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On the Trump dossier, verification and fake news

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(Evan Vucci, AP)
(Evan Vucci, AP)

To verify, or not to verify? That is the question that journalists face on an almost daily basis; but the issue of whether media organisations should publish information that isn’t 100% watertight has been brought into sharp relief by the latest stories about Donald Trump and his alleged involvement with Russia.

Verification is a major issue for journalists; the American Press Institute, for example, talks about journalism as a “discipline of verification”. But alas, it is not as simple as that and, like so much else in journalism, it all comes down to the professional judgement of the individual journalist.

In the past, I have conducted training courses in developing countries with American colleagues and I often used to wince as I heard them say, as if it were an unbreakable rule, that journalists should not publish anything that hadn’t been verified by two independent sources.

It was nonsense then and remains so. If I receive a press release from Downing Street telling me that the prime minister has resigned, I do not need verification to put that story out (as long as I am sure of the provenance of the release). Even if the information comes from a “source”, if that source is reliable and had proved so in the past – for example, Alastair Campbell speaking on behalf of Tony Blair – then that too would require no further verification. If, on the other hand, a junior backbencher with whom I have had no previous contact had sidled up to me and whispered the same information into my ear, then I sure as hell would have wanted verification.

Queen was not amused

The recent case of the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, and the Queen’s attitude to Brexit is instructive in this matter. During the campaign, The Sun ran a story that the Queen had spoken out in favour of the Leave campaign – it was a major controversy and both the Palace and the press regulator IPSO condemned the paper. Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme more recently, Kuenssberg revealed that she had received similar information but had not been able to verify it and so had kept quiet.

At the time, it appeared that The Sun’s source was the former justice minister Michael Gove, a leading Leave campaigner. Nonetheless, if a former senior minister had told me that he had actually heard the Queen saying that she was in favour of Brexit then, without further verification – although perhaps indicating that my source was “a senior member of the Leave campaign” – I would have run the story.

Trumped-up tale?

So now we come to Donald Trump and his links to Russia – and all that this has allegedly involved. Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, sent a memo to staff – which was subsequently released – in which he justifies publishing the information, while saying there is “serious reason to doubt the allegations”. His reasoning was that this information had been “in wide circulation at the highest levels of the American government and the media” and that publication “reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017”.

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