Media Matter Nick Thomas
NOT FOR THE FIRSTI' im+, readers of the Herald can congratulate themselves that their favourite newspaper is innocent of the ethical lapses to which other publications can fall prone. For it seems that rather a lot of our more popular daily and weekly titles may have, from time to time, run stories based on documents stolen from dustbins by one Benjamin Pell, aka Benjy the Binman. The strange tale of this unsavoury figure has been rumbling for a while now, but last week Channel 4 brought it to the screen in documentary form, complete with much foul-mouthed monologue from the obsessive scavenger himself. Scandal in the Bins was a nicely crafted piece of work, enhanced by a directorial style that might have looked gimmicky in another context, but here served to enhance the bizarre nature of the subject.
That great academic media tart Laurie Taylor was wheeled out to offer his professional opinion that the man is not mad, and one would not like to quibble with the learned professor, even though "mad" is not a word that crops up in clinical notes with much frequency. But it would be fair to observe that Benjy comes across to the layman as more than something of an oddball, though you have to admire his spirit of enterprise and sheer brass neck. The most amazing aspect of the story, however, was not the phenomenon of this wild-eyed, unwashed larcenist himself, but the fact that so many of his victims regularly threw sensitive documents away intact. Only one of Bcnjy's targets, the law firm Harkavy's, routinely used the shredder, occasionally putting card papers into the street to see if they surfaced as news stories. They did.
Which brings me to the other issue raised by the Benjy saga, namely that of the standard of research and accuracy we can expect from the press. The fact is that the papers frequently get things wrong, through a combination of laziness and arrogance, and the principle that a good story is always better than a true one, and have a tendency to bury any retraction they may be forced to print on an inside page where nobody will notice it. In the curse of Scandal in the Bins the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, admitted with creditable candour, that his own magazine might well have printed stories that were originally fed by Benjy (who had, in his time, targeted the Eye). He then added ruefully that Pelt's activities were an uncomfortable metaphor for the profession of journalism itself. Yes, Ian; especially your end of it.
Nobody likes doing legwork, of course, and if there's one thing a hack loves more than making up a story, it's not having to work that hard. Research can be such a bore. The other day I got a call from a friend on a Fleet Street paper, who had before him a menu he couldn't translate. It was mostly pretty basic restaurant French, but neither he nor anyone else in his newsroom could make head or tail of it. That was depressing enough, but the fact that it didn't even occur to him to consult a reference book made it worse. Much easier just to ring up a mate who might know the answer, and bung him the price of a flash lunch at the paper's expense. As it happens, there was one item on the card that defeated me. So I popped out to the library, and having drawn a blank with various culinary authorities, finally scored with Elizabeth David, who informed me that avgolemorto is a classic Greek chicken soup. But on my way back I caught myself regretting that I hadn't just stayed put, and rung Alice Thomas Ellis, who would certainly have recited the recipe from memory. All those stairs and a couple of minutes in the open air for nothing! It's catching.