It’s interesting how quick we are to pass on opinions about people after they’re gone.
I was touring through the Yorkshire Dales when a BBC news alert on my wife’s phone told us Cilla Black had died suddenly in Spain.
My immediate reaction was shock, then sadness, at the passing of someone with whom I had grown up through my TV screen.
Yet less than a week later on the golf course, I was exchanging stories with friends of Cilla’s less cuddly side, as we each in turn repeated what we had read and heard.
It reminded me that we often confuse facts with opinions. And knowing which is which can help you stay on the right sight of the truth.
Sir Edward Heath was the first Prime Minister I can remember coming to office, when I was 12.
Yet today people will exchange views on his less public life as several police forces investigate allegations against him.
So plenty of opinions around about Cilla and Sir Ted. But what of the facts?
Well that’s much more difficult.
The first lesson I can remember from journalism college, as it was then, was to separate facts from opinions.
“A white van collided into a blue car” is an opinion, we were taught.
“A white van and blue car were in collision” is a fact, on the other hand.
And that’s why you’ll see panellists on Have I Got News For You start or finish many a remark with “allegedly”.
It’s crucial as to how we’re perceived.
I teased participants once with a certain line of enquiry.
“Was Mr al-Megrahi the Lockerbie Bomber?” I asked.
“Yes he was,” came an instant reply.
“Is that a fact or an opinion?” I probed.
“A fact – because he was found guilty by a Scottish court in The Hague.”
“Well it’s a fact that he was found guilty,” I replied. “But does that make him The Lockerbie Bomber?”
“Absolutely!” came the reply.
“Absolutely not”, I replied. “It just makes him the only man to be found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing.”
And that’s the way the BBC in Scotland reported it…for a while.
Then somebody forgot – and he was back to being called The Lockerbie Bomber, even though that is just an opinion and breaks the white van/blue car rule.
I remember with a shudder how I carelessly reported on the Polmont Train Crash in the early 1980s.
After rushing with a Scottish Television film crew to the scene near Falkirk one summer’s evening, we found a train derailed.
Unable to get film footage of the crash processed in time for the News at Ten, I commandeered a phone booth and found myself on live with the lead item.
Reading in semi-darkness from rough notes, I had to busk it.
When I got to the last line, I made an unimaginable assumption attempting to wrap up my scrambled report.
“13 people are known to have died. That number is certain to rise.”
And that was an opinion, rather than a fact. The final death toll of that tragedy was 13.
I was wrong.
A few months later, I began a 10-year spell working with the BBC.
I’d made several appearances on Reporting Scotland when a well-known figure stopped me on the stair-well at the BBC’s Glasgow HQ.
It was Bill McLaren, the recognisable voice of rugby across the world.
“I’ve been watching your reports on the news son. Full of facts – very little opinion.”
And then, tapping his nose to acknowledge a little secret between the two of us, he added:
“Keep it that way!”
That was arguably the most constructive advice I ever received in journalism.
And from someone whose standards were based on solid research and rigorous practice of names and pronunciations.
So each day as we run our media training courses or presentation skills courses, we ask clients to insert simple words that turn opinion into fact to strengthen their arguments.
“I firmly believe” is my favourite.
“I firmly believe our results will demonstrate that what we offer beats any of our competitors.”
This simple phrase stops us presenting an opinion as a fact, which is what happens if we take “I firmly believe” off the start of the sentence.
Last year, we encouraged Scotland’s athletes – competing at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – to predict their own success with these words.
“I firmly believe I’m capable of producing a personal best time in competition and putting myself in contention for medals.”
That again is a fact – but gets us into a positive and winning mindset.
And let’s remember that our athletes did return a record haul of medals at Glasgow 2014.
A doctor recently told us on a media training course:
“In my experience, patients respond better when they return home from hospital at the earliest opportunity.”
His concern at speaking without scientific data to back up his argument was removed by turning an opinion into a fact with the words “in my experience”.
I concluded my word games with my client in our “Lockerbie Bomber” conversation by asking how he defined a fact.
After much debate, I offer my own mischievous definition:
“A fact is determined by how far you’re willing to go to establish the truth.”
And in today’s world of instant news, we’ll see some news channels introducing ‘breaking news” more quickly than others, particularly as the BBC scrambles to check what it’s heard before broadcasting it.
That saved the corporation from embarrassment several years ago as Mr al-Megrahi’s death was reported by Sky News at least a year prematurely.
Because Real Radio had seen Sky News, I can only imagine, it too reported his death.
That’s what’s known as “churnalism” which has replaced journalism in some quarters.
It takes time to establish fact.
That’s why investigative journalism is expensive and Freedom of Information is a Godsend to journalists and a curse to some public bodies.
A Google search may help – but will it necessarily establish fact? It may only establish what somebody else has said.
It may be unimportant to establish the facts around Cilla Black’s behaviour towards some people.
She was, after all, brutally honest about her ruthlessness and accepted the accuracy of the recent ITV dramatisation of her early life capturing her rise to fame, warts and all.
It is in my view vital that everything possible is done by police to establish the facts surrounding Sir Edward Heath’s private life in the face of serious allegations.
It’s vitally important for those making the claims and for those who knew the late Prime Minister.
And while we’re at it, can we please establish the facts surrounding Sir Cliff Richard?
It’s just too easy for us all to contribute to unsubstantiated gossip in the absence of action or evidence.
For all concerned, only the establishment of fact will bring any resolution.
(In my opinion).
Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can view his full profile here.
Photo credit: Leonard Bentley / Foter / CC BY-SA; Photo credit: Ninian Reid / Foter / CC BY; Ben Sutherland / Foter / CC BY; dullhunk / Foter / CC BY; train_photos / Foter / CC BY-SA; twistyfoldy.net / Foter / CC BY-SA; brizzle born and bred / Foter / CC BY-SA; Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer / Foter / CC BY-SA
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