One of the problems of long-haul flights is that your critical faculties are so compromised by being confined in a metal cylinder for several hours with no leg-room and too much free gin that you’ll watch rubbish movies and read almost anything that gets put in front of you, even stuff you’d never normally touch.
So it was that yesterday morning found me incandescent with rage at a feature about the evils of Facebook in the Daily Mail, with the superbly seedy headline “I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What followed will sicken you”.
Written by former police detective Mark Williams-Thomas, the article described how he had created a profile of a 14 year old girl on Facebook, logged on and “within 90 seconds, a middle-aged man wanted to perform a sex act in front of me”, going on to detail the many evils of social network sites and calling for more control and supervision online.
This is all standard fare for the tabloid press seeking sensationalist stories about the evils of the internet, social networking and anything from the modern age, but it seemed odd that Facebook should be the venue for this sort of stuff: it isn’t really a chat-based service, a new user takes a long time to get many “friends”, and the site has restrictions in place that stop users over the age of 18 chatting to the under-18s.
And so it turned out to be. It has emerged that Williams-Thomas’s research was not done on Facebook but another, as yet unspecified, service and that the Mail got it wrong even though he spotted the error in their sub-editing and asked them to change it.
Facebook is furious and is threatening to sue, on the not unreasonable grounds that the story will have been read by large numbers of parents of potential users — who will neither see nor note any correction — and that the Mail has damaged their reputation.
It’s similar to the situation with the Independent on Sunday, which printed an article by sex-blogger Zoe Margolis with the headline “I was a hooker who became an agony aunt”, apparently confusing her with Belle de Jour. Margolis is also threatening to sue.
Anyone who tries to argue for the superiority of mainstream media over the anarchy of the blogosphere and the growth of citizen journalism and user-generated content online will find their cause seriously undermined by this sort of sloppy reporting, which smacks of wish-fulfilment on the part of desperate editors and an unwillingness to check the facts in case they get in the way of a good story.
Being called to account for serious errors is one of the things you sign up for when you become a journalist, and it distinguishes those with aspirations to be taken seriously from the rest: freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility for the consquences of what you say in public.
As a long-time supporter of reform for UK libel laws (sign the petition here: www.libelreform.org) it is painful to see Facebook turn to the law, but this is more of a reflection on the poor state of press regulation in the UK, where the company clearly feels that the UK Press Complaints Commission will be unable to give them satisfaction over such a serious lapse.
And perhaps it will make sub-editors and headline writers a little more careful in future when they write stories that attack the online world.