What price the truth now?

I’ve been a fool. Every week for the past 10 years, I have published corrections on this page, each one carefully weighed and verified, whether concerning the displacement of the Queen Mary, the true position of Skegness or the number of thoroughbreds slaughtered in Britain. That’s about 2,600 carefully honed items. But I’ve really missed a trick. I should have followed the example of millionaire entrepreneur Sir David Tang and charged to print them.

Last week, we learned that Cherie Blair has never met Saif Gaddafi; that Kate Moss doesn’t have a Facebook account and that Chelsea footballers denied spending £120,000 on drinks at a party. How do we know these things? Because they joined Stephen Fry, Jemima Khan, Tracey Emin and Naomi Campbell on Sir David’s new website, ICorrect.com, announcing to the world that untruths have been told about them online and in the public prints.

ICorrect.com claims to be the first website to “correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace” by offering individuals and corporations the opportunity to post corrections alongside a reproduction of the offending article. It costs an individual $1,000 a year to register; corporations pay $5,000.

But read the small print. No verification process will take place; correctors are entirely responsible for their posts and the site “makes no guarantee regarding the reliability, accuracy, legitimacy or quality of any such postings”. In other words, it’s an individual’s word against the media.

And it looks like an egomaniacs’ charter. While an earthquake and tsunami killed thousands and threatened the planet with nuclear catastrophe, those who could afford it told us that they didn’t snub a particular lunch party or ride a horse in a nightclub.

I asked Sir David in Buenos Aires last week if any website, newspaper or individual journalist had challenged these corrections to their reporting. Not so far, he said, stressing that the site had only been live a few days. “I have people who look at the postings who will take anything down that is blatantly defamatory. I do ask people to consider carefully what they write, but I can’t police the content and I can’t be responsible for veracity. I pray every day that we won’t be sued, but the way that media are developing we have to change the law on defamation anyway.”

He said he had approached 30 celebrities to post corrections to help launch the site, but hoped that others would soon join. “I don’t pretend to be able to stop lies being published about people, but I do offer them a platform to correct. I would like many individuals and institutions to get involved; the royal family, Boris Johnson, 10 Downing Street – they should all have the opportunity to correct things said about them in newspapers and on the internet.”

Sir David seemed unaware that some media have been offering this service completely free of charge for more than 40 years (indeed, in Japan the concept goes back to 1922). There are journalists working in newspapers, broadcasting and online all around the world, who, like me, act as ombudsmen, independent of the editor, listening to those who feel injured by our coverage, verifying their claims, talking to the author and, if necessary, printing a correction which is then appended to the story online. It’s an attempt to make the media more transparent and, we hope, more trustworthy.

Sir David’s site is full of apparent corrections to items in the Mail, Telegraph, Financial Times and Sun, papers that have no corrections service, so he seems to have spotted a gap in the market… but at a price. “This has got to be a sustainable business, it has got to stand the test of time – that is what we are offering people,” he said. “In the years to come, everything will be recorded via the internet but things you see online are overwhelmingly hearsay. I want to couple the accusation and the correction together.”

But with money changing hands, no verification process and no opportunity offered to the publisher to defend an apparent error, why should anyone take any notice? As prostitute Mandy Rice-Davies so famously said when told in court that Viscount Astor denied an affair: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

This column was originally published in The Observer on March 20, 2011.

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