Truth, lies and fools

Brian Cathcart argues that good journalism can be both right and wrong - at the same time

Piers Morgan, writing in the New Statesman a couple of years ago, looked back upon his departure from the Daily Mirror, when he was sacked after his paper published fake photographs of British soldiers mistreating Iraqis. Pointing out that other evidence had subsequently emerged of British abuses in Iraq, and that no one had ever been convicted of perpetrating the hoax that fooled him, Morgan declared: "I wonder sometimes if it would be impertinent to ask for my old job back."

It is not the only occasion on which he has aired the idea that events had justified his decision to publish the photos, even though almost no one seriously contends today that they were genuine. Morgan's view seems to be that it can be right to make an assertion in print based on bad evidence providing other, better evidence eventually comes along to support the assertion. In other words, he got it wrong but he was right anyway.

Similar arguments are sometimes heard in support of the Andrew Gilligan news reports on the "sexing up" of the Iraq dossier, and they are topical again today. With Al Gore found guilty by a high court judge of nine errors of fact in An Inconvenient Truth, with Michael Moore's hotly contested health-care documentary Sicko opening here, and with the Court of Appeal pronouncing on a landmark case about journalistic responsibility, right and wrong and fact and fiction are suddenly on the agenda.

The anger generated by these debates can be terrifying. Dip into the internet for guidance on how far you can trust Sicko and you will be caught in a blizzard of detailed accusation and counter-accusation on such matters as the cost of Cuban health care, Canadian hospital waiting lists and the privatisation of the NHS.

And the outrage can have an almost drunken quality, with the entire credibility of an argument supposedly hanging on the smallest detail of disputed evidence. It calls to mind Christopher Hitchens's sweeping verdict on Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11: "To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental."

Behind such polemics is an assumption that seems like nothing more than a piece of common sense: that people should get their facts right. Journalism and documentary-making are about the truth - otherwise they would be called fiction - and if either of them presents untrue information, it is betraying its reason for being.

Al Gore, as he basks in his Nobel glow, should be thinking about this. When someone with his resources makes nine certifiable errors, most of them of overstatement, there can be no excuse, and along with his scientific advisers and researchers he has to take responsibility for any damage to his cause. Gore may console himself that Mr Justice Barton said the film was still "broadly accurate" and with caveats could be shown in schools, but he knows that its impact is blunted and he can't blame his critics for that.

Life is complicated

Yet the idea that people must always get their facts right, like almost everything that is labelled common sense, is incomplete and unsatisfactory. Life is more complicated than that, so, perhaps surprisingly, there are grey areas between right and wrong.

For one thing, journalism inevitably makes mistakes: producing large newspapers every day or every week is not like producing Fabergé eggs, and readers and lawyers have to understand that you can't hang around until every detail is perfect. In that context, it is normal to get things wrong occasionally. For another, if someone is withholding information on a matter of public interest without adequate explanation, then speculative journalism based on the available facts is perfectly justified, indeed natural - even if it may eventually prove to be wrong.

By way of example, the early years of the Deepcut scandal, involving the deaths of young soldiers in a training camp, were marked by excessive official secrecy. Some stories published in the press on the basis of the few facts available were wrong, but they ultimately performed the useful purpose of pushing the Ministry of Defence into greater openness. It's not a general licence to make things up, but it's a case where a greater good can be served by speculative reporting.

The courts, too, have found that journalists can be right and wrong at the same time. In the past fortnight, the Court of Appeal broke new ground by upholding what is called a Reynolds defence in a defamation case brought against the author Graeme McLagan over a book about police corruption called Bent Coppers.

The judges ruled that McLagan had the right to publish certain allegations, even though he could not be sure they were true, because it was a matter of public interest and he could show he had behaved responsibly. The Reynolds defence had previously been used successfully by newspaper journalists, and this ruling set aside an objection that the authors of books had the time to get all their facts right.

Does all of this mean that Piers Morgan should get his job back at the Mirror? No. As he well knows, he gambled on the validity of those photographs, lost, and paid an appropriate price for the damage to his paper's reputation. Only if he were to prove that the pictures are real could he expect his case to be reopened, and he can't.

The test in all these grey areas between right and wrong, as the judge who first upheld the Reynolds defence in 1999 laid down, is whether the wrong thing is stated knowingly or with malice or recklessness, and whether the journalist has acted conscientiously or responsibly.

Lord Nicholls went on to provide a helpful list of ways of judging the latter. Was enough done to test the quality of the information? Was there an urgent need to publish? Did the writer or newspaper present it as fact, or with caveats? Was the other side of the story presented?

Piers Morgan would not pass those tests. Nor would Al Gore (he would fail on the first). Nor, in my view, would Andrew Gilligan in the sexed-up dossier case. But Graeme McLagan passed them all, proving that in the right circumstances we have a right to be wrong.

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article appears in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?