Fake news

If you have a spare moment put the words ‘police officer bomb car northern Ireland’ into Google.

A series of headlines will appear on your screen. Here’s just a few I’ve picked randomly.

‘Northern Irish police car catches fire after booby-trap bomb partially explodes’ from The Independent.

‘Police car on fire as ‘booby trap bomb explodes’ in Northern Ireland from Metro.

‘Police car ‘explodes’ sparking fears of ‘booby trap bomb’ in Northern Ireland’ from The Sun.

‘Police officer left unhurt after bomb explodes in Northern Ireland’ from the Daily Mail.

There are many more. All describing the targeting of a female police officer on the Belfast to Bangor road this week.

But there was a problem with this story. It wasn’t true. It was not a police car. The woman is not a police officer. And, most importantly, there was never a bomb. The fire was caused by a mechanical malfunction of the car.

Going back to the Google search, several of the reports have been updated to reflect that the incident is ‘no longer believed to be terror related’. But several have not been corrected. Most of the erroneous reporting is still there.

Some of the updated versions have been changed to now suggest that the woman was a former police officer, although it is hard to see the relevance of revealing such a detail at this stage other than as an extenuating circumstance as to how they got it wrong in the first place.

As a former journalist, who still likes to keep a loose understanding of what’s going on in the world, I found myself coming back again and again yesterday to the same question – how does this happen?

So I began to track the story backwards. In the middle of yesterday morning the following two messages appeared on the official Nolan Show Twitter feed.

‘Breaking: Ian Paisley MP has told the Nolan Show there has been a terrorist attack on a police officer this morning. He says a explosive device was placed under a female police officers car’.

And…

‘MP Ian Paisley – “terrorism will never prevail” after a female police officer has been targeted by what he describes as an “under car booby trap device”.’

Sure enough, skip across to Ian Paisley’s Twitter feed and, at around the same time, the MP posted this message.

‘I understand that a Terrorist attack on police officer in Ballyrobert Co Antrim has taken place. Suspected Under car booby trap device. My concern is for the officer and family of officer. Terrorism will never prevail.’

Within a few minutes he was corrected by the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson that the incident described had actually taken place in Co Down, not County Antrim.

The other main driver of the story was Sky News which posted several updates, including reporting a comment from Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, who was in Brussels.

According to Sky News, Mrs Foster said: “We’ve just received news from Northern Ireland which is very disturbing. We do condemn utterly those who would seek to bring violence back to Northern Ireland. We send our thoughts and our prayers to the police officer and her family.”

I should point out that I was not contemporaneously following the news yesterday morning so I don’t know which was the first organisation to report on the incident.

What is clear though, is that by late morning the supposed terror attack was being reported by most of the main news organisations, both locally and nationally. A number of Northern Ireland-based journalists tweeted that security sources had confirmed the details to them. Reporters were dispatched to the scene and began to prepare on camera reports.

But just an hour later the story had begun to unravel. Ian Paisley released a new tweet.

It read,

‘UPDATE reports suggest this was a major malfunction of the vehicle and not terrorist related. If so that’s a huge relief and I hope those involved are uninjured.’

The story quickly dropped off the news agenda. As I said earlier, some organisations corrected their earlier reporting, some just quietly dropped it.

And a few journalists took to social media to explain to the public what had happened. I was quite struck by the messages of those who said that multiple security sources had got it wrong.

It’s worth going back over what happened. A car went on fire. Bomb experts were sent to the scene, presumably because police had some suspicion that there may have been a sinister causation. At some point after arriving they discovered that the fire was mechanical rather than terror-related.

A well-placed security source would have been able to tell a journalist exactly that. Nothing more. Anyone who went further and gave inaccurate details was either not close enough to the incident to report back accurately or else they were jumping to conclusions. In any case they are not a reliable source.

Many years ago I worked as a security journalist. It was a job defined by the shadowy use of so-called security sources. In truth I wasn’t very good at it. In my experience, reliable security sources were about as common as hen’s teeth. And just as talkative.

But it seems to me that when faced with a story like this the obvious journalistic question to any source should have been ‘how do you know?’

A reasonable security source for this story might have been a police officer at the scene, or a superior officer who was receiving regular updates on what was going on. Anything beyond that and the water starts to get a little muddy. If the cause of the incident has not yet been determined for sure, then how can a source, not at the scene, know for sure that it is a bomb? Politicians are often more likely than a police officer to talk to a journalist, but their account should usually be treated with caution because they are several steps removed. They should be used for reaction, not as the sole source for reporting of a criminal act.

So, going by the news coverage yesterday, it seems that a lot of security sources got the story wrong.

Or, is the more likely truth that most of these reports, many of which were compiled by journalists who are not based in Northern Ireland, were simply copied from each other? In essence one website gets the story wrong and the rest rush to follow.

Reading the reports I noticed much use of the phrase ‘it is understood’ and the prolific use of inverted commas, which is a betrayal of the fact that the journalists have no way of standing over the ‘facts’ they were presenting to the public.

Journalism, now driven by digital news and social media, has increased the pressure as never before to be first with the story. The competition is immense. It seems that rivals would rather run the risk of copying and being wrong than being left behind on a story. The website report can always be updated later anyway.

And thus the integrity of the process of journalists presenting facts to the public is compromised. The faith in the art is slightly diminished.

Because, as I know from my years working as a security reporter and a news editor, there is one phrase that no journalist ever dares to utter. Words I’ve never heard said in a newsroom.

I don’t know.

The fear of being seen to be outside of the loop is paralysing.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here on the outside and criticise. A bitter ex-journalist waffling on about how much better things were in my day.

Not a bit of it.

Journalists have always been prone to make mistakes, and they always will. I made plenty myself. Several stories I wrote over the years that I wish I could get back.

And meaningful journalism can still be found easily today. Much of the truth about the collapse of a proposed deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont is only known by the public because of the efforts of Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan.

But in this age of rolling news with the accompanying rush to be first with the sensationalist headline, it is the desire for accuracy which seems to be the first victim. It is acceptable and human to make a mistake. But when the rest of the media rushes breathlessly to repeat that mistake then you have a bigger problem.

I have called this post Fake News. It is the expression of our time, and one that I hate because of the threat it represents to the craft to which I gave many years of my life. It wants to suggest that the trust has broken down, that none of us should believe what we read.

There are many, usually those with the most to hide, who want to throw the profession off the edge of a cliff.

And it doesn’t help when journalists line up like lemmings to assist them.

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