The anatomy of a media lie

People are always harping on about how you can't believe anything you read in the papers. Not that it prevents them from reading and regurgitating what they read the very next day. There is also a widely held belief that newspapers knowingly print mistruths because it's a better story.

This is largely untrue. Most inaccuracies can be explained through a review and analysis of news values and how the news media works. Occasionally, and infuriatingly, you will get to the point where one media outlet has got the wrong end of the stick, but that “fact” is repeated so often that it becomes unassailable. You have no choice then but to go along with the assumption in the same way that there is no point in denying the ressurection if you are sat in a room of evangelical Christians on Easter Sunday.

But then, sometimes, you find an example of where journalists knowingly mislead the public time and again because the false information provides an example that is too tasty to destroy through the unpleasant application of facts. In this situation, journalists frequently choose not to find out the truth because to do so would cause an ethical dilemma and they may have to go against the accepted line – something that makes the job much harder.

Today, the truth…

And today has shown up one of those mistruths very clearly. Literally, Today. Because the Radio 4 morning news programme featured Sir Peter Vardy, who has become the centre of many news stories recently because of his support of so-called city academies, where businessmen contribute directly to, often start up, particular educational establishment.

The cash-for-honours row has expanded to encapsulate this controversial area of policy, with accusations flying that businessmen contributed to the academies in order to get a peerage or knighthood or whatever.

As such, “Sir” Peter Vardy has become an easy target. But alongside this has come the unassailable accusation that Mr Vardy is a creationist. That is that he believes, like many right-wing American Christians, that God created the earth etc in literally six days. Not only that but creationism is taught at the schools that he has set up. It has been put on the curriculum. Teachers there are chosen because they are also creationists. And they push this literal reading of the Bible.

These assertions have been pushed mostly by The Guardian – by far in a way the most popular newspaper read by teachers. The Guardian knows its readers and knows how important teachers are to it, which is why it often has the best education coverage of any media outlet. Although that coverage comes with a price – it is uncontrovertibly pro-teacher. It is only natural then that The Guardian would have a dislike for city academies, where rich men set up schools outside of the purview and control of the teaching unions.

And in the beginning…

The Guardian and its sister paper The Observer have written 56 stories about Sir Peter Vardy, a very successful car salesman, the first being in March 2000 when he first said he had pledged £12 million for the-then new idea of city academies. He was just plain old Mr Vardy then. And The Guardian noted: “A millionaire businessman closely associated with Conservative education reforms yesterday jumped to the defence of the government by promising £12m to revive failing inner city schools.”

It gave Mr Vardy a fair hearing, although of course mentioning early on that teaching unions didn't like the plan. “Peter Vardy, head of one of Britain's largest car retailers, offered the cash to kick-start David Blunkett's controversial plan for a string of city academies which will report directly to the department for education and employment and be outside the control of local councils.

“Although the initiative has been labelled 'half-baked' by town halls and teaching unions, Mr Vardy hailed the plan – similar to the last government's city technology colleges – as a wonderful idea designed to help those most in need.

“Mr Vardy has a strong philanthropic history – his charitable Vardy Foundation, which contains his private shareholding in Reg Vardy plc, has already supported Sunderland university's school of arts and design, and recently helped build schools and churches in Ethiopia, Bolivia and Moldova.”

There was nothing about Mr Vardy, now Sir Peter, until two years later when suddenly the creationism accusation emerged. It began: “Fundamentalist Christians who do not believe in evolution have taken control of a state-funded secondary school in England.”

It backed up this assertion with: “The school is hosting a creationist conference this weekend and senior staff have given a series of lectures at the college urging teachers to promote biblical fundamentalism and giving tips on techniques to make pupils doubt the theory of evolution.”

The story notes that: “Under the national curriculum, schools must teach evolution but are not banned from teaching creationism as well. That leaves Emmanuel's teachers free to present evolution merely as a 'theory' no different from the idea that the world was made in six days.”

The raw material

The accusations surrounded the school's vice-principal and its maths teacher both of whom were quoted as saying that as Christians it was their duty to counter the anti-creationist position. Sir Peter, while he wasn't accused of believing in or pushing creationism, had suddenly become an “evangelical” Christian in the story.

That story appeared on 9 March 2002, and was one of five printed that month on the school. The schools inspector Ofsted asked the school to “clarify its position”. Sir Peter said he was happy to have an inspection. There were three stories centered on the same accusations the next month. Sir Peter was quoted saying “I am not a creationist and neither is Emmanuel college.” He invited evolution expert Richard Dawkins to come to the school. In May, the paper reported that Ofsted had given the school it approval, and the story died.

A letter printed in the paper in October clearly demonstrated that one reader hadn't followed all the stories though. He stated, wrongly: “More worrying is Sir Peter Vardy (of Reg Vardy car dealerships). He already runs the City Technical College in Gateshead, where creationism is taught as science in opposition to evolution. He has also taken over a city academy in Middlesbrough and appointed a 'creationist' head. Are these the people we really want running our educational system?”

Later that month, a story about Sir Peter appears that isn't about creationism, merely his business. One of the very few times.

Here we go again

In April 2003, it blew up again. “The organisation criticised for promoting creationism in state education has admitted that anti-evolutionary theories will be taught in its new schools.” In fact what John Burn, chief academic adviser to the Vardy Foundation, had said was that: “Evolution will be taught, other theories will be taught and children will be left to take a view of it themselves.” But The Guardian repeated all the information from its first creationism story without covering any of the ground in between.

Suddenly it was in the hands of columnists who railed against this appalling situation without doing any fact checking and repeating the accusations from the story over a year before.

Suddenly, Sir Peter Vardy had become a “creationist evangelist”. But not in The Guardian, in The Sunday Times. The Guardian merely repeated the “fact”. Then the columnists started up again. Suddenly we were told that “religion can't be used as an alibi” and that it “must be wrong to tolerate ritual slaughter, bigotry or creationism”.

It went quiet again, until another new school was due to be opened, at which point, Sir Peter – who was now an undoubted “creationist Christian” – appeared all over again. It helped of course that this coincided with a big argument in the United States about creationism being taught in schools. Well, let's be honest, the only reason the story existed was *because* of the US debate. Wasn't it good to find UK equivalent would could condemn, even if the facts didn't bear it out?


It also helped that Richard Dawkins was foolish enough to get drawn into the debate, thereby adding a veneer of news respectability. Now, The Guardian was reporting, in one of the wonderful media-self-feeding-frenzies: “Some 250 parents, teachers and pupils marched through the streets of Doncaster, in south Yorkshire, on Saturday to protest against what they say is a 'takeover' of their school by a pro-creationist religious foundation” – even though the parents' views had been wrongly informed by the inaccurate press articles in the first place.

The story reported that: “A spokeswoman for the Vardy Foundation said it was 'disappointed' that parents were protesting before the consultation period had begun, and before they had been to any meetings to learn more about how the academies are run.”

By this stage, the story had started living in its own world. And when that happens people just take it as read that it is true (what happened to the “never believe what I read in the papers?”), and so everyone has an opinion on something that isn't true.

And here, of course, comes the National Union of Teachers condemning the academies: “Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned that building large numbers of academies would 'destroy' local communities of schools as he promised a high-profile campaign to press for 'a more rounded policy' that would channel extra funding into every challenged secondary school.” Sir Peter, again a “creationist Christian”, has reportedly “attracted controversy when it emerged it teaches creationist theory alongside evolutionary science”.

Fiction becomes fact

And then, with the help of columnists, suddenly it all becomes fact. Francis Beckett, “a writer specialising in education”, appears on The Guardian comment pages with this completely untrue assertion: “Thus Sir Peter Vardy, an evangelical Christian who believes in creationism and already controls two schools, is to control at least two more. In his schools, he demands that Darwinism be taught not as science, but as one theory of the way the world came into being. Another equally good theory, the pupils are taught, is that the world was literally created by God in six days.”

This “fact” is then repeated and rehashed endlessly, although the news pages were always careful to avoid saying that Sir Peter himself was a creationist for the simple reason that they knew he wasn't.

Last month, when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out against creationism, now dubbed Intelligent Design, it was only natural that Vardy would be brought up again. Earlier this month the NUT decided it didn't like faith schools and so “called for an end to” what was undoubtedly the “growing influence of religious organisations in education”. And this meant an end to “the controversial teaching of creationism”. Cue Mr Vardy. But where exactly was this teaching of creationism going on? Because no one can actually point to a single occasion in which it has actually been taught in the UK.

The teaching of creationism in the UK has become a phantom – it exists because people say it does. Suddenly with the added intrigue of cash-for-honours, Sir Peter Vardy – “the car magnate who advocates the teaching of creationism” – has become “controversial”.

Media blast

I pick on The Guardian because it has been the paper that has covered this situation the most. But in the past week, it has become a wider media topic. The Scotsman gave Vardy a fair deal when it reported: “It was claimed that schools in the north-east of England backed by one academy sponsor, Christian millionaire Sir Peter Vardy, were promoting creationism alongside conventional evolutionary scientific theory. The King's Academy in Middlesbrough, which Sir Peter sponsored, has denied that it taught creationism.”

Not so the Daily Mail, where Vardy was credited with “a recent revival in creationist thinking”.  The FT reported that: “Creationist views have been taught alongside the normal science curriculum at the Emmanuel academy in Gateshead, which is sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, the Christian businessman.” The BBC got in on the act. The Telegraph reported that “creationism has been promoted in at least one academy sponsored by the evangelical businessman Sir Peter Vardy”. The Herald said the same.

But what is incredible over all of this is that no one sought – or at least they didn't publish – what Sir Peter Vardy's actual beliefs are. It may seem incredible that a man who has been used as an example for hundreds of newspaper articles has never actually been quoted about his beliefs.

And so it was with some surprise on the Today programme today that Jim Naughtie, when he asked Sir Peter straight out if he believed that God had created the world in six days, he answered, bluntly: “No.”

He added: “I believe that God created the Earth and created man in his own image. Quite how long it took him, I don't know and quite honestly I don't worry about it.”

Asked if he would be concerned if creationist thinking was taught in classes, he answered bluntly again: “Yes.”

Origins of specious

So where did this all come from? According to Sir Peter: “I was asked five years ago, was I a creationist? I asked the interviewer 'what is a creationist?' And they said: 'Someone who believes in a creator god.' I said as a Christian I was happy to agree to that. I was labelled then a creationist, fundalmentalist, evangelist user-car salesman.”

You can listen to the whole interview here.

The fact is that he isn't a creationist. And the media knows it as well. But journalists haven't wanted to ruin the story and so have never bothered to correct it, instead choosing to imply that he is a creationist and that his schools teach creationism.

The real question is: at what point does promoting information you know to be false become a lie?

  1. The “information”/specific assumption that I as a member of my species is a “wo’ man, is a lie. It is false. I am not a man of any kind. Not even a ‘hu’ man! It is imposed by another lie, that the species is “mankind.” If this is the case and if it is the case that I am a ‘wo’man then it is the case that “being man entails both being and not being male!” This is crazy talk! No one defines the electron as being and not being a negative charge. “Man” is one of the basic lies that gives most people the right to lie when it suits their purposes. Louise Goueffic.

  2. What is this semantic gibberish?

    Language has developed over tens of thousands of years to represent what we see and perceive in the real world around us. The bizarre and pointless offense you take at one of the most basic words in language is extraordinarily petulant and has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog post.

    Please go away.


  3. Rant

    What is this semantic gibberish?

    I have to wonder that myself.

    Going back to the issue at hand, it’s difficult to know what the whole situation is with schools teaching Creation in classes. My view is a simple one: If you wish to teach Biblical Creation in schools it should be in R.E. classes. If you wish to teach science, then you should only teach sciences that have evidence for them.

    Whether Sir Vardy has sanctioned the teaching of Creationism in his schools or not is likely still in doubt even today despite the claims made by him over the past 5 years or so, and the only way we’re likely to know this is by asking former students.

    My other concern is that, IF Creation is being taught in these schools, that the children are being lied to. I’ve come across at least six documentaries in recent months, all funded by Christian media outlets, all promoting Creationism, and all doing so using some of the dirtiest tactics I’ve seen media outlets get asway with. Misrepresenting science, using red herrings, straw men, arguments from incredulity, ignorance, authority and so on, and in the majority of cases, using outright lies (“there are no transitional forms”, anyone remember that claim?) that it would disgust me if people were to use such dishonest tactics in teaching Britain’s children.

    Such teaching is very difficult to correct as it is also done in such a manner that it closes people’s minds.

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