Sunday, April 4, 2010...7:16 pm

How even ‘accurate’ journalism misrepresents the facts

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Not quite in the Modern Media is Rubbish league, but still an interesting example of how journalism, even when it’s mostly factually accurate, still manages to misrepresent the world it reports on.

From the Financial Times Weekend Magazine comes a photo essay on How modern Britain spends its Sundays, complete with a potted summary by Emily Cataneo of how its character has changed since the 1950s.

All of this is fine in its way. But the author is clearly either so young that the early 1990s is ancient history that she doesn’t remember actually living through, or, possibly, she’s not from these shores.

Here’s what she says:

The most significant liberalisation was the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, which decreed that small shops could open whenever they wanted and that large shops could open for up to six hours on a Sunday. On August 28 that year, three of the big chains – Marks and Spencer, House of Fraser and Waitrose – welcomed Sunday shoppers for the first time. Today, there is little you can’t buy as easily on the week’s seventh day as on any other.

Now – all this is accurate enough. But it completely ignores the reality of British retailing in the early 1990s. Anyone who was there will remember that by then shops were openly flouting UK Sunday trading laws – to the extent that you could shop from early to late on Sunday at almost any big chain store.

No one knew what to do. Some local authorities fined stores for opening, but many just let them be. After all, consumers voted with their feet, and it was clear that most enjoyed being able to shop all week with no restrictions.

Emily Cataneo’s point about Waitrose opening its doors for the first time on August 28 1994 is interesting, because it implies that this was part of a gradual wider retail access for consumers.

In fact, the John Lewis Partnership was one of the few holdouts in retail that actually obeyed the law and shut on a Sunday. I remember John Lewis being the only store that was shut in Brent Cross shopping centre in north London in the early 1990s, while the rest of the mall was heaving with consumers.

And while the FT article is factually correct in citing the 1994 Act as a legal liberalisation, in practice it restricted opening hours – as before this, big stores had opened for at least eight hours on a Sunday, and often more. Cutting that down to six hours was actually a step backwards in practical terms for the liberalisers.

Which means that the last sentence in that pullquote is misconstrued. Strictly speaking, it’s somewhat more difficult to shop today than it used to be 16 years ago, because Sunday trading hours are more strictly enforced.

The problem with the FT article is not so much a lack of research – Emily seems to have done some of this – but lack of knowledge. This looks like basic paper or online research – but she clearly hasn’t asked anyone over the age of 35 what it was actually like back then, or gone back to see how the debates played out in the media of the time.

Which doesn’t surprise me, because the early 1990s was before the media internet – so it’s unlikely any of that information was available via a search engine. Which means that, as I’ve noted before, it effectively doesn’t exist.

I normally have more time for the FT as a paper than most of the rest, but it’s becoming infected with the same short-termist amnesia suffered by the rest of Fleet Street. And that’s probably a result of cost-cutting – getting rid of old hacks and subs who actually remember stuff from long, long ago (like Britpop).

We’ll see how this goes as time moves on. I’m not betting for any greater accuracy and insight from the nationals, frankly…

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