Clickbait Journalism

Local rag – the Echo – carried a big story on local gangsters John Haase and Paul Bennett over the holiday. It was viewed editorially as good enough for a full page feature splash in both the weekend hard copy and on line. The by-line was credited to a Tom Duffy, a journalist of whom I have never heard or ever met. I certainly have no beef with him because, in all probability, he was not around when this story broke into the news. Undoubtedly, however, the senior editorial staff at the Echo were around; and they were, presumably, the people who approved the piece for publication.

Now, I may be an old fogey, but I well remember the days when there were highly reputable journalists – award winners – on the Echo staff, people like Peter Phelps and David Hope. They knew what was happening across the city-region; and where they were in ignorance, they set out to inform themselves. I recognise that those days are long gone, and that since the departure of Marc Waddington, the standard of the Echo’s reportage of local matters has gone into a very steep decline. This is entirely due to the paper’s editorial quality – or lack of it. The lesson to be learnt is that the Echo does not render a public service, but a disservice, in its copy.

The Haase-Bennett story sums it all up very neatly. The piece conveys the impression of a “news” story. Well, the “news” content came from two court cases conducted years ago, one in 2008 and the other in 2012. The author has lifted most of his information from those trial transcripts. This in itself is somewhat ironic as the Echo did not accord any real significance to the trials at the time when they were being heard. The first being held in Southwark Crown Court, the editor did not wish to waste the valuable time of his Westminster correspondent in covering the case. Instead, he sent a young and inexperienced freelancer to cover it. She had no background knowledge at all (I know of no coverage by anyone of the second trial). It sounds remarkably similar to the present policy of giving young and inexperienced (therefore, cheap and malleable) journalists the task of monitoring the political upheavals and corruption bedevilling our city-region.

Compounding the felony, you might say, in this account of the Haase-Bennett case, is a completely distorted narrative rather than the truth of the matter. For example, the on-line report is spun to suggest an active Merseyside Police investigation, and that the “complex police investigation” was down to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst there were plenty of honest cops at the time of the crimes – and we are talking about nearly twenty five years ago – the police institutionally were happy to simply take the credit for guns being removed from the streets without asking the obvious questions.

There is also the agonised exculpation of the Customs and Excise officer who was the handler of Haase as an informer. I was on stand-by, at the request of the CPS, to be a witness against this Customs officer at his trial. I was never called. Indeed, I only discovered that the case had been disposed of long after it was done and dusted. There was a side to his involvement that was never heard, and he walked away free as a bird. The “good name” of the Customs and Excise was thereby protected.

Finally, the roles of both the then Home Secretary (Michael Howard) and the presiding judge in the case went unexamined. There would have been much to say, but only if the right questions were asked before the courts. It meant that these pillars of the Establishment – the police, the judiciary, the government, the Customs and Excise – were left untarnished and unpunished despite each having had a part in that disgraceful abuse of the criminal justice system. Haase and Bennett and their crew of criminal confederates were sent down, whilst the Establishment remained blithely untouched.

I know all of this because the much-quoted confession was made to me on a visit to Haase in Whitemoor Prison. I was also the principal witness for the prosecution in the 2008 trial, having pursued the truth of the case for over twelve years whilst the Echo and Merseyside Police did nothing. Therefore, I urge you not to rate any story coming through the Echo as any more reliable, original, or worthwhile than a tweet from Donald Trump.

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