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Newsnight Fiasco: Social media completed the jigsaw

February 20, 2014

This Guardian report on the forthcoming book, Is the BBC in crisis?*, hints at but fails to nail once crucial point which shows the impact of social media on modern journalism.

As a journalist, when your evidence is strong but falls short of the degree of certainty required to avoid legal action, you often try to publish what you have by going to great lengths to avoid so called ‘jigsaw identification’. Jigsaw ID is a situation where someone collecting all of the separate facts you present could reasonably piece together the identity of the person alluded to.

The Newsnight team never named McAlpine in their report. Their phrasing, “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years” and Michael Crick’s “a former senior Conservative official from the Thatcher era” essentially describe the perimeter of the puzzle but deliberately leave the centre empty. These carefully chosen words both cover so many possible people that it would be impossible for any one to claim libel on this point alone.

What Newsnight hadn’t factored in, and what’s new for modern journalism, is that social media – specifically Twitter – had put McAlpine’s name into the centre of the public debate and the Newsnight phrasing put the edge onto the jigsaw and (erroneously) completed the picture.

This is a new development for journalists to consider, especially in fast moving situations. Its going to place a premium on maintaining confidentiality within teams, and a preemptive scouring of social media prior to publication (although how much weight you should give to what you find is another area of debate).

None of this excuses the other shortcomings explained in the article, but perhaps it does help to explain them.

*Is The BBC In Crisis, Edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble (Abramis, 1 March) RRP: £19.95, but £15 to Guardian readers via


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