Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 28 June 2011

I cannot tell a lie.

THERE'S a million news stories to talk about or comment on. Wars, murders, Kate Middleton's increasingly gristly frame.

But the one that's got my goat today is never going to be in a newspaper, because it's about us. The Independent's feature writer Johann Hari has been found out pretending quotes in his interviews were made to him when, in fact, they were said much earlier or to other people.

Yahoo! Ireland editor Brian Whelan got angry about how readers were being misled and went on a bit of a crusade to find out how often Johann had done this. Johann, in response, said The Reader preferred him to fudge the lines of truth a little bit. It's all been covered by the excellent blog Fleetstreetblues and you can read it here.

So far, so media village. Lots of writers (who use a little more licence in their pieces) arguing with reporters (who try to operate solely on facts) about what's right or wrong. Yawn.

But it also provokes many non-journalists to say "ah yes, but you all lie, don't you?" It's the most common accusation hurled at the people in my trade, it is the easiest thing for a red-handed and red-faced public figure to splutter on a doorstep, and personally I find it the most frustrating and offensive. So here's why.

Imagine, for a moment, I was going to break the habit of an entire career and make up a story out of thin air. For example, that Cheryl 'Jiggaboo' Tweedy was having an affair with Jeremy Clarkson.

(For the record, it's not true. Not yet, anyway.)

The first thing I have to do is pitch the story to my newsdesk. They reply: "Great story. Where are the pictures?"

Ah. I don't have any pictures because it's not true. So the newsdesk spend several weeks and several thousand pounds in shift payments to a team of photographers to follow Tweedy and Clarkson around in the hope of catching them in flagrante, in a hotel or at least in the same postcode. They follow them, they lose them, they find them again. They're never in the same place and after three weeks my boss says: "We're not wasting any more money on this." He pulls the plug and I look like a twat.

But I'm desperate to get this lie published, so I tell my boss it definitely happened. It might be historic, but I have a good source. "Who?" he says. "Um," I say, trying to think of something. "Family member/housekeeper/friend/colleague."

"What's their name? How well do they know Tweedy or Clarkson? Will they swear it on oath if we get sued? Do we have to pay them? Why are they telling you this?" asks my boss.

Imagine I lied my way through all of that - God knows how, they normally ask for names, addresses, and contracts, or at the very least a mobile number - but imagine I did. Imagine I dreamed up enough details of the faux Clarkson-Tweedy fling to sustain 1,200 words (and if you think it's easy, try writing a few hundred yourself). I file my copy, and my newsdesk - between them with several decades of experience - against all the odds do not spot the glaringly obvious lies.

They then pitch the story to The Editor, who asks the same questions in a harder tone. It gets looked at by The Lawyer, who rolls his eyes and says: "No pictures? No chance, we'll get sued into oblivion." The Editor thinks about the legal budget, and their job, and says "I'm not publishing it without proof."

Even if The Editor's away, The Lawyer's in holiday mood and the newsdesk have been down the pub and somehow the story sneaks through, it still gets looked at by half a dozen sub-editors and page designers. All of them are more than likely to come over to me and ask me a question which I can't answer because it's a lie.

And even if I manage to overcome all of these obstacles, once it's in the paper Ms Tweedy and Mr Clarkson will send a High Court defamation writ by return of post. The Lawyer, The Editor, and the news editor trot over to my desk say "we need your source". I tell them my source has disappeared. "Find them again," I'm told. When I cannot produce any evidence for my story my newspaper will be forced to make, I'd guess, a six-figure payment to both parties and a grovelling apology on the steps of the court, while I would get the absolute bollocking of my life.

How many times do you think I could pull that trick before my boss got fed up? Twice? Three times? This is an industry in which your track record is crucial and word gets around and, had I ever behaved in the way outlined above, I'd have been sacked or quietly let go pretty quickly.

That's how things work with news stories. Things are different with features, because the writer gets to throw in subjective comment about someone's tone of voice, their demeanour, what their house is like and so on. Interviews contain a thing we call "colour", a few paragraphs or phrases used to set the scene and bring it alive far more than the black and white facts of a news story can do. You're still not able to get a lie through without some checks, although big-name writers are given more leeway - such as Mr Hari, who should know better.

Then there's showbiz, a gaping maw demanding, in the national tabloids, two whole pages of new stuff every day, seven days a week. The reporters get their tales from freelances, PRs, people with an axe to grind and things they see and people they talk to at parties they have to attend until the wee hours as part of a constant treadmill that rarely has the benefit of being seen as journalistically-worthy. But without them we'd never sell so many copies, and people would not see our other stories. Sport, strangely enough, is much the same.

No newspaper WANTS to print a lie. It's expensive, we hate paying court costs, and we'd far rather spend the cash on the Christmas party or maybe even stories. Mistakes happen nevertheless and there are plenty of blogs and interested parties pointing it out when they do - as they should, although they are rather monotone and never praise a paper for getting something right.

That's not to say there are no liars in journalism. There are bad apples in every barrel who give the rest of us a bad name and I'll happily come down from the moral high ground to hold my hands up to the fact that I embellish at times; I have flimmed and flammed to drag a one-par quote into a six-par story; I correct people's grammar and 'straighten up' what they say.

But I never, ever, lie. I do not say black is white. I do not say someone told me something when actually they said it a year previously to someone else. When a newsdesk in the past has asked me to do something I think is wrong I have either said "yes, of course" and then not done it at all or - more rarely - told them I am not doing it.

There are thousands of people in this country who work in my industry. There is, so far, just one convicted of phone hacking, but even he's not been convicted of making up stories. There are people who take risks, there are idiots in it for what they can get, and there are terrified young cub reporters whose desks scream at them to get a result and who are taught, I'm afraid, that a quick lie will get you out of trouble in the short-term. I know just a handful of hacks that are out-and-out liars and who, were I their editor, I would sack at the first opportunity.

Most of us are not like that. Most of us do a job which, from local news agency to national rag, does not pay as well as people think and has long hours and a lot of people being horrible to each other and to us, and we do it because we think someone should. We are natural born gossips, we are nosey, we stick our oar in and sometimes we make mistakes. Things get bent at times, and often the people who come to us with a tale are trying their hardest to get a lie published - such as the soldier 'abuse' pictures which got Piers Morgan the bullet. They manage it more often than they should, not least because journalists can be surprisingly credulous and naive - we're so used to having to tell the truth that we forget others are not under the same compunction.

No industry is perfect and yours, whatever it may be, is no better than mine. But mine is the one that is lied about, and to, more than you might realise - and it is also the one in which a premium is put not just on the truth but on one you can prove. Celebrities who say a story is a lie but never sue, PRs who brief against a reporter who caught out their client, MPs calling for more privacy and less scrutiny - none of them has to prove it to a lawyer first. I do.

So next time someone says "a journalist lied" ask them, exactly, how they did it. Because I could not do it if I tried.