There is a bit of a pattern emerging here. A story crops up which looks as if it plays to Conservative party pre-conceptions about the failing of the “big state”, you get the sound bite from David Cameron, it’s all over the Daily Mail and other tabloids, and then you get the expose – the reasons why the story wasn’t quite what it seems.
The conkers story was a pretty good example. We were told that health and safety was demanding that children should wear goggles in order to play conkers, it was national news, a clear case of the nanny state gone mad, and then finally the man who was at the centre of the five year old story came out and unpicked the myth. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/09/conkers-goggles-myth-health-safety I have been trying to remember some of the other occasions when this has happened. It seems to me it is happening all the time.
There was the story of the man who didn’t want to be on invalidity benefit and wanted to have a job. This was used in Cameron’s Conference speech as an illustration of the way people are trapped into being unproductive. Turned out he was actually pretty sick, had had several heart attacks and was in no condition to do the work he wanted to do.
There was the predictable outbreak of moral outrage over the Pilkington case https://dianamsmith.wordpress.com/2009/09/29/a-predictable-outbreak-of-moral-outrage/ turned out that the broken society in question, probably boiled down to a very vulnerable lady, who was not being given enough support by her Conservative run local authority and police authority.
There was the very high profile attack on funding for a muslim school, at PMQ’s Sound bite of the week, which indicated that government money to support moderate muslim initiatives was supporting terrorism, Turned out that there was a bit of confusion about names, two completely different groups of people with names that sounded the same.
There is the current excitement about attendance allowance the opposition claim the government are planning to take away attendance allowance from people who are in need and have saved hard for their money. Not true! The attendance allowance of current claimants is to be protected and the government’s plans for social care – extensively researched over two years with all the relevant stakeholders, is about taking the best aspects of attendance allowance and making it apply not just to those who need just a bit of preventative care but to people who are in greater need too.
There has been the myth of Stafford Hospital. Anyone who has not actually read the reports could be forgiven for believing that the poor care that existed at Stafford Hospital (and there was some of this) led to the unnecessary deaths of 400 – or 1,200 people. And that Stafford was in some way uniquely bad. Not true at all. Closer examination of the facts shows that there were problems, but there were also problems with statistical information being recorded wrongly, and that the HSMR data which the press used to generate the excess death figures simply is not intended for this purpose. The current round of hospitals caught up in the HSMR data row are disputing it strongly and may take legal action. Something perhaps Stafford should have done too!
It may be too much to ask considering that we have no effective means of tackling half truths and myths told in the tabloid press, and occasionally in BBC and broad sheets too, but I can’t help thinking it is time to get back to the old fashioned journalistic idea of checking your sources and facts before you print the story.
David Cameron’s speech writers really should consider doing the same before they feed him his sound bites.
Trust matters. What we have been through with the huge media frenzy of the MPs expenses is something that has undermined trust, often quite unreasonably, in people who are often trying their best to do a good job. There is a long hard road back from this. A good way to rebuild trust is to take care to tell the truth.
In the age of Twitter if you get your facts wrong someone is going to pick up on this. At the moment the rising chorus of “hang on a minute” might not be enough to drown out the headlines – but it is going to grow louder.
Playing conkers in the age of Twitter is dangerous. If you play aggressively enough you might win, but if in doing so you leave a load of fragments of untruths in other people’s eyes you can’t be surprised if they don’t trust what you say.