The calmer heads found in the Scottish independence movement – and in our better moments we like to consider ours among them – can often be heard cautioning against over-deploying allegations of bias, and citing Hanlon’s Razor in doing so.
(And to save you clicking on the link, that’s the one which runs “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.)
It is, of course, possible and frequently the case for BOTH to be present – a glance at any Scotsman column by Michael Kelly or Brian Wilson will verify that – but this morning we’re going to focus on the latter side of the equation.
Opinion columnists like Kelly and Wilson are an easy target, and we’ve had much fun with them over this site’s history. But news reporting ought to uphold higher standards, and today Scotland’s two supposed “quality” native publications have conspired to produce some quite spectacular examples of why rapidly-declining numbers of people are inclined to believe anything they read in newspapers any more.
We’ll start with the trivial. Here’s a snippet of the Scotsman’s front page this morning:
We’re told that Scottish rugby coach Scott Johnson “stopped short of branding Wales cheats” in comments on last Saturday’s encounter in the Six Nations at Murrayfield. So that’s pretty clear, then.
Oh. Except maybe it isn’t, because the Herald’s headline for the same story is unambiguous – “Johnson accuses Wales of cheating”. Here we see a straighforward example of two reporters not just reporting a story, but spinning it.
(Johnson was “furious” in the Scotsman, while the Herald’s take was that he “express[ed] concern that his comments would be characterised as ‘a tirade’ whereas his tone was reasoned as he reflected the concerns many have for the risk to the sport if the issues leading to so many failed scrummages are not addressed”.)
Now, within the context of sport that’s quite a big deal in itself: the c-word is still used very sparingly by professionals and retains a hefty amount of power as a result. It’s rather like “liar” in Parliament in that regard – politicians spend much of their time trying to imply their opponents are lying but very rarely come right out and say it, and it attracts severe censure from the Speaker if used in the House Of Commons.
But sport, for all the excessive importance regularly attached to it and however annoyed Scott Johnson might personally be at seeing his words misrepresented, isn’t a matter of life and death. So how did the two papers report something that was?
Today’s Herald covers a story in which Saudi Arabia executed seven men for robbery, punchily entitled “Saudi Arabia executes seven for robbery”. It contains a couple of interesting sentences:
“Human rights activists said the seven men were executed by firing squad yesterday – not beheaded as is customary [...] The men were granted a stay of execution but were shot in Abha, the capital of Asir, one of the least developed parts of the country.”
The Scotsman reported the judicial killings too.
There’s a rather odd and seemingly contradictory passage in the report:
“The original sentences called for death by firing squad and crucifixion. However, Saudi Press said yesterday that the seven were beheaded.
The oil-rich kingdom follows a strict implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah, under which people convicted of murder, rape or armed robbery can be executed, usually by sword.”
It seems a touch unusual that a “strict implementation of Islamic law” would have imposed a sentence of death by firing squad in the first place (Sharia law somewhat predating the invention of the gun), and firing squad followed by crucifixion would appear to be gilding the lily a touch. The idea that the kingdom, under international pressure, would have switched from firing squad to beheading is just downright weird.
Looking for a tie-breaker, we checked the Independent, which asserted firing-squad executions in its title but was short on detail. The Telegraph went a little further, including a quote from a supposed observer:
“A witness told AFP by telephone that ‘the execution was implemented a while ago at a public square in Abha,’ adding that the defendants were ‘shot dead’ and not beheaded as is customary in the kingdom.”
(A couple of days earlier, the same paper had reported the startling 21st-century news that “Saudi Arabia may be forced to change its method of execution from beheading to the firing squad after running out of swordsmen”.)
Russia Today also went with the firing-squad line, having noted in a previous article that “The seven men were facing a firing squad, with one to be publicly crucified for three days thereafter”, and the Washington Post, Amnesty International and United Nations all concurred. That, frankly, was good enough for us.
Then we read the Daily Record’s version.
“Seven men convicted of theft, looting and armed robbery have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia, a week after their families appealed to the king for clemency, the country’s official news agency said.”
We decided to have a look at the website of the Saudi Press Agency for ourselves, given that it had been cited by both the Record and Scotsman. We could find no reference to the story at all – the only result for “execution”, “firing squad”, “behead” or “abha” concerned a totally different case in which a Nigerian man was beheaded in Riyadh yesterday for drug trafficking.
As we weren’t there, we can’t say definitively whether the Scotsman and Record reports are wrong, but nor can we find any supporting evidence in the place where both of them say they got the story from, or anyone else backing them up.
The incident brought to mind a time quite a few years ago when we worked in an office where someone (not us) often bought the Daily Sport, when it still had vague pretensions of being a real newspaper just a little downmarket from the Star. One edition carried a particularly grisly front-page eyewitness account of an electric-chair execution in the United States, full of stomach-turning detail (related with barely-concealed glee) of the smell of burning fat, smoke coming from the condemned man’s ears, his eyeballs melting in their sockets and the like.
The story the following day, noting that the execution had in fact been cancelled at the last minute and apologising for any offence, was a lot smaller and less prominent.
Now, we’re not saying that the Scotsman and Daily Record have sunk to the foetid depths of the Sport. They haven’t. (We glanced gingerly at a recent copy for the purposes of this piece and it’s like Der Sturmer crossed with Razzle, an utterly horrifying vision of extreme-right-wing porn-tabloid hell.)
But when readers can no longer read news reporting with a reasonable expectation that it’s giving an honest and accurate account of events – whether they’re as insignificant as a rugby coach criticising his opponents or as serious as young men being led out in front of a baying mob and murdered by the state – then the basic bond of trust which is central to all professional journalism is broken, and that’s a story whose final outcome is never in doubt.