We are all journalists now. And we're not down the pub

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You may not know – almost certainly you don’t – that when you post online, you are legally held to the same standard that has always applied to journalists.

Now that’s a scary thought, because you haven’t spent any time on an NCTJ course. You haven’t spent two years running around a newsroom being verbally abused by hacks. And you most certainly haven’t studied, or even heard of, McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists.

Online debate is corrupted by participants not fully understanding how to communicate nor having a clear grasp of what constitutes a fact, as opposed to an opinion. Nothing illustrates this better than the outpourings on social media, where an absence of skill and a lack of care lead to postings every single day which are libellous, scandalous and irrational.

The meaning of words written down – as perceived by the reader – is often quite different to what the writer means to convey. We all have experience of sending a text and mortally offending the receiver when what we meant to convey was something quite different.

One of the skills of journalism, and editing (sub-editing as it’s called in the trade), is to craft words so that they communicate exactly what we mean to say.

The furore over Newsnight and Alastair McAlpine a couple of years ago was a perfect example. I spent a good portion of the following Bank Holiday weekend engaging with a Facebook thread whose start point was, “Why is Newsnight apologising when it didn’t name Alastair McAlpine?”

As a journalist, I knew exactly why Newsnight needed to apologise. They may not have named McAlpine, but they knew that his name was out there in the blogosphere. Simply omitting his name from the report because they had no evidence was no excuse for running the story.

The problem for my co-posters on Facebook was that they simply didn’t understand this. Which is fair enough, because they are not journalists and don’t understand the checks and balances that are essential to good reporting.

Except that now they need to start understanding.

Because the lawyers are coming, and for once I’m on the lawyers’ side.

It later transpired that Newsnight had not even shown abuse victim Steve Messham a picture of McAlpine and asked: “Is this the man who abused you?”

Not doing that was a betrayal of basic journalistic principles; of the trust of the audience; of licence payers; and, not least, of Messham himself. This poor man’s background has left him so damaged that he is considered an unreliable witness even to his own suffering.

Here’s the basic problem: when you’re down the pub, and you’ve had a drink or two, you can be as certain as you like on any subject you know nothing about. You can call black white, and (before he died) say that Jimmy Savile is a creepy guy who you wouldn’t let near your kids.

Journalists don’t have that luxury. They have to have corroboration.

All The President’s Men – the film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman – was not a fairy tale. The journalists they portrayed – Woodward and Bernstein – really did have to get three sources for every fact they published. It took them two years to stand the story up and force Richard Nixon’s resignation as President.

As a member of the public, posting online, you now don’t have that luxury either. Online, you can say that black is white, and you’re just another flat earth nutter. But if you speculate that Alastair McAlpine is a paedophile – or Leon Brittan, or Lord Bramall – then watch out, because you can’t prove it. (The fact that McAlpine was misidentified was cutting no ice on Facebook that Bank Holiday weekend).

A prime example of this was Philip Schofield – live on television – handing David Cameron a list of names “which took me 10 minutes trawling the web”.

What? Was Schofield seriously suggesting that because it took him “only” 10 minutes, that meant the information was credible? What he did was stupid, but if he’d been down the pub, no harm would have come of it.

Pubs are closing down at a rate of knots. But billions are online and treating it like they’re having a gossip in the snug, where only the neighbours are listening in.

As an illustration of how misguided that is, we’re now seeing prosecutions of Tweeters and Facebookers who revealed names of rape victims whose attackers had just been jailed. This is just the start of a steep learning curve for social media commentators.

Because we are all journalists now, and we’re not down the pub any more.

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