Reluctant though I am for this to turn into an Evening Standard-bashing blog, I feel compelled to take the London daily to task again for the third time in as many months. This time, my issue is with its handling of the highly sensitive issue of racism. Last week, their page three lead story accused a London bus driver of banning two students from a bus for wearing Muslim veils. Yasmin and Atoofa, both 22 from Slough, accused the driver of a Paddington-bound bus of refusing to let them board due to the fact that one student was wearing a hijab, and the other a face-covering niqab. Incendiary stuff and it’s easy to see why the Standard ran with it.
Except that it emerged this week that this was nothing more than a baseless allegation. Yesterday’s Standard printed a retraction on page 13 after CCTV footage showed the girls acting abusively towards the driver, demanding to be let on the bus after it had come to the end of its run.
The really objectionable thing about the Standard’s coverage is the disparity in prominence between the allegation and the fact. Surely the correction, based on legally enforceable evidence, should be given, if not equal, then similar prominence. On page 13 it is likely to get overlooked, but it could easily have been slipped onto page two. For that matter, should respectable newspapers be printing unsubstantiated allegations in the first place? Is it enough to take the supposed victims’ word as true? Fortunately the Standard’s lawyers seem to have swooped in at the right time as none of the full names were printed in the original article, thus negating the possibility of a libel suit from the bus driver in question.
However, the credibility of the paper has to be called into question, and worse still the original story has been picked up by the BBC news website and Auntie has yet to print the correction. A valuable reminder then, to read beyond the headline and question every story reported without any proof.
I must admit, I was taken in by the Cold War intrigue of the FBI arresting 11 Russian secret agents this week. It’s been a good few weeks since a decent story emerged and with England knocked out of the World Cup, the broadsheets were beginning to run out of things to talk about. So it was understandable that the Telegraph and The Times both went big with this story – double-page news features, columnists wading in etc. However, after one extended read it rapidly became clear that this story was not as significant as it first seemed. As with anything involving the FBI, the details are desperately thin on the ground – all that can really be discerned is that there are allegations of money laundering involved. Their main crime seems to be against spying cliches, with one of the 11 recorded as meeting another informant in the park and greeting them with the secret phrase “It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.”
Keen to make the most out of this story, the papers focused in on former London resident Anna Chapman. She has effectively made this story, helped in no small way by her former husband Alex Chapman who rather generously sold his most glamorous photos of her to the Daily Telegraph. The shameless punning headlines rolled in, with various allusions to Austin Powers and James Bond. In this way, the broadsheets have rather embarrassed themselves by scrapping over such a non-story which wouldn’t have got anywhere near as much coverage if it wasn’t the summer and if the main protagonist wasn’t so attractive.
The Standard splashed on Friday with a large picture of Chapman in a bikini, describing her as a femme fatale. Lest we lose all perspective, we should remind ourselves that money laundering is not fatal. In fact, in other circumstances it might be described as a victimless crime.
Is there any substance to this story? We won’t know for several months. In the meantime, the broadsheets will enjoy filling their pages with second-hand pictures of some posh foreign crumpet.