The General Election is days away and our expectation is that our newspapers would provide honest and accurate stories. It follows that bias or misrepresentation in reporting may be unwittingly absorbed by the readers. I wrote an article on the need for the media and the press in particular to have a duty of care for this reason. The Telegraph on Monday 27 April 2015 provided the perfect example of why such a duty is pressing.
The Telegraph 27 April said that they had received an “Exclusive letter to The Telegraph from 5,000 small business owners…”. The thrust of the letter was a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party by 5,000 independent small businesses. The emboldened heading read “We would like to see David Cameron and George Osborne given the chance to finish what they have started.”
Twitter user @AlexAndreou and others became curious about the small businesses associated with the letter. Their inquiries into the named businesses found serious discrepancies; duplicate entries, dissolved companies, business chains and charitable organisations. Others discrepancies included, at least seven Conservative parliamentary candidates1 and a pensioner retired for 20 years. There were even businesses and charities listed without their consent.
The occupation of the signatories made entertaining reading. It included payroll assistants, a Chief Inspiration Officer, consultants and waiters employed by chain stores. There was even a prospective Tory candidate signing on behalf of his charity. These are not small business owners, directors and proprietors as the headline led one to believe.
On closer inspection it was discovered that Tory Party HQ had created an online petition on their website. They invited businesses to sign the letter. Some email invitations automatically re-directed the user account to the petition and registered the account as if they has signed the petition.
In reality the Tories had created the letter and misrepresented the signatories. The letter did not contain 5,000 signatures nor was it from small businesses. The picture portrayed in the Telegraph was a lie which was aimed at defrauding the electorate.
Where our politicians skew the issues professional journalism should address it. The letter would have been fairly persuasive for some. It’s publication in the Telegraph was like a guarantee of its authenticity. Broadsheets like the Telegraph are seen as reputable and working to the highest standards of journalism. Therefore they are deemed reliable. Clearly that was not the case here. Cursory checks would have identified the bogus nature of the letter.
This is not the first time our press has failed to forensically analyse a situation2. Twitter and other social media platforms have provided a means to challenge the mainstream press. They have also introduced a much needed new level of accountability but it is not enough. Journalism is a public good but it must conform to the highest standards and have a duty of care to its readers and to society at large.
It seems like Andrew Neil agrees.
- Selaine Saxby, Rebecca Pow, Chris Pearson, Iain McGill, Ben Manton, Nicola Wilson and Keith Dewhurst. ↩
- In 1989 Sun’s front page heading “The Truth” claimed that Liverpool fans urinated on police, pick-pocketed dead victims and prevented brave PCs giving the kiss of life to some of the victims at Hillsborough. ↩