JOURNALISTS who insist that what they write is The Truth — rather than what they have been told is the truth — are at best misguided and at worst liars. Readers who believe that what they read is always the unvarnished depiction of events are, similarly, either fools or hapless dupes.
There are several reasons for inaccuracies. First, there's the simple mishearing. "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance" is the oft-quoted classic of First World War fame. "Speak clearly and use a Bic to loosen the earwax" is the sort of advice that most satisfactorily deals with that one.
Second, the headlong leap to the wrong conclusion of which I, dear reader, am most often guilty. How well I remember one midnight some 20 years ago, running round like a headless chicken and screaming at Mickey Ouzman on the Sun art desk "I want a 2/3 spread of pix, Eric Morley with all the Miss World girls he crowned, and a blown splash head saying ‘MR WORLD IS DEAD', and I want it yesterday." Only to be gently advised by my deputy night editor at the time, Patsy Chapman, that it was not the Miss World contest organiser who had gone to the Great Cheesecake Factory in the Sky, but was, instead, the comedian Eric Morecambe who had met his Maker that very evening.
Similarly, only last weekend the dulcet telephone tones of my old pal Roger Wood sent me off on another chicken run when he phoned from the Sun back bench to say simply: "Desmond's gone."
"What?" I shrieked incredulously into the mouthpiece. "What do you mean ‘gone'? He was no age, he always looked fit and lean — not fat like us!"
"Well, he's gone now," said Rog. "Dead at 64… heart attack."
"Wow! So what happens to the Express Group now, and the porn empire, and the..?"
"You great lummox!" quoth the tabloid maestro. "I'm talking about Desmond Dekker, not the other bloke!"
Leaping to the wrong conclusion has been a speciality of mine down the years. At the end of the Falklands War, I was one of 14 or so Sun executives doing a spot of strike-breaking — sorry, comrades — on the night when the "WE'VE WON!" splash required subbing.
Immodestly, I have always claimed to be a better sub than my then editor, Kelvin, and inconveniently I was junior to assistant editor Roy Pittilla. As he pointedly put it: "You were at school last, Banksy."
Thus the task fell to me.
When night news desk exec Phil Morgan punched the air and shouted "White flags over Port Stanley!" I had my intro: "White flags flew over Port Stanley last night as victorious British troops marched proudly into the Falklands capital and began rounding up the routed Argies…"
Within 90 minutes, PA was flashing from the Commons that a triumphant Margaret Thatcher had read "unconfirmed" newspaper reports that white flags had been hoisted in Port Stanley. "Silly old sod!" I exclaimed to Morgan.
"You had that from the MoD two hours ago."
"Not me," said the puckish little Welshman. "That was just my interpretation of the situation."
He didn't need an interpreter to translate my tirade. Horrified, I realised I had misled the readers, the Commons and the Prime Minister.
With hindsight, there's a comic element to such tales of lies, damned lies and mis-Sun-derstandings. On the other hand, this week's excellent More4 TV documentary The Tank Man brought to light a far more serious breach of press reliability. Under investigation was the fate of the unknown Beijing man who, armed only with bravery and a shopping bag, amazed the world by halting advancing Chinese tanks called in to repress the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots.
Producer/director Antony Thomas interviewed former Evening Standard reporter James Passmore, whose bylined splash quoted "US diplomatic sources" as identifying the ‘Tank Man' as one Wang Weilin and revealing that he had been executed for his defiance.
Passmore's bemused response? "I didn't write that story. I had no ‘US diplomatic sources'." So why the byline? "Stories [have more authority] with a byline from a man on the spot — it often happens either over there or here [in London]."
Frankly, I find that sad postscript to a great story more worrying and far less explicable than a whole month of Sunday tabloids' mishearings, misleadings and misunderstandings. Don't you?