Paddington: how the press got it wrong

Journalists covering disasters are too quick to report shock figures. So why believe anything we read in the papers?
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DRAMATIC, WASN'T it? The all-black mourning dress and the headline: "100 DEAD" and its companion in easy error: "Paddington is worst peacetime disaster". The Sun, 7 October, 1999.

DRAMATIC, WASN'T it? The all-black mourning dress and the headline: "100 DEAD" and its companion in easy error: "Paddington is worst peacetime disaster". The Sun, 7 October, 1999.

Four days later, we know better. The police - source of much of the most misleading information - currently put the number of fatalities at between 30 and 40.

So what, you may say. It was a confusing, fast-moving event, with the evidence quickly and properly shrouded in tarpaulins. No wonder the press got it wrong.

That is too generous a reaction, because it is not just that The Sun, along with other papers, made mistakes. The uncomfortable reality is that newspapers nearly always get important things wrong on big, dramatic stories.

Just look back at the coverage of a few other nation-shocking horrors: at Dunblane, with its instant judgements about the perversions of Thomas Hamilton; at the Strangeways prison riot in 1990 with its reports of kangaroo courts and prisoners being strung up.

All of this turned out to be false, the result of over-imaginative "official sources" gossiping to over-eager reporters.

The coverage of the Paddington crash also revealed journalistic invention posing as certainty.

The basis for the figure of 70 dead that appeared in most reports on the second day after the crash was a briefing from Andy Trotter, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner, who said: "What I can say at the moment is that it is 70 plus." The Independent, which on the first day had reported the then accurate figure of 26 dead, also took the briefing at face value. Its headline was: "The day after and full horror emerges: 70 dead, 100 still missing."

Then a member of the emergency services briefed reporters about the heat in carriage H (more than 1200°C, said The Mirror.) This was the carriage in which, by the weekend, police were gathering bits of uncharred paper to help with identification.

Nor were those frost-covered cars standing "silent as tombstones" ( The Times) in the car park at Kemble Station exactly what reporters wanted them to be. A little checking would have established that lots of commuters leave their cars at Kemble for the whole week.

Errors like these matter because they undermine everything else the press does. If a newspaper can publish five major pieces of misinformation in seven short paragraphs on its front page, why should anyone believe anything else the papers say?

Why, if the press just make stuff up, should anyone waste time on the moral fulminations of the columnists and editorial-writers who have shamelessly demonised Railtrack, an organisation that was guilty last week of no more than seeing a train not operated by it run through its fully functional warning system.

Reading the Paddington coverage, I thought of a comment by Professor Phil Scraton, director of the Centre for Studies in Crime and Social Justice at Edge Hill University College, who, analysing the same material, concludes: "It is a search for truth which exposes official discourse, returns dignity to the dead and acknowledges the experiences of the bereaved and survivors."

It has not been a good week for the British press.

 

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University. Phil Scraton's 'Reporting disaster' is available on the university website at www.cardiff.ac.uk/uwcc/ jomec/issues99/scraton.html

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