Yo Zushi, fact-checking the New Statesman. Photo: New Statesman
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Please check your facts: a New Statesman sub-editor speaks out

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, but in the digital age, errors spread fast - and are harder to debunk.

On a single day in May this year, ten people were shot in the US city of Baltimore. Non-fatal shootings had climbed year on year by almost 50 per cent and the homicide rate was up by a fifth. “Charm City” – as the metropolis’s marketing team once named it – had become the bloodstained “Bodymore” made familiar by the HBO series The Wire.

It was in such a climate, with nerves on edge after the death of the 25-year-old Freddie Gray while under arrest in the city a few weeks earlier, that Fox News reported news of the latest shooting of a “black man” by armed police.

The channel claimed that the incident, on 4 May, had been witnessed by the news company’s own broadcast crew. It quickly transpired, however, that the story was baloney – and had likely been based on a misinterpretation of tweets sent out by the Baltimore Police Department. No one at the scene was dead. The local police hadn’t fired a single bullet.

As a sub-editor for this magazine, I spend much of my time checking facts. My colleagues and I attempt to corroborate every name, every date and every assertion before publication. Slips occur, but the New Statesman does its best to minimise errors by devoting considerable time and effort to its editorial processes. Each piece in the issue you are holding has been read by at least four people. Reliable content is one reason why readers trust magazines such as the NS. Here, a misread tweet would not have been deemed sufficient evidence to anchor a leading story. And, we would hope, an error of such magnitude would have been weeded out before being allowed to contaminate the public discourse.

And yet the culture of fact-checking has long been under threat. All too often it is deemed incompatible with today’s rapid-fire (and increasingly web-based), 24-hour journalism. “Sub-editors worst hit in London Evening Standard cuts”, said one headline back in 2009 as the newspaper began culling production staff. Variations have since become commonplace in the press.

When Peter Oborne announced his resignation from the Telegraph in February, the paper’s former chief political commentator bemoaned – among other grievous ethical breaches – the constriction of “subs”, without whom, “as all reporters are aware, no newspaper can operate”. Slipping standards, he wrote, “coincided with the arrival of click culture”.

The internet undoubtedly has democratised information, as its heavy use by protesters under repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Iran attests. But was MIT’s David Thorburn right to wonder in 2007 whether old-style journalism’s “successors in cyberspace” would come to their profession with the same “sense of mission” as the old guard?

Craig Silverman, founder of the “rumour-tracking” website emergent.info, has warned of online businesses posing as legitimate news outlets that “pump out hoax content with the goal of generating shares and links”. In an article for the news aggregator Digg, he took as an example a viral story of a “priest who met a female god in his near-death experience”. That yarn, published by the online World News Daily Report, was bogus but it spread quickly across social media and, after being taken at face value by Uganda’s Daily Monitor, eventually made it into the mainstream western media when a CBS radio station in Dallas blogged about it and the Metro reported it for the benefit of gullible Londoners.

From the “Twitter Thanksgiving airplane feud” to the allegation that US Democrats increased federal income-tax rates last year under Obamacare, much of what passes as true online is later shown to be merely “truthy”: it sounds credible but isn’t credible at all.

That such stories can infiltrate the supposedly authoritative media is alarming. In December 2013, Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, told the New York Times: “If you throw something up without fact-checking it and you’re the first one to put it up and you get millions and millions of views and later it’s proved false, you still got those views.” He conceded that this was “a problem” and that “the incentives are all wrong” – yet his Pulitzer-winning website has posted several made-up viral stories, including the dumb “airplane feud” of November 2013.

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, as Dominic Ponsford, the editor of Press Gazette, reminds me. “It’s always been an issue. Even before digital, stories with false information used to get into the media and be endlessly repeated.” In the past, errors preserved in cuttings libraries would be searched out and held up as corroboration.

“What has changed is the speed,” Ponsford notes. “False stories spread faster, but they’re corrected much faster.” Still, it’s hard to beat click culture’s thirst for sensation. Silverman pointed out that while debunkings of the female God story had attracted “roughly 2,000 shares and interactions . . . the articles that treat it as true now top 160,000”.

Where a blog, relied on to be immediately responsive and subjective, may be forgiven for running on a combustible mix of social media and skim-read information, such laxness is unacceptable in mainstream news, as Fox’s Baltimore blunder demonstrates. Facts matter, even in the era of 24-hour news. We should keep checking them.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor with the New Statesman

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Leadership contests can be a gory affair – so I was glad to provide some comic relief for Labour

My week, from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brexit satire boom and the return of the Pink Bus.

I have a lot to thank the New Statesman diary for. My rather tragic musings in this column about life as a former special adviser, going from hero to zero and watching Daily Politics in my pants, seemed to provoke great amusement. So much so, that I decided to write a show about the whole thing: my time in the Labour Party, where it all went wrong, and wondering how a hardcore feminist ended up touring the country in a bonkers pink bus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my stand-up comedy show, Tales from the Pink Bus.

I was nervous about performing at the ­Edinburgh Fringe – it was more than ten years since I’d been there as a stand-up. You’re competing against household names and the crowds are very discerning. I opened my set by admitting that I hadn’t done any comedy for a long time, but I’d been advising the Labour Party for the past decade. For some reason, that got a massive laugh.

Memory deficit

I was also anxious about how I would remember my material for the whole show. Fifty minutes is a long time without notes. I’m haunted by the memory of my old boss Ed Miliband, forgetting a section of his final party conference speech after trying to do the whole thing from memory. The bit he missed out was on the deficit. I didn’t want people to miss my deficit material. I’m not going to lie – there’s a lot of it. I’m trying to cut it down but it’s been a struggle. Who knew. 

Thankfully, all my shows went really well, largely thanks to the brilliant team at Funny Women and the Gilded Balloon who made it all happen. I had lovely audiences and decent reviews, and sold out every night like the big fat Red Tory/New Labour Blairite that I am. (I’m here all week.)

Therapy party

A lot of friends and family came to support me. I was so paranoid about no one coming that I made all my family buy tickets, including my cousin, who came all the way from India. Speaking of family, it was also great to get support from so many Scottish Labour folk. Kezia Dugdale, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran, Ian Murray, Dame Joan Ruddock, plus loads of party staffers, were all there to cheer me on. It was like a Labour safe space.

I was worried that it would all be a wee bit too close to the bone, but as one of them said to me afterwards in the bar: “Christ . . . it was a relief to laugh about things instead of crying. You’ve just saved us a fortune on group therapy.”

Stand-up fight

It wasn’t all good times, though. I watched the Labour leadership hustings on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. It occurred to me that any comedian performing in Edinburgh would feel great empathy for Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. There are endless gigs, hard-to-please crowds, brutal reviews, you miss your loved ones back home – and by this point even they are bored by their own material.

The hustings continue to be a gory and vulgar display of a party self-harming. Each side is taking lumps out of the other, with very little discussion about policies or making things happen. Corbyn showed once again that he’s still hugely popular with the members. Smith showed he’s a strong performer who cares about how we can win again – but power doesn’t seem to matter to us any more. I jump in a cab and ask the driver what he makes of it all. He tells me he really likes that Corbyn chap because he doesn’t live in a fancy house, doesn’t claim any expenses and takes public transport. “Will you vote for him?” I ask. “Dinnae be daft, love,” comes the reply.

Sharp takes on our times

Politics was rife at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Everyone was talking Brexit. I chaired a panel on satire and the message was clear. The nation wants to talk about politics, but not in the arid way that we see every day on the news. The audience was crying out for sharp political satire to help us make sense of things and hold politicians to account in a ruthless, truthful way. A group of American students told us their generation was energised and educated by political satire such as The Daily Show. In these tumultuous times, there’s only one thing for it – bring back Spitting Image. I also appeared on another panel on satire with Rory Bremner and Ricky Gervais for Radio 4’s Front Row. I can see David Brent’s next adventure already: running for parliament.

Syrian voices

One of the most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre at the festival this year is ­Angel, written by Henry Naylor. It’s a nail-biting story set in Syria, about a young girl who ends up becoming a Kurdish freedom fighter and killing a hundred Isis men: when a woman kills them they don’t get to paradise and get the virgins.

The lead performance by Filipa Bragança is stunning and you leave feeling floored, as if you’ve watched a cinematic epic rather than one woman amid the bones of a sparse set on stage. It’s a harrowing reminder of the war in Syria and how we have forgotten about it. Angel should be performed in parliament and every MP should see it. It makes our politics seem very small.

No exit from politics

I finally get a holiday and arrive in Rhodes. I need solitude, and most of all a break from politics. I’ve done my time. After a day of relaxing and trying not to look at Twitter, I start to feel the tension ebb away. I’m at the secluded restaurant and suddenly all I hear is: “All right, mate? Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around and there are Roy and Alicia Kennedy – the Posh and Becks of Labour. Roy is a key Lords frontbencher and Alicia is Tom Watson’s chief of staff. As I waddled off after the breakfast buffet this morning, I  heard them call, “Remember to vote, Ayesha – ballots have dropped.”

No rest for the wicked. 

“Tales from the Pink Bus” is in London on 31 August. For tickets or further information, visit: funnywomen.com 

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser