View from Amol Rajan: The inconvenient truths that spoil a good headline


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To a much greater extent than is generally acknowledged, we use events to justify conclusions we were already minded to make.

Yesterday I noticed, for instance, a small story almost hidden away on that notorious organ of truth, the Daily Mail website. Excuse me if I reproduce a bit of it. "Toxicology results confirm there were no illegal substance in Amy Winehouse's system at the time of her death", the headline screamed. Then came part of a statement from the singer's family: "Results indicate that alcohol was present but it cannot be determined as yet if it played a role in her death."

Hang on a second. Is it my imagination, or did we have a full week of frenzied speculation, in tabloids, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere about her outrageous last bender, the final flirtation with narcotics that her heart just couldn't handle? I think we did, Lord Copper. And now, with a horribly inconvenient news story, all those acres of newsprint are exposed as ignorant tosh from hacks paid to inject drama intotheir writing.

Of course we must wait for the full inquest to report in October, but suddenly her father Mitch's claim at the funeral, that Amy had "conquered" her drug addiction – ridiculed at the time – seems plausible.

The nonsense spouted about the singer's awful death suggests a conflict between the demands on headline writers and the truth. It also proves how many of us make the facts servant to our prejudices, rather than the other way round.

This isn't just true for celebrities. For instance, political columnists, those self-appointed arbiters of public morality, can usually be relied upon to treat any economic data as confirmation of their long-established political bias. You can't get onto Question Time by saying: "I've changed my mind. Perhaps, on balance, Osborne was right to prioritise cutting debt after all."

It's a shame really, because the partisan mind gets boring after a while, and in the age of instant news and opinion, we'd all be better off if we stopped to consider inconvenient truths. Scepticism can be boring – "Unclear whether Winehouse was intoxicated in final hours, but small chance, given chequered history" is the sort of headline a sub-editor would get sacked for – but it might make for better journalism. In any case, it's the least we owe poor Mitch, never mind Amy.

Simon Kelner is away

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