'Margin of error' essential aspect of media freedom


ANALYSIS:Charged in dramatic – not to say exotic – circumstances in Miami in 1992 with solicitation and with possession of cocaine, Ben Dunne’s swift, full admission and apology remains the classic formula for squaring up to trouble.

People like national broadcasters should keep his picture on their desks.

The failure to validate the tweet that sank Seán Gallagher was serious. The assertion that questions were planted among the audience may also need to addressed, although the priming of television audiences is common practice. But the most serious, and inexplicable, aspect of RTÉ’s handling of the FrontlineTwitter affair was the refusal at an early stage to acknowledge that its editing processes had failed.

Putting it simply, they were hoaxed. We know that Sinn Féin moved swiftly to tell RTÉ that the tweet did not come from its candidate’s campaign site. Yet someone, or some people, in RTÉ decided to leave viewers in the dark on this.

Error is inevitable in the news business. Every reasonable effort must be made to minimise it. But when it occurs, the sky should not fall in. However, failure to come clean when it is emerges that readers or viewers have been misinformed is one of the most serious sins that can be committed in a media organisation.

Modern news media cannot handle the volume of business presented daily without sometimes getting it wrong. A news organisation in which this is not understood, that is afraid of admitting error and that does not provide mechanisms to deal with it, does not fully understand its own role.

Getting it wrong sometimes, especially in the “real time” environment of live broadcasting, is part of the price we pay for having news media that are free to make their own judgment calls and to decide their own content.

A society that values free media has to recognise this. In its 1964 judgment, Sullivan v New York Times, the United States supreme court was explicit about providing for this “margin of error” in the news.

“To avoid . . . self-censorship . . . rules . . . are required to allow an adequate margin for error – protecting some misstatements so that the freedoms of expression . . . have the ‘breathing space’ that they need . . . to survive.”

This, remember, was in the leisurely days before the internet drove information, and assertion, instantly around the planet.

Civilisation does not end when a newspaper or a TV programme puts out something that is a “misstatement” or is inadequately sourced. The reality is that every day, tens of thousands of words are broadcast or printed that have not been validated by anything more than a “tip-off” to a reporter or a briefing by somebody’s “spin doctor”.

A lot of it turns out to be accurate, as was the thrust of the information broadcast on Frontlineabout Seán Gallagher’s fundraising activities.

But the most conscientious editor knows that a great deal of what goes out nightly is based on journalists’ best assessment of what they have learned from sources that are rarely disinterested or fully truthful. Very little of it is capable of being proven to courtroom standards.

While not minimising the failure of RTÉ’s systems here, it is worth considering where we would be today if the information contained in the tweet had not come into the public domain.

The likelihood must be that Gallagher would be in Áras an Úachtaráin. No doubt he would be a popular president. But it is likely that a great many people might consider their votes miscast if they had only learned subsequently of his involvement in organising a €5,000 a head Fianna Fáil fundraiser and of the contact with a convicted oil smuggler.

It is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible in real time to authenticate information delivered by social media. So either broadcasters may have to abjure sources like Twitter or society must allow, a fortiori, for the “margin of error” prescribed by the US supreme court in 1964. Significantly, John Bowman, a reputable journalist, has said that were he chairing Frontlinehe would have “trusted the tweet”.

None of this is to excuse slovenliness or lack of vigilance in checking facts. It is merely to acknowledge that errors will be made, in spite of the best efforts of journalists, editors and programme-makers.

The key point is that when they happen they have to be confronted and put right as rapidly as possible.

With social media expanding their influence and reach, this is going to be a more frequent occurrence. Systems will be reviewed and tightened at RTÉ. But it would be regrettable if that were to result in programme-makers losing their nerve or their courage for fear of error.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times
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