Former Fleet Street editor Richard Stott said James Forlong had been “thrown to the wolves” after being exposed for faking a report for Sky News during the war in Iraq.
And former BBC correspondent Martin Bell claimed far worse incidents of journalistic deception had been revealed to media executives and gone unpunished.
The Society of Editors debate on media coverage of the war was thrown into sharp relief by the suicide of Forlong two weeks ago. He lost his job at Sky in July after he was exposed for faking a report aboard a British submarine.
Times media editor Raymond Snoddy said: “I was surprised when I heard that he had been drummed out after 10 years of honest work. “Organisations should just think before they say, ‘This is disgraceful and you have to go’, because I’ve seen how devastating that decision was on that particular journalist.”
Bell said of Forlong’s death: “It says something about the duty of care that should be applied by editors and the particular strains of modern journalism.”
He revealed a litany of unpunished fakery from his own experience in broadcast journalism.
He said he knew of an incident where a reporter had won a prize for a completely fictitious and set-up story about a little boy who was an alleged earthquake victim.
Bell revealed another occasion where a journalist falsely implied he was under fire crossing a street in Grozny. The reporter did this by splicing his report together with footage from closer to the action obtained by a freelance.
Bell said: “I told media executives about these cases and they said they did not want to know.”
Former Daily Mirror editor Stott said: “Forlong was certainly thrown to the wolves but the question is what else could have been done. Clearly the credibility of Sky was on the line. “But they could have taken him out of the field for two or three years – you have to judge an unblemished award-winning record against what was an aberration.
“I find it difficult to believe he was the only person who knew the extent of the deception before they went on air. You’ve got to be a little bit careful because after such a public sacking the chance of him getting another job was nonexistent.
There’s considerable food for thought there for Sky News executives.”
On the whole, editors at the conference reported that the war had not been good news for regional newspaper circulations.
Mike Gleeson, editor of The News in Portsmouth, reported a 3,000 uplift in sales on the day the shooting started, compared with a 9,000 increase after the start of the Gulf War in 1991. After a week or so, he said, sales were back to pre-war levels.
Martin Lawson, from the Leamington Spa and Warwick Courier, reported that his weekly titles fared no better, despite the fact that his journalists “squeezed dry every local angle”.
The consensus among those at the conference appeared to be that newspapers found it impossible to compete with 24-hour rolling news channels.
By Dominic Ponsford