You have probably read by now the tale of Sue Reid's appallingly misleading and woefully inaccurate story regarding births at a London hospital. Tim at Mailwatch offers a letter to Daily Mail readers while 5cc does an excellent demolition job, and Uponnothing says Paul Dacre must die.
Reid, of course, has previous. Back in 2007 she offered money to Polish people to break the law, so she could write a story about Polish people breaking the law. The knowledge that a journalist could stoop so low didn't stop newspapers from publishing her articles, of course. Perhaps it was with a teenager's 'meh' shrug or a thought of 'There but for the grace of God...' that potential publishers looked the other way and pretended they hadn't seen anything wrong. This isn't about Reid, though, and it would be wrong to demonise one journalist. It's not the writers who decide what goes in the paper - those decisions are made above their pay grade.
But it's not about the truth. Journalism, at the level of the tabloids and even the 'quality press' from time to time, is about finding a convincing 'line'. If you can find a way of portraying a version of the truth in which a London hospital is swamped by foreigners and no British mums are giving birth there, and that chimes in with a newspaper's record of reporting immigration as a scary, overwhelming thing that's out of control, then that will do. But is it true? I doubt anyone even asked. It doesn't matter.
It's not about the truth. It's about a version of the truth that you can stack up for a few paragraphs, maybe with a supporting quote from someone who'll definitely agree with you (and that tedious business of getting a 'response', yawn yawn, which might contradict your story altogether but which you shove right at the end in the hope your readers won't get that far and will be convinced that what you've told them is what's actually the case.) In the case of the Sue Reid story, the response from the hospital is, I'd have thought, rather more important than something that should be bolted on to the end. Because it kind of contradicts quite a lot of what has been previously stated as a fact.
But no. It's not about the truth, or balance, or fairness, or accuracy. It's not about representing things as accurately as you can. It's about dancing around all of that to make your line as impactful as possible. Yes, you must try to get a response from people about whom you tell a pack of lies, so they've had a 'right of reply' - and if it appears to torpedo what you've written so far? Ah well. Just bung it on at the end and leave everything you've written intact.
It's never about the truth, and it's not quite about fiction. It's about painting the ghost-train so it scares you the most. It's about representing a version of reality in which your worst fears come true - in the case of the Daily Mail, it would appear to have decided that its readers' worst fears consist of immigrants and foreign people. I don't know what that says about Mail readers - I'm not so sure the readers are really that venomous, despite what you reader underneath stories sometimes - or about the paper itself.
If we assume that it's not trying to tell the truth - a simple FOI request to find out numbers would have provided more accuracy as would listening to what the hospital had to say and putting it in context rather than shoving it at the end of the story - then what is it trying to do? Is it trying to mislead, or scare, or enrage, or what? I think the answer might be that it is trying to tap into people's fears. In the case of its readers, it assumes they are afraid of foreigners and immigrants and so creates a world in which foreigners and immigrants are taking over, everyone is powerless to stop it because of the spectral PC Brigade, and guess who's paying?
I think it also assumes they're afraid of cancer, women having jobs, gay people adopting, technology, the internet, socialism, taxes and a whole host of bogeymen - though foreigners and immigration are pretty high up the list. I don't know if it's right, but I think that's what it's trying to do. If you like, you can look at the Mail as a kind of voluntary participation in Room 101 - all the things you fear are in there. Maybe people read it for the same reason they step into the ghost train or ride the rollercoaster or watch a horror movie - you can be confronted with your fears, and see them off, and then return to normal life. That is, if you understand you're being misled and suspending your disbelief.
What if people really believe it? What then?