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9 November 2012

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?

By Steven Baxter

“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.

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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.