Is the Sunday Times telling the whole truth? Monday November 8, 1999Roy Greenslade
Few, if any, stories are black and white. So, obviously, stories about stories tend to be greyer still. It's important to keep this in mind as we explore the odd case of the Sunday Times and its recent dealings with a variety of campaigners.
The Sunday Times has had a reputation for campaigning. It took on the pharmaceutical industry (thalidomide) in Harold Evans's days as editor and the British government (Spycatcher) during Andrew Neil's tenure.
Under John Witherow in the past five years it hasn't achieved such distinction but truly big stories are rare and, in fairness, its Commons cash-for-questions investigation was good journalism.
In sales terms, the paper is strong with an average sale of 1.35m. But this is almost a million fewer than the Mail on Sunday, a rival it pretends not to compete with, claiming it sells to a different market. In fact, it would love to take readers from the MoS.
Whatever strengths the Sunday Times has, most critics, including internal ones, agree that its comment pages are too predictably right-wing and its news pages are in danger of echoing that agenda.
News-gathering is perhaps better than a couple of years back, but remains noticeably weaker than a decade ago. (OK, let me declare an interest: I ran the paper's news section in the late 1980s).
Weakness sometimes breeds desperation. And desperation in a newsroom is unhealthy, fostering a culture in which newsdesk executives put pressure on reporters to push potential stories just a little too far, spinning the "facts".
The news editor, Tim Kelsey, previously of the Independent, is not regarded as the kind of journalist who would give in to pressure, but how does he explain three recent Sunday Times articles? The first, in June, dealt with that month's march against financial institutions in the City of London which ended in violence. A lengthy news focus, by reporters Maurice Chittenden and Mark Macaskill, identified a young activist, Chris Grimshaw, as "one of the masterminds" of the protest. The "former public schoolboy and Oxford graduate" was said to have been "given the task of mobilising colour-coded teams of activists around the capital to cause the police as much confusion as possible." Grimshaw, who cheerfully admits his political antipathy to modern capitalism, strenuously denies having played a leading role in the march. "I spent a few hours editing a pamphlet beforehand," he says, "and on the day I helped act as a steward. I spent a couple of hours chatting to Macaskill, explaining what motivated people and so on, but none of that was used."
The article went on to claim that Grimshaw and another activist, Simon Lewis, to whom the paper did not speak, were "plotting their next attack", on the Millennium Dome. "That's a lie," says Grimshaw. "I didn't mention it." Grimshaw claims his parents were also upset by a Daily Mail reporter who called on them when following up the Sunday Times story. "It wasn't justified," he says.
There was also an oddly anti-Oxbridge, even anti-intellectual, undertone to the piece: Lewis's Cambridge doctoral thesis will be read only "by a handful of people over the next century", it claims, while Oxford is described as a place "where motorists claim it is easier to get a degree than find a parking space".
This kind of prejudice was also evident in a July story, also by Macaskill, headlined: "GM activist groups target fashion shops." This implied, though it did not state, that a group called Smash Genetic Engineering (SGE) was preparing to set fire to shops stocking clothes made from genetically modified cotton. It was based on the flimsy evidence and probable misreading of a single fly-poster.
No spokesperson from SGE was quoted, but other anti-GM groups - both of which are non-violent - were interviewed and named. Jacklyn Sheedy of Genetic Engineering Network says: "I felt the reporter who questioned me wasn't getting the answers he wanted." Another interviewee, Rowan Tilly of Genetix Snowball, has no complaints about the words attributed to her, but stresses that research into the use of GM cotton has yet to finish, so her group has yet to take a decision on what it will do. Both Sheedy and Tilly felt the tone of the article smeared their movement.
But a more outrageous example of Sunday Times bias, and alleged inaccuracy, came on October 17 with a story headlined "City anarchists stockpile arms". This too was based on the evidence of unnamed sources said to have been found through the internet. It claimed that members of Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had purchased "at least 34 containers of CS gas and four stun guns" in preparation for "a planned riot in the City of London on November 30."
This article, written by Edin Hamzic and Mark Macaskill, prompted two RTS organisers to complain to the paper and, subsequently, to refer it to the Press Complaints Commission.
One of them told me that RTS had not bought any weapons; it has never advocated the use of violence; and that the paper had not contacted it before publication. He accused the paper of "false and defamatory allegations" and a "poor standard of journalism". But the Sunday Times strenuously denies these allegations.
Taken together, these three stories do suggest the Sunday Times is campaigning against campaigners. But an executive told me that isn't so. All that the paper set out to do was to discover who had been responsible for the violence on June 18 and who might be behind a threatened riot, according to various internet reports, later this month.
He agreed that Macaskill, 26, is a junior reporter with just three years' experience, but said he is "an effective operator" who is carefully monitored. I suggested that the central allegations in the three stories which were published relied on unnamed and unidentified sources, while the people mentioned in them played only a tangential role or none at all. Both he and Macaskill stressed that the sources for the stories "come from within the anarchist movement" and that every "fact" was genuine.
The executive also wanted to make it clear that neither he, the newsdesk or Macaskill have any political agenda.
So, accepting the word of all the complainants who struck me as innocent of the charges against them, what is the truth? One moral of this tale is that such a question is inappropriate.
Rowan Tilly made roughly the same point. She was not misquoted but by her inclusion in a story connected to violence she felt she was misrepresented.
If the Sunday Times is to avoid the bad publicity which it is attracting for adopting a tabloid-style news attitude, it really has to stop seeing the world in black and white. And that is the truth.