Errors and Omissions: Why whip up a frenzy when the facts speak for themselves?

This week's howlers from the Independent
  • @johnrentoul

A bad case of breathless journalism afflicted our reporting of 2014’s first crop of gongs on Tuesday: “David Cameron was facing accusations of cronyism last night after a succession of senior Conservatives and supporters of the party were recognised in the New Year’s Honours list.” Thus we managed to use no fewer than three of the devices often used to make stories seem more exciting.

“Last night”: not needed in this case, or indeed many others. The time of day is not relevant, especially for an event for which newspapers have been preparing.

“Was facing accusations” is a term of art used when someone is not accused of something, but we expect them to be as a result of our disclosures. Except that, later on in the story, it turned out that Mr Cameron had actually been accused of cronyism by Labour’s John Mann. He said that the Prime Minister was using “the honours system for political patronage”, which is a kind of cronyism.

Finally, there was the coward’s conjunction “after”, often used to suggest that something has caused something else, when all we can safely say is that they occurred in sequence. You know the sort of thing: “Increase in shoplifting reported after free movement of Romanians begins.” Except that, in this case, the accusation of cronyism was made about the honours list.

We did not need any of this. We could have said: “David Cameron was accused of cronyism for nominating Conservatives and their supporters for awards in the New Year Honours list, published today.”

A New Year’s Day headline ran: “No meat, no dairy, no problem: is 2014 the year vegans become mainstream?” Like so many such headlines, this was a question to which the answer is “No”. But the main problem came in the fourth paragraph: “The choice of not consuming any animal products at all is currently being promoted by Mark Bittman’s book VB6 ...” This assertion was then contradicted by the rest of the sentence: “... which takes a ‘flexitarian’ approach – advocating eating a vegan diet before 6pm.” And Mr Bittman was then quoted promoting the opposite of “not consuming any animal products at all”, saying: “There’s nothing wrong with animal products in moderation.”

This is a more interesting subject than that assumed by the writer of the article, who said that because Bill Clinton has “admitted” – a telltale word – “to eating fish or eggs once a week”, he is a “casual believer” in the principles of veganism. On the contrary, he seems to illustrate precisely the “flexitarian” approach of the author whose book was the reason for running the story in the first place.

On Thursday, we used “regularly” when we meant “frequently” or “often” twice in an article about the trade in poached ivory. “Legal retailers regularly use their businesses as a cover for unlawful sales,” we said. Then: “Vendors regularly discourage customers from taking products’ identity cards and reuse them with illicit items.”

Guy Keleny is away