Why the Oxford Street fiasco shows the importance of good journalism

The Oxford Street incident – and tweets from the likes of Olly Murs – is a moment for reflection

Olly Murs (Getty,mh)

There’s a special place in hell reserved for journalists who take themselves too seriously. I have always rather avoided colleagues who tell cub reporters from student papers that they came into this trade “to make a difference”.

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I was attracted to reporting for the glamour, the chance to have foreign girlfriends and the expenses. I had read somewhere that “the first casualty of war is room service” and I wanted to find out if that was true. In other words: I am not on a high horse here.

But goodness the Olly Murs Oxford Street disaster is surely a moment for national reflection on the value of reporting as practised by reporters. And the lack of value of the verbiage produced by amateurs, even when they have big Twitter followings and big egos.

In case you missed it: Olly Murs is a pop star who was caught up in that strange and frightening moment in the heart of London when armed police closed part of Oxford Street in the middle of rush hour and told people to take shelter in shops. It must have been genuinely alarming for anyone in the area.

Including Olly Murs. But rather than keeping safe and staying put, he chose to report as fact something that was not true. “Fuck everyone get out of @Selfridges now gun shots!!” is what he tweeted to his seven million followers – the same as the Today programme audience.

But there were no gunshots. Mr Murs got it wrong. And this is where celebrities either need to take a course in reporting or consider that maybe they should avoid playing a role to which they are not suited.

When Piers Morgan took Murs to task for his misreporting, the tabloids enjoyed the ruckus, but it struck me that the pop star’s reaction was more important than that – it amounted to what the Americans call “a teachable moment”. Mr Murs’s pained response to criticism from a fellow celebrity was illuminating: “Easy to say now it was nothing but in a state of shock and panic I was trying to make people aware of what was happening,” he wrote, before adding, “which I was lend [sic] to believe by staff and customers that someone was shooting.”

Aha. This is so important for all celebrities (and others who tweet) to grasp and think about. There is a difference between being led to believe something and actually witnessing it. People tell reporters all sorts of things. Sometimes – if you trust them – you might say “there are reports of ” something happening or quote the person directly. But if they are in a state of panic and do not appear to have any better knowledge than you have, you stay silent. You do not report serious things for which you have no evidence.

Nor should you report how cool it is to be there. Russell Brand – who also happened to be on Oxford Street – was rather more circumspect about what was actually happening in a video message he sent to his 12 million followers, but then messed it up with the line, “it’s amazing to be in news as news develops”. This is social media versus proper reportage: social media hypes the moment – GOSH, LOOK! – but reporting is properly cool: let’s see what we know. And it’s not about the reporter, ever.

Sadly we live in an age in which there is a constant chance that we may hear gunfire. The real thing is frightening; we can use social media to tell friends we are OK, or to avoid an area. But let’s leave reporting to reporters. Who of course can be mistaken – but in moments of panic are more likely than pop stars to remember that reporting is an honourable trade with restraint at its core.

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Here’s what I tell journalism students: the glamour has gone and you won’t have time for girls, or boys – and expenses need receipts. But reporting is still a decent and necessary calling. Olly and Russ have just proved it.