Papers have a duty to report the truth


"NEVER mind the quality, feel the width" was the title of a BBC television series of the 1970s set in the rag trade. The suggestion implicit in this programme's title hints at a mindset prevalent in many aspects of modern life, and not wholly absent from the newspapers either.

Throughout the series, the hackneyed cry "never mind the quality feel the width" became the maxim that suggested that an inherent flaw in the cloth didn't really matter as long as there was enough of it to pad it up, puff it out, or cover it over - whichever was called for.

This title, which suggests a contrast between quality and width, genuinely amused the television watcher of the 1970s, as effectively as its more serious expression can mislead the unsuspecting media watcher of the 1990s.

The prospect of "the truth" derailing the story is an ever present prospect for any paper. It can replace quality with half dozen pages of material containing voluminous widths of opinion and conjecture cut on the bias of hearsay or allegation which can certainly "stitch up" a subject (in more ways than one).

Last February gave us a classic example of huge, almost "blanket" coverage of a young Dublin man tragically and innocently caught up in an IRA bomb blast on a London bus. Blanket coverage maybe, plenty of width certainly, but disgracefully flawed in the inference that this young man, Brendan Woolhead, was an IRA conspirator. This was "news", but this news was wrong.

Sad to relate, this same victim of bomb and print died earlier this month. His funeral received little media coverage.

To merit such width of copy in February, along with such a dearth of quality at the same time, makes the relative absence of coverage of his funeral a searing indictment of those so interested in his fate then. What makes it so unfair is that nobody was seen to care. One can only hope that the seemingly concerted media silence does not emanate from what is popularly called "a fit of pique" because of it being pointed out to them in no uncertain terms that they were so wrong in their February "scoop".

TO ERR, of course, is human, but it can seem that the apology is not always commensurate with the original blunder. For example, the Sunday Telegraph of October 13th, alongside a story about the Belgian paedophile horror, printed a picture of Bishop Carlos Belo (the Nobel peace prize winner from East Timor) as the notorious Mr Dutroux. Written under the photograph of the bishop (in his liturgical vestments) was "Dutroux had protection".

Scanning the following Sunday's edition I saw no apology for such a monumental error. The written explanation and apology this writer sought and received reads: "The error came about because that slot was originally scheduled for a story on Dutroux. The story changed, the picture did not it was not spotted in time."

For obvious reasons this writer has more than just a passing interest in the recent scandals in the Catholic Church which are so painful to so many - to the victims first and foremost, and to a shocked faithful as well. No one should undervalue the service done by the media in "outing" the perpetrators of such evil. Such a service of support for the victims was also a service to the church.

Embarrassed and ashamed, uncomfortable and feeling guilty by association, it is a time when any clerical collar above the parapet could be greeted with howls of derision - and understandably so.

When each of these stories appear on different days, sometimes weeks- or months apart, so that a name (or the lack of it) is forgotten, an already reeling public is left even more so possibly believing that the number of sexually offending priests is growing as each new stage of the same story (not a new story each time) is reported.

In one instance, all these stages (spread over a period of several months) related to the same one priest in the same one diocese. Who points out the weakness in the quality of that kind of coverage - that it is accurate but not true? That is the kind of coverage which is fulsome in its width, but threadbare in its quality - or is quality considered at all?

This is not to suggest, hint or imply that this is the case in all reporting. However, I would like to conclude with a plea that newspapers should spend more time reversing my theme: "Never mind the width, feel the quality."