by Alan Sunderland,
Fourth Estate Journalism Advocate
The story had everything. A huge exclusive that threatened to bring down key establishment figures in Britain.
Extraordinary allegations of a sex abuse ring at the highest level of British society.
A cast of well known characters, and a series of ongoing revelations, one after another.
The story was originally broken by some intrepid reporting at a small news agency and then quickly expanded on and picked up by major news outlets. No one wanted to be caught napping on a major story that the public couldn't get enough of, expecially when police described the allegations as 'credible and true', and the official investigation began to implicate some very well known names.
Now, almost five years later, the investigations are complete and it is the accuser who has been convicted for making false allegations and for themselves being a paedophile.
The original story, with all of its twists and turns, was simply not true.
Suddenly, the tables have been turned and the very people - police, politicians and the media - who called for something to be done about these vital issues of national importance are themselves being held to account.
Those who were falsely accused and their families have described in compelling detail the terrible impact the allegations have had on their lives. They have quite rightly asked how and why the allegations were given such credence for so long, especially when they proved to be the product of just one solitary accuser, now completely discredited.
These are uncomfortable questions for all those who reported on the case, but for any responsible and ethical journalist they are questions that need to be confronted. Whether it is this case, the McMartin or Pizzagate cases in the US or any other big story involving serious allegations, journalists should and will be held accountable for how they report on them, and the steps they take to verify and weigh up the information provided to them, even by sources who appear genuine, vulnerable and brave.
In this case I am not about to point the finger of blame at anyone involved in the process. I am simply not close enough to the action, and it seems to me that in the wake of the crisis some years earlier in the UK over the failure to properly investigate sex abuse allegations against well known entertainer Jimmy Savile, the British media generally could be excused for erring on the side of going in hard on any future sex abuse allegations.
But in major investigations like this there are always important steps that need to be taken and important warning signs that need to be heeded. Based on some of the reported comments by those journalists most involved in this story, it seems more than likely that some of those steps were not taken and some of those warning signs were ignored.
The first and most startling warning sign is the admission by at least one of the journalists deeply involved in the original breaking of the story that he had doubts all along.
Having doubts about a story is no bad thing - it should lead to the kind of cautious, careful cross-checking and verification that takes us closer to the truth. Even if the reporting goes ahead and the allegations are aired, making it clear in the original reporting that there is reasonable doubt about them can make for a healthy and balanced story.
But the reasons those doubts were not fully explored or expressed are very telling in this case.
First of all, the reporter involved notes that the 'victim' was unusually credible - well-spoken, consistent, middle-class and holding down a respectable job.
Secondly, just at the moment when journalists in the newsroom that broke the story were split over the strength and credibility of the allegations, one of the investigating police described them as credible and true.
And thirdly, once the story broke nation wide and all the major media organisations were chasing it, there was pressure to be first and to have the most sensational new details, and so in all likelihood the tendency was to err on the side of publishing rather than pausing to double check.
None of this means the story could or should have been ignored. But it does point to some salutory lessons for journalists everywhere:
* At any stage of any story, if there is a little voice inside your head asking some nagging, uncomfortable questions, do not ignore it. The inconvenient fact, the unanswered question, the unexplored alternative theory might turn out to be the thing that brings the whole story tumbling down. It is much better to pressure test a major investigation before publication than to have it done for you afterwards by others.
* It doesn't matter if you like your source, if you find them impressive and convincing and respectable. Treat every claim with the same level of scepticism. Chase the facts, look for corroboration. Verify, verify, verify.
* Just because others jump on your bandwagon - even if it is the police - they might not be right either. At the heart of verification lie facts, not opinions, so in the absence of hard facts it is dangerous in the extreme to give more credence to a damaging allegation just because it is being investigated, or other people think it is true too.
* When journalists hunt in packs, the pressure to get caught up in a running story, accept it as true and report it just because others are reporting it can be overwhelming. But a diverse and independent media is vital in a democracy, and it does the public a disservice to report something just because everyone else is. Stop, check and make your own hard-headed assessments.
I don't think that diligently following these rules would have meant the story wasn't reported in this case, and it may not have even resulted in a significant change in the amount of coverage. They were, after all, powerful and compelling allegations involving senior figures.
But at the very least, a higher degree of scepticism and attempts at verification might have resulted in coverage with a very different tone, coverage that was more nuanced and more skewed towards the very real possibility that the allegations might be true or might be fantasy. Such an approach, while less spectacular and attention grabbing at the time, would look much better today for all involved.