What happens when an investigative reporter was lying all along? What happens to their editors? To their newspaper? What’s the reward for truth-telling in journalism, if one is handed cash prizes and historic awards for peddling fake news?
Americans ponder such questions as they relate to Russiagate – the debunked idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the election of President Trump. Britons have our own Russia Lie hawked by supposedly reputable news outlets and agencies: that Putin – yes, Putin again – made 17.4 million Brits vote to leave the European Union.
While farcical claims about Putin backing Brexit swirled before the referendum in June 2016, serious allegations about collaboration between leading Brexit backers and the Russian government emerged in early February 2017 in Britain’s Observer newspaper, under the byline of features writer Carole Cadwalladr.
Cadwalladr, 51, had to that point earned a living writing little-read books and filing interviews with left-wing celebrities like Richard Dawkins, Amir Khan, and Nate Silver.
In late 2016 Cadwalladr began to develop a taste for a different kind of story: the fake news story.
Armed with little other than her hunches on topics of global political intrigue, the Somerset-born scribbler took to piecing together a grand conspiracy theory: that an American billionaire, a Member of the European Parliament, an insurance salesman, and the incoming White House Chief Strategist duped the entire British public with a handful of digital advertisements at the behest of the Russian President.
For Cadwalladr, there was just one problem: there was no evidence of such a grand conspiracy. So she’d have to make some up.
‘The press, honestly, is out of control.’
Cadwalladr’s first major article on the subject came on Sunday, February 26th 2017. Ironically, it began with her attacking Donald Trump for attacking the media and its penchant for “fake news.”
“Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars,” Cadwalladr bemoaned in her opening paragraph in an article entitled, “Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.”
She noted the newly-inaugurated President’s comments: “The press, honestly, is out of control… The public doesn’t believe you any more,” etc, etc.
Fast forward almost four years, and her opening salvo should serve as a fitting epitaph to her journalistic career.
Cadwalladr was recently forced by a British court to apologize for her phony claims about Brexit-backer Arron Banks. Just three weeks later she voluntarily removed “the Truth Defence and the Limitation Defence” in a court case wherein she was expected to defend her claim that Banks worked with “the Russians” and that Russia had somehow financed the pro-Brexit campaign.
Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes simplified the story: “it was all complete cock ‘n bull.”
And while the most recent developments will surely cost Cadwalladr a pretty penny – in excess of $83,000 up front, to be precise – the cost to journalism, public trust, and democracy itself is surely far greater.
Foremost in absorbing the damage from Cadwalladr’s ostensibly intentionally shoddy work are her colleagues.
The Observer newspaper is the Sunday edition of the Guardian, whose own reporters have privately bemoaned Cadwalladr’s loose relationship with the truth.
But beyond the papers themselves, a number of other outlets ran the stories without their own fact-checking exercises, choosing instead to trust the 200-year-old newspaper and lean upon its credibility.
There was no greater casualty in this regard than Britain’s public broadcaster: the BBC.
Auntie Knows Nothing.
For the unversed in BBC mythology: the organization’s nickname of ‘Auntie’ comes either from a 1950s insult of the broadcaster’s prudishness, or from its finger-wagging “Auntie knows best” editorial tone.
But both before and immediately after the Brexit vote, Auntie showed it knew nothing at all about the British public and its mood – much as the American media had no idea what was about to hit them in 2016.
Instead of believing they could have been wrong and out-of-touch with the national sentiment on Britain’s European Union membership, the BBC chose to believe Cadwalladr’s yarns, and often gave her carte blanche to peddle her conspiracy theories on the publicly-subsidized airwaves.
It fell to a non-BBC reporter – Isabel Oakeshott – to challenge Cadwalladr live on air about her baseless reporting. Something she has not yet paid a price for. But in terms of her reputation, that time is now.
Cadwalladr has and continues to make a significant amount of money from her great grift.
Rescinding her awards.
Not only has the Observer writer raised a quarter of a million dollars for her defense against Arron Banks, but over the past few years she has literally dined out on her fables.
The Stieg Larsson Prize handed Cadwalladr $25,000 for her work. She was given the British Journalism Awards’ Technology Journalism Award in December 2017; the Specialist Journalist of the Year 2017 at the National Society of Editors Press Awards; the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism in June 2018; and many, many more.
Journalist Tom Winnifrith observed that the “2018 Orwell award was on the basis of Carole’s work on Brexit. That is to say: a) That Russia was via Banks was funding the Leave campaign; b) That Cambridge Analytica harvested data which was used to influence the Brexit campaign.”
Neither of these things ended up being true. It was a fiction. A fantasy. Of Cadwalladr and her editors’ wildest (and coincidentally lucrative) anti-populist dreams.
“Yet the Orwell foundation still trumpets the award on its website even linking to three of Carole’s articles on this matter which, we now know, to be a tissue of lies,” noted Winnifrith, adding:
“Cadwalladr will continue her case claiming her work was in the public interest. This is a novel defence. How can it be in the public interest to run allegations for which you have zero evidence and which are thus, almost certainly false?”
Winnifrith concludes with questions, particularly as it pertains to how much money Cadwalladr has spun off all her known falsehoods:
“The first question must be whether Carole has committed fraud. She has crowdfunded her defence, raising £168,000 on the basis that she had the facts to defeat [Banks]. She must have known all along that this was not the case. It cannot have been a suprise [sic] that last night, a day ahead of going to Court, she suddenly realised that she had zero evidence.”
Cadwalladr – who became known as the “crazy cat lady” in pro-Brexit circles, pushed back on the latest revelations about her defence by linking to her lawyers’ website which reads:
“Carole has now withdrawn her truth defence, but, contrary to some reporting, has not made any admissions and stands by her public interest reporting. She will continue to defend the claim and we anticipate that the case will be heard at trial next year.”
It’s hardly a confidence statement. And given what we know about Cadwalladr’s penchant for overconfidence, this may as well be an admission of total defeat.
For her industry, it’s time for hard truths, resignations, and new codes of conduct.
There should be no reward for knowingly lying in journalism. In fact quite the opposite. There should be harsh and punitive measures to discourage activists masquerading as reporters and leading the public astray, especially at their financial cost.