The Media: Willing accomplices to misinformation

Its hard to know whether there’s going to be any further discussion of the media’s reporting on the shooting of Mark Duggan, but the IPCC’s admission in relation to information it circulated with regards to the incident warrants further scrutiny, whether it gets it or not will in itself be revealing.

The Guardian reported on Friday:

“Responding to inquiries from the Guardian, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said in a statement: “It seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged”.”

Paul Lewis and Sandra Laville stated that “…at least one spokesman from the watchdog appears to have misinformed journalists…” before going on to cite the following examples of this misinformation in the press:

“The Evening Standard said Duggan had been involved in a “shootout”, adding that a “spokesman for the [IPCC] said it appeared the officer was shot first before police returned fire”.  The Mirror quoted an IPCC spokesman saying: “We do not know the order the shots were fired. We understand the officer was shot first, then the male.”  An article in the Independent made a similar claim. It reported: “It is understood that the officer was shot first, but this is not known for certain, an IPCC spokesperson said.””

Of these three examples only one, The Evening Standard, draws the implication that the police were shot at by another party. The other two articles restrict their account to the order of events, focusing on claims “the officer was shot first”, therefore implying this sequence is significant. This order appears consistent with the IPCC’s statements to be found in the press and suggest there were no other comments made by the IPCC from which the media could have reasonably inferred an “exchange of fire”. This assumption is supported in the Guardian article, where the IPCC state:

“Any reference to an exchange of shots was not correct and did not feature in any of our formal statements”

From this we can infer the media’s account was based solely on the IPCC statement regarding the order of events (who was shot first):

“An IPCC spokesman said: ”We understand the officer was shot first before the male was shot.'” [The Daily Telegraph]

“An IPCC spokesman said “we do not know the order the shots were fired. We understand the officer was shot first before the male was shot.”” [Channel 4]

“An IPCC spokesman said: “We do not know the order the shots were fired. We understand the officer was shot first before the male was shot.”” [Sky News]

“[The IPCC spokesperson] added: “We do not know the order the shots were fired.”” [ITN News]

It’s difficult to know whether this sentence was part of a pre-planned statement or a response to a question from a journalist (the ITN account does though appear to suggest it was part of a statement). In any case the comment is important, as the Guardian’s inquiry and the IPCC’s admission have shown.

The IPCC spokesperson’s comment – that they don’t yet know the order of shots – was not simply a statement of fact, it was obviously considered newsworthy enough to include in an official announcement. Since the importance of it was not elaborated on by the IPCC spokesperson, it inevitably invited further interrogation from journalists. But in searching for the significance of this comment, journalists inferred a meaning well beyond that which could be reasonably be said to be contained in the statement.

The order of events was found to be relevant, journalists concluded, because it identifies the aggressor in the situation. Consequently it identifies two parties in a conflict, and, if the IPCC is to be trusted (that the officer was shot first) it corroborates a narrative of police acting in self defense:

“The ‘gangsta’ gunman killed in shoot-out” “he…opened fire on the officers” [The Daily Mail]

“A GUNMAN killed in a shootout with police” “Mark Duggan…fired a handgun at an armed cop” [The Sun]

“…it is believed that one shot was discharged from an illegal firearm inside the car” [BBC]

“Mark Duggan died instantly at scene as ‘exchange of fire’ heard with police…” [The Guardian]

“A policeman’s life was saved by his radio last night after gunman Mark Duggan opened fire on him…” [The Telegraph]

“A minicab passenger has been shot dead by police after an apparent exchange of fire.” [The Belfast Telegraph]

“A POLICE officer was shot during a gunfight” “Mark Duggan was shot by police after allegedly opening fire” [The Mirror]

“A police officer narrowly escaped serious injury…after an exchange of fire” [The Independent]

“A police radio that apparently blocked a bullet aimed at an officer has been found” [Sky News]

“The officer is said to have been hit before colleagues were forced to return fire” [The Mirror]

“two shots fired by a police officer and it is believed that one was fired from a handgun inside the car” [BBC]

“Officers shouted at the man to stop but he turned and fired his weapon, hitting one policeman” [The Metro]

“Police have said that a radio saved an officer’s life when a gunman opened fire on him” [Channel 4]

“A policeman wounded in a shoot-out with a gunman” [Sky News]

“IPCC…”We do not know the order the shots were fired. We understand shots were fired by both parties…” [The Irish Times]

“A POLICEMAN IN London escaped with his life after a gunman opened fire on him” [The Journal]

Looking at these newspapers reports its hard not to notice the complete absence of any critical analysis of the IPCC statement. They evidence a complete lack of scepticism on the part of the fourth estate (and even some outright fabrication – “but he turned and fired his weapon”). Instead of subjecting the IPCC and the Metropolitan Police Service account to scrutiny, the media actually elaborated on and read into their statements, drawing conclusions that were wholly unsupported.

This speculation over what happened in Tottenham is though not a two way street. In an interview with Darcus Howe the BBC presenter responded to Howe’s comment on Duggan’s death in which he claimed police had “blew his head off”:

“Mr. Howe we have to look we have to wait for the official inquiry before we can say things like that we don’t know what happened to Mr. Duggan we are going to wait for the police report on it.”

Responding to a complaint about the interview [which the BBC would later apologise for over claims by the presenter that Howe was “not a stranger to riots”] presenter Fiona Armstrong wrote:

“I interrupted Mr Howe because there is no evidence as yet that Mr Duggan was shot in the face, ‘his face blown off’ as Mr Howe claimed. Such claims without evidence are inflammatory and I had to remind Mr Howe that we had to wait for the result of the enquiry.”

As far as Howe’s claim goes it is certainly not comparable to the media’s. The IPCC had at this point stated Duggan was shot by police, Howe’s only unsupported claim was where on the body Duggan was shot. The BBC’s caution in censoring Howe’s speculation was certainly not a characteristic of the media’s reporting. There was no critical analysis of the IPCC’s version of events. On the contrary, the media essentially fabricated a narrative in which Duggan fired at the police before being shot.

The media in effect became willing accomplices in the misinformation surrounding the killing. This was no more evident than in the choice of photo used to accompany the reports:

This was the image of Mark Duggan chosen to accompany the report of his death by The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Guardian, to name but a few. Clearly this not a picture of a family man or a father. With the glittery jewelry and almost gun like hand gesture it is, in the words of The Sun and The Daily Mail, an image of a “gangsta”. The choice of this image tells a particular story, one which when tied to the accompanying text implied guilt or at least a strong suspicion of guilt. Duggan was being charged by the media without any form of judicial process.

It’s difficult to trace how this story developed, which newspapers based their stories on a first hand account of the IPCC statement and which based them on other reports, either way this speculation or mindless repetition identifies a link between what Nick Davies called ‘churnalism‘ and a more sinister apparent instinctive deference to power.

6 thoughts on “The Media: Willing accomplices to misinformation

  1. excellent analysis of the coverage. might be worth pointing out that the dowe interview culminated by him being accused of being a protestor himself.

  2. Email (challenge) to MediaGuardian:

    Dear Jason Deans,

    Having just read Robert Booth’s piece on the Daily Mail’s misleading reporting I wanted to ask whether MediaGuardian has any plans to take a closer look at the reporting of Mark Duggan’s death?

    Paul Lewis and Sandra Laville reported on the IPCC’s statement that it may have inadvertently misled the media, however it didn’t address the media’s role. While the IPCC’s initial statements may have been opaque, the media (everyone included) willingly read into those statements drawing conclusions that were entirely unsupported.

    I’ve written something on it (please see below) and would be happy to condense it and submit for publication. Either way I think it’s an issue at least one newspaper should address and as far as I can tell this is exactly the sort of thing MediaGuardian was created to do.

    Kind regards,

  3. 2 days later another nudge (no response):

    Dear Jason Deans,

    Just wondering if you’d had a chance to consider this request? There’s definitely a story here, one paper even claimed Duggan had “turned and fired his weapon”. Where did this elaboration of false information come from? Was it simply fabricated?

    Kind regards,

  4. Another follow up email. Still no response. Guess it’s not important.

    Dear Jason Deans,

    I thought I’d give it one last shot in the hope of a response. Would MediaGuardian have any interest in writing about the media’s relationship with the IPCC (see below), specifically in the reporting of Mark Duggan’s killing? If nothing else its an excellent example of what Nick Davies called churnalism.

    Hope to hear from you either way.

    Best wishes,

  5. 15 days later, a response:

    “apologies for the delay in responding. This isn’t one for media, but you might try one of my colleagues on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website – David Shariatmadari or Jessica Reed.



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