Charlton Asda: How a lie about a fire fooled The Guardian

Not even scorched: Friday evening shopping at Asda, Charlton, supposedly burned by looters

In the small hours of Tuesday morning, I wrote about how the News Shopper’s website was spreading false rumours about Charlton’s Asda superstore being set alight during the looting spree in the adjacent retail parks. I passed close by Asda during the incident, and live nearby. While I saw looters running around and driving off, there was no sign or smell of anything on fire.

The lie spread via Twitter, of course….

…and this message from an “anonymous Fleet Street reporter” didn’t help matters either.

So the News Shopper went with it, without checking it out.

They weren’t they only ones, though. This is what the Bexley Times published a little earlier:

The report was cobblers, of course, and an undamaged store was open for business later on Tuesday morning. But the story kept going around, now partly powered by word of mouth.

http://twitter.com/#!/SenoritaMunoz/status/100904685048832000

News Shopper reporter Mark Chandler wasn’t best pleased that I’d pulled his paper up on its inaccurate reporting…

Hey-ho. You can’t be friends with everyone. But both the News Shopper and the Bexley Times are still carrying the erroneous reports of a fire at Charlton’s Asda, and made no attempt to clarify the misleading report. On a frantic night like Monday, social media amplified a whirlwind of rumours which would have happened anyway – one caller to LBC falsely reported fire at McDonalds in Woolwich, for example. A Woolwich-based BBC producer talking to the BBC News channel speculated that rioters could have come from north of the river through the foot tunnel – the same tunnel that’s been shut for a year.

It happens. But journalists are supposed to sift the wheat from the chaff. That’s their job. The News Shopper and Bexley Times didn’t, and fuelled the lie about the Charlton Asda “fire”. I’ve worked in online media, and I know only too well that fast-moving news stories can sometimes lead to mistakes. “Never wrong for long” is the best slogan – take it down, acknowledge a mistake, let it go.

So, fast forward to Friday. I’ve just been looking at the Guardian’s riot map – “every verified incident” – and guess what?

The link which “verifies” the report? The News Shopper’s inaccurate story, which remains live. They should have read the Charlton Champion. If local papers aren’t doing their job properly, how can you trust exercises which depend on them, like the Guardian’s map?

Incidentally, while writing this, News Shopper publisher Newsquest has been patting itself on the back for its reporting during the riots, although this didn’t extend to providing the Shopper’s reporters with web servers that kept their site online to cope with the demand. According to industry journal Press Gazette:

Newsquest South London web manager Paul Jones said: “It was an incredible effort by everyone involved, from reporters and photographers in the thick of it to the newsroom posting things as they happened.

“We were determined to be the trusted source of information. While others were publishing rumours from Twitter as fact, we checked every piece of information we found before posting.

Doesn’t look like it, does it, Paul?

UPDATE SUNDAY: Neighbour Matt Clinch writes for the Charlton Champion about the effect the false Asda fire story had on him and his housemates: “I was in a state of shock at this point, I could hear shop sirens wailing in the distance. We had been on hold to the police for fifteen minutes before we spoke to someone. They kept on repeating the same question, ‘Is anything on fire?'”

21 comments

  1. Clare

    I notice Mark Chandler’s tweet was RTed by @nogoe2012 – nothing like using something for *their* own agenda.

  2. Stuart1976

    Typical News Shopper! You should read the comments on the ‘Eltham Incident’ made by their readers. Bordering on racist in my opinion, and I have fairly right wing attitudes towards the riots. If it were my paper, i’d take the comments down…..

  3. jack

    Hi, they did say there are “reports” of a fire, which isn’t really that bad a mistake. I think you’re going straight for the jugular again, as is your way, and if you do that you might not be popular with everybody!

    But I don’t think this is such a big mistake of theirs on such a crazy and fast-moving night. I mean, the press get things wrong all the time, they should ideally check it out, but it’s not always possible, so I’m not sure this merits a full blog discussion.

  4. Darryl

    In which case, Jack, I’ve just heard reports that your house is on fire. I’m actually about 6 miles from your house at the moment, and I’ve no way of verifying this, but I’m going to say it anyway.

    Good luck when that gets around.

  5. Katy

    The press do need to be careful about printing things like this even if they only say there are “reports”. I live very close to charlton asda and read these reports of a fire on monday night. I couldn’t see a fire but was too worried too go to bed as we would have to evacuate if there was one. I questioned people who had tweeted these reports but noone could give me any further information (obviously because it actually wasn’t true).So I was left in limbo not knowing if the “fire” was going to affect me.

  6. John Fahy

    Stuart is absolutely right. Determined effort by most of the media to distort the real riot in Eltham. Clearly down to EDL. Anyone looking at their Website could understand their intentions. I was impressed by the Andrew Gilligan piece which gave a balanced view. (gosh,thought I would never say that). At a time of the most shocking incident in Woolwich,NOGOE jumped on the bandwagon. How low can they sink. I guess opportunism knows no boundaries.

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  8. Paul Webbewood

    I was so astonished to read John Fahy’s message at 9.37 that I rang him to ask whether it was a hoax. Sadly it wasn’t.

    John seems to be the only person who’s claiming that there was a riot in Eltham. Police say that there were about 200 people on the streets on Tuesday and about 90 on Wednesday. No reports of any serious incidents on Tuesday. As to Wednesday Met Police website says:

    http://content.met.police.uk/News/Disorder-Updates-and-advice/1260269372559/1257246745756

    “22.00hrs on Wednesday 10 August
    Officers have had missiles thrown at them in Eltham this evening (Wednesday, 10 August).
    Police have dealt with the disorder and the group has now dispersed.
    Police remain on scene.”

    Eltham councillor Nigel Fletcher (who’s played a blinder all week) says on Tory Home

    http://conservativehome.blogs.com/localgovernment/2011/08/woolwich-the-hidden-riot.html

    “But despite some drunken disorder as police dispersed the crowds, there was no serious violence or damage done.” This corresponds to what I saw at around 9.30 on Wednesday evening.

    It’s a pity that some agitators looking for trouble came into Eltham on Tuesday and Wednesday but the police from London, Holyhead and points between did a great job in protecting the town. It’s possible there will be arrests over the incident where the black men on the 321 bus were abused.

    Careless talk helps nobody.

  9. Stuart Kennedy

    Eltham remains a hotbed of racial tension, even nearly 20 years after the Stephen Lawrence incident….

  10. Stuart1976

    Paul, have you travelled on a 321 bus recently? They are carrying a multi-cultural melting pot of lots of different people, from a huge variety of backgrounds. I am disgusted that innocent passengers have been abused. I trust you are too?

  11. chislehurstnews

    Over in Chislehurst there were various false rumors of rioting and unrest in BR7, fueled in particular by certain individuals on Twitter. Luckily they were not picked up by the local or national press but they caused significant concerned amongst local residents who read them and wondered what on earth was going in their normally sleepy town.

    At ChislehurstNews – a hyperlocal website not unlike the excellent 853 – we posted a story to calm local fears.

    http://tinyurl.com/3qh3xyr

    But it begs the question: why would people post such misleading comments on sites like Twitter.

    We came up with three theories: a) poor attempts at humor; b) Chinese whispers; and c) idiots willing civil unrest.

    Unfortunately, c) appears to be the most likely answer.

    CN.

  12. Pingback: Charlton’s night of looting: Confessions of a curtain-twitcher | The Charlton Champion
  13. John

    “In which case, Jack, I’ve just heard reports that your house is on fire. I’m actually about 6 miles from your house at the moment, and I’ve no way of verifying this, but I’m going to say it anyway.”

    That’s a bit disingenuous, Darryl. There *were* reports that Asda had been torched. The fact they were wrong doesn’t mean they didn’t exist; the News Shopper didn’t make them up.

    Of course the NS should have verified and should have corrected, but it’s contemporaneous reporting with (presumably) limited resources.

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