Press: The small matter of truthfulness

30 January 2008

by Andrew Brown

Only here: Dr Sentamu’s gift to the Pope, in Tuesday’s Guardian

Only here: Dr Sentamu’s gift to the Pope, in Tuesday’s Guardian

IMAGINE a near-riot in which hundreds of Islamic protesters shut down a hospital in a great world city for hours. They were trying to stop medical tests being conducted on the corpse of a Muslim driver who had crashed his car. During the protest, ambulances could not come in or out.

Six squad cars and three unmarked vans full of police were present before the confrontation was resolved. Wouldn’t that be news?

Imagine, further, that this is Sydney, where there were fairly serious riots three years ago between Muslims and whites. Well, someone else imagined it before you did, and the results are up on Damian Thompson’s Daily Telegraph blog, where he writes: “After the death of a young Muslim man in a car crash in Sydney last month, an Islamic crowd invaded a hospital in order to stop medical tests being carried out on the body in contravention of Sharia law, according to the Dhimmi Watch website. If the report is true, then this is another example of a global campaign by fundamentalist Muslims to replace civil law by Sharia — a process that has already taken root in British cities.”

He goes on to say: “The Australian story is quite extraordinary” before the alarm bells ring: “As Dhimmi Watch points out, it is based on an anonymous report.” It is also meant to have happened a month ago, and there has been no mention of anything like the story in the Australian media.

Mr Thompson’s next sentence — “I’d be interested if anyone can stand it up” — is the most shocking I have read from him in his 25 years as a journalist, much of them spent trying to shock people. Never mind whether The Daily Telegraph expects its leader-writers to check their facts: he couldn’t have published that in the Reading Chronicle.


One reason why Damian Thompson and I are paid for our work, and the people who comment on it are not, is that we know how to stand things up, or knock them down. In the age of the internet, that is not hard. It took me less than five minutes to track the story to its source, a blog run by a fascist sympathiser in Sydney whose blog roll contains only three British sites, all run by BNP members, and two links to Serbian nationalists, as well as links to American right-wing extremists such as Ann Coulter and “Family Security Matters”.

Even before clicking on these links, the casual reader might have been tipped off about its nature by a button saying “proud to be Islamophobic”. I also checked the Fairfax local-paper archives, which had no mention of the story.

Mr Thompson had not even done that. When I rang him to get an explanation, he told me: “I did say it was being reported by one of America’s leading anti-Islamic websites. It is based on an anonymous report.” Did he think it was, in fact, true? Long pause. “I have got some correspondence with somebody who has got a contact inside the hospital.”

Again, this is not something I would like to explain to a newsdesk who wanted to know why my story was true. Why didn’t you ring the Sydney stringer to have them check it out, I asked. “We haven’t got one any more; or we may have, but we got rid of our superstringer,” he replied.

I asked whether a story so badly sourced would go into the paper rather than on a blog, and he said that of course it could go into an opinion piece, which is what his blog is, but that you couldn’t use it as a news story.

This seems to me ridiculous. Opinion pieces don’t have to be true, but they are meant to justify themselves with evidence that is not in itself made up. One need only read the comments on his blog, and on “Jihadwatch”, to realise that this story is being treated as both true and illuminating by people all around the world.

The last piece on Mr Thompson’s blog was an excoriation of the Catholic Media Office because it had not published the text of Pope Benedict’s “Message for the 42nd World Communications Day”, a homily that struck me as balls-achingly platitudinous; but perhaps he should himself reread the section dealing with truth and the internet: “Today, communication seems increasingly to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the force of suggestion that it possesses. It is clear, for example, that in certain situations the media are used not for the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to ‘create’ events.”


IN FACT, all you need to create events is a bottle of beer: Riazat Butt got one third of a page in The Guardian for a story about Dr Sentamu’s visit to Rome. This covered all the bases normally dismissed by newsdesks as worthy but dull: Christian unity, looking after the poor, and even the Church’s views on asylum-seekers. Her secret was to notice that the Archbishop had presented his holiness with a bottle of specially brewed Yorkshire Ale — Masham’s Holy Grail, to be precise.

What neither she nor any of the clergymen involved seem to have noticed was the slogan on the bottom of the label: “Tempered over burning witches”.

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