Thursday, 11 March 2010

Checking facts

***This is a cross post from the BBC College of Journalism***

Back in 1988 - yes, it really was that long ago - the former BBC Director General, John Birt (he was DDG and Head of News at the time), told the Royal Television Society that it would be a good idea to introduce 'fact checkers' into BBC newsrooms.

Brows creased on wise old heads and there was tittering throughout newsland.

This was a horrid US idea. And, anyway, wasn't that the point of BBC News? That it checked the facts?

But JB was serious.

I know this because shortly before his speech he and I were in Atlanta for the Democrats' Convention. I ran into him just after I'd interviewed a Native American 'chief' who wanted Michael Dukakis (he was the, now forgotten, Democrats' choice to confront George Bush MkI) to pledge the return of a mountain range to his tribe.

JB asked if I'd checked whether the chief's claims were valid in law. I hadn't ... but mid-admission he dropped the filling of his Taco Bell on his shoe and our focus was diverted.

In the event, fact-checkers were not bussed in and BBC journalists got on with checking their facts themselves.

But some journalists were chippy for tribal reasons. One, a more youthful (back in 1988) Christopher Hitchins, wrote in the Miami News (no, me neither) that fact-checking:

" ... sounds innocuous, even scrupulous, but it is a snare and a delusion. It usurps the idea of authorship, with its concomitant responsibilities, and indicates a vague, mediocre neutrality."

Getting the facts right a "snare and delusion"? Hmmm. Does "authorship" trump verification and veracity?

It's much the row that's blown up around the celebrated (and brilliant) Polish foreign correspondent and author, Ryszard Kapuscinski.

A new book - 'Kapuscinski Non-Fiction' by Artur Domoslawski - has stirred up a row over the journalist's 'non-fiction' by suggesting rather a lot of it (his books rather than news dispatches) stepped over the line into fiction.

Kapuscinski was without doubt a great storyteller - Travels With Herodotus an excellent example. But should it matter that in his books, 'literary' truth may have tainted his account of facts?

Journalist and author Neal Ascherson argues perhaps not - there is such a thing as "literary reportage" where:

"You're meant to believe what you are being told, but not in every literal detail.

In the end, there is no floodlit wire frontier between literature and reporting. All we can insist on is that a literary text is not presented as a verbatim transcript."

Tim Garton Ash, another admirer of Kapuscinski, takes a harder line:

"There are, it seems to me, few more responsible callings for a human being armed with a pen than that of being a veracious witness to great and grave events.

But if I say I saw that, then I saw that. It was not in a different street, at a different time, or told me by someone else over a drink at the hotel bar."

But here's the thing: we can debate this as journalists and - perhaps - cut ourselves the slack that allows us to persuade ourselves that usually verification trumps all ... but come on!? Every time?

And, anyway, what is truth? Etc. Etc.

But what do you think happens when you ask non-journalists? Aka, the audience?

Correct. They expect "witness" to be just that. And even though they don't expect all viewpoints to be the same - no two witnesses ever agree - they do expect facts to be ... well, facts.

And that expectation extends to political argument. When I was at Today, I'd often get emails from members of the audience asking, in the middle of some complex row, 'who's right?'

That's why Today's new partnership with More or Less presenter Tim Harford is so welcome.

Its first task - trying to sort out the Michael Gove and Ed Balls spat over how many pupils who receive free school lunches get into Oxbridge, an important indicator of social mobility. While Channel 4's Cathy Newman ran the rule over the same debate on the C4 'FactCheck' pages.

It's important that both Today and C4 are following in the footsteps of the daddy-of-them-all fact-checking site, Annenberg's FactCheck - especially during an election campaign, when our audiences probably have less time than normal for "literary" truth. And, as FactCheck found, once you begin you have an endless supply of claims to check and arguments to calibrate.

And an audience grateful that at last someone is answering their question - or at least trying to - 'who's right?'

Fact checking, John, but not as you knew it.

1 comment:

joelflynn said...

Hi Kevin, I was at you Bournemouth University talk on Monday. Your discussion led me to write a blog post about the ethics of 'off the record.' I was wondering if you had any comments on it?