Derry’s Very Own Lazarus (online report)

Guitarist Henry McCullough rises from the dead, but can journalism rise above the current scandals?

On the 7th of November 11.58 am both  BBC news NI,  RTE and various other media outlets reported the sudden death of Henry McCullough, a music legend who spent his lifetime playing with the likes of Paul McCartney and Jimmy Hendrix. Fans mourned, people wept, tributes were arranged.  We believed the reports, and why wouldn’t we?  They’re journalists it’s their job.

‘Guitarist Henry McCullough dies: The former Wings guitarist Henry McCullough has died following a heart attack…’ -BBC news NI

That was the tweet that started it all. It was tweeted, re-tweeted, shared, liked, blogged and talked about by thousands. Musicians, journalists, fans, neighbours jumped on the media bandwagon. People tweeted messages of respect such as

‘RIP Henry McCullough. You were one of the greats and will be sorely missed’ –spiritstore

And ‘music biz loses another talented performer. Former Wings/Cocker guitarist’. –mjforbes.

Terri Hooley caused a fuss by posting the news on his Facebook page, BBC journalist Ralph McClean re-tweeted an RIP message from his colleague. The newsletter drew up a story on their website. A Dutch newspaper even covered his death. The media feeding frenzy was in full height.

What if I told you he was still alive?

It was five hours after the story broke that journalists realised their catastrophic error. McCullough’s sister appeared on Radio Ulster that afternoon, speaking with host Wendy Austin; she set the record straight that her brother is in fact alive but critically ill after suffering a heart attack.

Soon after confirmation from Henrys sister, the BBC apologised and edited their original headline ‘Wings guitarist Henry McCullough critically ill’. The article remains mostly the same simply adding a few new lines from his sister and the line ‘Despite early reports that he had died, his sister Rae Morrison said he was still battling’. Like this could ever make up for the trauma caused to both family and friends during this tense time. Twitter users the world over, myself included were dismayed, shocked, confused even at how this could have happened

‘Henry McCullough is not dead but very ill. So why did the BBC and journalists report that he was?!’- Phil O’Kane@icedcoffee

Some however could see the funny side such as Keith Anderson@keithbelfast who tweeted

‘I hope Henry McCullough recovers fully to read his obituaries and tributes’.

RTE DJ Ronan Collins who announced the death of the 69 year old on his midday show had this to say to the Irish independent.

‘Nothing like this has ever happened to me before and all I can say is that it was a mistake, but one made having observed all the correct protocols.’

Somehow I can get my head around those last few words ‘all the correct protocols’ what is the protocol in this case? Did it not enter anyone’s mind to check with a relative or a close family friend? To ring the local hospital and ask for definite proof? It appears not. This is the least that we expect from the BBC and RTE, being the dominant news providers in Britain and Ireland. Who made the decision to copy and paste bits of the story from Wikipedia onto the website of the biggest and supposedly most reliable source of news in the country?  I mean Wikipedia, really? Is that what journalism has come to?

It seems that the case of Henry McCullough has not been an isolated one. In recent weeks there have been numerous false claims and cases of mistaken identity online. The Lord McAlpine disaster being one of the most notorious, here was a respected politician who through shoddy journalism became the centre of a paedophile investigation, an investigation that no doubt put him through hell, as he states;

‘It gets into your bones, it makes you angry. And it gets into your soul. You just think there’s something wrong with the world.’

McAlpine however is taking a stand, suing not only the BBC but all twitter users who libelled him. Lawyers for the Tory peer warned Twitter users ‘we know who you are’ and urged them to some forward or be pursued by the courts. This unprecedented law suit will be a real wake up call for the twitter trolls. These so called ‘Twitter Trials’ although liberating for the general public are never to be used as a substitute to the real court. Only a judge could pass judgement on McAlpine but somewhere the courts motto of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ got lost in the world wide web.  Hundreds are estimated to be sued including the speaker in the House of Commons wife, Sally Bercow after she naively tweeted:

‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*’,

I can’t help but think some of this has to come down to the way the news is changing today. Media outlets such as twitter and new 24 hour news channels mean that frequently if a journalist stops and takes too long to find reliable sources, to double check their facts they end up shelved. Their story stolen, their employers not impressed with the oh so historic delay. This is the problem; the need for speed is slowly not killing journalism but cheapening it. We are accepting fewer facts and more flare, and that what we see online is the truth when often it is far from it.

We need to get back to the occupation of reporting the facts, that’s what journalism is all about, not about reporting the news first. This is becoming an endemic among new writers’ and citizen journalists, everything has to be instant, but personally I would much rather if everything was true. It appears that the BBC is propagating this idea in a pathetic effort to keep up in the modern news rat race. Ask anyone and I think they would tell you they would much rather accurate news than to be bombarded with amateurish reports every two seconds.

The news, the way we interpret it and the way we spread it are changing but our core journalistic values need to stay the same as they always have been. We need to restore the trust the everyday person once had in the news and make sure that in the future the BBC, RTE and all other primary news sources work hard to restore the trust we once had in them.

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