News spreads fast, this we know.
It spreads faster on the internet.
Another day, another premature death announcement.
At 11:58am on 7th November BBC NI reported the story with the headline ‘Wings Guitarist Henry McCullough Dies’. But the legendary Northern Irish guitarist was not dead. So what went wrong?
What does it take for a journalist to confirm whether someone is dead or not? This is the least that we expect from the BBC, of all media outlets. The BBC the first news outlet to report it. Why? Who made the decision to copy and paste some details from Wikipedia onto the website of the biggest, and supposedly most reliable — publicly funded — source of news in the country?
This was Tweeted and Retweeted wildly by musicians, fans, venues, journalists, media, among everyone else. Terri Hooley caused some fuss on his Facebook page by posting the news, the BBC’s Ralph McClean retweeted an RIP message from a fellow BBC journalist, The Newsletter drew up a story on their website, which has since been removed. A Dutch newspaper even reported the death.
Guitarist Henry McCullough dies: The former Wings guitarist Henry McCullough has died following a heart attack. bbc.in/YXLGqm
— BBC NEWS (@BBCallNews) November 7, 2012
I had the pleasure of photographing Henry McCullough in 2007 and 2008. On the first occasion, 3rd Feb 2007, during the filming of an Irish language TV production in Newry for the BBC, Imeall Geal, I had a chat with him and took a couple of snapshots. I wrote at the time of Henry:
“This man proves that you really are only as young as you feel, Henry seems to have a very ‘young’ attitude to life and such passion in what he does. It was great to have him tell stories of his youth to interested parties all around him.
Once he had finished playing, and tucked into the selection of tea and biscuits, I asked for a photograph. And so he gave me the opportunity to get a few snaps before telling us of playing guitar at 17 and suede red shoes .”
Later, I photographed Henry performing live at Glasgowbury in 2008. He looked and sounded amazing.
I published a blog post of my own thoughts. Saddened by the death of a brilliant musician, and with the supposed confirmation from the BBC I didn’t expect that I too may be jumping the gun. I had no ulterior motive than to share my own story.
Shortly after I published, however, I noticed a number of people begin to say it wasn’t true. Once confirmed I quickly took down the post — at this point I was away from my laptop, thankfully I could do it from my phone, and so preventing myself from any further embarrassment.
At 12.20pm Henry McCullough’s sister, Rae Morrison, was on Radio Ulster informing Wendy Austin that he was not dead but critically ill after a heart attack. This is hardly what she, nor the rest of Henry’s family would have wanted to have to deal with at this time, no doubt already going through enough pain.
The first tweet to mention the death of Henry came from Twitter user @mundellmusic at 11am:
— Mundell Music (@mundellmusic) November 7, 2012
It was 5 hours later before the user behind the account stated that he had received incorrect information. You know, maybe that’s not so bad: if he was told by someone, passed the information to someone else, who retweeted it and allowed the information to spread organically. It is what it is. However, the bigger problem is with the incompetent hack at the BBC who clearly thought they’d landed an easy win. Obviously too lazy confirm whether it was even true.
Soon after confirmation from Henry’s sister, the BBC apologised and edited the page of the original story with the new headline ‘Wings guitarist Henry McCullough critically ill‘. The article is much the same as it was, only now it has a few words from his sister and the line “Despite early reports that he had died, his sister Rae Morrison said he was still battling.” — as if that makes the original error any better?
It isn’t the first time, but when will it be the last time? Death hoaxes are becoming a norm through social media, and while it can be irritating, let’s get back to journalism doing the job it set out to do: reporting facts. Can we please stop trying to report the news first. This is becoming a big problem with so many media outlets, and so many inept, amateur, writers. The BBC appear to be propagating this idea in an effort to keep up, but rather, we need to ensure that news can be relied upon, and the BBC is doing its very best in recent weeks, months and years to ensure that it loses the trust we once had in it.
Apologies for the earlier incorrect tweet reporting the death of Wings guitarist Henry McCullough, which we’ve deleted. bbc.in/SARuSn
— BBC News NI (@bbcnireland) November 7, 2012
Henry McCullough situation this morning highlights the main flaw of modern news – anxiety to get there first without having all the facts!
— Chris Vaughan (@Chrisinbelfast) November 7, 2012
Henry McCullough is not dead but very ill. So why did the BBC and journalists report that he was?!
— Phil O’Kane (@icedcoffee) November 7, 2012
I hope Henry McCullough recovers fully to read his obituaries and tributes.
— Keith Anderson (@keithbelfast) November 7, 2012
My thoughts are with Henry McCullough and his family at this time.