Saturday’s consultation session at Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton on Vince Cable’s proposed party reforms was attended by several hundred people. With no checks on the door, the event was open not only to party members but also press, other conference attendees, lost hotel residents and bored hotel staff.
Piled up at the back of the room were copies of the consultation paper that was published before the conference, had a press conference held about it and published online for anyone to read. (Please don’t tell me how many emails you’ve had from me with it too.)
And yet, here is how The Mirror reported the event and the document:
EXCLUSIVE: The Lib Dem leader told a meeting of members “we’re not recovering fast enough”
That “exclusive” label is not followed up by anything other than reports of that meeting, with several hundred present and open to the media. What’s more, other news outlets reported on what happened in the room too. Nice though it was of the Mirror to cover the Lib Dems, this was anything but exclusive. More a case of sexing up what happened.
The story goes on to repeat this trick with that public document, stuck on the internet, the subject of a press conference and widely available at the conference.
Here is how the Mirror‘s story talks about this document:
The plan, seen by the Mirror, would create a new “supporter class” in the party…
“Seen by” is a bit of minor linguistic genius. It suggests something far more glamorous than the reality without being strictly untrue. It hints at some degree of journalistic sleuthing and a confidential document being revealed. But it doesn’t quite explicitly say that, which means it can be filed in the ‘technically true’ pile. More sexing up.
Then further down we get this:
One delegate drew applause for suggesting the party should get a “management consultant type of person with a huge personality who connects with the party” to lead.
What’s curious about this sentence is that the exact same wording appears elsewhere in the media too. I found it, for example, in the Evening Standard, the St Helen’s Star and on the ITV website.
Not a case of plagiarism but an example of how newspapers used the Press Association (PA). The PA filed copy from a journalist at the event which then other news outlets reused and adapted into their own stories.
This is quite normal, even essential for modern newspapers. What it shows, however, is how vulnerable the media also are to getting part of a story wrong or misleading. Because in the PA copy too there is this reference to the not-at-all-secret document being “seen by” the PA.
Not quite untrue, but certainly framed in a way that sexes up the mundane reality of the document’s widespread public circulation, this slippery phrase went from PA copy to widespread use across the media. If you’re not aware of the way the media operates, and not all the media using the PA copy credited it as such, the appearance of the same point in multiple outlets may make it seem more credible. Rather, it’s just the one original claim being recycled in the style of the churnalism of Nick Davis’s Flat Earth News across multiple outlets.
I’ve highlighted before how ‘done in public in front of several hundred people and with the media present at Lib Dem conference’ got sexed up to be reported as “hidden”. If it makes more people read or watch stories about the Lib Dems, then given the party’s current status it would be churlish to complain too much. But it is also an insight into how much care can be needed to separate out reality from the clothing the news has given it.
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