Noel Whelan in the Irish Time of Aug. 9th drew attention to the ease with which public debate can be distorted by feeding bogus data to complacent media. He told how an unscientific survey with a rudimentary methodology concocted by the Small Firms Association was used in press releases to prompt journalists – particularly broadcast journalists – to spread a falsehood: that there had been a huge increase in crime against business people. The purpose was clear, “While publishing the “results” of their crime survey, the SFA … used its interpretation of them to support calls for a number of policy changes in how the Government and Garda deal with crime.”
It is wrong that journalists cannot be brought to account for facilitating lies and nonsense calculated to distort public understanding. We all have an interest in healthy public controversy and we are harmed when journalists fail to protect that interest. At present we can make formal complaints about a narrow range of media malpractice. However, our codes and legislation will fail to protect democratic deliberation until they are amended to invite a citizen to make a complaint about a printed or broadcast lie. Of course journalists cannot be blamed for being duped by a committed, clever liar but they should face censure for lazily – or with an eye to a “good” story – failing to provide the honesty on which citizen participation in public controversy depends.