Fakegate and post-modern journalism.
Fakegate has been a very public reverse for climate alarmism. Instead of being a successful smear of the Heartland Institute and other parties, it’s likely to be viewed in retrospect as a turning point in the manner in which the mainstream and online media covers dissenting institutions and voices in the climate debate. That change is long overdue.
It is now about the absence of journalistic standards, rather than anything else and the situation viewed from that perspective has got worse as the story has developed. It has never been permissible to publish uncorroborated accusations nor to base editorials on them. If you wanted to publish something controversial, it was up to you to first check out the facts before going to press. Without this “check your facts first” approach, nobody would bother reading a newspaper because at the end of the day, the readership have to be able to trust that it is being presented with facts, not wild imaginings.
If a paper could freely publish uncorroborated anonymous material and sermonise on it, the readership would quickly cease to trust it and fade away, as the paper itself disappeared under an avalanche of libel suits. Most quality papers used to operate a two source rule on any story that was likely to have a big impact. The reporter had to find two independent sources with the same basic story. The more controversial the story, the harder it had to be verified.
It simply doesn’t cut it if you look at material delivered to you anonymously and come to the judgement that it looks authentic, so it’s okay to publish it. That’s journalism lite or in this day and age, I suppose it should more appropriately be called post-normal journalism. You don’t have to check sources at all or even verify material. Because the story accords with your personal opinions or politics, get it out quick and worry about proving it later.
This new approach is endemic to online journalism because so many of its practitioners are nothing more than cottage-industry propagandists masquerading as serious journalists. They’re amateurs, so clueless they simply don’t know the rules and what’s more, they don’t give a damn about the rules either. They’re driven by their own sense of self-importance and soap-box arrogance.
There’s not a professional journalist alive, who didn’t get a story badly wrong at some point in their career. Sometimes it was a genuine error on their part and sometimes they were misled by another party who had their own agenda but the honourable and less expensive way out, has always been to admit your mistake publicly, apologise for any distress caused and hope the injured party accepts the apology. In most cases, where no serious reputational or financial damage was done, the apology was accepted and it ended there.
Civil courts do not like having their time wasted on open and shut cases which should have been settled long ago without ending up in a court of law. They like to see that the injured party has exhausted all other means to obtain redress before being forced into litigation as a last resort. The classic first step is for the injured party to request a clarification or retraction from the publisher. If that isn’t complied with, then the next one is a letter from their lawyer. This will usually be replied to by the publisher’s legal representative. If nothing satisfactory can be agreed after an extensive exchange of letters, then it finally goes to court. All of this can take months.
Defendants who lose a libel action that plainly should have been settled out of court, usually attract a heavier financial penalty for wasting everyone’s time. Pride, pig-headedness and arrogance can be very expensive luxuries. I’ve gone to the trouble of outlining this process because I believe certain parties are ignorant of it.
The Heartland Institute have just taken that first step in their comment on the publication of the material, by asking for it to be taken down and advising publishers not to use it as a source for any articles.
Incredible as it may seem, the two reactions by the potentially libelous parties to this polite request are quite honestly childish.
The first one is pure post-modern journalism. Somehow they actually think that until the Heartland Institute can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the material is fake, they can not only leave allegedly libelous content up but can also continue publishing new articles based on the material. Indeed as I write this, I see extremely injudicious articles appearing.
The second one seems to run along the lines of; go on then, sue us if the material is fake. Well, yes. Put that way, you are now obliging them to sue you since to do otherwise, would be implicitly admitting the material is genuine. So they will sue you. The downside of this brilliant strategy is that in a court of law, they don’t have to prove the material is fake, it’s up to you to prove it’s genuine, as justification for any libelous articles you based on it.
These immature reactions are in the main prompted by a combination of ignorance and arrogance but there’s a more subtle cultural difference at work. The online world works at a fast tempo. When someone writes an article that someone else objects to, then they knock out a quick rebuttal piece. It’s a cut and thrust, parry and riposte, a wham bam thank you Mam world. No reaction on a piece within a few hours or days is somehow seen as confirmation of the correctness of the original article and the online world moves quickly on.
The legal process simply doesn’t work at that pace. As explained above, it grinds along slowly and inexorably towards a resolution. It may take months before it happens but that magic phrase “you have been served” will eventually be heard.
As a climate realist, I consider the Dan Rather like reactions of those organisations and individuals, who’ve put themselves firmly in the libel zone over Fakegate, will turn what was a PR blunder into a gruelling long-running PR disaster. I can’t help but be in favour of that.
Related articles :