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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Toby Harnden: time to look again

I wrote a piece recently about bloggers being the Guardians of Truth (14th January, Artisan Marketing Communications' blog).

I used two examples to illustrate that a recent survey in which the public said overwhelmingly that they trusted traditional journalists (78%) more than bloggers is not always reflected in the reality of the actual story. The truth of the matter is that bloggers can be more accurate: they are often local to the story and have time to research the post as well as possibly knowing the protagonists.

One of the examples I used to show my point was that of Telegraph journalist Toby Harnden (pictured with Bill Clinton) and his commentary on the Saddam Hussein execution. I referenced a piece in the Guardian, which purported that bloggers had “found out” the Toby Harnden account was wrong and misleading: written before the execution because of the time difference and consequently it had many factual inaccuracies. The allegation pointed to a dishonest reporter.

Well, the truth of whether bloggers or traditional journalists are more trustworthy came very much to the fore. Toby Harnden, The Telegraph’s US correspondent, e-mailed simply asking me directly to look again.

It is something when a protagonist in a story in the nationals contacts you to urge you to look again at the accuracy of a story. It shows the power of blogging.

I managed through another contact that followed the story to locate the copy of the controversial entry and the web archives. And I have had to revise my opinions.

It transpires that Toby had written his account as a preview in the conditional future tense and had in no way intended to pass the entry off as a factual account. It was based on a briefing that had been given on the way the execution was supposed to happen. Of course, as we know, it turned out very differently.

After reading the entry, it strikes me that it is clear that it is a preview. It is unfortunate for Toby that the execution was a farce and did not follow the briefing or procedure. The ridiculous and disturbing nature of the execution came back to haunt Toby although it should not be a reflection of his journalism. The problem is that it seems that the post in question was full of “inaccuracies.” The execution was very different to Toby’s account, but it was not a factual description of the event after the event took place.

What is disturbing is the comments he received from a small core of bloggers who aggressively attacked his piece. I suppose Toby does not mind constructive criticism but the feedback was often personal in nature.

The comments are evenly split between “supporters” and “foes.”

An example of one of the bloggers that agreed or supported Toby:

Mannie (a blogger that left comments about the “inaccuracies”),
You really are flogging a dead horse now, aren't you?
It is now absolutely clear that the article was written BEFORE the hanging. It was in the FUTURE tense. It included words like EXPECTED, LIKELY, ACCORDING TO IRAQI OFFICIALS, ACCORDING TO AMERICAN OFFICIALS.
Toby Harnden has said it was not his "finest hour". He is professional enough to feel bad when things don't turn out perfectly. But I don't see he did ANYTHING wrong. It was a perfectly respectable bit of journalism and did not pretend to be anything other than what it was.
I don't expect journalists to be able to predict the future. But it was useful to know what previous Iraqi hanging practice was and what was supposed to have happened. The only mistake Mr Harnden made was airing this topic without posting the initial article right at the outset.

Ken Marsh

And one of the more vitriolic comments is below:

"Harnden - you were a total c*** in the Royal Navy, and you continue to be one even today….how on earth you ever were accepted by the Telegraph as an alleged 'journalist', the Lord only knows."

The Guardian picked up on the “debate” or should I say the frank exchange of views and “inaccuracies” that led to the Telegraph pulling the blog.

The upshot of all this is that Toby’s reputation has been tarnished. He has done nothing dishonest to warrant the attention or the loss of standing as a journalist.

Blogging is about two-way communication, but there are dangers. One PR agency I know does not allow comments; it could be a wise policy. It might be that Toby’s “real crime” was engaging in debate, not moderating comments and being perhaps more clear on his objective with the piece (although that is being a mite sensitive).

As for me it shows the flip side of blogging and its power.

I have not moderated any comments on my blog – a few more would be a fine thing before you point out that I do not have my work cut out looking over comments – but would anyone tolerate such a response?

I will of course get out my copy of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” to get a better grasp of my tenses; do others need to do the same?

There are surely more controversial and dangerous bloggers than Toby Harnden who we should be guarding against. Something to think about with Holocaust Memorial Day being a current subject under discussion and holocaust denial still rife.

Will bloggers put the same effort into countering the David Irvings of this world?


Blogger Jim Symcox said...


Interesting post.

I think it's still Wild West time in the Blogosphere. Some people try to make out that bloggers are inaccurate, don't follow the facts and simply regurgitate mainstream news with their own spin and comment.

Equally some bloggers believe that journalists are too hide-bound or constrained by the libel laws or their employers contract that they can't tell the real truth.

Consequently there's currently quite a bit of blood letting when things appear to go wrong with either camp.

The power of the Internet is that you have thousands of eyes on the ground and all can report what they see.

The challenge is that they all see it differently, report it differently.

Just like papers I believe you have to look at the work of any number of bloggers and then subscribe to the ones who you can see strive to present facts and opinion as you want them presented.

Gost, sorry about the length there, a mini post!


3:54 PM

Blogger Simon Wharton said...

Interesting post and something of a scoop. Where I can see his point, surely one of the journalist and editor is to ensure that what they right is absolutley clear. If it is not, somebody has cocked up

1:03 AM


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