The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, September 20, 2003

Journalistic ethics and the reported source

One of the proverbial oxymora [1], like military intelligence - but a phrase which has been exercising the public prints lately, what with the Grey Lady's Quota Prince Jayson Blair and now the BBC's hapless hack Andrew Gilligan (who, more and more, is showing himself to be every bit as stupid as he looks).

One point of principle that I'm puzzling over is the responsibility of a media outlet in reporting allegations.

Now, in English and American libel law, it seems that a paper that quotes an allegation is deemed to have made the allegation itself - neither the accuracy of the quotation nor the credibility of the person quoted is a defence.

If, therefore, Alastair Campbell had sued the Mail on Sunday for the allegation that he had been responsible for inserting the 45 minute claim into the September dossier, the case would have proceeded as if it were the newspaper that had made the allegation without reference to any source [2].

But what of the ethical position? The stance of objective journalism [3] was that the statement of a prominent person was news per se. However demonstrably false the content, the speech of a US president or senator merited respectful coverage - and not fact-checking!

Even a more balanced approach must comprehend the fact that conflicting - and often thoroughly tendentious - statements from politicians are flying around the ether; allegations are often made which are not mere empty invective but qualify as falsifiable [4]: disputes over the quality of statistics, say; or alleged quotations which can be checked with the record.

Are media outlets to be required to publish annotations with every such report? Or to refrain from reproducing such statements altogether? Neither constraint is the least bit practical.

There is a limited analogy in the role of stock markets: investors understand that, whilst the market authorities will take steps (not universally efficacious!) to exclude known con-men and South Sea Bubble-style propositions, the market is not responsible for the quality of the stocks traded [5].

The marketplace of ideas is, at least in the US, one of those tags of easy boosterism that spring to the lips when the glories of free speech are in question. No market can function when the market organisation is required to stand guarantor for everything that's sold in it. The marketplace analogy assumes that, pretty much, all ideas will find their place on one stall or another - and that competition will find out the best idea [6].

Back at the Hutton Inquiry, his Lordship's questioning has suggested that he disagrees with any such notion. The distinction between the BBC making an allegation, and reporting the allegation of a source, does not, it seem, appeal. He would have the analogy from libel law on his side in rejecting that distinction. But would he actually conclude that media outlets should only publish statements (from whatever source) they themselves have checked and are prepared to stand behind?

With all those pols rubbed out of the schedule (who knows what allegations they might make!), it would certainly make the Today programme, for one, a whole lot shorter!

  1. In the common, extended - and apparently incorrect - meaning of the word.

  2. There is under English law no rule comparable to that in New York Times v Sullivan.

  3. Last mentioned in the Joe McCarthy connection on September 8.

  4. Karl Popper well overdue a namecheck here!

  5. The exchange may be liable for negligence; and, on the other side, be an instrument of enforcement if fraud or malpractice occurs. As I said, the analogy is limited.

  6. Perhaps one should analogise the media outlets as the stallholders in a market? It's up to each of them which ideas he takes onto his stall - and, within a large margin, caveat emptor should apply to any purchase.

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