Sunday, December 02, 2007

Unsourced BS is wrong for both sides

I'm getting a ton of referrals to this post from Dillow's, which is nice. But I am not particularly keen on the substance; the post is swung on a Peter Oborne piece in the Sextator that goes a little something like this:
Disturbing reports have emerged that Gordon Brown is rude to his secretaries — or garden girls, as they are known inside Downing Street. He is said to shout at them abusively. On one occasion he is reported to have impatiently turfed one of the girls out of her chair and sat down to use the keyboard
Well, if you're committed to opposing content-free personality bollocks, irrationality as ideology, and all that good stuff...perhaps you should sit down and take some deep breaths.

OK, so how does Oborne know this? Was he there? Who told him? Using the art of journalistic parsing, we can find out. If you have direct evidence of something, or you saw it yourself, you say: Gordon Brown is rude to his secretaries. A simple declarative sentence. Or I saw Gordon Brown shout at his secretaries. Or This tape records Gordon Brown shouting at his secretaries.

If somebody told you this, you say Mr X said Gordon Brown is rude to his secretaries, unless you have a reason to invoke source confidentiality, in which case you might say Sources in No.10 Downing Street say.., Sources close to X say..., Government (or Labour Party) sources say... or just a source told me under condition of anonymity that.... If you're an American there's a whole table of these things depending on how confidential you want to be, rather like formules de politesse in French.

Alternatively you might be quoting other media, in which case you should quote, cite, or link (or say "a newspaper said.." if you're annoying).

So which does Oborne do? None of them. He doesn't take any responsibility for the content of the story whatsoever, and he doesn't refer it to anyone else either; what are "disturbing reports"? Who reported them? What did they actually say? How can I judge the truth of them? And where did they "emerge" from? Saying that they "emerged" gives the impression either that they did come from a source, without however taking responsibility for their content, or that someone else did the work and it's well-known enough not to bother referencing.

So, there is absolutely nothing here to suggest they emerged from anywhere else than Peter Oborne's arse. Now that's a disturbing report if ever I heard one.

Naturally, Oborne knows very well what he's doing; in the future, people will vaguely remember someone saying that Gordon Brown is rude to his secretaries, but probably not who said it or that they couldn't find anyone willing to say it on the record even anonymously. There is scientific evidence that even rumours we hear and disbelieve affect our future perception of their subjects. Oborne is, after all, a man so partisan he affects to believe that there was no political class until Tony Blair maliciously invented it; which in the light of Conservative Party history is positively insane. (Who do you think the people who picked MacMillan and Douglas-Home over Butler were?)


hardindr said...

This bullshit has been passed off in the US press for a long time now, mostly to the detriment of the Democrats, against whom it has been used most effectively. Along with the "The cult of the off-hand comment", it makes having a rational discussion about national politics in the US pretty hard.

Martin Wisse said...

Shorter Yorkshire Ranter: always distrust the passive voice.

ejh said...

His Basil D'Olivera book is very good though.

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