Fast, fair and accurate – why we should learn from PA

When the horror actor Sir Christopher Lee died recently, it was a few hours before that fact was officially recorded by Britain’s premier news agency.

The Press Association’s mission statement of ‘fast, fair and accurate’ has stood it in good stead for nearly 150 years.

And it isn’t about to start compromising on it now.

Other media were reporting Sir Christopher’s death.

But PA confirmed the film star’s demise only when one of its reporters got hold of a copy of the death certificate.

That extraordinary commitment to accuracy might seem quaint – even anal – in an age of digital competition, where the pressure to get stories up can threaten the pressure to get them right.

But I find it hugely reassuring.

I was told about the PA incident at the Cardiff School of Journalism as I helped with the NCTJ’s NQJ exam earlier this month.

Which was nicely appropriate.

I ran a course for reporters the other day at which I asked for suggestions as to what constituted great writing.

I spoke about story structure, making words flow beautifully, and the importance of writing for real people.

But it was one of the reporters who reminded me that I’d overlooked that other consideration – accuracy.

As journalists, we don’t cope well with complexity and shades of grey, preferring to look for black and white situations, with goodies and baddies and clear-cut scenarios.

Which is why I’m very proud of the way my colleagues at the Bristol Post have covered the death of 92-year-old Poppy seller Olive Cooke.

While some of the nationals have painted her tragic suicide as entirely the fault of heartless charity cold callers, the Post has been crystal clear that it wasn’t as simple as that.

Her inquest this week has confirmed that Olive suffered from depression for some time, and that while the charity approaches may have been an annoyance, they were not what drove her to her very sad death.

These inconvenient truths need to be told.

One person helping to tell them is the so-called People’s Pedant, Jonathan Portes, who has notched up several IPSO victories over nationals using statistics to suit their political ends.

As an editor or news editor, professional nitpickers like him are a right old pain.

But they’re actually doing us a favour.

As I have said before, the day people stop complaining about our stories is the day we really should be worried.

Like PA’s reputation, the credibility and integrity of many of our titles have been gained over more than 100 years of journalism.

Once lost, they can never really be restored.

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