Saturday, October 6, 2012

A shameful failure of ethics at the Guardian

Readers of the Guardian newspaper in the UK rightly criticise the 'gutter' press for whipping up hysteria by pandering to the prejudices of their readers. But Friday's web version showed that the paper isn't averse to doing the same thing itself, while its readers are just as prone to moronic mob behaviour.

It began with a link on the Guardian website's front page, concerning the hunt for missing five-year old April Jones: 
 
Go to the story, and you get a video clip of notorious Sky News journalist Kay Burley interviewing someone who I presume isn't a police spokesman but seems close to the investigation. He reveals that the police are now treating the abduction as a murder investigation and that the police are now looking for "a body". 

Burley then calls across two women, to whom she was speaking earlier, to ask for their reaction. That's where it all goes wrong.

Here's the Guardian's story in full:
Sky News presenter Kay Burley on Friday chose – live on air – to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive".
Stunned, both women struggled to offer a coherent response.
Within minutes Twitter was ablaze with complaints. Tom Watson MP said Burley's questions were "insensitive bordering on cruel".
Take a look at the film to make up your own mind (start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds): do you think Burley was right to tell the volunteers?
If you retweet the story, your "suggested" tweet reads:
April Jones: was Kay Burley right to say family 'don't expect to find her alive'?
You'll notice that the Guardian urges you to start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds. This is deliberate: that way you miss the interview with the spokesman and the crucial moment when Burley calls "Donna" over. If you start watching where the Guardian tells you to, you'll probably miss the fact that Donna was standing just off camera and heard every word. A second woman then arrives, who seems to be Donna's friend and seems to have been part of an earlier interview. Here's a transcript:
Kay Burley: I want to chat to Donna who we were chatting to a little while ago. You've heard the news.
Donna (choked voice): Yeah, he's just said. ... (breaking up) I'm sorry.
Woman 2 (off): What's happened, what's happened? We haven't heard.
KB (awkwardly): OK, I didn't know you hadn't heard.
W2: No, we hadn't heard. We've been helping ... [indistinct]
KB: OK, let me just tell you what we've heard from the police - is that it's now become a murder investigation. And they have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive. I'm sorry to have to tell you in circumstances like this. Would you like to say anything or…
W2: If they haven't found her, there's a chance… (the rest of the interview is Woman 2 expressing continued hope).
That's very different from how the Guardian presents it. According to the Guardian, Burley "chose – live on air" to break the news to these women. This makes it sound like she deliberately sought them out for that purpose. But she was clearly surprised to learn that the women didn't know and was momentarily at a loss what to say. She is offering them the chance to terminate the interview but is interrupted by Woman 2, who is keen to have her say.

Donna said, "Yeah, he's just said." So Burley didn't tell her. The second woman says, "We hadn't heard." 'Hadn't heard' is the pluperfect tense, meaning she has heard now – before Burley tells her. So, contrary to what the Guardian says, Burley didn't "choose" to tell either woman the news, and she didn't do it accidentally either. Donna learned it from the spokesman, while her friend learned it either from the spokesman or from someone else off camera. 


So the Guardian is either lying in an attempt to blacken a competitor's star reporter, or it put the video up without watching it and relied for its analysis on Twitter. We can discount the latter option, because whoever wrote the un-bylined story tells us exactly where to start watching so we get the most damagingly misleading impression possible of Burley and Sky. The Guardian even adds an extra dishonest twist, saying "both women struggled to offer a coherent response" when the second woman is perfectly coherent and is keen to offer her view on camera.


The manipulation by the Guardian of its readers doesn't stop there. Compare how the Guardian reports Burley's words with what she actually said to the volunteers:
"they [the police] have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive" (Burley)
"Burley chose … to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive"." (Guardian)
There's a slight misquote - "have" becomes "having" - which enables the newspaper to give the impression that Burley spoke to the family privately and is now telling the volunteers, whereas she quite clearly said that the police had spoken to the family.

The Guardian implies that Sky is ghoulishly exploiting this tragedy. Its readers, who are invited to comment below, are far more explicit, since they are as bad as Twitter users when it comes to hysterical, ill-informed abuse of people they don't agree with:
My God, the pits…
…cruel and cynical…
…crass insensitivity…
Unnecessary, underhand and despicable…
A new low for the Murdoch empire… 
etc, etc
The Press Complaints Commission's guidance says: 
"In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests."
Since these two women were volunteers and not family, I'd question whether the guidance even applies here. Even if the women hadn't already heard the news (which they had, albeit only moments before), there's nothing wrong with a reporter clarifying the facts with two members of the public who have volunteered to be interviewed. What was she supposed to do? Tell them to wait till they could read the story in tomorrow's Guardian

I'm surprised so many people are upset that news organisations supply news to members of the public. It seems to be symptomatic of the "Sky = Murdoch = Evil" attitude that abounds post-Leveson, where even a picture of Murdoch rescuing a kitten* would be met with howls of rage from "sickened" Twitter users.

Was this a shameful piece of reporting? Yes, but by the Guardian, not Sky. It told at least two deliberate lies in order to whip up a hysterical response against a competitor, adding the reaction of Tom Watson, who has campaigned against the Murdoch media for nearly a decade and is hardly an objective voice. 

Saying "make up your own mind" to readers is truly ironic, considering the way the paper has cynically tried to manipulate their reactions from the start. 

Moral: Ethics exist at the Guardian, as long as they can be exploited for competitive advantage

*Disclaimer: Image might have been manipulated

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. A shocking story - many thanks for this.

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  2. Ethics exist at the Guardian, as long as they can be exploited for competitive advantage

    But Friday's web version showed that the paper isn't averse to doing the same thing itself, while its readers are just as prone to moronic mob behaviour.

    Sadly the Guardian also continues to encourage some quite unethical posters such as BeautifulBurnout, who regularly make accusations of paedophilia against posters who challenge their hegemony.

    http://therealuntrusted.wordpress.com/

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'd had doubts about the Grauniad ever since I heard about its practices to stop its casual subs acquiring those pesky employment rights, however the hypocrisy is, if anything, more nauseating - all the more so when it promotes its agenda with utterly fabricated stories.

    http://methuselahsdiary.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/guardian-prints-balls.html

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