule out a referendum and that it will be for parliament to decide on the ratification of the treaty – and it will be for the electorate to judge them according on that decision and the extent to which it influences their choice of who to vote for when their is a general election.
Rather its the Tories who are still running scared of the propensity for Europe to open up divisions in their own party, divisions that would be all the more damaging to Cameron as they would come from pro-European Tories most closely associated with the very centre-ground that Cameron purports to be trying to capture and, therefore, cast doubts on his credibility as a ‘centrist’.
That’s why the Tory’s only substantive policy on Europe is to demand a referendum – because the only thing they have on the menu is Chicken Cameron.