Terry Lane: mea culpa

Here’s a request for Troppo readers to help me out.   First the story – from Crikey today.

Highly-respected ABC broadcaster and newspaper columnist Terry Lane calls it an “ignominious end” to a long career in journalism. Writing in last weekend’s Sunday Age, he unwittingly relied on a hoax to back up his story about atrocities in Iraq.

Lane relied on a documentary interview with Jesse Macbeth on the internet to document some claims Lane was making about the Iraq war.   Trouble was Jesse claimed to have gone to Iraq when he hadn’t.   The documentary was bogus.   Lane made a fool of himself.   Here is his mea culpa to Crikey.

There are three unforgivable sins in journalism: plagiarism, fabrication and failing to check the facts. I am guilty of the last.

It came about like this. My attention was drawn to what looked like a professionally packaged documentary video in which “US Ranger” (I now know that that is bogus) Jesse Macbeth recounts his experiences as a soldier in Iraq, where he claimed to have served for 16 months.

I was completely taken in by his fake sincerity. That, I suppose, could be excusable for any person with no responsibility to check bona fides, but in my case I fell for it because I wanted to believe it. That is inexcusable. As soon as I was made aware of what I had done I offered my resignation to Peter Fray, the editor of The Sunday Age. I have embarrassed the newspaper for which I have written since the first issue which makes me ashamed.

There are no excuses. No extenuating circumstances. Opinion writers are not expected to be objective and disinterested but that doesn’t give licence to be indifferent to facts. I should have checked.

Here’s my question, or challenge if you like.   I don’t agree with Mr Lane about various things – not least some of his views on the dismal science – which he’s never taken the half an hour it is necessary to understand a little of (to get the hang of comparative advantage for instance).

But this is a good mea culpa. It’s honest, straightforward, apologetic and explains what happened without making excuses or accusing anyone else of anything.   Indeed it is full of remorse and on re-reading it I find it quite moving.
My question is this, given that this kind of thing happens from time to time to pretty much everyone, can anyone think of any right of centre commentator publishing anything similar in – say – the last five years.   If not why not?   What’s going on?

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
34 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

Nick – Surely the preliminary question is which right-wing columnist has made a mistake this big?

I can’t think of a columnist, but an op-ed writer, Michael Warby, was similarly caught out when he let his prejudices be his fact checker, and published untrue material about ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda. Worse still, he had plagiarised it (oddly, a worse offence than factual error). I can’t recall what Michael said at the time, but he was banned from The Age and sacked by the IPA.

And again, we see the latte left assumption that politics and character are linked. From personal observation and some empirical evidence, I am prepared to believe that different kinds of personality are attracted to different political beliefs. But I am not at all sure that there is much of a link between broader issues of character and political beliefs.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

ditto –
I too would start with finding the egregious indulgence of ideological prejudices at the expense of simple common sense before looking for the mea culpa!!

Imagine Janet Albrechtsen falling for a spoof documentary depicting union leaders conspiring with terrorists to blow up an Ashes cricket match to make the Howard government look bad and Howard sad, for example.

saint
15 years ago

Oh I don’t know, I can’t take Andrew Bolt seriously after Pandagate not that I paid much attention to him before. May not be on the scale of Iraq but in that little saga he showed not just poor judgment, lack of fact checking and bias (although I interpreted as a rather intentional and nasty use of his position); why would I now think to trust his judgment on matters of greater import? So now I just ignore him.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

Nick – I never read Ackerman and only sometimes Bolt, but neither Iraq nor children overboard are analogous cases of running with a story that a moment’s checking would have shown to be wrong. And when you are caught within 24 hours having made an obvious major blunder it’s much harder just to brush it away; most people would probably think an apology the best way out.

Very few pundits of any kind or ideological flavour spend much time apologising for past misjudgments. Bolt’s book title ‘still not sorry’ probably sums up his attitude, but I doubt it is unusual. I don’t think it is too common among bloggers either – human nature rather than ideology.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

The point about this is that Lane ran with the story as incontrovertible truth weeks after it had been proven to be a total fabrication and all he had to do was google “Jesse Macbeth” to identify the facts.

There was also the odd dead giveaway: if the story was true it would surely have been global headlines. Did Lane not ponder why the Age hadn’t been running the story on it’s front page? Would you not attempt to update your original source material for an OpEd running some time after the event?

Lane’s mea culpa was indeed heartfelt, reflective of a very senior media commentator acknowledging a major journalistic sin.

I read Piers for a chuckle. No-one does hyperbolic alliteration with indignantly wobbling turkey jowls like him and I occasionally have nightmares about being stuck in a lift with Andrew Bolt.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
15 years ago

Patrick,

Albrechtsen unlike Lane has never admitted to being wrong about anything. When Media Watch (link http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/090902_s3.htm) pulled her up for misrepresentation and plagiarism in a succession of opinion articles in which she took a host of quotations out of their context in a bad example of polemic sensationalism, she did not attempt to defend herself against these allegations. Instead she attempted to pillary Media Watch for doing its job (watching the media), which is quite hypocritical considering the evidentary standards she adheres to in her own work.

Cameron Riley
15 years ago

Ackerman’s argument against a bill of rights is based on the TV show; law and order.

Any casual observer of the US or fans of such popular television series like Law and Order would be fully aware of the pandora’s box opened by the US Bill of Rights.

?

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
15 years ago

Wow! Cameron, maybe Michael Duffy (link http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/off-yer-bike–for-the-sake-of-all-of-us-on-the-roads/2005/12/02/1133422105845.html) should follow Akerman’s lead and get rid of those pesky bikes that transgress his 10-minute route to work (having a 90 minute commute to work my heart burns in empathy) by drawing upon Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0586087494/202-5014298-0475833?v=glance&n=266239). Using it would at least put “bums on seats” maybe with some of the surrealist absurdity that O’Brien intended.

Which begs the question why are there no absurdist op-ed writers except for the occasional misfiring polemicist that offer the reader the occasional giggle. Surely now is the age when we need a few more writers in the Swiftian traditional to mock the bejesus out of some of our most ridiculous conceits (and I’m not referring to the industry of P.J. O’Rourke wannabes).

observa
observa
15 years ago

Lane’s problem wasn’t the glass half full or half empty type and he as much as admitted that. Mind you he had nowhere else to go but contrition and therapy, a bit like Mel Gibson. His honesty to say he fell for it because he wanted to believe it, was above and beyond the call of duty here though. That was the most poignant part of his apology IMO. Still he wouldn’t be the first lefty to come to grips with the need for a decent seachange later in life.

Tony.T
15 years ago

It was indeed an honest admission of guilt. But given he’s made a career out of taking
swipes at media, spin, evasion, doubletalk and the like (at times he’s been bloody good
at it, especially on his old arvo show), you’d expect nothing less. Still, good on him.

Mind you, Terry’s been around long enough to know he needn’t worry about blaming someone
else or trying on the old “they do it, too” line; there’s always someone out there willing
to pick up that slack.

Andrew Frazer
Andrew Frazer
15 years ago

Seems like quite a foolish thing for Lane to have done, but it’s a classy apology.

What was Alan Jones’ response to his Frederick Forsyth moment all those years ago? I remember he lost his column (was if for the Sun Herald?) but can’t remember if he was sacked or whether Jones accepted any responsibility. It seems to be a clanger pretty much on par with Lane’s.

Seneca
15 years ago

Nick’s examples of Iraq and children overboard show that it’s best to keep the discussion to matters where there can be a clearcut decision (as in the Lane case: the evidence he relied on was either fake or authentic – nothing in the middle). Otherwise the argument is about the actual facts of the the case or whether it is actually a case of judgment call.

A similar case in the US was the Rather case with the fake military memo (on a lighter level there was the plastic turkey). I can’t think of other cases of this kind in Australia for commentators on either the left, right or middle. But I am sure there would be examples across the spectrum and I would imagine both left and right would show up in the apologisers and non-apologisers. So I incline to the view that this is probably not a useful exercise although lots of harmless fun if it’s taken in the spirit of giving the other side a bit of biff!

Tim Dunlop
15 years ago

John Quiggin caught Janet Albrechtsen out in an error and The Australian issued a correction. It’s not really an apology and it wasn’t issued by columnist herself, but probably worth noting in this context.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

I think it’s kind of funny that when an extremist left-wing pundit is caught out falling for an obvious hoax, primarily because it catered to all of his darkest prejudices, Nicholas finds a way to turn it into an indictment on the right.

Has this episode appeared on “Media Watch” yet? And if not, what are the odds that it will?

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I do think Lane’s apology was very becoming – someone should fax a copy to Dan Rather.

I can also solve a conundrum for N Gruen, to wit:

I hardly know where to place myself between the two camps in any event

If this post and thread are serious, somewhere towards the left.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

Nicholas, it’s kind of hard to come up with an example, because I am unaware of any recent case where a right-wing pundit has fallen for a hoax so obvious that, if true, would have led to the downfall of the US administration and been front page news on every newspaper in the world.

Apparently no right-wing pundits are apparently

1. So stupid,
2. So willing to believe the worst about the people they hate (in Lane’s case – the US).
3. So arrogant to believe that they have found the story of the century where everybody else has apparently missed it.

And, unlike Michael Warby, Lane has been retained by The Age despite this idiocy.

So, find an equivalent stuff-up by a right-wing pundit lately and maybe we can dissect their response. None of the examples you mention come anywhere near the magnitude of stupidity of Lane’s.

Tim Lambert
15 years ago

Mark Steyn fell for the Johnelle Bryant hoax. Far from admitting it his mistake he wrote multiple columns trying to justify it.

dave
dave
15 years ago

Christopher Pearson fell for the Larry Ellison Yale speech urban legend. AFR from a few years ago – no link, apologies.

Geoff R
15 years ago

Who is Terry Lane anyway? Why is he important? Wasn’t he an airhead minor voice in the anti-multicultural crowd of the 1980s? Has he written a single work of sustained empirical research or theoretical reflection? The major value is reading op-eds is a chronicle of human folly. Unfortunately much of the American occupation of Iraq seems to have been guided by the type of people who write op-eds for The Australian.

Tiny Tyrant
15 years ago

Why, Terry Lane is the person who has managed to ease our minds by inadvertently confirming that no Iraqi civilians have lost their lives as a result of the invasion, of course!

david tiley
15 years ago

Am I going to have to apologise for taking Geoff R seriously when he was pulling
my leg?

Terry Lane has helped to sustain the culture of ABC radio for a long time.

He has a good brain, a consistent morality, and is generally sceptical.

And yes, he has turned up in some funny corners in some odd causes, mostly about s
sexual politics.

(Something funny about the way the lines end or dont end in this box..)

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Nick: Regarding the disposition of left and right, I would find that a fascinating topic. Just as interesting would be the difference between these groups and those who are not a member of either tribe. People like you who are issue and outcome driven.

It is very hard to define the groups of left and right in terns of ideology. The only foolproof definition is that you are left/right if you label your opponents right/left. And to classify others by who they talk to. Thus, Nick must be a lefty because he writes for NM.

This definition focuses on the essentially tribal nature of these divisions. The groups have their icons. For the right wing tribe it is the Jewish state. For the left wing tribe it is reconciliation. On a deep level, even the ideologies that go with left/right are just tribal identifiers. It is tribal loyalty that turned off Lane’s pwoers of critical evaluation when he fell for the scam.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

“For the right wing tribe it is the Jewish state.”

Though this shows how tribes can evolve; I’m not quite sure of the turning point(s), but strong support for Jews and the Jewish state wasn’t exactly a defining feature of right-of-centre politics 50 or 60 years ago.

Wagner James
Wagner James
15 years ago

Look I think you are all missing the point. The very point of the Internet and associated technologies is that anybody can say they have done something and moreover can construct a proof. Big Deal that Lane is apologetic – who cares? Very few people would have believed him to start with. The media in Oz is pretty lame and generally not what I would call independent. ABC is not independent, it is Government run, nor even the so-called reactionary Internet based news services. The point is you get what you pay for – if you are lucky or unlucky depending on perspective, and the only thing you can believe in Australian reportage is the headline – ie., if there is a headline saying there is a war in Iraq then there probably is, but ignore most of the rest. Oh yes if interest rates rise that will probably be reported correctly.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

You’re right Andrew. And nor were Aborgines always a touchstone issue for the left. Not to mention multicultualism and immigration. Remember “Two Wongs”.

Seneca
15 years ago

Chris Lloyd’s remark stimulates a couple of early Sunday morning thoughts. First, apart from the now disputed racist interpretation of the two Wongs remark, the left (identified with the ALP) was strongly in favour of immigration long ago- the touchstone issue was racism/discrimination against Asians. Second, is immigration really a touchstone issue for the left now – isn’t it the asylum seeker/people smuggling issue that is the touchstone? Greater immigration seems supported by business groups more than by the ALP and unions. Multiculturalism definitely a left totem. Not sure that the left could claim “aborigiines” as a touchstone – it would seem unfair to deny goodwill on both sides on this – rather the touchstone is reconciliation/treaty (maybe)/ certain ways of doing things.
Re my use of “both sides” – I respect our host’s view that lining up in this way just prejudges the outcome of what should be an open minded debate but my feeling is that certain philosophical values underly the approach we take to issues which I believe undermines a kind of “technocratic” approach.

Harold Ronson
Harold Ronson
15 years ago

Why should any right-of-centre commentator make an equivalent apology? It is the left that is enthralled by lies. Anyway, the disgusting Terry MacBeth Lane has had the best of both worlds – his nauseating mea culpa makes him look contrite and attracts the sympathy of the dim-witted, but he has not in fact resigned, which he would do if he were sincerely contrite, only (allegedly) offered to. Stay tuned for his next outpouring of poisonous bilge.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
15 years ago

“Surely the preliminary question is which right-wing columnist has made a mistake this big.”

I think the enthusiasm of more than a few right-wing commentators for Helen Darville/Demidenko/Dale’s The Hand That Signed The Paper, and for her faux-Ukrainian identity, pretty much fills the bill.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
15 years ago

“this shows how tribes can evolve; I’m not quite sure of the turning point(s), but strong support for Jews and the Jewish state wasn’t exactly a defining feature of right-of-centre politics 50 or 60 years ago.”

An interesting topic indeed! At the time of Israel’s founding and the War of Independence the Communist Party of Australia was enthusiastically pro-Israel in its struggle against the “semi-barbaric Arab kingdoms” which were supported by “British imperialism”. Likewise enthusiasm for Israel was rife in Labor Party circles, with H. V. Evatt being a key figure in mustering support for Israel in the UN in the late 1940s, and of course people like Bob Hawke more recently.

I think one potentially significant turning point in Australia was the adoption of Palestinian nationalism and the destruction of Israel as a cause celebre in the 1970s by the far left (especially in the student movement), which provoked a counter-mobilisation by Jewish students (many of whom may have been comfortable with more moderate pro-Palestinian positions which didn’t run to calls for Israel’s destruction) and an historically contingent realignment of most politically active Jewish students and youth with conventional centre-right forces. Other contributing factors undoubtedly included Cold War geopolitical realignments with Israel becoming a US ally and several of the Arab states falling into the Soviet orbit. Another could have been a strong pro-Israel Jewish presence in two powerful anti-communist political and intellectual currents, namely anti-communist social democracy of the Menshevik/Bundist variety, and neo-conservatism.

Professor Bill Rubinstein wrote a series of Quadrant articles in 1979 which proposed another explanation, namely that the upward social mobility of Jews in Anglophone societies resulted in a change in their economic class interests and a subsequent realignment in their voting behaviour.

Perhaps the trend was summed up best by a line in a New Statesment & Society article of a few years ago which stated, in as many words, that the left had been irrationally pro-Israel for the first twenty years of Israel’s existence, and irrationally anti-Israel for the next thirty.

TimT
15 years ago

When Tim Blair was caught out some years back by Media Watch for publishing erroneous material on his blog he admitted his error.