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A Question of Attribution

18 August 2005

by Brian Cathcart

There is outrage today in Britain at the latest revelations about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead by police who feared he was a suicide bomber. The outrage has two main causes: first, that it is now clearer than ever that the suspicions which led to the shooting were wholly unjustified and second, that the police initially misrepresented the events and then allowed a false narrative to stand uncorrected.

The anger is evident in the press -- the conservative Daily Telegraph, for example, is demanding to know whether London’s police chief, Sir Ian Blair, knowingly allowed false information to be spread and appears to want him sacked if he did. Such bitterness is to be expected when journalists feel they have been duped into telling the public an untrue story, but what we are not seeing, and what we probably should be seeing, is some media self-criticism.

On 22nd July, the day of the shooting, Sir Ian Blair went on record as saying that de Menezes’s dress and behaviour had been suspicious, and we now know this was untrue. But it did not stop there. A good deal of additional “detail” was published that day and the following morning, for example that de Menezes ran from police, failed to heed a warning and jumped over a ticket barrier in an underground railway station – all incorrect. The provenance of this material was probably unclear to most readers or viewers, but most of it none the less passed into the popular consciousness as fact.

It appears from newspaper reports yesterday and today that the “detail” emanated largely from off-the-record briefings by police officers – in other words, those sessions in which people say things but reporters don’t specify afterwards who said them. Surely British newspapers and broadcasters should be asking themselves today whether they should have accepted so much untrue information on these terms and passed it on to their readers without health warnings designed to encourage an appropriate scepticism. They appear to have allowed themselves to be the vehicles for a scandalous untruth; will they now ignore the problem and move on, or will they do something to prevent it happening again? My money is on the former.

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