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Hitchens archive: The Daily Mail does it again

In this article from 2 February 1979, Hitchens excoriates the Daily Mail and the right-wing press in the United Kingdom.

It takes so little time to check a story that reveals the reporting standards of the Conservative press that it's almost a surprise to find they don't do it themselves. In last week's NS, Anna Coote referred to the Daily Mail and the 'picket violence' that never was. Their report had all the trimmings – a front-page splash, with photograph, evoking strong comparisons with Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters in the bad old days. Under the heading 'M-way pickets attack driver', with a smaller headline, 'Police guard for victim of violence', came the following first paragraph: 'A lorry driver was hauled from his cab and beaten up with wooden clubs yesterday by four mobile motorway pickets who had followed him for 100 miles. As they shouted 'scab bastard', he fought them off with an iron bar from his cab. Last night, a 24-hour police guard was mounted on 26-year-old David Field's home in Twickenham, Middlesex.'

The New Statesman has spoken to Mr Field and to the police officers concerned in the case. We can reveal, as the Mail would put it, that the only accurate and reliable thing on the front page of that day's Mail was the date. The sixty words quoted above contain eight direct misstatements of fact, a high density even by Fleet Street standards.

First, Field was not 'hauled from his cab'. Second, he was not 'beaten up', though he did collect a blow on the shoulder from a piece of wood. Third, he was only molested by one man. Fourth, the words 'scab bastard' were never uttered. Five, he says his swing with the jackhandle was a reflex and he was never 'fighting'. Six, there is nothing to identify these men as pickets, striking lorry drivers, or members of any trade union. Seven, there is no evidence that Field had been followed – indeed all the evidence points the other way. Eight, the police did not guard Field's home and have no evidence whatever that the incident was connected with the strike – although that was the clear implication of the Daily Mail's story.

Field tells us that he doesn't think the men were lorry drivers at all, let alone pickets. He is not himself a union member, and his job is in any case not affected by the strike. He thinks the men, with whom he had the briefest of encounters, spoke in Midlands accents and he did not say, as reported, that their van took off for London after the attack. Continuing more or less at random (there is a whopper in almost every sentence), Field does not recall being punched in the mouth (as alleged), he did not go to hospital because he did not (as alleged) 'need hospital treatment'. He disowns every single quote about the incident which the Daily Mail attributes to him.

Detective Inspector Cook of the Stechford police states that they have no evidence of the lorry having been followed, and no leads about the character or identity of the attackers. Therefore, not only was the story wrong in all the detailed respects mentioned, it is also a general smear fabrication connecting a small incident with the wider issue of the dispute.

As a final coda to this astonishing piece of yellow journalism, it appears that the man who signed the story was not the man who 'interviewed' Mr Field. None of these deficiencies on the part of the Mail prevented other rags, notably the Daily Express, from repeating or duplicating it. We hear a great deal about 'circulation wars' in the street but when it comes to reporting the trade unions, there is virtual uniformity of comment and a great similarity in methods of 'coverage'.

The Daily Mail has long been famous for two things: its bitter and hysterical hatred of the Labour movement and its abysmal failure as a newspaper to get at the truth. Sometimes, as in the celebrated case of the Zinoviev letter, the political bias and the rank dishonesty merge in the same story. Sometimes, as in the case of the Leyland slush fund forgery, it is simply that the editor and his staff have difficulty telling fact from fiction. In this little episode, worth anatomising in some detail, the conclusion seems to be that Toryism and honest journalism just don't mix.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.