The press must remain as fabulous and flawed as it has always been

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 21 February 2018 in Comment

Mark McLaughlin pays tribute to the Post - both of them - and warns against jumping to 'fake news' assumptions

Newspapers - Fotolia

Journalists have been swooning at Stephen Spielberg’s revival of the great newspaper era that brought us the Pentagon Papers and All the President’s Men.

Some have lauded The Post as a historical testament to the bygone days when newspapers ‘told the truth’ and ‘made a difference’, contrasting it with today’s era of fake news, late night tweets and instant opinion.

But the story the movie does not tell is that the great paper The Washington Post published its fair share of fake news and its genuine scoops were as blithely ignored by the public as today’s readers who ignored the media alarm bells and voted for Brexit and Trump.

Richard Nixon was elected in one of the biggest landslides in US history a few months after the Pentagon Papers leak, at a time when the Watergate scandal was already unfolding in the pages of the Post.

A decade later, the paper had to hand back a Pulitzer Prize when it emerged one of it reporters simply made up a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict.

Press critics revelled in the Post’s humiliation at the time, but it was not a sign of endemic decline, just as the journalists that uncovered the Pentagon Papers and Watergate should not be lionised as examples of a unique and dying breed.

The great Scottish photographer Harry Benson, who worked with Woodward and Bernstein, once told me “the journalists I worked with in Fleet Street were better – they were more competitive”.

That competitive spirit is still alive and well in British – including Scottish –  journalism. The public still gloat when journalists drop the ball and use every gaffe to dismiss legitimate research as ‘fake news’, or in Scotland as ‘SNP bad’, ‘MSM bias’ or ‘Project Fear’.

The Twitterati were euphoric when the Daily Mail apologised for publishing an essentially true story about the Scottish Government publishing a new protocol which drastically cuts the number of days the Union Flag should be flown, with the only inaccuracy being that it was ordered by Alex Salmond some time ago and not Nicola Sturgeon, as claimed. 

Not fake news – just overcooked.

Within days the Scottish Government was at it again when Scotland’s own Post published emails showing Kate Frame, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC), rejecting a government official’s attempt at “governmental interference with my independence” by refusing to delay publication of a critical report.

The report was published on schedule so the Scottish Government insisted “no incidents of government interference have taken place”– a defence with all the credibility of a burglar caught in the act insisting he never actually burgled the house.

The Sunday Post story demonstrates that the press is still as fabulous and flawed as in the days of The Post, and that governments still tie themselves in rhetorical knots to turn a thin wedge into a gaping chasm of falsehood.

The elements of the PIRC papers and the Pentagon Papers are essentially the same, albeit on a vastly smaller scale: a decent source, forensic textual analysis, and a government caught in the act.

The Sunday Post’s recent decision to set up a dedicated investigations team has transformed a paper that was increasingly being dismissed as an irrelevant granny rag into an agenda-setting competitor.

So hail to the Post – both of them – in all their imperfect glory.

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