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John Prescott’s spat with Sunday Times underlines extent of made up anonymous quotes in papers

Posted on 13 June 2011 | 8:06am

Good to see that John Prescott has lost none of his old fire, and none of his new ability to use social media to get heard.

His extraction via twitter of an apology from the Sunday Times over a quote, which he rightly says was used to justify the paper’s headline about ‘big beasts’ mauling Ed Miliband, was pretty instant.

The paper’s claim that this was all down to a production error was as believable as many of the stories which appear in the Sunday papers.

And the episode is a good opportunity for me to remind you of something I have said on here before – that most anonymous quotes in newspapers, particularly at the weekends, are made up.

The current spate of anti-Ed Miliband stories is fertile ground for the ‘a friend said’, ‘a colleague said’, ‘a former friend/colleague said’, ‘a senior (never junior) source said’ variety of ‘journalism.’ Have you noticed how the anonymous sources always speak in the style of the paper, how the broadsheet anonymous quotes are just that little bit longer than the tabloids?

The current game is to get a few anonymous quotes on the boil re Ed, then ask a few rentaquote types on to give them credibility. So step forward Diane Abbott yesterday suggesting (now on the record) some Blairite plot to undermine Ed. I think if there was a Blairite plot, I would have an inkling of it. There isn’t.

All that is happening is that the papers are going through one of their mini frenzy periods re the Labour leader. They come, they go (the frenzies I mean before anyone suggests I am suggesting Ed should go.)

Of course there is and always has been a role for anonymous quotes in journalism. But whereas it used to be that the balance of probability was that they were genuine, I think these days the balance of probability is that they are not. This is actually another problem for the press and its credibility, about which it seems to want to do little to redress as it continues its hurtle towards increased irrelevance.

As a senior editor told me recently … ‘I fear we’re fucked.’ (Well not exactly, but hey it fits with the piece.)

  • Kernow Castellan

    So politics and the media are all fuelled on half-trutths, spin and, sometimes, outright lies.

    [:faints in surprise:]

  • Ed Miliband is the New Michael Foot.  

  • Robrob2002

    Underneath this media froth I think there are serious concerns about Ed’s performance.

    Many vulnerable people are suffering under the Coalition policies – and the Labour party should be effectively articulating an alternative.

    So far Ed and his team are not achieving this.

  • I’m shocked. So you mean the senior sources in the ‘serious’ papers are just the ‘bystanders’ who are usually on hand to comment on a female celebrity’s thinness, fatness. hotness etc doing a bit of overtime?

  • There’s no plot? Damn.. I’m holding onto the hope David is waiting in the wings.

  • MicheleB

    I’m so glad the Bruiser did his thang yesterday.

    Thank heavens that when he was a DPM he also had a proper job to do (one that was more than sitting alongside someone that owned him).

  • ambrosian

    I was prepared to give Ed Miliband a fair crack of the whip even though I feared that in image terms the public would not warm to him nor see him as a Prime Minister.But I’m horrified by reports of his speech today. It seems the worst kind of focus group politics. “Who do the public hate? A: Bankers and benefit cheats. So let’s lump them both together as the targets of party policy.”

    Totally absurd because it wasn’t the tiny number of benefit cheats who brought us to within 48 hours of the cash machines shutting down and wrecked the economy.
    And if those at the top and the bottom are to blame for all our ills, does that mean that those in the middle are all paragons of virtue? Consider the scale of tax avoidance and sometimes outright evasion by the self-employed middle classes. And, of course, the endemic expenses fiddling by MPs.

    Then there’s the idea of those doing voluntary work being prioritised for social housing. Social housing should be allocated according to need and nothing else, not some bizarre kind of head-patting paternalism. And surely it would lead to people volunteering from self-interest, just as we see non-religious parents attending churches to get their kids into a church school.

    It’s laughable that the papers initially called him ‘Red Ed’ when here he is dancing to the Daily Mail/Murdoch tune instead of attacking Government policies with real passion and anger and defending those that the Labour Party is meant to represent. 

  • Robert

    BBC website headline this morning: “REVIEW TO RECOMMEND NHS CHANGES” = Coalition to be commended on their NHS plans for change.

    But when you read the content: “An independent review of the government’s planned shake-up of the NHS in England is expected to recommend significant changes.” = Just the opposite.

    Perhaps as well as Nick Robinson suggesting on his blog that we owe journalists an apology for not believing their line on TB/GB he ought to suggest that the BBC’s web headline writers have a look at the BBC College of Journalism website – the chapters on making the headline fit the story. (Pls note my ultra-cool use of modern journos favourite super cast iron reliable anon-source source resource tool – copy and pasting from stuff they’ve typed themselves earlier.)

  • Anonymous

    If anyone knows what you say is true, it is the author of this blog, he has made his living doing just that.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read next to none of the coverage about Ed Miliband’s leadership in the last few days.  I really don’t look to the papers for anything much any more.  I’m so tired of bias masquerading as objectivity and fact.  We are now at the point where many articles have to be deciphered rather than read – a bit like Pravda and the Soviet era.

  • Watoop

    Fair enough but Prescott is a complete laughing stock now who is seen as the ultimate “sell out”. Firstly in his decision to join the Lords after voicing his opposition to it for so many years and now “spoofing” himself in painfully unfunny car insurance adverts. Add in Blair hawking his book around daytime TV and seemingly on message with the Coalition and those of us who bought the whole 1997 package are feeling more than a little let down now.
    As for Milliband, regardless of his personal failings, all I’m seeing so far is a dilution of what the Coalition is offering (witness Liam Byrne this morning talking about how the jobless must try harder). I want some serious centre-left  analysis and rebuttal please taking on this sham of a Government and their dismantling of the public sector – but where is it coming from?

  • simon

    Funny how the Mirror is never mentioned when people complain about papers and their frenzies.

  • Anonymous

    If we are going to see a resurgence of right-wing posturing from Labour (cf Ambrosian further down as well), it will only be because Labour’s research has told them this is what the electorate wants.  Sigh…

    Rome burns and the fiddles are out.

  • MicheleB

    The HoL still being called what it is is the problem.

    It simply needs to be called ‘Upper House’ or something that describes its purpose and we would know where we are, without needing the ridiculosity of people needing to be ‘ennobled’.

    They simply need to be experienced, clever, full of nouse and fit for the purpose of examining what the HoC passes up to them. Prezzer is certainly all of those.

  • Nicky

    Hats off to Prezza.  It is simply
    unacceptable for newspapers to fabricate quotes in this way.  We all
    realise that most of the UK’s print media have a political agenda and will
    slant stories to undermine Labour – but this mingling of fiction with fact
    strays into something altogether more reprehensible. 

    It’s rather sad that the BBC – which is supposed
    to be impartial – seems to be going down the same route.  Carole Walker was on BBC Breakfast this morning presenting what
    was effectively a regurgitation of the Tory press hatchet job on Labour –
    something which came across very much as ‘bias masquerading as objectivity and fact’. as KDouglas puts it.  However, interviewer Sian Williams (to her credit) did treat what Ms Walker was saying with some


  • MicheleB

    Does it occur to you that if you don’t know something first hand as an actual witness you can only be either guessing or placing faith in one side vs the other?

    Either way, as a non-witness you are a small-scale spinner by voicing what is an OPINION. 

    It’s all most of us can do most of the time so this post contains a FACT.

  • With respect Alastair, as I know you are still an active print journalist, increasingly my news is derived from online sources and/or the 24/7 TV news channels. I enjoy a Saturday Guardian and Sunday Observer as I have more time to read. But not just the ‘news’ – other features attract my attention.

    With regard the current Miliband Bros fascination – is it not always the way that when the public might be disfavouring the incumbent Government, it is a perceived good time to dish the dirt on the opposition (provided, for some editors, that party is Labour)?

    If it is true that the M Bros filial relationship is struggling at present, so what? I am not in contact with my siblings for various non-earth-shattering reasons. One Bruv winning out over another Bruv may well have been due to a hidden agenda (and I have private thoughts about that) BUT it is in the past – for now.

    Presumably, should it ever be that the defeated Bruv becomes leader, those same editors (and owners) will celebrate along with the Party – even join in.

    Seriously, if your news is taken from the conservative press, you have to apply a liberal dose of salt (both puns intended).

    And the better source of leadership news is Labour’s own website. Then add your own discernment.

  • Andy Walsh

    A good brother v brother story has always been an appertising plot line going back to Cain and Abel. Not sure Ed is up to the task in hand. The coalition are presenting Labour a series of wide open nets but the goals are not going in.

    Change in public services has to happen. DC is currently making the case for change in the NHS. But change has been a feature of the NHS for the last 20 years. Labour should not be saying that change should not happen – just THIS sort of change that the coalition proposing should not happen.

    There aren’t enough original thinkers on the front benches at the moment who can deliver alternative versions of the change message that will drive forward improvements but which will also protect the most vulnerable.

  • You could set up a nice newspaper Alastair, if only you were ridiculously wealthy and from Australia 🙁

  • Pam

    Where’s Olli.  Too much good news for him at the moment.

  • Janete

    I agree entirely with your comments on media reporting. It seems there is just nowhere to go to read/hear honest comment and factual reporting. Am I alone in feeling thoroughly depressed about the state of Britain’s media?

    Supposedly reputable organisations such as The Guardian and the BBC now shamelessly join in the sensationalist, tabloid, who cares about balance, fact and truth, approach to journalism. I still can’t believe I heard on BBC 6 O’clock news that Ryan Giggs had an affair with some woman I’ve never heard of, or that I heard the words ‘and the headlines tonight: Fred Goodwin had an affair with a colleague’.

    In this weekend’s Guardian stories (I can’t bring myself to call them reports) we were treated to ‘Revealed: Leak shows divisions with brother on deficit reduction’. The detail confirms David Miliband would have supported Darling’s plan to halve the deficit in four years. Well, I think Ed has said the same, so where is the division? To describe the release of David’s speech as a leak is also, in my view, dishonest. They admit this draft was circulating in the week prior to the Labour leadership result last September – I suspect the Guardian has been sitting on it since then, waiting for an opportunity to make a sensationalist story out of it.

    In a separate article they claim that ‘Ed Balls came under fire from Tories and Blairites’, no names given. Plenty of other unnamed sources in the same article, including ‘A source close to Gove’, ‘Supporters of Blair’, ‘……one figure said’, ‘Senior figures in Whitehall’, ‘One Whitehall source said …’. ‘Are the knives out for Labour’s leader?’ asks Polly Toynbee. She should know, it is she and her journalist colleagues who write this crap.

    The rest of us can only guess as to their motivation. Is this an attempt, by a Lib Dem newspaper, to damage Labour in the hope of stopping the exodus of Lib Dem supporters to the only opposition left? Or another example of the race to the bottom, write anything, truth or lies, as long as it sells their papers.   
    They repeatedly imply it reached them recently, without saying so directly, and inevitably cast aspersions on former Blairites wanting to damage Ed Miliband on the back of criticisms of the Brown camp. My guess is that the Guardian chose to release this story now to get a noticeable headline, picking up on interest previously generated by the Telegraph.   

    • Janete

      Oops! Please ignore last paragraph, cut and paste went a bit wrong!

  • NE Pete

    Staggered, all this from the arch press manipulator

  • MicheleB

    A commentator said last week that Labour’s insoluble problem is that at the moment there are effectively only two parties, no third side to take an impartial view in every topic and in public.

    Whatever disagreements Clegg has with his boss at the moment is discussed in private then a united front presented to HoC.

    Camsham clearly needs the LDs more than he needs his dumped lieutenants.  Given that LDs are losing support from their soft-left leaning supporters there’s only one possibility for them at the next General Election and that means displacing the present Tory candidates in their own constituencies.

  • GJ

    The press are fast becoming an irrelevance, as the liberation of opinion and commentary, continues to gather pace on the world wide web. There has been a glorious emancipation for the public, from the burdensome lectures of right-wing columnists. Yet, it is concerning, that Ed Balls is the only one scoring points for the Shadow Cabinet. He seems to be the only one taking the fight to the tory-led government, when there seems to be a choice of targets every week. I think Ed is a good politician, and has landed some punches, but he is yet to pin Cameron against the ropes. His delivery is a little dry, but the substance is there, however, so was Cameron when he first took the reigns. Let’s hope he finds his rhythm soon, before the public forget who he is.

  • Richard

    Anon, unattributed, nod and  a wink whisperings is how your Downing St years were fuelled: You know that. Your job involved you facing many directions at the same time.This blog flies in the face of your own behaviour.
    How awful that Two Jags should be mis-quoted or misunderstood. Poor faithful lamb.
    Comparing Red Ed to Michael Foot (see below) is a hideous, unfair and hurtful calumny. Foot was utterly principled, dedicated and honest man who should be left to rest in peace without such odious comparisons.

  • Anonymous

    I know a fact too, my reply above got under your skin enough for you to write some drivel. Arguing against yourself since all you can do is voice your implied opinion that I am guessing or placing my faith in one side or other. Actually I was repeating what has now become as good as fact since the author is proud of what he does, whereas most people think the media circus he represents is totally misdirected.

  • MicheleB

    Logic and objectivity are not drivel.

    When you accuse other/s by borrowing Castellan’s general comments you need to know first hand that you are right to particularise them.

    Otherwise you are (or could be) indulging in outright lies, spin and half truths yourself, plus a few guesses, assumptions and some populist grandstanding.

    Shoooooo 🙂


  • MicheleB

    Total invention is not ‘mis-quoted’.

    You don’t even know what happened yesterday do you?


  • DM

    AC, I very much liked the post and regardless of the desire on the part of the Press to pretend that the Hacking issue isn’t newsworthy , I think they are still very much in denial but it will ultimately do them no good.
    But I’d like to shamelessly suggest one of your competitions gets another run out.  Given that the media generally continue to give the ConDems an easy ride, we could perhaps  lend a hand with suggestions for questions at PMQ’s and maybe you could offer a signed copy of Power and Responsibility for your chosen winner.  Maybe you could set a different theme every so often.  Personally I think that because Cameron takes himself so seriously, the arena is ripe for ridicule and his refusal to actually answer questions should be highlighted.  So, instead of just asking ‘proper’ questions which are  contemptuously brushed aside, Ed M should perhaps ask some questions which highlight Camerons contempt for our parliament, or perhaps draw attention to the lack of scrutiny to which his shambolic administration is subjected.  To that end, here are my first suggestions:  
    Question 1.  Can the PM tell us when he next plans to relaunch his Big Society and are there any plans to introduce and monthly or even weekly relaunch?
    Question 2.  Is there any truth in the rumour that the PM continues in his quest to prove it is indeed possible to polish a *urd….oh, hold on, ….no sorry that’s a mistake, that was my first draft of question 1.  Here we go, Question 2.  Can the PM clarify which version of the incredibly well thought out NHS Policy we are on this morning?
    Question 3.  After 13 months in power, isn’t it about time that Drowning St appointed a head of strategy?
    Question 4. Has the Govt finished dreaming up idiotic policies and dressing them up as something fantastic?
    Question 5.  Can the PM explain when we’ll be able to detect which bits of broken Britain he claims will have fixed first?
    Question 6.  Does the PM think that that public will become contemptuous of Parliaments’ ability to scrutinise Government if large numbers of questions at PMQ’s are never answered?

  • Gilliebc

    If there is no plot, there jolly well should be!
    When the Tories found themsleves with several unsuitable leaders some years ago they didn’t waste too much time before getting rid of them.
    Labour need to be more ruthless on this issue.  We don’t know for sure that David Miliband will be any better than his younger brother.  But he surely couldn’t be any worse.

    AC, “So step forward Diane Abbott”  rentaquote/gob Diane Abbott, that political giant!  Point proved AC.  But we need some hope of a new Labour leader asap. Because Labour at this time are in dire straights and more importantly there is no effective oppostion to the ToryLed government.  Although to be fair to the coalition gov. they are doing both jobs i.e. government and opposition quite effectively on their own. e.g. the re-think on the NHS being the latest U turn of many.  At this rate the majority of the electorate will probably be reasonably content to let them get on with it, unfortunately.

  • Franwhi

    Don’t think so – I well remember MF for his rhetoric and radical credentials. EM is sadly nowhere near that standard   

  • Richard

    Thank you MB. I read the reports before I posted yesterday. Having followed Lord Gobbeldyspeak’s career with incredulity, for anybody to understand anything he says is a mystery to me.
    How interesting it is that the only point you take issue with me over is whether Two Shags was misquoted!

  • Anonymous

    Are you assuming there are effectively only 2 parties? Labour and the Coalition? In that case your logic and knowledge is awry. The Coaliton is formed from 2 parties as can be seen with the discussions over the NHS, which contrary to your belief have been aired in public not with Clegg and Cameron behind closed doors. So there are 3 parties still and Labour is the least of them having ruined the economy, immigration, education, made poor people poorer, waged an illegal war and still not come to terms with their failure. 

  • Jacqueline L. Hope

    Reading that the print media in the UK are now just making up quotes makes me very glad that I’ve decided, after completing degrees in both Journalism and International Relations to pursue further study in International Relations and ultimately become an academic.

  • MicheleB

    Tell us all exactly what happened then Richard.

    Tell us what was said and what it was about.

    Tell us what was reported as having been said about something completely else.

    Then describe how ‘mis-quoted’ is relevant in any way at all.

    You don’t know and you haven’t even understood AC’s opener.

  • MicheleB

    Can you read?
    If you can you’ll know it’s usual to start at the top …. ergo at the top of my post I was quoting an.other, albeit without their name.

    I then go on with my own thoughts, culminating in it being my opinion that at the next GE (roll on) some Tory candidates will have to stand down.

    Clegg chose his coalition partner on the basis of the Cabinet roles on offer (not a thought, in reality, to the oft-quoted/trotted out ‘for the good of the country’) so he will have to get some agreement from Camsham next time round that Tories will have to give way in some constituencies so that LibDems will stand in their stead, possibly even re-named.

    I’m aware of what a coalition usually is JB but this is NOT one, this is an amalgamation and any LibDem voter that can still think of voting for them next time round should spare a thought for the very few ex-Liberals and ex-Social Democrats that still have the wherewithall/s to express disgust at the past year.

    PS: Had the discussions about the NHS ‘Big Listen’ really taken place in public WTH did we need an ‘announcement’ on its results. 
    Fess up; LibDems have been shafted but hey …… they’ll find a way to describe it otherwise …… those salary rises have bought them, made them owned.


  • Quinney

    The difference between Prezza and Ed is that Prezza lands punches. Just add the mulleted one….

  • Richard

    Calm down dear!
    Whilst you may appreciate that some of us have to read on the internet what happened, relying on the Guardian as a mouthpiece for balance, your ear is so much closer to the sewer than ours and we must defer to you.
    Please do not hesitate to fill us in with all the detail, unspun and accurately as we  are sure it would be.

  • MicheleB

    That’s Richard-ese for ‘No, I don’t have a clue what this thread is about’ isn’t it?

    Stow the Winneer impersonations btw Richard and strive for some originality instead xxx

  • oldboys

    ‘A source said’ is used regularly in my regional newspaper, not because quotes are made up but to PROTECT the source. We have often fallen victim to the same kind of sneering, ie, that our sources do not exist. But they do and I imagine the vast majority of other newspaper ‘sources’ are genuine too. I would have expected more balance from a former journalist, especially in such dark times for our industry.

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