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Media: tee-hee journalism

Richard North, 19/12/2012  


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Now that the indications are that allegations against former chief whip Andrew Mitchell have been, at least in part, fabricated, one needs to ask why it is that so many in the media and elsewhere were so keen to leap on the bandwagon and assume guilt.

One can speculate that what drove the allegations was that they entirely conformed with prevailing prejudices about senior Tory politicians. One is entirely comfortable with the idea that a Conservative chief whip should have called a police officer a "f*****g pleb", and one also expects that he should have denied so doing.

However, the establishment – and certainly the media – is less comfortable with the idea that one or more police officers may have fabricated evidence, and/or exaggerated events, except that those of us in the real world know this to be a common enough occurrence. When push comes to shove, our boys in blue (and increasingly fluorescent yellow) are no more (or less) reliable than politicians.

With that, one can only reflect on the modern tendency of the media to go after stories for which there is only slight – and disputed – evidence, devoting huge amounts of space, time and resources to issues which actually lack substance – when discretion might have been better advised.

Driving the media, though – and others – is what has been called "tee-hee journalism", where the trivial and speculative personality politics has replaced the reporting on substantive political issues and intelligent analysis.

One recalls that, in days gone by, even mid-range newspapers such as the Express used to devote two-page spreads to selected Commons debates, and Parliamentary reporting carried real weight. Now, apart from the occasional soundbite from the top players, and the biff-bam of PMQs, parliament is barely reported.

Thus, in the Mitchell affair, the media is as much the guilty party as those who recklessly and deliberately fabricated evidence. An industry that carried more weight and exercised proper, adult judgement,  might not have been so keen to have aired the original allegations at such length and in such gory detail.

Once again, though, we can only smile at Leveson's assertions about the legacy media and its "powerful reputation for accuracy". What many wrote of Mitchell is looking to be grossly inaccurate. That it was believed to be true at the time is neither here nor there. The media fell for the scam because it wanted to believe what it was told.

Of the limitations of the media, we need constantly to remind ourselves. Only recently, I had a discussion with someone who should know better, who told me of a report he had read in the media, believing it to be true, when he was reliant on only that source.

Little of what we read can be relied upon, and much of what we do read is so distorted (not least by the omissions), that it cannot be relied upon. Nothing in the media can be taken for granted without independent evidence, or reliable verification. And when it comes to the testimony of the police, no one but a fool would take that at face value, without the most careful checking.

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