Does the truth lie? Tittle-tattle vs authoritative reporting

The rising influence of political bloggers and citizen journalists continues to put pressure on the practices of the more serious end of the established media.

Aspects of this clash of ideology came to the fore at a thought-provoking Editorial Intelligence debate for the launch of Julia Hobsbawm’s collection of essays, ‘Where the truth lies’. Sometimes the truth does lie – the collection and accurate reporting of pieces of circumstantial evidence which may be designed to lead the reader to one, maybe quite unjustified conclusion. For instance, if it is reported that Foreign Secretary William Hague shared a (twin-bedded) room at a conference with an aide, most readers would assume this is a coded way of telling us he must be homosexual. This is handy if you want to run a smear campaign, but far from conclusive proof – most people have shared rooms on occasion, for purely practical reasons. The BBC and others would never have reported this, were it not for blogger Guido Fawkes running the story, a Foreign Office ‘denial’ being issued which could then legitimately be reported on, and Mr Hague eventually feeling he had no alternative but to issue a highly personal statement on the matter.

Another leading blogger, Iain Dale, told of how he happened to be in the BBC newsroom for a TV appearance at the time Liberal Democrat Treasury Secretary David Laws was facing expenses allegations. Dale asked why the BBC was not running the story that Laws had already resigned (as he was by then tweeting); this apparently threw the newsroom ‘into panic’. Dale said it took the BBC one-and-a-quarter hours to get the story confirmed by a ‘second source’ so they could run it. Is this ‘proper journalistic standards’ or just being late with the news and out-of-date? We all want journalists to get their facts right, but perhaps in these fast-moving times, if the BBC wants to stay relevant, it has to be more willing to run stories of high public interest that are unconfirmed – as long as they are prominently labeled as such. Otherwise people will ignore it for fear of being out of touch; self-publishers who write what they like will continue in the ascendancy.

Meanwhile for individuals or companies in the public eye, it is now much more difficult to keep the lid on unpleasant facts, and they need to recognise that. They should either behave better, or be very well prepared; ready with some good answers to deal with the potential media barrage that can come out of nowhere, at any time.

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