In the 1950s a schoolmaster of mine was able to test the accuracy of the reporting of the UK newspapers which were then in existence. During the school holidays, there was a minor fire in one of the school buildings. This event was reported in every national newspaper, though there wasn't much damage; so it must have been a slow day for news.
'500 boys homeless!' screamed the Daily Mirror; though nobody was homeless because the fire wasn't in that sort of a building, and in any case the boys weren't there. The Times, on the other hand, got the details almost dead right, with one trivial exception.
This was pretty much what one would expect, and people of my age generally regard the Times as an authoritative source of accurate news. But by golly I'm beginning to wonder. Saturday's edition carried two very dubious articles.
First, there was a report about a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Emma Maree Urquhart, whose first novel, Dragon Tamers, is said to have sold 50,000 copies. This story was also featured on Sky television news on Saturday night, complete with interviews with Emma, her parents, and the publisher. 'Comparisons with J.K. Rowling are perhaps premature', said Sky. Yes indeed, I think one could say that.
Before we go any further, let's get one thing clear. If Emma Maree and her publisher have managed to sell a decent number of copies of her book, congratulations to them. I am delighted. I am always pleased when anyone achieves even a modest degree of success in the book world, because God knows it doesn't happen very often.
Having said that, I have to go on to say that, for me, this story in the Times has all the earmarks of a load of old cobblers.
First of all, there's that 50,000 figure for books sold. Now that's a nice round number, isn't it? It's not 48,874, or 52,389, you notice. It's 50,000. And is that 50,000 books that customers have actually bought and paid for, sales which will show up on Bookscan? Or is it 50,000 copies that have been shipped, and are sitting on booksellers' shelves somewhere, waiting for buyers? Or is it even 50,000 copies that have simply been printed, and are warehoused by the hopeful publisher? All of these are questions which would occur to anyone who knows anything about the book trade, but the Times hasn't bothered to ask them.
And then there's the publisher, which is a firm called Aultbea Publishing Company. I did a search on Google for "Aultbea Publishing Company" and found 204 references, condensed into 9 to avoid repetitions. These 9 entries suggest that Aultbea publishes a small number (3?) of journals of a scientific/technical nature, dealing with pharmaceuticals and health products. An example is Pharma-Supplements Now. The company does not appear to have its own web site, but it does appear to be the power behind the web sites for the individual journals.
The Times tells us that, when Emma had finished her book, she consulted the internet to find a publisher. Did she indeed. It's hard to see how she found Aultbea that way. Even today I can find no internet reference to Aultbea being interested in children's books. (Amazon tells us, by the way, that Aultbea have published one other children's book, The Adventures of Little Mo, by Jessie McDonald, and no other books of any kind.)
Take a look at the entry for Emma Maree Urquhart's Dragon Tamers on Amazon.co.uk. This tells us that Emma's book is 128 pages long. And when I looked first looked at the page the book had an Amazon sales rank 0f 66. Ten minutes later, the ranking had changed to 90. A bit later still, it went to 40. All of which suggests, if nothing else, that the story in the Times (and, for all I know, every other paper) has caused people to go online and buy the book. But what rank would it have been, say, last Tuesday, before the press coverage began?
And how, I ask myself, did a small magazine publisher with no standing whatever in the book trade manage to shift 50,000 copies in today's market? Did they use the sales and distribution services of some other company? If so, which? (On Amazon, by the way, delivery is promised in 3 to 5 weeks.) It's all possible, I suppose, in principle -- but how was it done? The Times didn't ask, so we don't know.
One way and another, the Times piece about Dragon Tamers looks very much like an Aultbea press release reproduced pretty well verbatim. And I'm afraid that, for the Times, that really isn't good enough. It's one thing for the paper to take on a tabloid shape; it's quite another for it to take on tabloid habits.
Well, as I said before, good luck to Dragon Tamers and all who sail in her. But personally I do find it difficult to believe that a firm with no track record in book publishing has sold 50,000 copies in six weeks. I doubt whether the flurry of excitement over Dragon Tamers is going to last very long, and in the meantime my faith in the Times's passion for accuracy has not been increased by this story.
As if that article wasn't enough to test my patience, there was also a piece in Saturday's Times about the effect that Gillian McKeith is having on the sales of health foods. (McKeith, you may recall, is the author of You Are What You Eat, and stars on Channel 4.) What has happened, according to the Times article, is that the foods which the lovely Ms McKeith recommends have been shifting off the shelves in large numbers.
The story itself is accurate. I have no doubt about that. For one thing, I had noticed myself that Sainsbury's had sold out of aduki beans. But in my opinion the Times, which is regarded by some members of the public as a reliable source of information, might at least have pointed out that the McKeith pronouncements on diet are of questionable value. See my posts of 11 August 2004 and 21 January 2005 to find out in detail why I hold that view; but briefly, the lady's 'scientific' statements have been systematically demolished by journalists who know what they're talking about.
Ben Goldacre, in the Guardian, describes McKeith as 'a menace to the public understanding of science, and anyone who gives her a platform should be ashamed of themselves.' But the Times mentions none of this.
In the days when I worked on a newspaper (47 years ago), the first thing a reporter would do, when working on a story like this, was to send a minion (me) scurrying off to the clippings library to see what had been written previously about the person in question. Did the Times reporter do this? Did he trouble to do a Google? If so, he can hardly have failed to notice that many observers have profound reservations about McKeith on diet.
The Times also refers to McKeith as 'Dr' McKeith' at the end of the article, and I would expect any responsible journalist who writes about this lady to have noticed that her claim to that title is questionable, to say the least. The current television series very definitely does not mention the title 'Dr' -- and with bloody good reason, because there are laws about that kind of thing.
Mind you, McKeith's p.r. company is reportedly Max Clifford Associates. So that would explain why the Times didn't feel it necessary to do much checking. Good ole Max is of course a byword for accuracy and probity in his dealings with the press.
All in all, Saturday 5 February 2005 was not, I suggest, a good day for the Times. But it was a pretty good day for p.r. companies.