Nick Davies is an award-winning journalist and quite rightly evangelises about the need to rigorously check the facts. Sadly, he let himself down in that respect when it came to facts about The Press Association.
It is a shame that Nick Davies did not visit PA in person: If he had he might have avoided some factual errors and left with a better appreciation of what PA tries to achieve.
He claims we have reduced staff in areas where we have not; he dismisses the dramatic increase in our staffing over the past 10 years as inadequate in some way. We do not write unchecked stories at 4.30am, and he even seems to hold against us the noble idea that we aim to report accurately what people say and do – on the peculiar grounds that as a matter of principle we do not pass comment in copy on whether the subjects of our stories are telling the truth.
Nick highlights a frothy and essentially daft story – about a football fan taking out insurance because he feared he might suffer from trauma – that went out on the PA wire and around the world. As Jon Harris of Cavendish Press said in Press Gazette last week, the story entertained the reader, but of course we should probably have headed it off before it hit the wire. Our instructions to staff clearly state: ‘Do not be sucked into being a spoon-fed press release journalist.’Sometimes we fail, but it is surely unfair to damn all our output as a result.
Nick has relied on what he describes as ‘specialist researchers’at the journalism department of Cardiff University for some of his research. I obtained a copy of their report ‘The Quality and Independence of British Journalism”. In one section the specialist researchers highlight 10 stories which contained PR material and made it into the national press, and 10 stories with no obvious PR content, that only made it into the ‘alternative’media.
It did not take me long to spot that six of the ‘alternative’media stories had actually run on the PA wire – and four of those contained PR material. If that was the case, the comparison was meaningless.
Cardiff University have now withdrawn that section pending further inquiries. Professor Justin Lewis told me: ‘We’re aware that this section was always the most speculative and least robust…’I would not advise any reporter to try that as an excuse with their newsdesk if a story is causing legal problems.
Elsewhere, the specialist researchers analyse what appears to us to be straightforward PA coverage of a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report. They make the serious error of describing this independent cross-party committee’s report as ‘a Government press release relating to the tax credit scheme”. We have a number of other concerns and I have now asked Professor Lewis to reply to 10 detailed questions about his work.
These apparent inconsistencies in the study leapt out of the page at me on first reading and I cannot believe that Nick Davies did not also query them when he carried out his no doubt exhaustive checks in the name of thorough journalism on his specialist researchers’ material.
PA does not pretend to be a perfect organisation and journalism is a funny old business in many ways, but the journalists who work here take a justifiable pride in striving to be fast, fair and accurate and do not deserve to be misrepresented.