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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.