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For How Much Longer Can This Go On?


You can tell a lot about a newspaper from the way it handles the mistakes its journalists make. Does it correct them? Does it ignore them? Does it allow those mistakes to be repeated long after they have been discredited? You can, I believe, tell a lot about the Sunday Telegraph from the fact that it continues to employ Christopher Booker, without, apparently, insisting that he stops spreading misinformation.

A list of all the howlers he has made in recent years would fill a book, but here is a small selection:

Global Warming

Booker dismisses much of climate science, tending to prefer unqualified bloggers to provide his information. This gets him into endless scrapes, the most amusing of which was his observation in February 2008 that “Arctic ice isn’t vanishing after all”. The “warmists”, he pointed out, had made much of the fact that in September 2007 northern hemisphere sea ice cover had shrunk to the lowest level ever recorded. But now it had bounced back, proving how wrong they were. To reinforce this point, he published a graph, showing that the ice had indeed expanded between September and January. Who would have thought it?

Rajendra Pachauri

In December 2009, Booker and his and his long-term collaborator Richard North claimed that the head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, had been making “millions of dollars” from dodgy business dealings, which caused a conflict of interest with his official role. These claims are completely untrue: in the period in question Pachauri had earned his annual salary of £45,000, plus a maximum of £2,174 for articles, speaking fees and lectures, and nothing else. Neither Booker and North nor anyone else at the paper contacted Pachauri to check these claims before publishing them.

After exhaustive attempts to get the false claims corrected by the paper, Pachauri found he had no option but to instruct a firm of libel lawyers. By the time it eventually backed down, the Sunday Telegraph had a six-figure bill for costs.

Evolution

In an article for the Spectator last year, Booker questioned the theory of evolution by natural selection, suggesting that it could not answer the following objections:

• If each form of life gradually evolved through tiny variations … why does every fossil we find so identifiably belong to a discrete species?

• Where are all the “intermediate forms” between one species and another?

• How could [Darwin's] gradualist theory account for all those complex organs, such as the eye, which require so many interdependent changes to take place simultaneously?

• How could it account for those startling “evolutionary leaps”, when all sorts of changes emerged together in an improbably short time, such as those needed to transform land mammals into whales in barely 2 million years?

He appeared to be unaware that all these questions – the tiredest old creationist canards – have been answered many times over by evolutionary biologists.

Asbestos

Booker has now written 42 articles downplaying the risks of white asbestos. His main informant is a man called John Bridle. Bridle has described himself as “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”. He has claimed to possess an honorary professorship from the Russian Academy of Sciences, to be a consultant to an institute at the University of Glamorgan, the chief asbestos consultant for an asbestos centre in Lisbon, and a consultant to Vale of Glamorgan trading standards department. None of these claims is true. Neither the institute at the University of Glamorgan nor the centre in Lisbon have ever existed. His only relationship with the Glamorgan trading standards department is that he has been successfully prosecuted by the department for claiming a qualification he does not possess.

This has not stopped Booker from repeatedly citing Bridle as an expert, and using his claims to dismiss the scientific work on the subject. Several times the Health and Safety Executive has tried to correct Booker’s false claims, but he has kept repeating them, even claiming – wrongly – that the Executive’s own work supports them.

Speed cameras

In 2007, in the Daily Telegraph, Booker, again with Richard North, asserted that speed cameras had increased the accident rate where they were installed, and had slowed the decline in the overall death rate on the roads. The government’s figures, which they claimed to draw on, showed the opposite. In the same article, they misquoted a House of Commons committee, and radically misrepresented its findings.

Europe

Christopher Booker has made a long series of lurid claims in the Sunday Telegraph about the European Union. My favourite example is his false assertion that under EU rules you’ll be allowed to bury dead pets only after “pressure cooking them at 130C for half an hour”.

All that, you might think, would be bad enough, but now Booker has run into even bigger trouble. He has just been the subject of something that, in 26 years as a journalist, I have never seen before: a substantial section of a high court judgement devoted to the false claims of one journalist.

In a long and detailed refutation, Judge Bellamy shows that, in July and October 2010, Booker wrote two articles which wildly misrepresented a case before the family courts.

Booker had claimed that a couple had sought medical advice for the “faint bruising” they had found on their baby’s arm. This, he said “proved to be the start of a nightmare, which led to them being arrested, handcuffed and driven off separately to a police station”. He claimed that the couple was being persecuted on the word of a “controversial paediatrician” whom the judge in this case had previously excoriated.

Here’s what Bellamy had to say about these claims:

“Far from suffering from ‘faint bruising’, the baby had a spiral fracture to his left humerus (upper arm bone) and six metaphyseal fractures (breaks close to the end of the bone).”

At no time had the doctor cited by Christopher Booker “had any involvement at all in the case I am now concerned with. Indeed, to the best of my recollection his name has never even been suggested as a possible expert to be used in this case.”

Though the press has a right to attend family court hearings, “Mr Booker has not attended any of the hearings in this case and in particular, though being aware of the dates, has not attended on any day of this fact finding hearing, not even for the handing down of this judgement.”

Instead he relied on the word of the mother. As Bellamy points out, “to rely uncritically upon what a parent says can lead to reporting that is unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong.”

I have begun to wonder whether there’s a single subject Booker has tackled in recent years which he has not distorted out of all recognition. For how much longer can this go on?

Everyone makes mistakes. Journalists are especially prone to them, thanks to our short deadlines and the complexity of the subjects we often tackle. What makes the difference between good and bad journalism is, I think, a capacity for self-examination: an ability to challenge your own beliefs, and to subject claims which appear to support them to the same rigour as claims which conflict with them.

This process, as I’ve been discovering in the past few weeks, can be extremely painful and disruptive, as friends and allies turn on you, alleging betrayal, and as you find yourself questioning some of the pillars of your own identity. But it is essential if we are to avoid misleading our readers. We must tailor our beliefs to the evidence, not the other way round.

But while everyone suffers from self-deception, there must surely be a point beyond which editors decide that they have gone too far. If a journalist keeps making the same serious mistakes, across a wide range of subjects, and if his employers fail either to ensure that he improves the rigour of his research and writing or finds employment elsewhere, then they come to co-operate in a deception of the public. That, I believe, is now the position of the editors of the Sunday Telegraph.  

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