21/10/2006

Withdrawn!

Anyone who's watched cool American crime dramas on TV, where lawyers battle it out in the courtroom in front of a bemused jury, knows the slick, crafty lawyer's trick of saying something dodgy and then blithely saying, 'withdrawn,' before they get told off by the judge. We know it's a crafty lawyer's trick because the jury have already heard the comment and can't unhear it, and the lawyer - especially if it's the bad guy's lawyer - knows that too. That's why they said the thing they withdrew in the first place.

The tabloids use this weaselly trick all the time. The form it takes when they do it is that they'll make some kind of outlandish claim in a headline, and then bury the truth in the text of the article, often in quite a confusing way.

This pays off if there's ever a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about some crazy headline. You can see this in the PCC's defence of the complaint about the 'Bombers are all spongeing asylum seekers' headline I posted about in 'Daily Express headlines worth the paper they're written on?' The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom says:
[the PCC] pointed out that: ‘While the Commission had previously censured newspapers for front-page headlines that have been insufficiently clarified or qualified by the following article – particularly by text that appeared within the body of the newspaper – it did not consider that that this example raised a similar breach of the code. The terms of the headline were clarified in the body of the article on the front page – that the two men had previously been "given sanctuary" by Britain and had therefore been involved in seeking asylum – and the Commission considered that readers would not have been misled as a result’. However, as noted above, the article itself, as well as the headline, claimed that the men were asylum seekers.
So, because the article somewhere says that the people concerned had been given sanctuary, the PCC claims that it's okay to incorrectly label them asylum seekers in the headline. I found this out at first hand earlier this year, when I complained about the article 'Free housing for asylum seekers from the EU' on the grounds that there is no such thing as an asylum seeker from the EU. The PCC defended the paper by saying that because the article says that the people it refers to have been granted asylum, it's okay to call them asylum seekers in the headline. (It shouldn't be. The PCC's own guidelines say, "an “asylum seeker” is someone currently seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection," and people granted sanctuary are not doing that).

This, "withdrawn!" tactic has been used to great effect recently. The Mail has alleged terrorist connections where there are none and the Express has created a completely misleading headine concerning the costs of the case. In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned a made up figure that appeared in a Mail headline about the number of kids who speak English as a second language.

There are problems with allowing newspapers to use this tactic. The main one is that people might not read much more that a headline if they're skimming. And in the case of big, front page headlines, most people won't read past the headlines at all if they're not going to buy the paper.

Also, let's not forget that a paper's readership is likely to share the paper's political views and biases. So if a paper says two contradictory things, a committed reader is likely to accept the paper's implication as true if it fits with their preconceived ideals. A reader who already thinks there's an immigration crisis is likely to accept inflated figures over actual ones.

Journalists are trained to write articles with the most important information up front precisely because readers are unlikely to penetrate too far into an article. So, when the Mail ran the headline, 'Schools overwhelmed as 1 in 5 speak English as a second language,' it's incredibly unlikely that the editor didn't know that most readers wouldn't get as far as the very last paragraph, where the paper mentions that the actual figure for secondary schools is 1 in 10. It's also highly unlikely that he didn't know that separating this information from the figure of 1 in 8 for primary schools by 24 paragraphs would make it difficult for readers to put the two together and realise just how far from the true figures the headline was.

So papers are pretty much given carte blanche to make up any old rubbish they like as long as the correct information is included somewhere in the article - and they can make that information as difficult to pull out as they like. They can even use the same misleading information as the headline in the article itself - both the 'Free housing...' and 'Bombers are all spongeing...' articles both called the people involved 'asylum seekers' within the text of the story.

The legal system (in the US at least) allows for lawyers to withdraw a statement because there's really nothing else they can do if they've said something wrong without meaning to. We think the lawyers who do it are weaselly because we know they're taking advantage of that rule to deliberately say something they know they shouldn't. Newspaper editors clearly know when their headlines are misleading. If the true information is buried somewhere within the article, they clearly know what that information is. That's why headlines (and articles, for that matter) like the one in my last post are so nasty. The journalists and editor all know there's no connection between Aisha Amzi and terrorism - that's why they say so in the middle of the article. And yet they still run an article implying one, with the headline 'Veil teacher link to 7/7 bomber'.

They know that a fair number of readers will either not get as far as the 'no suggestion that Miss Amzi or anyone else in her family have any connection with terrorism' sentence, or not give it their full attention. Not to mention the sentence that states how unlikely it is that Ms Azmi visits the mosque anyway - which directly contradicts its earlier statement about Ms Amzi playing a key role at the mosque. And they also know that the paper's readers who already think of Muslims as being connected to terrorism will believe the implication rather than the disclaimers.


Like the weaselly lawyer who knows that they've already planted the idea they've withdrawn in the jury's mind, the paper's editor knows they've already planted the idea the facts contradict in their readers' mind.

Just ask yourself this. Would a paper that was at all interested in telling its readers the truth do this?

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