When Facts Get in the Way

British newspaper writing is famously more vigorous and readable than its American equivalent. But this comes at a price: there’s a good chance that anything you read in a British newspaper isn’t true.

British newspaper writing is famously more vigorous and readable than its American equivalent. But this comes at a price: there’s a good chance that anything you read in a British newspaper isn’t true.

When I worked as a leader writer for an American ­paper I was embarrassed when I was told that it was official policy not to trust any item in any British paper except the FT. American journalists work within a stringent code of ethics. If a journalist for a major paper or TV network is found to have run a false story — perhaps because it was “too good to check” — then his or her career is generally over. In Britain, getting caught telling or repeating a lie is much less serious than cheating on expenses. This is especially true in the world of foreign reporting.

Take the broadsheet reporters who claimed there had been a massacre at “Jeningrad” in the West Bank on the dubious word of a single source. Even after all parties to the conflict pointed out that this massacre was a fantasy, the hoodwinked correspondents retained the trust of their editors.

There was the highly regarded foreign correspondent who won a prize for articles which included an interview with a top Taleban official who turned out not to exist at all.

Nevertheless I continued to insist to my American bosses that we should generally trust British papers. Then I came across a story in an English broadsheet announcing that a British Special Boat Service commando was being considered for the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. After forwarding the piece to my boss, I was assigned to write a leader about this wonderful example of transatlantic appreciation.

The defence correspondent of the British broadsheet in question had given no source for his claim. But less than five minutes research revealed that it was legally impossible for foreigners to be awarded the Medal of Honor. (The SBS commando did exist and had fought with extraordinary bravery.) Nevertheless the broadsheet had reported a mere rumour as fact. Apparently it was one of those stories that are simply “too good to check.”

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