Myths and Fables
- 23 Jan 07, 12:20 PM
Newsnight's "Übergeek" Adam Livingstone on the things we think we know.
Ask yourself this. Which government minister did Jeremy Paxman famously ask the same question of 14 times? If your answer is Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, then you, in common with most people, are entirely wrong. But you'd be pretty well justified in thinking it as you've probably read that version of reality in every paper in the land at one time or another, possibly even this week. Plenty of people at Newsnight seem to believe it's true too.
Journalists are busy people. You can't expect us to check ALL the facts. Especially the ones we already know. I don't check that Tony Blair is Prime Minister before I put it in a script. And likewise no-one ever checks that Michael Howard was Home Secretary when Jeremy asked him THAT question 14 times back in the 1990's (watch it here). Except of course he wasn't. It's an urban myth. A quick google reveals that the date of the interview, 13 May 1997, was after the election. If Howard HAD still been Home Secretary rather than a flagging party leadership candidate, it's hard to imagine he would have put himself in such a horrendous position in the first place. But one shouldn't let the facts get in the way of a better story. And by the way, it was 12 times and not 14.
We once spent a few weeks, with the help of Peter Oborne, trying to prove or disprove another famous media myth - that Tony Blair claimed on some radio show to have seen Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle. After much hunting we found the original tape in some deep lost catacomb of the BBC, and it proved that Blair had never said any such thing, and was completely honest in his denials of having ever made the claim. "Prime Minister tells truth" isn't much of a headline, even in such cynical times as these, so the story didn't quite have the impact of the original myth. But anyway, the truth was now out there. And that, I thought, was the end of the matter.
But just out of curiosity I set up a Google News Alert, which sends me an e-mail whenever the words "Tony Blair" and "Jackie Milburn" are mentioned in the same place. And sure enough, month after month, the myth trickles on through the back channels of the Internet and various obscure articles. In the end it's become the accepted wisdom, even though it's patently not true. Just like Paxman and the Home Secretary. Makes me wonder how many other things I know are true are actually complete rubbish.