Monday, 23 January 2017

Lies, damn lies and newspapers!

by Les May

TODAY, Saturday 21 January, 'The "i"’ newspaper deliberately printed a lie about Jeremy Corbyn.  How do I know it is a lie?  Because the day before they printed the truth.

On Friday the paper reported that with reference to triggering Article 50 Corbyn had said;

'It’s very clear, the referendum made a decision that Britain is to leave the EU. It wasn’t to destroy jobs or living standards or communities, but it was to leave the EU and have a different relationship in the future.  I’ve made it very clear, the Labour party accepts and respects the decision of the British people.' and ‘Asked if that meant a three-line whip to force Labour MPs into line, Mr Corbyn replied; It means Labour MPs will be asked to vote in that direction.’

Today, in the same newspaper, that had become ‘Jeremy Corbyn orders Labour MPs to vote in favour of exiting the EU.’

And it didn’t stop there.  On Friday Rob Merrick wrote in the his article ‘About five have said they will vote against Article 50 and four Shadow Cabinet members are rumoured to be considering a revolt.’  So by my reckoning that makes between five and nine who are unhappy with the policy.

By Saturday political editor Nigel Morris had discovered a ‘rebellion’ amongst Labour MPs with ‘Dozens of MPs could rebel…’ and ‘According to one report, as many as 80 could defy the leader’.  Or it could all be Morris flying a kite.

I doubt that anyone in Corbyn’s team will bother to complain.  

When a complaint about a Corbyn interview with Laura Kuenssberg shown in BBC 1’s News at Six in November 2015 was made it took 14 months to get an adjudication.  Even though the BBC Trust upheld complaints about lack of truth and lack of impartiality in the report the director of news James Harding declined to accept the censure.

The truth matters.  Printing speculation and quoting unknown sources influences what we believe, reinforces prejudices and leaves us open to manipulation.  The truth, however unpalatable to our personal prejudices, leaves us free to make our own choices.

Labour MPs saw the News at Six report, believed it to be a true account of what Corbyn had said and used it to attack him in a later meeting.  That’s why the truth matters.  The BBC trust rejected claims from the BBC that this was evidence that the report was an accurate reflection of what Corbyn had said, pointing out that this was a circular argument.  It beggars belief that anyone claiming to have integrity would try such a ploy.

In recent months every newspaper has tried to solicit the support of its readers in attacking Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. To judge from the stories they have been putting out triggering the implementation of Section 40 means an end to a ‘free press’.

Now I readily accept that a ‘free press’, that is a press free from government control, is a necessary condition for living in a liberal democracy.  That is ‘necessary’ but not ‘sufficient’.  A liberal democracy also needs a press which is ‘honest’; that is does not lie outright or by implication, ‘fair’; that is reports the activities of all the agents involved in social and political debate and ‘diverse’; that is it is not in the hands of a few proprietors and represents a wide spectrum of political views.

To put it bluntly; in spite its pretensions to be guardians of our freedoms, and holders to account of the mighty and the powerful, the British press is ‘piss poor’.  And the BBC is increasingly going that way.

In spite of what is being claimed Section 40 does not seem to be about government control of the press.  It’s about redressing the huge imbalance which exists between the people who have lies told about them in the press and the people who do the lying.

We already have draconian libel laws in this country.  But for ordinary people who have lies told about them they are just too costly to invoke.  The press has, and will always have, much deeper pockets than the rest of us.  Suing for libel, even if you have a very strong case and eventually win, is not for the faint hearted.  But look at the anti-Section 40 propaganda in the press and you will see that the little people do not figure.  

If Section 40 is implemented the judiciary is not going to allow frivolous and unreasonable cases to clog the courts.  All the press has to do to avoid falling foul of Section 40 is, a) get the facts right in the first place, and b) if a mistake is made, as it inevitably will be, print a proper correction with at least equal prominence.

Getting the facts right might mean nothing more than having more bodies in the office who have the task of checking pieces for factual accuracy and preventing speculation and opinion being passed off as fact.  Perhaps we should call them sub-editors.

For my part I mostly get my international news from Aljazeera on Freeview channel 108 and rely on the Irish press for European news.  No doubt these have there own prejudices which I have to filter out.  But Aljazeera’s news and documentary output, a bit like Heinken, reaches the parts the Beeb does not reach.   

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