August 15th, 2011


Beware the experts #riots #norway

The riots in English cities last week, and the massacre in Norway last month, have been among the year's major news stories - dispelling the idea that the summer, this year at least, is the 'silly season' for journalism.

That is not to say has not been some silliness around. A consequence of these stories of death and disorder is always an avalanche of 'expert' analysis. It is not of course confined to these stories but their rarity (nothing like the killings last month had ever happened in Norway; the riots could only be compared to events in Britain 30 years ago) meant that the news media rightly felt an even greater need than usual to explain.

As a breaking story, the bombing and shootings in Norway were truly shocking. The old British journalism saying, 'if it bleeds, it leads' was never more true. Because they were so shocking, editors wanted to try to explain to their audiences what was happening in as much detail as possible: 'who' and 'why', after all, are two of the indispensable elements of any news story. In trying to do so, editors also let loose their newshounds on a wild goose chase. As The Guardian pointed out, introducing a piece by Charlie Brooker, 'it wasn't experts speculating, it was guessers guessing – and they were terrible'.

The rush to blame Islamist militants for the attacks was sloppy journalism. That is not new, but round-the-clock reporting has perhaps made it harder to guard against. As a producer on the BBC's Breakfast News in the 1990s, I worked on the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. I remember at the time being struck by some of the reporting from the United States, in which vox pops blamed immigrants for the attacks. None of this conjecture was substantiated, and it turned out to be plain wrong.

Then, 24 hour news was in its infancy. Now it is a major factor, driving not only the newsgathering of broadcasters, but also newspapers and their websites trying to keep up.

Last week's commentary and opinion on the riots in England blamed pretty much everything and everyone, in some way or another, for the unrest. One of the best pieces I read was in the Independent  - and I enjoyed that mainly because it turned the pundits' tactics back on them. Headlined, 'Why, oh why? The week the pundits ran riot', it described the 'torrent of pontificating from the nation's opinion formers'.  In among all these attacks on every element of modern life (were 'penny dreadfuls', or handbills giving lurid details of crimes and executions, blamed for riots of the London mob in times gone by?) there was some thoughtful, and thought-provoking, analysis. Peter Oborne's piece for the Telegraph was frequently praised among my Facebook friends.     

In short, the rules for analysis and comment should be the same as they are for reporting hard news stories: if you don't know it, don't say it or - recognizing the demands of 24 hour, instant, analysis  - if you don't know it, but want to say it anyway, at least admit you don't know for sure.