Address by Professor John Horgan to Journalism Society, UCC

Wednesday, 25th February 2009
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Extract from remarks by the Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan
Journalism Society, University College, Cork
Thursday 19 February 2009 at 11 am

“The past does not exist. There are only infi nite renderings of it”
Ryszard Kapuscinski Travels with Herodotus

At first sight, the sentence above sounds like heresy – at least to journalists. Journalism is about what happened, isn’t it? If only life were so simple.

It is interesting to note, first of all, that this sentence was written by a journalist – one of Europe’s most
distinguished and respected journalists, who spent many years as a foreign correspondent, ranging far and
wide from his native Poland. And Herodotus, who perhaps deserves the title of the first journalist, said (among many other things): “I am obliged to record things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them.”

It should be pinned up above every journalist’s desk.

So, what is journalism about, if the past does not exist?

As Kapuscinski points out, journalism is not a replication of the past, but a rendering of it. If the past existed, it could be described, and there would be no need for journalists, or for historians either, and newspapers would be a lot less interesting. It may be true, as some have suggested, that journalism represents the first draft of history – but only if we also accept that all histories are drafts.

Let me take a practical, if hypothetical, example. A government minister made a speech last night. That is true, accurate, and complete in itself. Nobody could take issue with it. It is something that happened. But it is not “the past.” And it’s not very interesting, is it?

It is the “rendering” of the speech that makes it interesting. Let’s look at our minister’s speech again.
“Minister launches attack on critics”
“Minister defends government’s record”
“Minister apologises for past errors”
These are all interpretations, or renderings, of the minister’s speech, in Kapuscinski’s phrase. Although they all say quite different things, they may all be true. The gap between fact and comment narrows – it is quite common today to see what could be described as “news with attitude” and which does not fit comfortably into either category. Also, the gap between what actually happened and the journalist’s interpretation of what happened can be illustrated by remembering that if the minister said 100 things, and the journalist chose to report only 99 of them, that selection, the omission of even one fact, ‘renders’ only a version of a past which, in spite of the plethora of witnesses and evidence, will never satisfy everyone that that is what happened, including (and sometimes especially) other people who were actually present.

And what the minister said is only one part of the past that the journalist is attempting to describe. Was his manner defiant? Contrite? Good-tempered? Was he sober? Did his socks match? Did he answer questions, or refuse to answer them? Did the meeting actually take place? How much of this information should be included? Should any of it?

That last question may surprise you. But the public may not be aware that, particularly at election times,
politicians who are reported as “addressing election workers in Ballymagash last night” may never have been anywhere near Ballymagash on the night in question, and may not even be aware that their party propaganda machine has churned out this speech and allocated it to them. Under-staffed newspapers cannot send reporters to every public event – although they should probably send reporters to more than they actually do – and so more of our “news” than you might suspect is virtual. The selection that is made includes a selection from events that might never have taken place at all. Canny public relations releases carry a health warning: “Check against delivery”. How often are the checks made?

Selection is the basis of journalism, and selection itself is based on value judgments. That is, in part, what
journalism and editing is about – offering a version of the past based on a selection of events, that, in spite of all its limitations, is the best effort of a team of dedicated and skilful people to present something that is both coherent and credible. That does not mean it is perfect.

Let me give you some other examples, more concrete ones this time, of the impossibility of newspapers
recording the past in a way that satisfies everyone. The first is obvious: the Mahon Tribunal. This and the other tribunals, I will remind you, have been set up, not to pronounce on the guilt or innocence of the people involved, but to establish the facts of events that occurred between ten and twenty years ago – a flea-bite of time in historical terms, and a period for which there are plenty of living witnesses.

Hand on heart, can anyone say that when this and other tribunals have reported, we will be any closer to an agreed version of what actually happened? The version in a tribunal report may be persuasive; but it will inevitably be incomplete, it can and will be contested, and it cannot, of its very nature, be definitive. It will be simply the best information we have to go on at the present time – and, in this, it will, to some degree, resemble your daily newspaper.

The Mahon Tribunal is trying to establish the facts (and not all of them, only some of them), at a cost of
hundreds of millions of euro and over a period of an entire decade. In this context, the wonder is not that
newspapers, who have neither the resources nor the time available to tribunals, make mistakes from time to time, but that they do not make many more.

This is not an excuse for inaccuracy; but it puts it in a different context.

Take – as another example – the recent poll about the government and the public service levy. One headline read: “Pension levy is opposed by a small majority of voters”. It sounds like the famous headline that won a staff prize in the London Times for being the most boring headline that anyone could imagine “Small earthquake in Peru – Not Many Dead”.

Another on the same poll read: “Voters split on public service levy”. And both headlines, saying things that were quite different but not inconsistent and not inaccurate, were in the same newspaper. In fairness, the newspaper pointed out that the margin of error was three per cent. That being the case, the 47% who disapproved of the pensions levy could have been 44% - and the 41% who approved of it could also have been 44% (although the paper did not actually draw readers’ attention to this interesting possibility)!

More interestingly, a headline on another report told us that voters were divided about the recent package of government cuts, and the fi rst part of the story noted that “a significant proportion of voters believe that the €2 billion savings package announced by the Government last week was too tough.”

Further down the story, however, we were informed that although 38% of voters described the savings package as too tough, a total of 51% described it as either about right or not tough enough! So, which percentage was the more “significant”?

Again – and this is a personal gripe of mine rather than a major issue, but one which I think is worth mentioning – am I not correct in thinking that “voters” is the word properly used to describe people who are voting in an election; that “respondents” is the word that should be used to describe people of voting age who are responding to a public opinion poll; and that they are not necessarily the same people?

I’ll give you another example of the hazards of recording the past.

Twice a year, figures are released itemizing either the circulation or the readership figures for our national newspapers for the previous six months.

You can get hours, or at least a few minutes, of innocent amusement by comparing the treatment of exactly the same figures in the different newspapers concerned. Each newspaper unashamedly plucks from the mass of figures, and highlights, those statistics that best suit its own purposes, and downplays – sometimes even suppresses – information that displays it in a less favourable light than its competitors. If the news is all bad for a particular title, chances are that its readers will not be offered any information at all on the topic.

At least these figures are available and verifi able. What about web-site traffic figures? There is a need for
equivalent transparency here, just as there is a need – which newspapers themselves are in a prime position to meet – to demand independent verifi cation of the figures for website traffic that are thrown around like snuff at a wake by some commercial web-based organizations, and indeed by web-based rivals to the newspapers themselves.

In part, perhaps, because of the difficulties of describing the past, the press sometimes takes refuge in predicting the future. Predictions have the great advantage of being cost-free. If they are wrong, who remembers? And, even if they are remembered, who cares? What might happen always engages readers’ imaginations, and engaging a reader’s imagination is often the quickest way to his wallet. But there are times when I wonder whether readers are really well served when the balance in the press is tilted away from material that is verifiable and towards speculation and multiple hypotheses.

Take the example of the MMMR vaccine story. The view that the MMMR vaccine is a cause of autism in
children has no credible scientific foundation. The so-called research on which it was based has been debunked regularly. And yet it still crops up even now from time to time in contexts which suggest strongly that either newspapers have dispensed totally with their filing systems, or that they prefer to rely on the wilder shores of the internet for what passes for scientific comment and information. This isn’t cost-free, either: the cost is born by those children who are unnecessarily subject to a range of serious illnesses that we thought we had conquered. This should give us pause for thought.

There is a phenomenon which can be observed both in journalism and in politics, and which has sometimes been described as the Law of Maximum Consequence. I will leave the politicians to answer for themselves.

Journalists, however, will be familiar with it. It consists of working out what just possibly might happen, at some indeterminate date in the future, if a number of other things (that also might happen) happen first, and then predicting that, as a matter of certainty, it actually will happen.

This might also be described as the Chicken Licken Theory. It is particularly useful on a slow news day. It is
often amusing, and quite harmless. But does it leave us any wiser? And should part of the job of the press be
not just to entertain us but to make us wiser – even a little bit wiser and better informed?

But just because the press is prone to all these faults does not mean that it should be thrown on the trash-heap of history. Although the press can, does and sometimes even should publish rumour, it also has the prime responsibility of distinguishing rumour from fact, and in this way contributing to the value and effi cacy of the political and other decisions made by the public at large.

News is also different from any other consumer good in ways that are critically important for democracy.
If a consumer buys a box of chocolates and eats them, nobody else can eat them: but the news he buys in
a newspaper can be shared without being destroyed, and can even be shared indefi nitely without further
payment. One of the wonders of the press still is, in fact, that something that is so valuable costs so little.
This does not mean that there are no legitimate concerns about the press. It is precisely because the press’s
ability to record the past is necessarily limited, prone to error and distortion, and on occasion open to challenge, and because the press itself recognizes this, that we now have a Press Council and a Press Ombudsman.

This does of itself not guarantee perfection. Nothing in this world can. But it is an honest and serious attempt by the press to say to its readers and advertisers: because we know we can make mistakes, and because we value our reputation and believe in accountability for ourselves as well as for everyone else, we are setting up a structure which we do not control to monitor our Code of Practice and tell us when we get things wrong.

It is a way of saying: this is the proof that we value what we do, warts and all. As Press Ombudsman, I share those beliefs, and my job is to defend the values of public service journalism, and, with the Press Council, to oversee the standards without which public service journalism will become a dead letter.