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20 February 2020

Mitchinson: “Quality Journalism is Under Attack”

In an interview broadcast on The Media Show on BBC Radio Four yesterday, James Mitchinson, editor of The Yorkshire Post, touched on the acute problem faced by local newspapers, the importance of fact-checking in the age of misinformation, current attacks on quality journalism, and the importance of meaningful newspaper campaigns. 

Mr Mitchinson spoke about the disconnect between the importance of local journalism and the current climate faced by the industry, saying: “Print is in decline. It’s not an exaggeration to say that local print media is in crisis. And I think we have to pause and reflect and make a decision, as a society, as a country, as to whether or not we think local journalists doing public interest journalism for the betterment of the communities they serve is a good thing.”

Speaking about the false claims around the story, first published by the Yorkshire Evening Post, about four year old Jack Williment-Barr forced to sleep on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary, he said: “It was a bog-standard ring-in, as we used to call them, but nowadays they come in the form of an email. So concerned mum, son lying on the floor of a hospital in Leeds, sends us a photograph and a consent note. The reporter picks it up out of the inbox, calls the mum, “what’s going on?”, mum tells her tale. The reporter then just goes through what I call bog-standard journalism, the lowest the bar should possibly be set. And that is to check what we’d been told, put the allegations, accusation, to whomever the finger has been pointed at. And we did that, the hospital confirmed the story was true, very quick apology, and we published the story.”

Not long after publishing the article, social media accounts started questioning the story’s veracity. “There was a coordinated, concerted attack on the tale from literally thousands and thousands of Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts purportedly saying, ‘I have proof that this is untrue.’”

When asked how he felt about the attack, he replied: “It makes you doubt the veracity of the story. You know – have we been stitched up? And I’m pleased to say that the journalist that did it, Dan Sheridan, he very quickly reassured me. (…) The note from Dan was so solid, and his working out so clearly logical and methodical. It made the feeling in the pit of my stomach go away and I felt compelled to defend my team, to defend the journalism and – you know what – defend our trade.”

He continued: “I worry that the fakery is going to win. Quality journalism is under attack and ordinary people, those who aren’t experts in journalism and media, they’re being tricked on a daily basis. And they’re not being tricked out of money, they’re being robbed of something much more profound than that. They’re being robbed of the almost ubiquitous right that we’ve had, this principle of the fourth estate being reliable, somewhere you could turn, a place you could trust, a place of sanctuary where truth existed. They’re being deprived of that.”

On the power of newspaper campaigns calling for action and engaging  government, Mr Mitchinson said: “The Yorkshire Post has been a leading voice on the abject failure of the northern rail franchise.(…) I may be being conceited here, but I think (the government) know that the Power Up the North campaign originated at the Yorkshire Post in conjunction with the Manchester Evening News so they know that  either side of the Pennines are two loud voices that can cause them a bit of tooth ache if they want to, so for now there’s an open line of communication.”