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Amateurs of the press

Posted by Richard Sunday, December 04, 2005

Having been rather unkind to Charles Moore yesterday, for his schoolboy howler on Defra, my colleague reminds me that this sort of error is not solely the fault of the author.

On any newspaper, there is a hierarchy of sub-editors, editors and lawyers, all of whom are supposedly dedicated to ensuring the highest standard of accuracy. Any lapse, of the Moore variety, therefore, very much represents a corporate failure.

In my time, I have worked for many editors and with many subs. Many times they have picked me up on points of fact, even when I have been writing to my specialisation, and I have had to justify my claims and, sometimes, correct errors.

On the one and only time I managed a front-page "scoop" – fingering a finance officer embezzling funds from the institution that employed him – I had to travel down to London with all my supporting documents and spent a gruelling eight hours with a lawyer, before the paper would agree to print the story.

It is with a profound sense of irritation, therefore, that one sees so often now a succession of factual and logical errors in newspapers that should know better – it is an affront to the other professionals who work so hard to check their fact, and the many other writers who take the time and effort to ensure their copy is as accurate as it can be.

Classic of the error-strewn genre – and a serial offender – is Simon Jenkins, whom my colleague picked up the other day, making an outrageous howler over Bush and Blair and the timing of the bombing of the headquarters of Serbian television during the Kosovo war.

And here he goes again, in The Sunday Times today, entitled "Airy-fairy Blair lies in a French ditch looking at the stars". This is Jenkins analysing the EU budget controversy, to which effect he offers the view that Britain’s original strategy for its six-month European presidency was ambitious but sound: to secure a grand deal on the budget… "the 2002 CAP reform would need tearing up."

Never mind that, even at the time, informed commentators (including this Blog) were arguing that this was impossible, Jenkins then goes on to argue that, with the refusal of France to give inch on CAP reform, "it is puzzling that Blair can have expected otherwise." In other word, even by his own estimation, Blair's original strategy was not sound. Jenkins destroys his own thesis, making his arguments nonsense.

If these logical convolutions make a mockery of good journalism, what price then the dire piece by John Laughland in The Sunday Telegraph where, in a piece about the CAP, he asserts that, "the main lines of the EU budget were drawn up after 1958. EEC negotiators suffered several heart attacks, one of them fatal, as they struggled from 1958 to 1962 to set the CAP in place."

In fact, the main lines of the EU budget were not agreed until the Hague Summit of 1-2 December 1969 and the details were fixed by the 1970 Luxembourg Treaty, from which date the financing of the CAP stems, a settlement that cleared the way for British accession which, until then had been blocked by de Gaulle (who refused to allow Britain into the EEC until the budget question had been agreed).

One would expect someone like Laughland to know this but, since the fact are a matter of record, one would also expect the Sunday Telegraph to pick him up when he got his facts so egregiously wrong.

Elsewhere, Laughland also maintains that, "despite the incoherent 'set-aside' system of paying farmers both to produce and not produce, wine lakes and sugar mountains have returned to the EU in recent years," - yet another travesty. The whole point of the so-called "mid-term reforms" that are just coming into force, is the principle of "decoupling", breaking the link between production and subsidy payment, so that farmers no longer get paid for how much they produce. The claims made are fantasy.

Strangely, Booker, in the same newspaper, tells something of the story of the CAP and you would have thought that, in its own interest, the paper would check for consistency between what are two wholly different and contradictory accounts.

But such is the rank amateurism of not only writers but commissioning editors and their subs that, these days, anything seem to go. Yet, these self-same newspapers have the nerve to complain when politicians get their facts wrong. Picking up on my remark in my earlier posting, why should we take either of them seriously?

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