The media column - Peter Wilby finds truth elusive

Idle gossip and crackpot theories are everywhere; reliable information, with wheat sorted from chaff

The London bombs of 7 July were made with high-grade military explosives. Or they were made with stuff you can buy on the high street. Those responsible were suicide bombers. Or the bombs were detonated by remote control and the carriers had no idea they would die. A Qaeda mastermind was behind the bombings. Or British-born bombers were acting alone. A Muslim from West Yorkshire planned the bombings and he was detained in Pakistan. Or he was arrested in Zambia and had nothing to do with the bombings. The failed bombers of 21 July were linked to the bombers of 7 July. Or they never knew each other.

The Brazilian shot dead by police on 22 July wore a heavy winter coat.

Or he wore a light summer coat. He jumped the ticket barriers at Stockwell Tube station. Or he used an Oyster card. He ran to the platform. Or he walked.

Well, as my mother used to say, there's only a right and a wrong and it's a poor fool that can't get either. But I think the above is a fair summary of what the press has told us in the six weeks since the London bombings. You need to follow the narrative closely to have any clue what is going on. Anyone who went abroad on holiday, and picked up the papers on returning a fortnight later, might well conclude that the bombings were carried out by a disabled Brazilian Muslim preacher, using Oyster cards specially supplied by Ken Livingstone.

Newspapers have been described as providing "the first rough draft of history". The draft has got very rough indeed. Shortly after Harold Evans took over as editor of the Times in 1981, the Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated. Evans, in his memoirs, mocked a feature writer who thought that the Times should "think about this" for a day rather than rush to comment in the next morning's paper. I wonder now if that writer had a point.

It would be wrong to accuse journalists of making these stories up. They have no need to; plenty of other people have sufficiently fertile minds. Nearly all the stories about the London bombings would have come from police and intelligence sources, mostly unofficial and nearly all speaking anonymously. Investigating a crime, the police naturally form hypotheses and then test them. If they share some hypotheses with journalists, it is probably a sign of a healthy, open society. But the papers no longer seem to distinguish clearly between speculation and established fact.

The rise of internet blogging and "citizen journalism", it is suggested, creates new pressures on newspapers. News can no longer be "top-down"; it must come "bottom-up", from the experiences and opinions of ordinary people. If the internet is buzzing with theories of how the US secret services concocted 9/11, then (as I recorded here last week) the Daily Mail must give them a respectful airing.

Yet I fear the press could take a seriously wrong turn. Most people understand that what they read on the net is inherently unreliable: a few clicks will find entirely contradictory accounts of the same event. Newspapers are expected to carry more authority. That is what readers of upmarket papers in particular pay for. Idle gossip and crackpot theories are everywhere; reliable information, with wheat sorted from chaff, is less easy to find.

Journalists already rely on second-hand information to a greater extent than they did even a decade ago. In its 22 July report of the attempted bombing at Oval Tube station, the Sun had a seven-paragraph account from "a flower seller named Ralf" who "made a vain attempt to grab the bomber". A very vivid account it was, too. Except that Ralf hadn't spoken to the Sun; the quotation was what he told "his pal" in a nearby pub.

If that's the new citizen journalism, I'd prefer the old, pre-Evans Times.

You may have thought the England-Australia cricket series was riveting enough without any need for the stories about players' off-field activities, including violent assaults and sex orgies, that accompany football reports. A cricket match can last for 30 hours, so there's plenty on the field to write about.

But England's newest star, Kevin Pietersen, is already in the tabloids' sights. On 14 August, the Sunday Mirror reported that he is "secretly dating former Big Brother beauty Vanessa Nimmo". As Pietersen is a single man, that may seem harmless enough. The previous week, however, the same paper quoted another girlfriend, who revealed that Pietersen, "a nervous lover", demanded total silence while they had sex, but insisted she repeatedly shout his full name "right at the end".

Pietersen is so keen on the limelight that he may, for all I know, have steered both girls to the tabloids. But if I had read that kind of thing about myself when I was in my mid-twenties, I would have wanted to crawl into a hole. Is it any wonder that so many English sporting stars crack up?

Next Article