Press Could Have Risen To Occasion; Sinks Lower Instead
Over the last few days, to my mind one of the biggest disappointments has been the behaviour of the fourth estate. In a classic illustration of the Frog and the Scorpion fable, the British press, given a shining opportunity to show excellence and grow by informing and leading, turned tail and crept back into its slimy habitat.
The Sun, the Mirror, the Mail and even the formerly intelligent Independent returned to AIDS-era headlines filled with panicky hysteria designed, very deliberately, to frighten readers into purchasing them. It’s an old-fashioned approach that only works for the mentally skittish, but has been pressed back into use for the pandemic. The Times, Guardian and Telegraph, meanwhile, behaved with relative decorum.
The tabloids have form, of course. Let’s take just two examples; in 2011 Bristol landlord Chris Jeffries won a libel case against eight national newspapers which openly encouraged readers to believe he was a sex pervert and a murderer. After the real killer was apprehended and Jeffries was fully exonerated, he rightly sued the papers for this vilification.
The Contempt of Court Act of 1981 applies to publications that create ‘substantial risk’ that will impede or prejudice justice. Clearly this applied to Mr Jeffries’ case because it compromised his position as a potential witness. He won, but the Mirror and the Sun expressed intentions to appeal against the ruling.
Case two is more personal; a young work colleague of mine, married with a child, was catfished online by a young woman who kept pushing to meet him. In a moment of foolishness he agreed to meet her in a park. When he arrived he found she’d dressed as a schoolgirl (she was in her early twenties) and was standing in the park’s playground. A photographer snapped him through the swings and the Sunday tabloid ran the piece as their lead called him a pedophile. The ‘schoolgirl’ was a hack journalist who had trolled him because of his profession; producer. He had a nervous breakdown and has never worked again.
And so it goes on; the sweeping untruth is published, the carefully worded legal retraction is hidden somewhere inside, the next outrage is whipped up.
But the press has grown subtler. The Independent just ran a headline screaming that food was about to run out. Thirty years ago, the UK’s food retailers carried 10-12 days of stock – now they have just 24-36 hours of stock. Britain relies too heavily on sunnier Italy and Spain for its fruit and vegetables. If there are too few people to pick, pack and transport them, or if their government impose export restrictions, there could possibly be shortages of fresh vegetables. The article peters out in a welter of coulds and possiblys.
None of this is a lie. Vegetables and fruits are perishable, so of course there’s no long lead time for those supplies. But the clickbait headlines turn a genuine warning hypothesis into a hard reality believed by anxious readers. It’s irresponsible reporting of the worst kind; an academic report is picked apart for its juiciest soundbites and mashed into a fear piece. I worked for the Independent when writers had to scrupulously fact-check every word. After the paper’s purchase by a sketchy Russian, nothing in it could be trusted again.
I’ve closed down my access to all press except The Conversation, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New European, The Times, Al Jazeera and The Guardian (I’m not a Telegraph subscriber). If I want to read fake news, I’ll make it up myself. Meanwhile, I’ll read a book. Today’s choice, above; Philip Ziegler’s The Illustrated History of the Black Death. At least it’s accurately researched.