A while back I suggested starting a new series entitled ‘The Russians Done It’. Since then, there have been a few items which I could have added to the series, including the story that Russia is responsible for the worldwide measles epidemic. But for episode #2 I’ve instead chosen a piece from Britain’s Daily Mirror, as it provides a good example of how ‘fake news’ is written.
Readers will no doubt remember the tragic case of Malaysian flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Well, the Mirror, via Channel 5 TV, has a possible solution to the riddle of MH370’s fate – the Russians done it. The Mirror tells us:
Missing Flight MH370 – which vanished five years ago today – was ‘hijacked by Russia’, an aviation expert has claimed. …
An aviation expert has claimed Russia was behind the tragedy in a bid to take attention away from the conflict in Crimea. Science journalist Jeff Wise told Channel 5 documentary, Flight MH370: Five Years On:
‘The plane was accelerating, it was climbing and that shows whoever was behind it knew how to fly a plane. Whoever was flying the aircraft knew about dead air space in air traffic control, which suggests they were deliberately hiding it from view. If this was an effort by Russia it could have put the plane directly on the path to Kazakhstan. This happened in the context just after Russia had annexed Crimea ad was getting a lot of heat. They wanted people to talk about something else and suddenly the world’s attention was shifted to this. There could have been a Russian on board who interfered with the systems and created a false trail of breadcrumbs.’
You sometimes have to wonder if there is anything which Russia hasn’t be accused of. But note that although this is obvious nonsense, it isn’t strictly speaking ‘fake news’. Why? Because, the Mirror doesn’t say that this is what happened. Rather, it just says that somebody else said that it did. And somebody else did say it. Ergo, the story’s true.
See how this works? ‘X’ is untrue, and you know it; but you still can report X if you write that somebody ‘said’ that ‘X’ is true. That way, you can repeat all sorts of utter nonsense while claiming to uphold professional ethical standards.
In fact, the Mirror article goes on to admit that the story about Russia is garbage, saying that:
But other aviation experts have rubbished his [Wise’s] claims, … Aviation journalist David Learmount said: ‘Theories like this are great for James Bond but they make no sense in the real world.’
Here, the Mirror covers its backside in case anybody comes complaining about the fact that it’s reporting unfounded and defamatory claims – it’s provided an alternative point of view! Which it does. But, it must be said, only in passing, after which it gets back to citing Wise again. And despite the pretence at balance, the article as a whole comes with the title ‘Missing Flight MH370 “hijacked by Russia” who “laid false trail of breadcrumbs’.” (Note the quotation marks designed to all the Mirror to disassociate itself from its own headline).
So, what’s going on here? A single ‘expert’, without any credible evidence, speculated (and really did no more than speculate) in a documentary that Russia did something horrendous. The Mirror thought that in the current climate of Russia-bashing this would make a juicy headline and attract some readers. But it faced the problem that the story is garbage. So what does it do? It publishes it anyway, but adds one contradictory voice to look like it’s being fairminded, and reports the story as ‘Wise said’. After all, one wouldn’t want the lack of evidence to get in the way of publishing a good story, would one? That wouldn’t be fair.
So, here’s my advice to any wannabe journalists wanting to write about Russia:
- You can print anything you like, no matter how untrue, as long as you can find somebody to quote who’s willing to say that it might be true.
- Make sure that you add a contrary point of view, to appear balanced. But ensure that it’s brief, buried in a lot of other stuff, and comes late in the article after a long exposition of the central claim. Most readers won’t get that far, and even if they do will have already made up their minds by then.
- Put the most inflammatory claim in the headline (if necessary in quotation marks). First impressions count.
And that, dear readers, is how ‘fake news’ spreads.