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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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