Tuesday, January 31, 2012

There goes the morning

A parcel arrives, by airmail, all the way from England. I tear open the wrapping to reveal a magnificent hardback book, Inside Private Eye: the first 50 years by Adam Macqueen, signed by him as well as by the Eye’s long-serving not-quite-founding editor, Richard Ingrams, and his successor, current editor Ian Hislop. It is arranged in A-Z format as a scrapbook with many photos and cartoons alongside witty accounts of all the magazine’s contributors over the years as well as their targets, libel cases and other causes for celebration. It is designed for dipping into, and it is brilliant. 

Under B, for example, we get “BLUNT, Anthony, extremely displeased to be outed as spy”; under O, “OFFENSIVE, Most, items published in Private Eye”; under R, “REGRETS, Few had by Eds”.

I am pleased to see Arkell v Pressdram covered in full, as it was an inspiration to us at Metro in the late 80s. This was the case of alleged libel where the Eye’s reply to a letter from Arkell’s solicitor ended:
We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you could inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.
Yours etc.
So far – I really must get back to writing my own book – this is my favourite: 
WIKIPEDIA, Rules of, changed thanks to Eye
In 2008, “Street of Shame” carried a story about the collaborative and notoriously inaccurate online encyclopaedia site Wikipedia, to which a saboteur had added various made-up details about a Cypriot football team (“a small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called ‘the Zany Ones’ – they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes”) only to find them reproduced in a match report in the Daily Mirror when the team played Manchester City.
The Eye noted that “brilliantly, by the rules of Wikipedia – which relies on ‘verifiability – whether readers are able to check that material added has already been published by a reliable third party source’ such as ‘mainstream newspapers’ – this is now officially true”.
Within a week, after a solemn exchange of emails between Wikipedia administrators and the Eye hack who wrote the story (me) the website’s guidelines had been amended. “To avoid this indirect self-referencing, editors should ensure that material from news organisations is not the only existing source outside of Wikipedia.”
This put an end to Wikipedia relying on newspapers for facts. It has certainly not stopped newspapers from relying on Wikipedia for facts.


Stephanie said...

O frabjous day!

Penny said...

Get back to work you recidivist slacker. And lend the book to me.

Max said...


It may be your favourite Private Eye entry but - as you really should know - Wikipedia is not "notoriously inaccurate". It is prone to hoaxing, in the short term and particularly (as here) on matters that no-one either knows much about or cares much about, but - as W itself is proud to record, repeated studies find it consistently as accurate (and inaccurate) as encyclopedia texts: see, most famously, Jim Giles (December 2005). "Internet encyclopedias go head to head". Nature 438 (7070): 900–901. This partly says something about encyclopedias, of course, but any hint of journalists actually generating prose by reference to any external source beyond a press release (or two, for a rigorous story) is encouraging. And the furore when they're found to have fallen for a hoax must, surely, have some salutary effect.

Please, one of the (sincere) wonders of the internet - other than being able to assemble and disseminate all sorts of trivia - is that you can (and so probably should) check this sort of thing.

Stephen Stratford said...

Hi Max. I agree that Wikipedia is wonderful, but I do think it unreliable. The article you refer to is six years old so I am not sure if the conclusions still hold in 2012. Maybe they do - but I can't count on it.

My admittedly anecdotal experience of Wikipedia is that whenever I read a page on one of the very few subjects I know anything about, I find errors - usually trivial, but not always.

So I find Wikipedia useful but not reliable. That is, if I want to be reminded of what is the capital city of Burkina Faso, or what where the years that Pope Pius XII was rocking the Vatican, I'll go to Wikipedia because that's quicker than going to the bookshelf and opening one of my encyclopedias. But never for serious fact-checking.

Wikipedia is fine for civilians, but is not for journalists - it should never be cited as a source in a newspaper or magazine article. What I find most useful there is the list of sources at the foot of a page - I will always go to the source of a "fact" and check/evaluate that and, if it pans out, use it for a citation. Call me old-fashioned but I find it shocking that journalists who are paid to be accurate so seldom go to the source.

Anonymous said...

"Useful but unreliable" is a good way of looking at it.

Anonymous said...

A recent example of hoaxing:

Ralph Roister Doister said...

I wonder what Max's point was. I will never know, because I make a point of never reading comments that start with "Sigh". You know that what follows will be full of what Yeats called passionate intensity, and will therefore be wrong.