The Newsnight Tory mess and journalistic accuracy


By now most people will be aware of the rather damaging media catastrophe that occurred last week, once again plunging the ‘good’ name of the BBC into a smouldering furnace of disrepute. Or at least the current affairs arm of that global media powerhouse, anyway.
For those blissfully unaware a quick summary would read as follows- a proposed Newsnight expose suggesting a Tory Lord had molested young boys backfired, as the story was proved to be false, with the spurious details alluding to these crimes already brought to light, and proved untrue, back in the late 1990s. It’s what you might call every editor’s worst nightmare, given the job is technically about getting facts right first time, not least when a simple Google search would have averted the error.
Needless to say, the press doesn’t really need to make more problems for itself. Already there is so much doubt surrounding the legitimacy and plurality of UK media, with everything from phone hacking to the Oxford University hosted debate that took place prior to the Newsnight debacle beginning – entitled ‘British politics is in the pocket of the media’ – proving how many widespread questions there are about the methods, culture and fairness therein. So that the flagship political programme on the nation’s most recognised station has gone from schedule stalwart to near-cancellation speaks volumes about how seriously the situation is being treated. Meanwhile, the stupidity of the mistake proves how embarrassing the blunder is (before anyone mentions the fact producers were apparently warned via Twitter in the afternoon things might not be A-OK with that evening’s episode).
The BBC Director General George Entwistle has resigned, meaning now the worse case scenario then would be for the show to be taken off the air permanently, and for journalism’s reputation as a news delivery service people can trust to be damaged beyond repair thanks to the mounting problems. After all, plenty of worthwhile hours have been broadcast from the studio in question, and though doubtless other investigative titles would remain (on one platform or another) for a good while to come, frontline reporting, whether from the local Town Hall or Baghdad, must be seen as reliable in order to serve its purpose. In short, the closure of Paxman’s hunting ground, or a widespread loss of respect for professions who out real scandals, would be a big blow for everyone.
There’s another angle, mind, that jumps out with less haste but serves as a reminder that every story has opposites to contemplate. The reason we can now say with at least some confidence Mr X is innocent of these supposed misdemeanours results from the same process that began this mess in the first place, albeit perhaps with even less effort involved. According to The Guardian, articles published back in 1998 clarified the situation, meaning revealing the truth was merely a case of piecing those together with the rumours started by last week’s ill-fated edition of Newsnight, in which the former politician’s name was never revealed, but few were left in doubt as to who it was. Of course only bad practice in the press can make the headlines, but it’s nevertheless important to remember balance is fundamental to any accurate opinion.