Even better than the real thing

If there is one basic rule of journalism, it is that unverified facts should never be published

7 February 2017, 10:44am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
The allegations about Economy Minister Chris Cardona this week raise a number of important questions: not just concerning the behaviour of public officials; but also about the standards of journalism.

Social media has increased the scope for news reporting, but it has also obviated barriers that exist in the professional media circuit. Traditional media outlets are obliged to undertake fact-checking procedures – and even this is not foolproof, as attested by the many times respectable newspapers fall victim to hoaxes.

No such obligations exist for bloggers and citizen journalists. Also, the immediate knock-on effect far exceeds the cumulative impact of a ‘mainstream’ news event.

In this case, the story concerns unsubstantiated allegations that Cardona visited a brothel while on an official visit to Germany this week. The claim was made on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog on the same night of the alleged visit; and to date, the only substantiation concerns a single uncorroborated source, and on Friday evening, an undercover footage of two prostitutes – obviously unidentified witnesses – claiming they could have recognised the minister’s accompanying policy officer, or ‘partner in crime’ depending which side readers will find more believable. 

Such is now the ease with which allegations can be made about someone – without a verified fact being presented as evidence – and then picked up by MPs and the Opposition leader to be made a matter of record in the House. This is worrying because, at least in terms of the modus operandi, it illustrates how ‘fake news’ is created and circulated. The allegations themselves may or may not be true; but at this stage, prudence decrees that one cannot take such a poorly supported claim at face value without more substantive evidence... still less turn it into a Parliamentary issue. 

This development of this story suggests a pattern whereby unverified allegations are turning into ‘instant facts’ through a system of internet memes, cautious commentary and parliamentary privilege. The PN media has now in its hands, one piece of evidence: a brief, recorded claim from a witness who may not be able to corroborate what she said inside a court of law. 

If there is one basic rule of journalism, it is that unverified facts should never be published. It is for this reason that a specific procedure exists for single-source allegations. These must be corroborated by a minimum of one other source to be deemed publishable. Even then, the story has to be published as an unconfirmed report: the rules of journalistic engagement require verification to be an ongoing process. Newspapers often retract stories published in good faith, but which turn out to be erroneous.

These principles cannot be overturned for even the most pressing reasons – with the possible exception of a national security threat, in which the authorities should be alerted (this is obviously inapplicable to Cardona’s case). Even recent attempts by Buzzfeed to publish a private intelligence dossier on Trump were denigrated by serious newspapers, who said that unverified allegations should be double-sourced before going to print... even if the details of this unconfirmed dossier are undeniably of global interest.

All this is very much in line with the current ‘post-truth’ age in which we seem to be living. We have now reached a situation where the lie is ‘even better than the real thing’. Evidence is no longer necessary to secure a conviction in the court of public opinion.

Unwittingly, PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami placed his finger on the problem, when he said (on Xtra on TVM) that he believes Daphne Caruana Galizia because Chris Cardona is – to paraphrase Fenech Adami’s argument – an ideal candidate for philandering. He said that, to the contrary, had the same allegation been made of the respected George Vella, he would have not believed it.

Even in the absence of facts, then, what counts is how seductive a lie is, and whether it enjoys enough longevity and strength to shift the burden of proof onto Cardona – the accused – not on Caruana Galizia, the accuser.

As a lawyer Fenech Adami should know that this is not how the justice process operates. And as every journalist should know, allegations do not become ‘facts’ until they are verified. The onus of proof is on the person making the allegation. Whether or not, the PN media has sealed the matter with its recording will certain remain debatable in the face of Cardona’s denials.

Chris Cardona is technically spared that legal obligation; but here there are other less immediately legalistic obligations that come into play. As a Cabinet minister, Cardona also has a responsibility (over and above what the law says) to reassure the public that he is fit to carry on occupying his position. It is debatable whether the allegations (if proven) should be enough to result in resignation... in truth this is a test case for Malta. But there can be no doubt that he would have to resign if it emerges that he knowingly lied. 

Cardona claims to have proof of the untruth; if so he should furnish this proof to the press and public immediately, and not play the long game inside court. If he believes his accuser is a purveyor of fake news, he should take that stand now, in the court of public opinion, and put himself squarely on the side of the truth.

There is more at stake than his reputation. Given that the Opposition has (prematurely, it must be said) chosen to lend credence to the unconfirmed rumours... there is the credibility of both parties at stake, too.