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Rule No.1 in journalism: Stick to the facts

Oh for heaven’s sake. When you buy a national newspaper you kind of expect the standard of journalism – and I don’t just mean the writing – to be extremely high. You expect to be informed, told something you didn’t know or encouraged to look at something in a way you hadn’t thought of before.

The main story on the front page of this Sunday’s Observer told us how the Prime Minister David Cameron was now under huge pressure regarding the referendum on membership of the European Union – you know, the one that he proposed and virtually every party except UKIP said the country didn’t need.

According to the opening paragraph, the pressure on Cameron had intensified. Gosh, why is that? Well, apparently because Andy Burnham had said that the PM needed to bring the referendum forward by a year and make sure it was fair. Oh, right.

Hang on, you mean the Andy Burnham who is currently appearing on every kind of media in his bid to become the next Labour party leader (for this comment was from a double-page spread interview The Observer had done with the man)? The same Andy Burnham who ran the election campaign for the Labour party – the party whose then leader Ed Miliband had categorically written off any suggestion that a referendum was needed?

Well, the news is that Labour has been forced to change its collective mind. Stung by the fact that British people despise being told what they can and cannot do by politicians (and, I would suggest, newspapers), Labour has apparently done a total u-turn on the referendum. You have to face reality, they say. If they believe that then surely they should apologise to Nick Clegg for the hard time they gave him over doing his own about-face on tuition fees.

When you operate in the real world, sometimes you have to ditch what you say you believe in. But it is a bit rich if you then start to preach to the already converted about how to implement something that you never used to support. “We now want a referendum but we think it should be done this way and within this timescale,” was essentially what Burnham was saying.

But my beef is with The Observer’s journalism. The story was seriously suggesting that Cameron would go into a panic after reading an interview between a Labour-supporting newspaper and a Labour politician. Nobody but nobody seriously believed that anything had changed in Cameron’s head. No additional pressure was forcing itself on to his cranium. The whole story – remember, the lead story on a national Sunday newspaper – read like a piece written by the Labour party’s press office and nobody in the Tory party was going to be the least bit bothered by it.

Oh, and the other “pressure” being applied to the PM? Apparently, some of his “senior backbenchers” had “broken cover” and were starting to make demands about the referendum. Once again, give over. Nobody was ever under cover, we all know who the so-called eurosceptic Tory MPs are and we know that – just as journalists were writing about the rupture of the coalition government the day after it was formed – there would be a whole stream of stories about how a Tory government would tear itself apart. It may well down the line, although most serious observers don’t believe that, but to write about such a “crisis” just a week into the new government? Come. On.

There are countless horrendous things happening in the world, even in the UK. There is obscene poverty, the food banks haven’t suddenly gone away, there are still children being abused, there are still elderly people being eased out of this world prematurely in hospitals, there are still major injustices happening – but a supposedly serious national newspaper chooses to lead on its front page with a story that a) repeats points from its own interview just a few pages further on, b) is clear party political propaganda and – this is the key point – c) opens with a statement that has no basis in fact.

Serious national newspaper journalists are meant to deal in facts, not speculation. So where is the proof that David Cameron has found himself under any more pressure on Sunday morning than he was under on Saturday night, simply because a Labour politician had made a demand in an interview in his bid to look like a good leader? It was stated – and one of the authors of the piece was the newspaper’s political editor – that pressure had mounted on the PM following Burnham’s statement. Really? 

Journalists baulk at any suggestion that the political affiliations of the organisation they work for influence how and what they write. But it is very clear from this piece that the journalists are themselves trying to influence the reader. I don’t care who you work for – the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun or The Observer – or whatever your personal beliefs are, no journalist should produce something that is (knowingly) factually incorrect.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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