Imagine a tabloid newspaper had exposed a major bank after a number of its staff were accused of taking cash out of the safe and spending it in a casino.
Millions of pounds were made and lost at the roulette wheel, wasted on champagne and strippers, while small businesses were refused loans and mortgages were called in. Five or six bankers were named, the customers they screwed over spoke about their troubles, the police made a series of arrests and Dishface weighed in to order a public inquiry into the culture and ethics of the banking industry. The BBC and other news organisations pick the story up from the tabloid which broke it without checking, without questioning, and apply the boot rigorously.
Imagine that story sparked an outcry in the midst of the banker-hate which has been a feature of the economic crisis, a wave of revulsion so bad that thousands of people closed their accounts, companies took their cash elsewhere and the bank at the centre of the scandal went bust, along with the loss of hundreds of jobs from the chief exec all the way down to the front-desk staff, cleaners and caretakers.
Celebrities demand the bankers be held to account and complain they lost money and politicians join in because it looks like an easy win. Share prices tumble. Everyone in every bank everywhere is tainted by association. Mortgage advisers, clerks, business gurus and the like find it impossible to get work for month after month, as other banks worry and apply ever-more extreme caution to all their decisions. Court cases are launched, millions are paid out in compensation, lawyers take a share of the winnings, and the sacked bank employees spend a lot of time being disgusted at their own profession, depressed, and wondering how it all went so wrong.
And six months later it turns out the story was wrong.
The reviled people are still bankers; there was still an economic crisis which they'd played their part in, they had definitely partied with champagne and strippers while refusing other people's loans, but they had used their own money to do it rather than the customers'. They had certainly fractured a few laws, some people needed to be held to account and a clean-up was called for, but the entire profession was not due the demonisation it got.
Perhaps the bank would have gone bust anyway; but what is undeniable is that the original, false story was the pivot on which a whole scandal turned.
It turns out the story came from one or two anonymous sources who may have made a tidy sum out of it. The police may have known all along that the bankers weren't guilty of the crimes they had been accused of but said nothing, even when there was a run on the bank. The people who had suffered personal misfortune had their plight manipulated by everyone with a vested interest, and while money still went missing no-one knows who took it and no-one's been asking that question.
What do you think would happen to the tabloid newspaper responsible for this imaginary yarn?
Well, the snoresheets would be demanding a front-page apology. They would be decrying standards of journalism relying on a couple of anonymous sources, the police would be asked to explain themselves, the politicians would have to put a sock in it, the journalists who repeated the story without checking it themselves would get a rollocking and have to publish their own apologies and corrections, and the celebrities would quietly count their six-figure compensation deals while the ordinary people sucked into the scandal by being victims of horrid circumstance would, finally, be left alone to put their lives back together.
Oh, and the bankers who'd been wrongly sacked would sue everyone they could.
Tabloid journalists, generally speaking, don't sue. You rarely get more than the lawyer and it's easier just to have a quiet word in someone's ear and make sure that one of your friends, somewhere, publishes the story your enemy doesn't want to be known.
In the case of the phone-hacking scandal, that would best take the form of every journalist who dislikes hypocrisy making a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission citing the Code of Practice, Article 1: accuracy; 2: the right to reply; 4: harassment (I know of several reporters rung 15 times a day by so-called 'quality' hacks who won't take naff off for an answer) and 9: the reporting of crime.
And when we've done that, we'll fire up the Attorney General on the topic of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and unfair and inaccurate reporting while a case is active and before it can be heard in front of a jury.
I'm sure the defence in all cases will be that livelihoods were destroyed in the public interest, but I am not sure how much interest is served in losing hundreds of innocent people their jobs because of a handful who broke the law in dealing with 800 people, especially while the police were sat on their fat backsides failing to investigate the crimes and leaking inaccurate information in order to make themselves look better than they are.
Journalists complaining about unfair reporting are always going to be scoffed at. But if tabloids must meet the highest possible standards, then that applies equally to the rest of our trade. Especially those who think they are above it.
And the sanctimonious little twerps who were expecting awards and backslaps for their grand expose can kiss my furry arse.
Best put the stones down now, ladies.