Media Watch

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Der Spiegel: Liar journalist, fake news, cover-up

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A major “fake news” scandal has rocked Der Spiegel, Europe’s biggest and most prestigious weekly news magazine, and the shock is being felt through the global media industry.
One of the magazine’s star reporters, Claas Relotius, has been exposed as a liar journalist “on a grand scale”, having produced a pack of lies in story after story, year after year.
About a quarter of his stories so far have been revealed as a mixture of fact and lies or as completely made up.
If this kind of fakery and lying could go on for so long at Der Spiegel, despite its reputation, all its fact-checkers, and reporters knowing they were being “checked”, why should any media outfit be trusted?
Relotius, aged 33, has won many top journalism awards, including CNN’s “Journalist of the Year” in 2014 and the European Press Prize.
Just weeks ago he was declared Germany’s “Reporter of the Year” for a detailed and moving story about a young Syrian boy. It was his fourth year winning the award.
Truth is, the Syrian story was, in fact, a tissue of lies, most of it made up and based on “hazy” sources.
Relotius has also written for many other top German news outlets, including Die Welt, and many of his stories were syndicated to other websites. All have been tarnished by the scandal.
The fraud was exposed by Juan Moreno, a reporter who worked with Relotius on a story about the US-Mexican border.
Becoming suspicious, he reported his concerns to the magazine’s editorial board. But despite his “well-researched” evidence, bosses tried to silence him, they didn’t want to know.
Nor did colleagues, who delight in exposing abuse of power in state and church, want to listen to the whistleblower or examine his evidence.
Finally Moreno returned to America without telling his editors, to track down two “sources” Relotius quoted extensively in the article.
Neither had ever met him. Nor was there any town in Minnesota with a sign saying, “Mexicans keep out”. All lies.
Der Spiegel later admitted to readers: “Moreno went through three or four weeks of hell because his colleagues and senior editors didn’t initially believe that Relotius could be nothing more than a liar.”
It added that for several weeks, “Relotius was even considered to be the victim of a cunning plot by Moreno.”
All this suggests a frantic and vicious campaign by bosses and journalists to deny or cover up the scandal. So much for the magazine’s grand slogan, “No fear of the truth”.
Had a politician or bishop engaged in such a cover-up the media would be screaming for an inquiry and for resignations.
Two senior editors were finally suspended, pending an investigation. But the global media have been stunningly silent about the cover-up side of this story.
Neither the RTE website nor Derek Scally, in his brief Irish Times report, even mentioned the opposition and vilification Moreno experienced from his colleagues at the magazine. Other Irish papers ignored the story.
The Washington Post insisted that “fabrication scandals are extremely rare.” It might be more accurate to say that detection and exposure of such scandals is rare.
For example, it was blatant fake news when an Irish Times headline and political reporter Sarah Bardon stated, “Ireland votes to remove constitutional ban on abortion…” But how many readers noticed? Or did the Times care?
The Constitution never contained a “ban on abortion”. So the people did not, and could not have voted to “remove” it. They removed legal recognition of the right to life of all unborn children.
Having relentlessly campaigned for this arrogance, the Irish Times, even after it had won, did not want to admit the horror. But perhaps it thinks that fake news is acceptable when the cause demands it.
Der Spiegel tried to blame the scandal on its readers, suggesting that people today are just too gullible.
“Our willingness to consider even the most incredible stories to be true, as long as they seem at least plausible, is almost boundless,” it said.That was the foundation for Relotius’ success.” Really?
Irish consumers too go on trusting the media, not aware of how cynically they are being manipulated, often to push an evil agenda.
At a deeper level, media which support “pro-choice” morality, as most Irish media do, need to explain why reporters should tell the truth if they can get away with a lie that boosts their story?
If the ethos in a news room says that people may do what they think necessary to achieve what they want, then what is objectionable about lying, twisting the facts, concocting fake news stories?

This is the RTE version of the news
RTE refers to “The 9 o’clock News”. The BBC and Sky also talk about “The News”. They are all telling us: “Here is how things are in the world and what you should think about them.”
This, then, is a phrase designed to persuade viewers to trust what they are about to hear, it is manipulative. Indeed, it is only the beginning of the manipulation that goes on in every news bulletin.
Perhaps RTE should be obliged to say something like “this is the RTE version of the news.” And the same with other radio and TV stations.
At least it would alert media consumers to the fact that they are being fed just one highly biased version or view of what is happening in the world.
The present manipulation is very successful. Research repeatedly shows that far more people trust “the news” than trust journalists, and not just in Ireland.
But how can this be? Who do they think select and shape “the news” if not journalists?
Whether the issue be climate change, Brexit, Trump’s policies, the Church, Peadar Tóibín’s new political movement, baby-killing doctors, the economy, or the EU, it is journalists who decide what we will hear, whose voices are excluded, and how we are to think.
Eoghan Harris, who occasionally breaks the prevailing groupthink in Irish journalism, criticised coverage of the so-called Brexit backstop (Sunday Independent 15/12/18).
“The big beasts of the Irish media are all backing Leo Varadkar’s backstop strategy,” he wrote. So it is a good strategy, then? Not according to Harris.
He believes the border issue should have been approached as a political problem to be solved at local level. “Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny would have found a solution by speaking to unionists rather than running to the EU.”
Varadkar, however, “repeatedly alienated unionists of all persuasions, refusing to accept they had rational fears based on facts.”
Harris noted some major implications for the North if the backstop were used. And he feared that Varadkar might not be acting in the national interest but in a partisan political interest.
Turning to media groupthink he said: “most commentators in the Irish media are now so heavily invested in Varadkar’s high-risk backstop strategy they will be compelled to become his personal cheerleaders to cushion the blow of a hard Brexit.”
So, whatever happens, soft or hard Brexit, “a compliant and compromised Irish media will give Varadkar an honours mark – he’s in a win-win situation.” So much for “news” and for “independent” media.