Social media takes a real bashing in the UK

The nice Guardian review of his new book just wasn’t enough for author RJ Ellory. Amazon users Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones reviewed his A Quiet Belief in Angels online as “truly a modern masterpiece” and Ellory himself as “one of the most talented authors of today” – except Mr Bean (sic) and Mr Jones were later outed as indeed Mr Ellory.

Pseudonymous reviews, known in the media as “sock puppets” where the author reviews his own work, TripAdvisor thrashings, restaurant eulogies on the internet are viewed more and more with scepticism by the discerning public.

We in PR spend more and more of our time doing social media and some of our clients treat it as if it is the be all and end all of PR. But for getting our messages across in a way that is trusted we mustn’t lose sight of the PR value of independent media.

Sometimes independent coverage doesn’t work to our advantage but PR professionals increasingly discount the PRNewswire and BusinessWire mass pick-ups that are never read by human eyes, and they take blogs and Tweets with a good pinch of salt.

The bottom line is that we are learning all over again to treasure the respected journalist that reads, evaluates and writes copy. Because we know that people we really want to influence read that copy and put their trust in it.

From scoop to slander thanks to social media

First: The BBC, the shoddy face of journalism?

“If only we had some objective reporting of the Obama election like the BBC” an American colleague said on a call last week.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, Newsnight, a popular programme on the British news network BBC, funded by British taxpayers and renowned throughout the world as the pillar of objective reporting, had planned to air a show accusing a “senior” UK political figure of paedophilia.

The show was broadcast but did not name the politician. It didn’t need to.

Iain Overton, who heads an independent Bureau for Investigative Journalism outfit in London that contributed to the investigation, tweeted, “If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.” And Guardian reporter George Monbiot, tweeted “I looked up Lord #McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things.”

Just after a Newsnight announcement that a “leading Thatcher-era Conservative politician” was linked to allegations of sexual abuse in North Wales without naming him, a second Monbiot message stated “I can confirm that Lord #McAlpine was Conservative Party Treasurer when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister.” This was then repeated by more than 120 other Twitter users.

Could the rumoured paedophile be Lord McAlpine, a wealthy aristo and a Thatcherite politician? (It seems somehow to fire up a Guardian journalist to be able to use the words Tory, aristocrat and Thatcher in the same sentence.) Well yes, trilled the tweets, including one from Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the British House of Commons. The story became a major Twitterfest, a Blogfest – an Internet hurricane howling with accusations.

But the story was wrong.

The BBC’s source turned out to be completely mistaken and totally unreliable. He retracted the accusation as soon as he was shown  a photograph of Lord McAlpine (too late!). Lord McAlpine was forced to make a statement the morning after the Guardian named him in its story claiming the peer was a victim of mistaken identity. He released a lengthy statement, denying the ‘wholly false and seriously defamatory’ claims.

Seriously unprofessional reporting; the BBC hadn’t even approached Lord McAlpine for a comment. As a  journalist, I had it drummed into me: check your source, check your facts, challenge your target, then go to press. The BBC did none of these.

Later the director general of the BBC, George Entwistle, resigned. The BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten said: “This is undoubtedly one of the saddest evenings of my public life …(he meant sad for him and sad for the BBC – most of us here in the office said: ‘howabout sad for Lord McAlpine?’). George, he continued, has very honourably offered his resignation “because of the unacceptably shoddy journalism which has caused so much controversy.” Controversy? I gasp. Slander, yes; Apology? Yet to find.

The botched investigation came after the BBC was accused of covering up a previous Newsnight investigation into allegations that a BBC DJ Jimmy Savile had abused children since the sixties – many on its premises. It pulled the report last December because the Corporation had planned Christmas tribute shows about the late presenter and DJ.

Golly and crumbs – Rupert Murdoch may have a lot to answer for, but phone hacking of mostly celebs is one thing, but the BBC slandering an innocent man with paedophilia while covering up the activities of a real one nears the pits of journalism.

The burden of proof versus a burden of trending tweets

That same week, with paedophilia being the Hot Topic of the week, ITV, the independent TV channel’s This Morning programme featured lead anchor Philip Schofield interviewing the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Schofield triumphantly – and with great pride – explained to the PM as he handed over a piece of paper containing a list of Internet-generated paedophiles in full view of the cameras, that it ‘took me about three minutes last night to continually find a list of the same names.’ Incidentally, some of the names were clearly visible on camera and swiftly became available on the Internet.

He behaved as if he was in a court of law providing hard evidence – not handing over a random list of names put together from a string of tweets and blogs.

In a court of law, a burden of proof is required, not a burden of tweets or a trending topic. And no one should libel an innocent man without the right of reply.

So yes, social media took a real bashing in the UK these last two weeks. And so undeniably did two independent news operations, each held in high regard by so many people. Whether in our business or our public life, we all need reliable sources of information and, for all their faults,  journalists are by far the best placed to provide this. This week has proved that they need to maintain their journalistic disciplines to maintain our trust.

Posted by: Judith Ingleton-Beer @ IBA

One thought on “Social media takes a real bashing in the UK

  1. Pingback: Free Press Standards – could the UK be the first country in the free world to legislate to regulate? Or was a full scale inquiry into the UK press a waste of time? | The SpinBin by IBA

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