Sloppiness of the media

Why are so many media and political commentators so sloppy about checking their facts and ensuring the accuracy of what they say? I have lost count of the numbers who claim to be waiting to see the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) before commenting on conditions at Guantanamo, ignoring the strict rule that the ICRC reports in confidence to the host government (in this case the Americans) in these cases and doesn’t generally publish such reports (if it did so, few governments with anything to hide would give the ICRC access, and those detained unjustly or treated inhumanely would be the losers). Others talk glibly of the five thousand, or four thousand, killed in the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, ignoring the latest estimate showing that the figure is under 3,000 – which is bad enough, without needing to be exaggerated by almost 100 per cent. I also flinch when I hear our political leaders boast of "our" victory in Afghanistan, as if we and the Americans were equal partners in the enterprise. I happen to think that the US operation was much more successful than most of us had expected – it overthrew the repulsive Taliban régime and inflicted massive damage on the ability of al-Qaeda to continue its terrorist headquarters operations in Afghanistan – and that it was a measured, proportionate response to the attacks on the United States on 11 September; but "our" role in it was highly marginal, and the use of "we" to describe what the Americans have done and are doing betrays a sad inability to face up to our current relative, even absolute, impotence.

On other matters, too, commentators have a curious knack of focusing on the wrong issue. When Stephen Downing recently had his murder conviction quashed as unsafe after he had served 27 years in jail, most comment fastened on the rotten way his "confession" had been extracted from him, although subsequent rules and procedures make it unlikely that this particular malpractice by the police can be repeated in the future: whereas the real scandal, affecting people now in jail and those imprisoned in the future unless action is taken to put the thing right, was that Downing was made to serve another 10 years’ imprisonment after his "tariff" had expired because he resolutely refused to admit his guilt and was therefore judged to be unqualified for parole or release on licence. Since he was in fact almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, this savage additional punishment for proclaiming his innocence constituted a double injustice. (Moreover, attacks in the press on the failure of the Court of Appeal to declare Downing innocent, or – even more far-fetched – to "apologise" to him, revealed a striking ignorance of the functions of the Appeal Court which ten minutes’ research could easily have corrected.) On a more trivial level, Stephen Byers’s political adviser, Jo Moore, has been excoriated by politicians and the media for sending out an indiscreet e-mail proposing to take advantage of the 11 September attacks to release inconvenient departmental news that would be helpfully overshadowed by the bigger international story of the day – although this is the sort of calculation that all public relations and information officers make all the time, every day, and it is mere hypocrisy to affect outrage over Ms Moore doing it too. In fact the much more serious charge against her was her alleged  mistreatment of the civil servant responsible for information in the department by issuing orders to him that he was professionally unable to obey, leading to his ejection from that appointment and his sideways move to a less responsible job. But on that much more reprehensible charge, Ms Moore has escaped virtually scot-free.

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