Internet of Truth

“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line.” The Doctor, The Aztecs

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984

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The truth is out there…

A couple of days ago, Charlie Brooker’s sporadically brilliant Guardian column ran a piece on the current politics meme of the moment – the ‘Milliband loop’. For the one or two unfamiliar with this chortlefest, it refers to a news pool interview carried out with the less than charismatic current Labour leader, in which he manages to answer five different questions with exactly the same, verbatim answer, mixing up the order of the phrases being the only variety – “these strikes are wrong… negotiations still ongoing… government… reckless and provocative… get round the negotiating table… so it doesn’t happen again”.

Obviously all Milliband was attempting to do was to ensure the soundbite he wanted would be selected from the interview for the tiny excerpt that would undoubtedly be played out on the TV news coverage of the public sector strikes. It’s a sad indictment of the current state of political journalism that he felt the need to do it in this way, and he’s probably rueing the fact that the BBC News website chose to display the raw footage unedited as it makes him look like a robot iPod stuck on repeat. But for me, what was slightly more interesting rereading Brooker’s piece was that its headline was quite the reverse. In fact, by the end of the day, it was on its third regeneration.

What Brooker is saying in the piece is that it’s by no means new for this to happen; it is in fact an emerging trend, and he points to similar displays by both George Osborne and Alastair Darling. Logically, then, the original title of the piece didn’t single out any politician in particular – it referred to ‘Politicians’ identikit responses’. By lunchtime this had morphed into ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’, presumably to capitalise on the hapless leader’s misfortune of going viral on the internet, making him far more noticeable than the other two examples. This, however, seemed a little dishonest and misleading, when the whole point of the piece was to bemoan a trend rather than attack one particular exponent of it. By the end of the day, though, the headline had morphed again. This time the phrase ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’ had been replaced by ‘the Milliband loop’, a phrase Charlie seems to have coined himself in the article.

While I like Charlie Brooker’s work, I’m by no means an unquestioning follower of his, and this strikes me as a disturbing trend in itself, of which he is now as guilty as anyone else. In short, the increasing dominance of newspapers’ online content means that they get to rewrite history several times a day. It’s like Winston Smith’s job from 1984, at warp speed, and doable by any half-drunk journo at his desk.

Brooker – or his editor – altering his headline is probably a fairly trivial example of this. But there are worse out there. On Friday, the day after the teachers’ strike, the Daily Mail ran one of the most scurrilous headlines I had ever seen – “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench because her teachers were on strike”.

Even by Daily Mail standards, this was a jaw dropping example of gutter journalism at its worst. Using the tragic accidental death of a child to score cheap political points that support your agenda really is about as low as you can get. Perhaps whoever wrote the piece had some inkling of this; rather than credit the author by name, the website simply tells us this literary masterpiece was penned by ‘Daily Mail Reporter’. As if the headline wasn’t bad enough, ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ had also gone out of his/ her way to solicit/make up quotes from heartbroken locals about how this accident was all the fault of the teachers for going on strike.

To give them credit, even regular Mail readers were astounded by the effrontery of this, and the comments thread beneath the article rapidly filled up with the sort of disgusted reaction familiar to Mail website habitues – and yet also unfamiliar, because this time the disgust was directed at the Mail itself.

Thus it was, that, by about teatime, the headline’s implication of teacher complicity in a tragic accident had been softened somewhat. It now read, “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench as her teachers were on strike” – thus making the teachers’ culpability a rather less direct implication. It was still clear enough, though, and the ‘Disgusted of Hartlepool’ comments continued to flood in. So, by the next day, any reference to teachers had been excised from the headline, which was now simply “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench”. Similarly, the quotes blaming the teachers in the article itself were edited or excised altogether, and a quote from the girl’s family was inserted in which they implored (rather more reasonably than I might have done under the circumstances) that “Our beloved daughter’s death was a tragic incident, which occurred only 24 hours ago, and we do not want it to be connected to any other events.”

Thus, the Daily Mail had effectively, and without comment, rewritten a massively offensive headline and article to, presumably, protect themselves from the Press Complaints Commission – although given how toothless that worthy organisation generally is, I’m surprised they felt the need to bother. Nonetheless, the comments thread was not deleted. This is most likely because outrage over the nature of the headline now seemed nonsensical, though the article’s URL betrays rather more of its original content: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2010193/Teachers-strike-Sophie-Howard-13-killed-falling-branch-school-closed.html.

That’s a far more worrying example than Charlie Brooker (or his editor) altering the headline of a satirical piece to make it more sensationalist – the Mail’s headline was a genuinely obscene bit of journalism that they should have been held to account for. Now, they can simply claim that they altered the headline to acknowledge the offence caused – if they admit to it ever having existed in its original form at all. With no record being given of when and how the website was altered, it might well take a long and dedicated bit of cyber-detection to prove that it had been.

Yesterday, however, prompted an even more worrying example of this trend. Yet more examples had come to light, this time in an admittedly gloating piece from the Guardian, of News International’s propensity to hack the voicemails of anyone it considered likely to sell a few more copies of News of the World. This latest example, though, was rather more sinister than Sienna Miller’s love tryst texts or even Tony Blair’s confidential policy messages. NOTW, it turns out, had hacked the voicemail of the then-missing 13 year old Milly Dowler, even going so far as to delete messages when the mailbox was full so as to garner more ‘newsworthy’ material. This had, it seems, the combined effect of giving false hope to Milly’s family, who believed if she was deleting messages she must be alive, and potentially destroying valuable evidence that could have been utilised in the police investigation. The paper made no particular secret of having done this, either – contemporary articles even referred to information that had come to their attention via voicemails left on the missing teenager’s phone.

Now, it’s been notable that most of the tabloid press has been suspiciously light on coverage of the News International phone hacking stories – presumably proof of the old axiom that no-one wants to deploy a weapon that might be used against oneself. And obviously, there isn’t even a mention of the story in today’s Sun, despite Prime Ministerial condemnation and TV news saturation. Of slightly more worry, though, is the reported allegation that any such articles have now disappeared from the News of the World online archive.

Now, I must hold my hands up and say that I cannot actually verify that. Access to the NOTW web archive depends on registering with News International, something I’m not prepared to do. If true, though, it’s perhaps the most worrying example of this trend in a three day period that has thrown up just the examples I happened to come across quite casually, rather than actually looking for them. Further embarrassment for News International would be, to say the least, undesirable for them, at a time when parent company Newscorp’s full takeover of BSkyB is imminent. Not to mention the fact that News International’s Chief Executive, Rebekah Brooks, happened to be the editor of the News of the World at the time this particular bit of hacking took place.

And it could perhaps be said that, if true, the removal of these stories is a sensible measure at a time when a police investigation is still ongoing, and at a time of such sensitivity for the Dowler family. Nonetheless, if significant stories are disappearing from an online archive which apparently stretches back to 2000, deleted for political or commercial or even personal reasons – without comment – it’s a very worrying trend.

Of course, physical copies of newspapers are still sold, and those are rather harder to alter. And a dedicated researcher would be naïve to rely entirely on web archives to research news stories. But with the print media in decline, replaced by an increasing reliance on online content, how long will this be an option? And how many lazy researchers, or just plain normal people, already take what they read on a news source’s online archive at face value? Some papers at least acknowledge that web changes have been made – the Guardian is one. But even they don’t do it with any consistency – it’s usually only if a factual error has been amended, rather than an editorial change like the one to Charlie Brooker’s headline. Surely there should be, at the very least, an obligation for any organisation claiming to purvey facts to tell us when and how they’ve ‘altered the truth’ – and more importantly, why?

In 1984, Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth was to alter the past, by cosmetically changing photographs and archived newspapers – inspired by the contemporary practices of Josef Stalin, who did this as a matter of routine. Orwell depicts it as a tedious, lengthy process, that’s extremely boring and requires a degree of skill. Today’s news editors and proprietors can now do it with a couple of passes of the keyboard and a click of the mouse – and that’s very disturbing indeed.

2 thoughts on “Internet of Truth”

  1. Worrying indeed. However, it happens in print as well. One notable example from a few years ago was the Sun’s reporting of a certain former boxer’s mental health issues with the spectacularly misjudged headline “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. The reaction to the early edition was unsurprisingly outrage, and so subsequent editions (accounting for most copies) went out with a toned-down, less offensive headline. It’s true, though, that the web makes it a lot easier – so much so, in fact, that I imagine most people do it without thinking.

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