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    Saturday, 9 June 2007

    The first draft of history?

    Mark Lawson had an interesting piece in yesterday's Guardian focused on the dangerous permanence of transient comment. Picking up on the reporting of recent events such as the 'murder' of Bob Woolmer and the arrest of the first suspect in the Suffolk murders, he noted how the pressures of 24 hr competitive journalism sometimes push today's writers into errors of fact and opinion that might formerly have been avoided by more conscientious sub-editing. The result is that "for all of us, journalism's use as a historical record is being ruined by a growing impatience with fact... problems have occurred because of significant changes in both the speed and the durability of journalism. Pace is the greatest danger".

    Has there really been a notable shift? Well, reading the piece, I was reminded of the quite startling note offered by Jon Snow of how his first real scoop - sent in days ahead of the competition - was knocked on the head by his news desk due to the absence of any corroborating account.

    I also had three follow-up thoughts. First, if the nature or 'quality' of journalistic output has changed, this should condition the ways in which academics (historians and others) use such sources; the readiness with which insights are adopted or challenged. The real risk to the historical account is that these secondary regurgitators of the record will be similarly lax.

    Secondly, there's the issue of whether media law is doing anything to corral journalists into producing more sustainable (read accurate) accounts and comment. Perhaps in the defamation field, the Reynolds defence is pushing in the right direction, while in other areas - contempt for example as discussed here and elsewhere in recent weeks - more might be done.

    Finally, the quite remarkably self-referential nature of our modern media which sees mistakes challenged, elaborations offered and corrections sifted and highlighted by bloggers, commentators, other journalists and readers' editors gives reason to be sanguine over the longer horizon about the identified failings.

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