VICTORIA WHITE: Post-truth society needs to know difference between fact and gossip

Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen were at the helm when the economy came to a 'shuddering halt'. Picture: Billy Higgins

Once gossip takes the place of factual news you are marking time until your democracy collapses, writes Victoria White.

"I’VE BEEN reading about you in a book,” television presenter Vincent Browne said to me in the TV3 studio. Had someone written a laudatory obituary about me before the fact, I wondered hopefully?

Eh, no. Browne had been reading Hell at the Gates: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Financial Downfall by John Lee and Irish Examiner political correspondent, Daniel McConnell. It contains excerpts from a 2009 Sunday Express story which says I was at a dinner party where I announced that my husband, then-Minister Eamon Ryan, said, among other wackier things, that the country “was on the brink of bankruptcy” and would soon “not be able to pay for social welfare or pensions”.

Dear oh dear. Quite a situation, then. The only problem was that there was no dinner party and I never said those things. The story was completely untrue.

At the time I was a full-time home-maker with four small children, one of them disabled. I hadn’t been to a dinner party in yonks and I had never spoken to anyone in the Sunday Express. I had no idea where this story came from.

My first clue as to the origin of the story came when Daniel Mc Connell, then with the Sunday Independent, was given the job of standing the story up. He rang a friend of mine, the purported source of the story, and she had no idea what he was talking about. But later, after several days, she pieced it together. The story originated in a random comment I had made in a personal conversation with her that my husband was worried about the economy.

If he hadn’t been, frankly, he could have been certified insane. This was nine months after Finance Minister Brian Lenihan had announced that the economy had come to a “shuddering halt” and we were in recession. But the random comment was repeated to someone in this woman’s close family circle who repeated it to another family member who repeated it to another family member who repeated it to another family member — I am not making this up — by which point it had become the story which the UK public had the good fortune to read in their Sunday Express.

Hell at the Gates also contains the official denial of the story and Daniel Mc Connell explained to me that the quotations and denial were included in the book to show “the madness of the times”. But I don’t believe the issue here was as much “the times” as “the media” and sadly the problem is now much worse than it was seven years ago. Media standards generally are on a different planet than they were when I started in journalism in the early 1990s.

I was endlessly mentored by patient editors until I internalised the message that I had to have sources for which I could vouch. And usually sources who could and would vouch for themselves by saying: “Yes I said that and here’s why.” I don’t know how many times my beloved stories were ripped apart by boring middle-aged men and women in bad navy suits. I remember the shiver of fear I felt when an editor said to me: “I’ve just taken a First Class libel out of your copy.” Bit by bit I conformed to the point that as an editor I did, occasionally, do the same for other writers.

I remember being marched up to present my pathetic cassette recordings to the editor’s office of a national broadsheet. Because no matter how tedious, unattractive, unengaging the copy sometimes was, it was never unfounded.

I remember picking up a copy of the National Enquirer on my first trip to the US and asking, “What’s this?” It was my first introduction to gossip as news and bit by bit, I came to distinguish it from real news. Nowadays, gossip usually comes our way via the Internet and I immediately dismiss it as such. Which isn’t to say I don’t sometimes click on the links because I enjoy gossip as much as the next woman.

But once gossip takes the place of factual news you are marking time until your democracy collapses. Arguably, the US reached that point last month, as outlandish lies were peddled as facts across the media. Writing about this phenomenon this week in The Irish Times, the journalist Una Mulally quoted research showing we pass on gossip to build social hierarchies. Reading bad things about other people makes us feel good. Which might explain why certain UK newspapers were attracted to the gossip concerning this country’s economy in 2009.

Meanwhile, factual news sources like this newspaper and other respected newspapers face a battle for survival. They can’t manufacture the daily sensations which a gossip-based outfit can. They invest thousands of man-hours costing millions of euro making all those boring fact-checking visits and phone-calls. As well as attracting advertising, they have to charge a cover price for the printed copy and eventually, for online copy too.

That cover price is buying the reader something a free news source can’t offer and that’s facts. If the facts are proved not to be facts the record is corrected, according to the regulations to which newspapers like this one sign up under the National Press Council.

But only insiders understand what membership of the National Press Council means. There is no education or publicity programme, either for school-children or for the general public, which clearly explains the difference between fact-based news and second, third, or even fourth-hand gossip.

The Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, spoke about the so-called “post-truth” society recently in an excellent speech at the National Newspaper Awards at the Mansion House. She noted how, in the run-up to the US election, expressions like “nasty woman” had become statements of fact. She spoke of peoples’ desire for stories which are not true but are “truthy”, like that the NHS would have millions more to spend if the UK left the EU.

Frances Fitzgerald
Frances Fitzgerald

And she gave a warning: “Abandoning facts is actually a form of censorship because ultimately people are deprived of the truth.” That didn’t happen in that small story in which I had a cameo role in 2009 because although the Sunday Independent had laid the article out on its front page it was spiked for lack of a credible source. It wasn’t a great story, anyway, but who knows what might have been made of it had it entered the international game of Chinese Whispers?

Standards matter so much that without them our democracy is finished. We are already at five minutes to midnight here. Government and industry need an urgent new focus on separating facts from gossip in the media and telling a new generation what is the difference between the two.

Hell at the Gates: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Financial Downfall by John Lee and Daniel McConnell is published by Mercier Press.


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