The three things a public allegation can tell us about local news

The impressively direct update from Translink yesterday to a recent allegation that a teenage boy had been turned away from one of their buses brought an apparent end to a story that was very much ‘of a type’: a single accusation made by a member of the public against a large organisation then left to respond to a sudden social media storm.

This piece isn’t about the Translink/ Linfield jacket story as I have no idea what happened that day or if the story has, in fact, come to a close.

However such stories, which provide instant debate despite a lack of proven facts, tend to make three things very plain:

– The word ‘allegedly’ might as well not exist:   Follow any allegation on Twitter and you’ll see it turn into a fact within minutes. Everyone from political representatives to large organisations can can be caught out treating a claim as a proven event. In general, and again stepping away from the Translink/ Linfield story, it concerns me that young people in particular can be whipped into a frenzy over a mere allegation. And it concerns me even more that elected representatives can be seen fanning the flames – as if claim was fact – when it suits their agenda to create more heat. There is either an misunderstanding of “allegedly” or at best carelessness behind this.

– There is a lack of awareness about what an organisation’s communications office can actually do: A number of Tweets have asked Translink to clarify what did in fact happen, since they have now said what didn’t happen. I think many people misunderstand that privacy, legal restraint, a very wise desire to only state what can be actually proven and straightforward discretion when it comes to their customers will lead a communications officer to speak only about the actions of their own organisation. The communications officer may well know something about the wider story that they are simply not in a position, for above reasons, to divulge. The ‘two sides’ rule always applying but therefore restrained from the public view. That’s why when I listen to the likes of the Nolan Show it often strikes me that a large organisation facing an allegation is responding with two hands tied behind their back.

– When an allegation disappears, so do those who lobbied on the back of it: Even though a claim has dropped off the news agenda, the damage to the organisation at the centre of the allegation remains. In my humble opinion and again in a general sense, news outlets should return to those who had raised the most noise. Representatives such as local councillors may not be accountable for their statements in the same way as an organisation, but they should be held to account by newsrooms to help repair the harm done and the story then revisited to update public understanding of what actually happened. As it stands, the organisation’s fiercest critics drop the subject and the allegation is left hanging, with some people still left thinking that the alleged event did in fact occur.

Again, I don’t know what happened on the day of any incident involving Translink and the young accuser. I only know that work in schools to promote understanding of the word “allegedly” and greater accountability when it comes to those who support allegations could help bring about more responsible use of language and a more fact-based public debate when these types of stories inevitably occur.

We all know how quickly online anger can be enflamed and end up in the street in Northern Ireland. This simple approach, in my view, could help avoid one common source of ignition.

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  • Catcher in the Rye

    Sad, but unfortunately not new.

    The serious sectarian rioting in Belfast in the 1880s is said to have been sparked off when, allegedly, a Catholic shipyard comment made a comment to one of his Protestant colleagues along the lines of “when we get Home Rule, no Protestant will ever be able to get a job again”. Whether the comment was made or not cannot be confirmed, but the story circulated like wildfire and led to severe rioting – whipped up, as usual, by characters such as Hugh “roaring” Hanna.

    These days, the stories are circulated on social media. Fuel is added to the fire by parties such as the PUP, who in particular seem to run with such stories, working hard to present them as assaults upon the rights of the Protestant working class with nary a fact-check in sight.

    As to what happened, Translink appear to have been too gracious in victory to say exactly what it was. The chances are that the bus driver had some other, quite legitimate reason to ask the young man to get off the bus which was nothing to do with anything he was wearing.

  • Turgon

    Might be worth thinking on the Jim Wells hustings episode in this context.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Great piece and a fair challenge to the media to which we should return.

  • submariner

    It wasn’t just the UVF/PUP shouting from the rooftops the odious David McNarry also jumped on the band wagon and made a complete fooling of himself. The media are also to blame by jumping on the story without checking it. It kind of reminds me of the time Michael Copeland lied about the police assaulting him and his wife during a loyalist riot. Rather than wait until the facts were established the media ran with it only to be made to look foolish when the ombudsman told us that it was Copeland who had actually struck his wife

  • mickfealty

    I think there’s a strong point here, although it should be noted that in this case the Nolan Show did not actually touch this story (just so we are absolutely clear and above our own reproach)…

    I think CJ’s story may have prompted TEDxStormont to link this fascinating talk by Jon Ronson (which later emerged into a book):

    https://goo.gl/qXNdHo

  • AndyB

    Indeed. There is in fact a clue in the Translink statement – they reviewed the “high quality CCTV” footage, which implies it may have been the customer’s behaviour. Certainly, when faced with “he said/I said” incidents, they have to rely on the CCTV to see if it matches either the customer’s or the staff member’s story.

    It is also worth noting that Translink do from time to time receive calls and emails from customers when incidents happen directly supporting one or other side of a story.

    One important thing to pick up on: an all too frequent complaint from customers is that if they tweet Translink, they get told to email them details to make complaints officially. This does highlight what can be achieved by dealing with Twitter allegations, whether the result has to be made public or not.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’ve taken the 9A bus several times with Linfeild fans, Protestant Boys and Northern Ireland fans all kitted out, everything that could annoy the most narcissistic of naughty nationalists bar an Orangeman (who’d probably prefer to walk) … driver never had a problem with them and they never caused a problem.

    So I can’t be sure what was going on there.

  • Jag

    Gosh, it makes you think about all the NAMA allegations, doesn’t it.

    I suppose if it weren’t for the fact that Deputy Mick Wallace’s claim that there were £7m of fees linked to the Cerberus purchase of the NAMA NI portfolio AND the claim that the £7m ended up in an Isle of Man bank account; if it weren’t for these two claims being established as fact, we could possibly dismiss Deputy Wallace’s allegations altogether. But, given he was on the money with those two allegations, isn’t there an expectation and probability (not a certainty by any means) that his other allegations are also spot-on. And we still don’t know who was the ultimate beneficiary of the money and what the money was consideration for.

    Just a thought; I’m sure NAMA was the furthest thing from the mind of the author above.

  • Granni Trixie

    Not just to ‘the media’ but to anyone responding to rumours.

  • Granni Trixie

    Why?

  • Granni Trixie

    Sorry, but this comes across as cryptic:I do not understand what you are on about.

  • Ian James Parsley

    People will always respond to and even create rumours, and they will always be backed by populist politicians – not least while given false credence by the media.

    That is why I liked the specific challenge to the media.

    For example, I saw an article this weekend about a couple allegedly refused service by a Dublin restaurant because they were gay. Yet the article failed even to mention the restaurant, far less get a comment from it – so how did the author know the story was true? There is a particular responsibility on the journalist there to do some basic research on the story before publication.

  • Ian James Parsley

    I don’t really see how it’s relevant. He was filmed saying what he said so, in that case, there isn’t even an “allegedly”!

  • Turgon

    Because when the whole of his comments were shown it was quite clear his comments were more nuanced.

    The comments originally broadcast looked much worse.

    That said one can hardly expect objectivity / accuracy from you Mr. Parsley or indeed Granni Trixie. Your comment Mr. Parsley can, possibly, be explained as ignorance.

    Granni Trixie’s is more difficult to explain since she commented on the piece where Mick published the full account. As such her question is, as she knows, highly disingenuous. At the very least it represents mendacious spinning.

  • Turgon

    Seeing as you commented on the blog where this issue was raised, I think you know full well.

  • If I may summarise,

    Twitter is not a reliable source.

    And neither, sometimes, are we…

    Sceptical, not cynical.

  • aquifer

    Our tribal media are toxic, feeding predjudice. Look in vain for Belfast Telegraph coverage of much beyond Newry or detail of Gaelic sports. The Belfast they write about is shrinking faster than their circulation.

  • Granni Trixie

    Many thanks.

  • Gingray
  • In Belfast

    I wouldn’t mind if translink and other businesses banned people in sportswear, branded or casual.

    It would make things nicer for us non-rowdies.

  • Kevin Breslin

    A public bus is probably crossing the line, I was at a charity football tournament, slightly hurt myself playing and basically needed one. Sportswear is fairly common casual wear for most people. Never had any problems with anyone in sportswear on a bus. I have had problems with drunken people in formal wear though.

  • In Belfast

    To be sure, I don’t know why we harp on about a good time in the city centre or the Dublin road at night. It’s swamped with people in all sorts of wear who are drunk and commuting in the morning involves dodging patches of glass/vomit.

  • The Nolan point was general as opposed to specific to the Translink story but definitely worth clarifying, many thanks.

  • It was – didn’t occur to me at all. Was thinking mainly of the Funderland, ‘I was turned away by a doorman for wearing an (insert club here) football shirt’-type stories.

  • Thank you – I genuinely believe media awareness should be taught in schools, it is isn’t already.

  • There are occasions when, in life, we are aware of a story personally and not just the headlines-version.

    I have never, ever come across an allegation-type story the ‘two sides to every story’ rule didn’t apply to.

  • And that’s the thing: organisations will often be very gracious and legally very restricted in their response.

    Meanwhile, in these types of story the supporters are allowed by the media to walk away, the organisation’s reputation damaged through no fault of their own and the flame-fanners left free to do the same thing again and again.

  • Croiteir

    Indeed – the hullabaloo attributing the death of Savita Halappanavar to lack of abortions being one case, Jim Wells another. And people are campaigning to lower libel/slander protection?

  • Absolutely, I think organisations can face down criticism at source and will gain a great deal of respect for doing so.

  • Croiteir

    And then of course the infamous cheque that never was which scuppered Sean Gallagher

  • Zeno

    “Look in vain for Belfast Telegraph coverage of much beyond Newry or detail of Gaelic sports.”

    Every County is covered in detail………..

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/gaa/tyrone/

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/gaa/armagh/

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/gaa/down/

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/gaa/fermanagh/

    etc etc

  • Granni Trixie

    I think many teachers of English do so – the subject lends itself to the curriculum plus kids can relate easily to stimulus taken from newspaper reporting,videos etc.

  • aquifer

    I stand corrected.

  • That’s great to hear, it seems important. In my pre-social media schooldays we were lectured by the history teacher about primary sources etc.

  • Zeno

    Thanks, I appreciate that. It may have been like that years ago.