Saturday, 9 June 2018

When Do the Facts Matter?

by Les May

Comment is free but facts are sacred’ or so wrote the Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott in 1921.  But there’s another view attributed to the radical journalist Claud Cockburn who believed ‘facts were not like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon waiting for the prospector to dig them up and give them to the world’. His Independent journalist son Patrick recently paraphrased his father’s view by writing, ‘Unlike gold nuggets waiting to be excavated, there are an infinite number of facts in the universe, but these only gain significance and have a meaning because somebody – a journalist, a policeman – decides that they matter’.

The younger Cockburn’s comments coincided with the publication of a rather pointless article in the Rochdale Observer which reminded us that when in 1979, Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) published an account of Cyril Smith’s antics at Cambridge House and the editors contacted the then David Steel his spokesman is reported to have said ‘All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.’

This is a classic example of what Cockburn was getting atAlthough all the national press knew about the story because editors had been sending taxis to the RAP offices to pick up copies, like the Rochdale Observer, they chose to ignore the story.

As a result the ‘facts’ about Smith’s behaviour, however well documented by the RAP editors, had no significance or meaning.   So Steel could brush aside criticism of Smith and the voters of Rochdale could safely ignore the RAP story and return Smith to parliament with an increased majority.  If the RAP story had been taken up by the national press it would have been an indication that Smith’s behaviour at Cambridge House mattered and Steel would have had to take action.

The lesson from all this is, as the younger Cockburn put it, ‘every fact in the media is the result of the point of view of the person who chose to report them and related them to other facts’.

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