Memo to Fleet Street: it isn't just the BBC that makes mistakes

Before excoriating the BBC, the papers should recall their own recent errors.

As the feeding frenzy against the BBC continues, it’s worth remembering the UK’s public broadcaster isn’t the only organisation to sometimes make editorial mistakes. There isn’t a major national newspaper that hasn’t made serious false allegations against someone or other. Indeed, unlike in some of the examples below, the BBC at least had the good sense not to name the person it wrongly suspected of a crime, though it was naïve to think the name would not get out eventually.

Yet the BBC is attracting far more venom than any other news organisation would if it had made similar mistakes. Before Fleet Street gets too carried away with attacks on the corporation, it might want to remind itself of its similar screw-ups. As far as I know, there were no calls for "radical structural change" at any of the papers as a result of any of the following mistakes:

The Sun pins the Norwegian mass shooting on ‘Islamists’

Before we knew who had shot 77 Norwegian young people on 22 July 2011, the Sun had a guess: Islamists. Its front page referred to an ‘"al Qaeda’ massacre" while its editorial used the attacks to have a go at asylum seekers and human rights law. The paper quietly changed the editorial on its web edition when it emerged the massacre had been carried out by right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik.

The Telegraph accuses Labour conference of heckling an 11-year-old child

During this year’s Labour conference a delegate interrupted a 16-year-old explaining to the hall what she liked about the academy school she attended. The delegate had shouted out of turn: “you can do that in a comprehensive too”. On the Telegraph’s site this somehow became the Labour conference ’heckling’ an ‘11-year-old’ ‘child’, an accusation which grew into a Twitter-storm, only ending after Ed Miliband issued a statement. The paper later toned down the inaccuracies in the piece on its website but the web address for the article still reads "it-is-disgusting-for-a-labour-delegate-to-heckle-an-11-year-old-girl/" and refers to a "child".

The Guardian jumps to conclusions during the phone hacking scandal

One shocking detail of the Guardian’s investigation into phone-hacking that captured the public’s imagination was the allegation that someone working for the News of the World had deleted murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s voicemails. The voicemails’ disappearance had given "hope" she was alive, the parents said. But police investigations later found no evidence to support this claim, which arguably had propelled the story to new heights. The police said the messages were "most likely" deleted automatically by the phone network after 72 hours.

The Independent wrongly accuses a politician of taking $150m from a foreign autocrat

Accusing a politician of illegally accepting $150m from a foreign autocrat to fund a political campaign is a serious claim, and the Independent accused Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of a Tunisian political party, of doing just this. Had the allegation been made against a UK politician it would have been one of the biggest political scandals in the UK’s history, but the story passed relatively unnoticed here. Last month the paper admitted that what it said had happened had not happened, and published a small apology.

The Daily Mirror wrongly accuses Chris Jefferies of associating with paedophiles and being linked to a murder

Searching for a suspect in the murder of Joanna Yeates, the Daily Mirror and other papers settled on retired schoolmaster Christopher Jefferies. The paper accused Jefferies, who was Yeates’ landlord, of "behaving inappropriately" to schoolchildren, associating with paedophiles and being linked to a previous murder. None of this turned out to be true.

The Daily Mail wrongly accuses teacher of leading a riot which trashed Tory HQ

In the aftermath of a riot at Conservative party headquarters the Daily Mail fingered Luke Cooper, a university tutor from Brighton, as a "hardcore" organiser of the riot, which led to over 50 arrests and tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The Mail’s sister paper, the Evening Standard, splashed the allegations on its front page. Nearly two years later, the papers’ publisher was ordered by the High Court to pay £450,000 in costs and £60,000 in damages to Cooper, who says his reputation in education was "trashed".

The Times invents radical Islamist “control” of a North London mosque

The Queen’s Road mosque in Walthamstow is under “control” of the “ultra-Orthodox” Islamist sect Tablighi Jamaat, making it "easy prey for terrorist recruiters", the Times alleged in 2009, casting suspicion over an entire community. After being contacted by the leader of the Mosque, and some lawyers, the paper later conceded that this was not true, but not after suggesting the Mosque was a "breeding ground" for "extremists".

Billboards outside the News International buildings in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle