Phillip Schofield's List shows the danger of treating internet rumours as news

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. So when did we start putting so much trust in Twitter rumours and David Icke?

“It took a momentary, cursory glance at the internet,” said Phillip Schofield, explaining the list of suspected paedophiles he handed over to David Cameron yesterday.

Schofield’s List made good television, as the presenter dramatically handed over the names on a This Morning branded card. But it didn’t make sense. And it wasn’t good journalism.

This was the moment when internet rumours and "cursory glances" became good enough. What did it achieve, this handing over of names from a few websites? It didn’t tell Cameron anything he didn’t already know; but it did make This Morning the biggest story of the day.

In the fallout from the Jimmy Savile revelations, there’s been a growing hubbub about suspected paedophile stories. There are several strands: delving into the murky past of light entertainers; looking at the sinister-sounding connections between Savile, the police and powerful people; and occasionally tying everything together into a giant conspiracy.

Normally rational internet folk have been linking to the likes of David Icke, suggesting that a man with an outlandishly unrealistic worldview could be near to the truth with this particular conspiracy theory. Names of former Prime Ministers have been dragged up and linked to paedophilia. Former ministers have been accused. Links to freemasonry, serial killers and the occult have been made. It is an overwhelming, astonishing story, if true.

If true.

But where is the evidence, the real evidence?  

Newsnight’s report began the latest deluge, though it was not directly responsible for it. However, the existence of the programme escalated the obscene guessing games which had previously focused on Savile’s entertainment contemporaries, and switched the focus to politicians.

At the heart of the report was an earnest attempt to establish what had been going on in care homes, and sensitive interviews with survivors. But that must now be seen in the light of today’s mistaken identity story in the Guardian – which is not an attack on the victim at the heart of the story, or a "rowing back" from the investigation, but an attempt to ascertain facts. Facts are all that we as consumers have to go on, and it’s vital that those broadcasters and old media that we still trust value them as deeply as possible.

If we are not careful, the facts recede into the distance amid all the lurid speculation and rumour. A "momentary, cursory glance at the internet" brings up all kinds of accusations: the bizarre, wrong, lying, deliberately smearing and occasionally correct.

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. Sometimes names are not made public – not out of deference to powerful perpetrators, but because there’s not enough evidence.

All the speculation diminishes the kernel of the story, which is that many people who have been horribly exploited and abused are finding the confidence to come forward. It is right that they are not disbelieved, and it is right that the way in which previous allegations were dealt with should be investigated; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was a massive cover-up. Nor does it follow that every single allegation is true, regardless of evidence. Perhaps some confusion arises when readers and viewers don’t realise that you can say what you like about the dead, but not about the living.

Now, more than ever, we need our traditional news outlets to be absolutely certain before they publish or broadcast, given the mass of wrong and misleading information out there. It’s what we as readers and viewers deserve, and should demand as a minimum standard. If we don’t, there will be no difference between "a cursory glance on the internet" and news.

The moment when Phillip Schofield handed David Cameron the list on This Morning.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.