A year ago this morning, seven bombs exploded in London: three on the Tube and four on buses.
A year ago this afternoon, the story was corrected. Four bombs had exploded in London: three on the Tube and one on a bus. The bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour.
The explanation for that change is straightforward: the telegraphic “four bombs – three on Tube” being expanded to “four bombs plus three on the Tube” rather than “four bombs of which three on the Tube”. In the chaos and horror of that time, this is entirely understandable.
On Friday 8 July, the bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour.
On Saturday 9 July, the bombs had exploded at intervals over a period of about an hour. The newspapers had double-page spreads with sketch maps showing the time at which each bomb had exploded across London.
On Sunday 10 July, the bombs had exploded virtually simultaneously (apart from the one in the bus). That has been the story ever since.
If this had all happened ten years ago, this would not be very interesting: mistakes happen, and they get corrected in the end. But ten years ago most people didn’t have email and no-one had a blog.
Today it is different. Today, we are told, the Internet is pullulating with bloggers, discussion forums, chat rooms, and personal web pages. Today, we are told, misinformation is no sooner promulgated than it is squashed flat by the democratic mass of individual gatherers and propagators of news: every man his own journalist. Today, we are told, the new media of the web can drive the news agenda and the old media – print and broadcast alike – can only follow where they lead.
So what really happened on 8 and 9 July? Was the blogosphere so stunned by the events that it didn’t do its job of checking the facts? There were hundreds – thousands – of eye-witnesses of these events. Did none of them have access to texts or email? Or was a consensus reached early on, which the Old Media journalists simply ignored?
Before we spend too much time trumpeting how the gathering and dissemination of news has been changed for ever by the Internet, it might be worth seeing why the new age of news-gathering failed one of its first really big tests.