David R. Henderson  

Why oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

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Those who read Brad DeLong's blog will recognized his oft-asked question. Here I'm asking it regarding the alleged Lockerbie bomber. Like many Americans, I was incensed when I first heard that he would be released--for compassionate reasons, of all things. But that's because I was reading the U.S. news coverage. A friend who follows the coverage in Europe told me that "over there" reporters are pointing out that it doesn't appear that the guy did it. See this BBC report, for example.

One highlight:

There were question marks too over Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper who was the only man to identify Megrahi.
His evidence was that the Libyan, who he picked out at an identity parade, had bought the clothes at his shop.
But his police statements are inconsistent, and prosecutors failed to tell the defence that shortly before he attended an identity parade [what we in America call a police line-up], Mr Gauci had seen a magazine article showing a picture of Megrahi, and speculating he might have been involved.
Mr Gauci now lives in Australia, and according to defence claims is believed to have been paid several million dollars by the Americans for his evidence.

What does this have to do with economics? It's about incentives. The incentives of the press to get to the truth seem very weak. I'll say more about that in a future post on another misleading part of Harvey Rosen's and Ted Gayer's Public Finance.

Even more disturbing is Megan McArdle's blog post on the issue, in which she doesn't even mention the controversy over his guilt.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
RL writes:

See Mark Brady's contribution to this issue on HNN's Liberty and Power, where he posts a videostream of a BBC reporter interviewing a physician, the father of a woman who died in the plane explosion. Incredibly articulate, he praises the government for granting compassionate release and argues the evidence that Megrahi didn't do it is very strong.

E. Barandiaran writes:

David,
There are two issues and I think you're wrong on both. First, Megrahi was found guilty in a process and this process had nothing to do with him being released. The politicians that released him never mentioned his claim of innocence as the reason for doing it. Some people have been arguing about his innocence but there are a lot people in jail that also claim to be innocent. In addition, the discussion in Europe has been largely focused on the motivation of UK politicians, not on the wrong conviction of Megrahi (even in the BBC web site).
Second, about the incentives of the press. Do you think that NYT journalists do not have the incentives to get to the truth? What evidence do you have that the incentives seem very weak? Most journalists are incompetent--in your country they are much more competent than elsewhere but incompetent anyway, just read the stupidities that they say in the sport pages or how they explain the variations in stock prices. Their training is appalling. You may argue that the owners don't have an incentive to improve the quality of their employees, but you must remember that over 90% of readers of the media don't want to waste their time thinking about what they have just read (the same applies to TV media). The old media has been loosing customers to the new media because the latter can provide the same poor reporting much cheaper.

malavel writes:

What about the incentives for Tony Gauci? You have to be careful in how you give away money in exachange for evidence.

Dave writes:

I'm not sure I understand what your cherry picked BBC link is supposed to prove. There are a number of links on that page pointing to articles that are in line with American coverage and I've read a number of American articles on the matter that have mentioned Megrahi's claims of innocence. It took me about two seconds to find this AP article on MSNBC.com that gives a reasonably objective report on the story, including mention of the shop keeper controversy:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32487856/ns/world_news-terrorism/

I'm not sure what would make the US coverage "better" from your perspective. It would be better that the comments of our President and the Director of the FBI be ignored and instead we report only Megrahi and his lawyers' claims?

I can't say that I'm a huge fan of the press but in this case I don't see anything wrong with the coverage or any glaring inconsistencies between what I see on the BBC site versus what I've seen in American coverage.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Dave,
I had looked at the MSNBC link earlier and what I found striking was that it left out the basis for doubting the shopkeeper's testimony.
Best,
David

Sinclair Davidson writes:

This is simply astonishing. Whether or not he is guilty is a matter for a court of law to determine. If there was a doubt about his guilt he could have appealed, or the UK (or Scottish) government could have ordered an investigation into the conviction. This convicted terrorist has been released on compassionate grounds, not because the authorities determined his conviction was unsafe. For the argument to stand, you really need to have an explanation for why the US press are so poor AND why the European press are good. All that I can see is another version of the evil Americans v misunderstood terrorists meme playing out. Something the Europeans are good at.

Russell writes:

As an American lawyer who lives in Scotland, I think David makes a valid point. The press coverage here in the UK versus what I have seen from U.S. sources is remarkably different. Perhaps, the explanation is that UK news outlets have a home-field advantage in covering this issue as it has a long developing back story. Or maybe different versions of "truth" are shared based on the the different markets.

Frankly, I am not certain who should be demonized and condemned in this situation because of the multitude of issues involved. Since moving to Edinburgh 3 years ago (from D.C.), I have seen monthly press coverage about the Lockerbie bombings and serious questions raised as to the guilt/innocence of Megrahi. There are also issues of oil/coal/trade deals between the UK and Libya, the U.S. and Libya, possibly some one-upsmanship by the Scottish Nationalist Party (asserting Scotland's independence by taking this action) vis-a-vis both England and the U.S., and the simple fact that British family members of deceased generally support the release.

U.S. press sources, particularly the NY Times seem little interested in detailing anything more than the outrage of victims' families and showing video of Megrahi's arrival in Libya. Outrage sells newspapers whereas complex stories with no clear right/wrong answer do not.

It is my understanding that the justice minister's decision to release Megrahi, while unprecedented in some sense, is a perfectly legitimate use of his power and all procedures were properly followed. Such compassionate considerations have never caught on in American law in this way, so even I had trouble getting my head around it initially. I do not know what to think regarding Megrahi, Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish gov't, UK gov't or U.S. gov't in any of this. Who is posturing? Who genuinely believes what they're doing is right? Who really benefits from ending Megrahi's appeals process and sending him home?

Unfortunately, I think people on both sides of the Atlantic are too concerned with who is more compassionate versus who is tougher, than they are about the truth. Maybe we get the press corps we deserve?

E. Barandiaran writes:

Regardless of how the story was reported, the key issue is whether Megrahi will die in three months as he promised to Obama when he arrived in Tripoli (this was his reaction to Obama's statement). He didn't look that ill in Tripoli. I'm sure Bryan wants to bet on this.

PeterW writes:

It's interesting, I've been reading the memoirs of Lee Kwan Yew, an influential Singaporean politician. He claims that newspapers in Singapore were rabidly partisan, and did not have the ideal of journalistic impartiality that pervades the West (at least in theory.) As a result, he encouraged politicians to contest false claims in the press in libel suits when they printed obvious falsehoods. So instead of having the press constrain politicians, you have the politicians and legal system checking the excesses of the press. The press can still function to expose legitimate corruption and all that good stuff.

I am not convinced that this is an optimal setup, but it might be optimal if your press is partisan to begin with. And since internet journalism is likely to lose the veneer of objectivity that traditional media have, maybe the Singaporean system is where we're headed in the long run.

ray writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Current writes:

It should also be mentioned that Megrahi was in the process of appealing his sentence. It was quite likely that he would have been successful had he survived to that time.

Sinclair Davidson writes:

Don't want to be horrible here , but this report doesn't seem to corroborate your notion that some miscarriage of justice had occured.

In Mr MacAskill’s statement yesterday to the Holyrood Parliament he said that the jubilation that greeted al-Megrahi in Libya, which included waving Scottish flags, was “a matter of great regret” to him. Libya had flouted assurances to the Scottish government that al-Megrahi would be given a muted reception in Tripoli, he said.

Mr MacAskill included al-Megrahi himself in his condemnation, saying that the man whom he had released on compassionate grounds because he was suffering from terminal cancer had shown “no sensitivity” by being a willing part of the triumphalist scenes.


NM writes:

See also the editorial in the FT the other day: view was that the release had sordid political deal (if maybe quite justifiable from a realpolitik point of view) written all over it, but serious doubts over Megrahi's guilt remained in any case. According to the editorial (as I recall), there are apparently seriously questions also whether Lockerbie was Libyan in origin anyway, or Syrian.

What is particularly interesting is that the reaction of victims' families in the US and the UK appear to have diverged markedly, with Americans outraged over the release, and Brits much more sceptical over the man's guilt in the first place . Which is why the demand in the UK from victims' families Seems [this is just from reading odd articles, nothing scientifically-reliable] to be much more directed towards a having thoroughgoing independent inquiry into Lockerbie. They seem to have much less trust in the court verdict than Americans, which is interesting. (This is not to say which of the two views are right - I have no idea and no way of knowing, and not that much interest either, frankly - but the apparent divergence in interpretation of the event among (presumably) comparable & randomly selected groups is quite striking).

David Martin writes:

The differences in the degree of news coverage in the U.S. and the U.K. of the doubts about the guilt of the two Libyan agents go way back. A collection of articles on the subject by Con Coughlin of the Telegraph of London can be found at http://www.dcdave.com/article3/000521.html . Additional articles on the subject can be found at http://www.dcdave.com/article2/990509.html , http://www.dcdave.com/article3/000507.html, and http://www.dcdave.com/article2/082898.html .

David K. Meller writes:

It is certainly possible that he is innocent of the charges against him, and that the Western Press was complicit in the lies (as they usually are regarding all manner of government perfidy, whether in foreign or domestic policy)regarding terrorism.

However, even if this is the case, it shows that this is just one more lie in an era of endless deceptions, manipulation of public opinion, and disinformation that we are bombarded with every day.

When do politicians lie? When you see their lips moving.
When do journalists (in the overwhelming majority) lie? When they put words to paper.

Use your good sense, and keep informed.

PEACE AND FREEDOM!!
David K, Meller

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