No journalist can be accurate 100% of the time.  Even the most diligent reporter may overlook a crucial detail.  Facts may be accidentally sourced from unreliable sources, and if a story is ongoing, new developments may mean an article printed on a Tuesday evening could be outdated by the time it’s delivered to WHSmiths on Wednesday morning.

Journalism, then, is inherently imperfect.  Carl Bernstein, half of the famous team who broke Watergate in 1973, coined the phrase “ The best obtainable version of the truth”  to describe the bounty journalism strives to capture.  Mistakes will be made, facts omitted, facts distorted, but a good journalist will always aspire to report the most complete version of events as possible.

How do we go about finding the “Best obtainable version of the truth”, a prize which, let’s be honest, is too vague for easy definition-  If all journalism is an attenuated translation of reality, is there a definite, perfect avatar of the truth floating sharp and informative write-ups.

There are two types of research to build your story from. Primary Research finds new information, usually gathered by interviews and surveys.  Secondary research is information previously researched and organised that you take from somebody else.  These can be books, scholarly articles, statistics, videos and films.

It is important to remember that all proper journalistic writing should be the result of extensive primary research.  We call it the news for a reason, after all, and recycling old information is what clickbait sites do, not media organisations battling corruption in the name of the public interest.  Secondary research is there to pad out contextual facts and to help support new discoveries.

However, if do you use secondary research, make sure to gather it from a trustworthy source.  According to the first clause of the UK’s Editor’s Code:

  1. i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

So, in short, factcheck.   Publishing incorrect information may not only lead to expensive libel cases, but also darkens the public’s view of the press in general.   Several misconducts- the 2011 News of the World Hacking scandal, for instance- has made it possible for politicians to vilify journalism they dislike as ‘fake news’.

However, journalism is just as much about visual as written information.  Images taken and owned by employees of the media organisation can be used without limitations, providing the pictures aren’t edited to mislead the readers.  If images are gathered from external sources, it is the law that the publisher pays a fee to the copyright holder and credits them for the image.

The Public Interest: A Grey Area

The pursuit of the truth can often bring journalists and their publications into conflict with individuals, organisations and governments who will exploit every avenue to ensure their secrets are not dragged into the light.    In 2013, the British Government threatened the Guardian with an injunction for their publication of information leaked by Edward Snowden, which revealed America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ were stockpiling the private data of innocent civilians.

The Guardian possessed several files pertaining to the Snowden leaks on their computers. Oliver Robbins, Prime Minister David Cameron’s deputy secret advisor, told the news organisation’s editors.  “If you won’t return it [the Snowden material] we will have to talk to ‘other people’ this evening.”    Although the Guardian took an angle grinder to the computers before the ‘other people’ were summoned,  it was enough to prompt Labour MP Keir Starr, at the time the UK’s director of public prosecution, to draft new legislation which would better protect  journalists from legal action if their actions were justified by the public interest.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2013, he said “There are lots of examples of journalists who, on the face of it, may have broken the criminal law but have obviously pursued a greater good in doing so… That is why we wanted to issue guidelines, and our approach is very clear: first we look to see if an offence has been committed.  If an offence has been committed, we then say: did the public interest in what the journalist was trying to achieve outweigh the overall criminality, taking into account the nature of the lead, how much information there was, what they were trying to uncover”.   As you can see, working that out is fiendishly complicated.

The press is sometimes lauded as ‘The Fourth Estate’.   Why anoint chip paper with such a prestigious title?   Because, in the words of former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, “The press does not share the same aims as government, the legislature, the executive, religion or commerce.  It is, or should be, an outsider”.   This distance provides journalists with a unique vantage point where they can hold all society to account. Often, they are the only ones who will.

In January 2007, editor Clive Goodman and private hacker Glenn Mulcaire were convicted for phone hacking.  News International claimed Goodman was a rogue reporter. Editor Andy Coulson nevertheless resigns. A 2009 Press Complaints Commission found no evidence of sustained hacking.  The story might have ended there.  However, extended research and investigations by the Guardian revealed the Goodman and Mulcaire case wasn’t just an isolated offence, but epidemic across the entire industry.

Fast-forward to 2011. The Guardian publish an article by Nick Davies alleging The News of the World hacked the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old murder victim.  The News of the World are accused of interfering in a police investigation, since their journalists deleted several voicemails from Dowler’s phone that could have provided vital evidence.

It was the beginning a scandal which would stain the press’s reputation like a spurt of ink across a shirt.  A subsequent YouGov poll found 58% of adults felt their trust in the press was dented.  Now, this is understandable, but let’s ask ourselves one thing; where the hell were the police? They did not launch an official investigation into the News of the World’s practices until after Davies published his findings.  Where were the politicians?  David Cameron, in what now seems an act of blinding ignorance or sickening complicity, hired News of the World Editor Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications. Nothing would have changed until a journalist as tenacious as Davies dedicated himself to uncovering the truth.  Equally, nothing would have changed unless the Guardian supported Davies.

The Post Truth Era

One question remains.  What does costly and legally dicey research, the kind that is draining the resources of papers like the Guardian and ushering investigative journalism into an early extinction, matter in the post-truth era?   Kellyanne Conway’s invention “alternate facts” to explain away Sean Spicer’s generous estimations about Trump’s inauguration turnout was an epochal moment in modern history.   It signposted the end of an era where Bill Clinton could be impeached for lying about a tawdry affair, and the stirrings of a new politics where Trump can lie about his relationship with Steve Bannon, falsely accuse his predecessor of a felony, claim the most productive first 100 days in Presidential history without evidence,  and do so with zero pushback from the G.O.P. and, it appears, his most diehard supporters.  A poll this month found that despite historically low approval ratings, only 3% of Trump supporters regretted their vote.

Since former Secretary of Defence Michael Flynn’s resignation in February for failing to announce his connections to the Russian government, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian have launched a sustained investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Putin’s Russia.   A documentary film by BBC Newsnight showed Trump’s response to the allegations; to not respond at all.  During the press conference, which you can watch here,  Trump only talked to small, friendly Conservative outlets, sidestepping mounting evidence as if it were an idle fantasy.

Then, something happened, on the 31st March 2017.  Flynn returned, pleading for immunity against what his lawyer called “unfair prosecution”, in exchange for which he would offer his testimony on Russian connection. Since then, the story has gone curiously dark.  Maybe it will develop later; maybe it will be remembered as another of a thousand warning signs.   The real question is, why did Flynn offer to testify?

I’d wager it was because the press didn’t back away because a megalomaniacal toddler spat vitriol on their shoes.  Instead, they held steadfast to their principles.  They refused to be dismissed as fake news. They exerted pressure on the complicit.  Now there is a chance the world will be a little closer to the truth.

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