How technology disrupted the truth | Katharine Viner
1 month, 29 days ago
Social media has swallowed the news threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an epoch when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences goes beyond journalism
One Monday morning last September, Britain woke to a depraved news story. The prime minister, David Cameron, had committed an obscene act with a dead pigs head, according to the Daily Mail. A distinguished Oxford contemporary claims Cameron once took part in an outrageous initiation ceremony at a Piers Gaveston event, involving a dead pig, the paper reported. Piers Gaveston is the name of a riotous Oxford university dining society; the authors of the narrative claimed their source was an MP, who said he had watched photographic proof: His extraordinary suggestion is that the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal.
The story, extracted from a new biography of Cameron, triggered an immediate furore. It was gross, it was a great opportunity to humble an elitist “ministers “, and many “ve felt it” rang true for a former member of the notorious Bullingdon Club. Within minutes, #Piggate and #Hameron were trending on Twitter, and even senior politicians joined the fun: Nicola Sturgeon said the allegations had entertained the whole country, while Paddy Ashdown joked that Cameron was hogging the headlines. At first, the BBC refused to mention the allegations, and 10 Downing Street said it would not dignify the narrative with a response but soon it was forced to issue a refusal. And so a powerful human was sexually shamed, in a way that had nothing to do with his divisive politics, and in a manner that is he could never really respond to. But who cares? He could take it.
Then, after a full day of online mirth, something shocking happened. Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail journalist who had co-written the biography with Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire industrialist, went on TV and are recognizing that she did not know whether her huge, scandalous scoop was even true. Pressed to provide evidence for the sensational claim, Oakeshott acknowledged she had none.
We couldnt get to the bottom of that sources accusations, she said on Channel 4 News. So we merely reported the account that the source gave us We dont say whether we believe it to be true. In other terms, there was no evidence that the prime minister of the United Kingdom had once inserted a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead animal a narrative is available in dozens of newspapers and repeated in millions of tweets and Facebook updates, which many people presumably still believe to be true today.
Oakeshott went even further to absolve herself of any journalistic responsibility: Its up to other people to decide whether they devote it any credibility or not, she concluded. This was not, of course, the first time that outlandish asserts were published on the basis of flimsy evidence, but this was an remarkably brazen defense. It seemed that journalists were no longer required to believe their own tales to be true , nor, apparently, did they need to provide evidence. Instead it was up to the reader who does not even know the identity of the source to make up their own intellect. But based on what? Gut instinct, hunch, mood?
Does the truth matter any more?
Nine months after Britain woke up giggling at Camerons hypothetical porcine intimacies, the country arose on the morning of 24 June to the very real sight of the prime minister standing outside Downing Street at 8am, announcing his own abdication.
The British people have voted to leave the European union and their will must be respected, Cameron proclaimed. It was not a decision that was taken softly , not least because so many things were suggested by so many different organisations about the significance of this decision. So there can be no doubt about the result.
But what soon became clear was that almost everything was still in doubt. At the end of a campaign that predominated the news for months, it was suddenly obvious that the winning side had no plan for how or when the UK would leave the EU while the deceptive claims that carried the leave campaign to victory suddenly crumbled. At 6.31 am on Friday 24 June, just over an hour after the result of the EU referendum had become clear, Ukip leader Nigel Farage conceded that a post-Brexit UK would not in fact have 350 m a week spare to spend on the NHS a key assert of Brexiteers that was even emblazoned on the Vote Leave campaign bus. A few hours later, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan stated that immigration was not likely to be reduced another key claim.