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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.