On The Eye our Editor Phil Parry has described how he was helped to break into the South Wales Echo office car when he was a cub reporter, recalled his early career as a journalist, the importance of experience in the job, and making clear that the ‘calls’ to emergency services as well as court cases are central to any media operation.
He has also explored how poorly paid most journalism is when trainee reporters had to live in squalid flats, the vital role of expenses, and about one of his most important stories on the now-scrapped 53 year-old BBC Cymru Wales (BBC CW) TV Current Affairs series, Week In Week Out (WIWO), which won an award even after it was axed, long after his career really took off.
Phil has explained too how crucial it is actually to speak to people, the virtue of speed as well as accuracy, why knowledge of ‘history’ is vital, how certain material was removed from TV Current Affairs programmes when secret cameras had to be used, and some of those he has interviewed.
After disclosing why investigative journalism is needed now more than ever although others have different opinions, and how information from trusted sources is crucial at this time of crisis, here he looks at the dangers posed today by fake news and conspiracy theories.
The current coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown crisis has provoked more ridiculous theories than have ever been seen before, and underline the important fact that all stories must be checked before publication.
The myths about the virus include the absurd notion that the disease can be cured by drinking methanol, which has led to more than 700 deaths in Iran, and that it is spread by 5G transmitters, which has convinced arsonists in the UK to carry out more than 90 attacks on phone towers.
Just as the virus lodges in people’s lungs, dangerous ideas are infecting their minds.
A key ingredient of today’s conspiracy theories is the rapid worldwide transmission of this nonsense by the internet.
In March a poll by Gallup of 28 countries on four continents found that in all of them, at least 16 per cent (and as many as 58 per cent) of people thought Covid-19 was being deliberately spread.
A clip of a film called ‘Plandemic’, which claims that a shadowy elite started the outbreak for profit, was uploaded on May 4 and within a week it had been seen eight million times.
Its star, Judy Mikovits, has topped Amazon’s bestseller list.
A study published in Nature in May found that, although pro-vaccine Facebook (FB) users outnumber anti-vaccine ones, the anti-vaxxers are better at forging links with non-aligned groups like school parents’ associations, so their numbers are growing faster.
Among Americans, exposure to social media is associated with a greater likelihood of believing that the US Government created the virus or that officials exaggerate its seriousness.
In April the broadcasting regulator, OFCOM, censured a tiny TV station called London Live for airing part of an interview with David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who believes the pandemic is a hoax.
At the time of OFCOM’s ruling six million people had viewed the full interview on YouTube, which is outside their jurisdiction.
Sadly this kind of ridiculous stuff is being aired more than ever now.
Just hours after the notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, wild and unsubstantiated theories about the death began to circulate on the internet.
Many rumours have centred on what politicians allegedly may have known about Epstein’s crimes and whether some could have wanted him dead.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was the case, and yet, the hashtag #EpsteinMurder trended worldwide.
Perhaps the most far-fetched conspiracy theories were pegged to the hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount, which both trended on Twitter afterwards.
The first was primarily used by Conservatives to suggest that former ‘first couple’ Bill and Hillary Clinton were linked to Epstein’s death.
The latter, perhaps predictably, was used by liberals who speculated that Donald Trump was somehow involved, but neither side had any evidence.
The baseless theory of the Clinton’s involvement harks back to a long-running conspiracy theory that originated in the 1990s and claims the couple secretly kill their enemies.
The appalling recent case of the fantasist Carl Beech, is another one where wild conspiracy theories were central.
They were, unfortunately, believed by the police.
Beech had ‘told’ the authorities of a high-ranking paedophile ring in which children were murdered.
He came to public notice five years ago on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News, and was being ‘questioned’ by the reporter Tom Symonds.
But the ‘questions’ were unbelievable.
This is an extract of what Beech (who used the pseudonym ‘Nick’) was asked: “They were sexually abusing you? (Yes) And they seem to have been powerful enough to keep this hidden? (Yes) It’s amazing. There seems to have been quite an organised network to allow this to happen? (Yes)”.
The former Labour MP, and one time deputy leader of his party, Tom Watson warned about “a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10″.
The same day, on ITV’s This Morning, the presenter Phillip Schofield brandished a sheet of paper in front of David Cameron, claiming it was a list of Tory paedophiles that he had “found on the internet”.
For 18 months between 2014 and 2016, Beech was the star witness in a high-profile police investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and murder, involving MPs, generals and senior figures in the intelligence service.
He was even helped by detectives to get a claim processed that he had previously made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, following the ridiculous allegations he had made.
What Beech said was all a complete fabrication and he is now serving a jail term of 18 years–sentenced for 12 counts of perverting the course of justice, one of fraud, and for several child sexual offences.
But this is not the first time that police and news about their antics have been in the dock.
The BBC too is culpable, and after being in the organisation for 23 years I know this only too well.
Over a picture of an alleged crook the awful words were used: “Is it by any chance the same man?”.
Of course it wasn’t the same man, who then sued and won.
In investigations you NEVER use the words “Is it by any chance the same man?”!
It either IS or it ISN”T!
During many years in journalism, I know that a mantra for our stories on The Eye must be: CHECK YOUR FACTS!
This was also put centre stage for me in the example of BBC Three’s Stacey Dooley presenting a Panorama (which I have fronted) about the treatment of women by Islamic State (IS).
Ms Dooley had earlier boasted of how being an ‘untrained journalist’ made her better able to connect with people and has been described as “ratings dynamite” in UK newspapers.
She has even been given a £250,000 ‘golden handcuffs’ deal by The BBC to work only for the public broadcaster.
Perhaps inevitably, she made a terrible mistake in that episode of Panorama.
The programme was called ‘Stacey Meets the IS Brides’ and Ms Dooley’s voice over HAD said:“We saw women raising their index finger in an IS salute”.
But this was completely wrong and several viewers who had seen the trailer about it, criticised Ms Dooley’s comment on Twitter, explaining that Muslims often use this gesture while praying.
One said a complaint had been made to OFCOM.
BBC journalist Anisa Subedar tweeted: “Raising the finger is NOT an IS salute. Does #StaceyDooley know us Muslims raise it everytime we pray (that’s 5 times a day) to remind us of the oneness of God?”
After a deluge of complaints The BBC was forced to apologise, and announced that the episode was to be re-edited before its broadcast.
Another fundamental tenet of journalism, which evidently the police did not apply in the Beech case, is: USE YOUR COMMON SENSE!
Obviously anyone who comes to you with a story about children being murdered, should be treated with extreme caution.
Frankly this is unlikely to be true and you need evidence–yet it seems the Metropolitan Police believed Beech without this.
A top detective wrongly called the allegations “credible and true” before his force had even completed the inquiries.
Many years ago when I was training to be a journalist, the head instructor had a golden rule: CHECK, CHECK, CHECK!
I still follow this rule today.
It’s a shame that neither the police nor Ms Dooley do.
Not to mention all those conspiracy theorists…
Tomorrow – the extraordinary row on the world’s biggest research tool website which has also published claims that a controversial Welsh nationalist website is ‘apolitical’ when its ‘Editor’ supports independence for Wales.
The memories of Phil’s astonishing 36-year award-winning career in journalism as he was gripped by Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now!
If you need something to keep the children entertained during these uncertain times (in Welsh) try Ffwlbart Ffred about the amusing stories of Ffred and his pet.